So you’ve just picked up your first DSLR, booked your first photoshoot, and you are ready to go. The studio you have rented is all kitted out with lights and backdrops, and it looks like everything is set up. So what do you do now?

If you are a total beginner, the answer is probably panic. But it does not have to be that way – just refer to this cheat sheet and you will see a lot of great advice to get you through the experience. By the way, this guide does assume that you have read the manual for your camera, understood how to turn on and use the lights, and taken a few practice shots to check you know what to do. If you have not done those things, then now is probably a very good time to start!

Once you are ready, settle down and give this list a read through. You’ll be ready to tackle your first shoot head on.

Photo by Mario Calvo

Photo by Mario Calvo

Hack #1: Testing the lights

You will always need to test the lights before you start to really shoot in earnest. But there can be so much pressure when you have to check with your model! They are standing, waiting for you to be ready, while you endlessly fiddle, putting the lights up one notch, down two, up four…

To eliminate this awkward phase, you will need to test the lights before your model steps into the frame. But how do you do that? Well, the best option is a surrogate. If you have a friend along with you to assist you, they are the perfect choice. If you are alone but sitting with a make-up artist while you both wait for the model to arrive, then you could always enlist their help. If you are really stuck, then drag over an unused light stand or tripod, put it up to the approximate correct height, and start snapping away! You might still need to adjust a little if you are using a shiny material, but it will take away a lot of your nerves and reduce the time that you need to fiddle around with your model in front of you.


Hack #2: Mess around with framing

You don’t have to take a shot which positions the model directly in the centre of the frame and captures their whole body. Try moving in for a closer crop (classic options go full body, head to waist, head and shoulders, just face). You can mess around with the composition too by placing the model over to one side or the other of the frame. If you have read about the rules of composition, follow them closely. Then try breaking them. See what kind of results you can get!


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Hack #3: Shiny stuff is great

If you are a professional, you likely have a reflector with you, and it might even have multiple sides so that you can use gold, white, or silver tones. If you are a beginner, you might not have that. Let’s say you notice your model has shadows on one side of their face and you want to remove them. The first step is to add a second light on that side, but if you do not have a second light, it’s time to look for shiny stuff. White card? Polystyrene? A white cover from a beauty dish or softbox? Even a white, silver, gold, or shiny dress can help. Just be aware that different colours produce different effects (and watch out for sequins). There’s nothing wrong with using a DIY reflector if it works!


Hack #4: Follow the light

If you don’t know how to get a more interesting portrait, ask your model to look towards the light. You can also move around so that you are standing just to one side of it and ask them to look into the lens. This removes unsightly shadows from the face and makes them look better, and it also puts a catchlight into their eyes. The catchlight livens up the face and makes the portrait more punchy, so be sure to check for it while you shoot. The shot will probably be more clear, too, as you are making full use of the available light.


Hack #5: Count them in

If your model is having trouble with the lights, then ask them to close their eyes. Count down from three and then press the trigger immediately after they open their eyes. They will probably spend a minute blinking and trying to clear their vision afterwards, but that won’t matter if you already have the shot. You can also count your model in for things like motion shots – turning, flipping their hair, spinning a dress, and so forth. This really helps to put amateurs at ease as well, as they are being given clear direction and don’t have to think so much about what they are doing.


Hack #6: Shoot calmly

If you find that your images are often shaky or blurry, there’s two things to look at: first the settings that you are using – your shutter speed could be too low – and second your own hands. If you are a bit wobbly or need to use a low shutter speed for light, then you can put your camera on a tripod and use a shutter release cable. The shutter release allows you to take a breath and calmly press the button without putting a clear shot at risk. It can also allow you to get eye contact with your model and talk to them more clearly, which could put you both at east.

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Hack #7: Know your errors

If you know the error codes and possible goofs for photoshoot situations, then you can resolve them more easily. Is there a black bar appearing across half your image? You don’t have the shutter speed matched up to the light speed. Usually a setting of 1/125 solves this. If you shoot at low light or with the wrong settings, your camera will also throw up error codes, so look these up in your manual. Remember to keep an eye on your memory card space, too, in case you wonder why your camera won’t shoot all of a sudden.

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