7 essential elements to preparing for a photoshoot on location

What goes into preparing for a photoshoot on location?

Photographing on location is hard work and so worth it!

The secret to a successful photoshoot is being diligent about preparing for a photoshoot on location. Every time you go back to the same location you’ll encounter new challenges and come up with new ways to photograph in that location.

So don’t take it for granted that you’re already prepared and don’t need to plan for it.

Have you read the tutorial on how to choose a great photoshoot location?

So, you’ve decided on your photoshoot location and you can’t wait to use it. Now you just need to ensure you cover all eventualities.

Well, as many as possible anyway.

How to prepare and what to bring for a photoshoot on location

The finished set… photoshoot preparation photos are included lower down.

Lone photographer location photoshoot preparation

If I’m photographing on my own or with just an assistant, here’s how I prepare for a photoshoot.

(Photographing with a team that includes a makeup artist, stylist and a production manager, is a much bigger production, so the preparation is different.)

1. Communication

I’m starting photoshoot preparation with communication, because it’s key to a successful photoshoot. It makes no difference if you’re photographing your own family or you’ve been booked for a family/headshot/personal brand/portfolio photoshoot or a commercial photoshoot. To achieve great photos you need great communication.

Things to decide and communicate to all involved before the photoshoot:

  • Reason for the photoshoot
  • Style of the photoshoot
  • What to wear, and what to bring if accessories are required
  • Time of the photoshoot and expected duration
  • Photoshoot location, how to get there and where to park
  • Where to meet at the location

If you’re travelling to the location separately, make sure everyone involved can contact each other in case something goes wrong or somebody gets lost. If you know that phone reception in the area isn’t good, let everyone know that too.

Further reading: Photographing models – how to find and approach models for photoshoots

Organised and well planned photoshoot on locationEvery element in this image was brought in for the styled tea party photoshoot in a field, including fake cakes. Yes, fake – because they transport better and can be used again.

2. Gear prep & packing for a photoshoot on location

When I’m preparing for a photoshoot on location I pack the night before in the same way that I pack to go away on holiday.

First, I lay everything out to make sure that I have every item that I might need.

Charging and formatting

Then I make sure all batteries are charged, including mobile phone, and all memory cards are formatted.

Check camera settings

I check that all settings on my camera(s) are set to approximately what I will need the next day, such as white balance, ISO, shutter speed, aperture, focus mode and autofocus area.

I learned the hard way to check my exposure compensation as well…

I was happily clicking away, setting up my camera while I waited for clients to arrive. When I checked my photos I couldn’t understand why they were all overexposed. It didn’t occur to me to check my exposure compensation setting until my heart rate was already racing and I was making plans to use my backup camera instead.

Starting a photoshoot frazzled is not ideal. You need to start calm, confident and in control.

Cleaning and packing for a photoshoot

Next, I ensure my camera, lenses and filters are clean and ready for use.

Once I have everything ready to go, I pack my bag/s. Everything goes into its rightful place, so that I know exactly where it is and can easily grab it during the photoshoot.

If everything has a designated place it’s easy to see when something is missing.

3. Packing props & accessories

Preparing for a photoshoot on location involves more than packing your photography gear.

If you’re doing a heavily styled photoshoot, you need to give as much attention to ensuring all your styling props and accessories are in tip top shape and well packed to arrive without damage.

When packing it’s important to think about how you’ll transport, carry and unpack everything. These points seem obvious, but when you have a million things buzzing through your mind, they’re easily forgotten.

  • The first items to pack are the items you will need last
  • If possible, pack props inside other props to save space
  • Consider how well everything will fit into your vehicle/s

Even on a simple family photoshoot with very young children, you need to consider extra items, such as a rug that you can put down on the ground for the little ones to sit on.

Clean and prepare props ahead of a styled photoshoot
Part of the preparation for the tea party shoot involved a LOT of elbow grease to clean the tarnished silverware, as well as ensuring that I sourced and ordered the fake cakes well in advance of the shoot.

Practicing for a style photoshoot on location
A little practice run ahead of time setting out the props helps to save time and remove uncertainty on set.

4. The “what if” list of photoshoot preparation

So many things that can happen on a location photoshoot, especially if children and/or animals are involved. I won’t say go wrong, because sometimes the unexpected works out quite well.

You can’t cater for every eventuality and sometimes, things that happen are just part of the character of the photoshoot.

When photographing families, a child getting muddy or wet part way through a photoshoot is a great example of things not going according to plan. But since when are children sparkling clean all day long? In these instances, it’s just part of real life and I’d bring the reality into their photographic memories.

On a commercial photoshoot, it’s not so endearing if clothing gets marked. If props or gear are damaged it’s potentially disastrous. For this reason I like to have a plan b (i.e. a backup) for every essential item on every photoshoot.

The photoshoot preparation checklist

Here are some handy extras to pack when preparing for a photoshoot on location. Of course, not every item is needed every time – it depends on the photoshoot:

  • Tissues – the handy travel pack type are best
  • Clothes brush – to easily brush away hair, dust, vegetation
  • Lint roller – for fluff and hair on clothing
  • Hand brush and plastic bag – unfortunately, sometimes it’s necessary to sweep up cigarette butts and if I encounter litter I clear it from the scene to throw away later
  • Clips – to pin back clothing
  • Clamps – to pin back or hold up bigger items, including foliage, backgrounds, or fabric
  • Velcro straps and gaffers tape – you never know when something needs fixing, modifying or tying back
  • String and scissors – tie back an errant vegetation frond that’s in the way, rather than breaking it off
  • Spare hairbands and hairpins – because when the wind suddenly picks up it’s sometimes easier to adapt than to fight it, or for a quick look change
  • Towel – because things happen and you need to wipe moisture or dirt away
  • Ground cloth
    – if you need to lie down to get the shot and the ground is not the best to lie on,
    – if you want your subject/bride/model to sit for a shot and the ground/wall/seat is dirty their clothing will get messed up,
    – sometimes you need to pack out some of your gear and a cloth is better than the dusty/wet/muddy ground
  • Blanket
    – for young kids to sit on in a shot
    – to warm your model up in cold weather in between photographing
  • Pop up changing tent – so that a change of outfits is quick and easy anywhere
  • Shade – if shooting in the heat with no shade you’ll need to bring the shade with you – umbrella or a gazebo
  • Sewing kit – the type you get in a hotel welcome pack
  • Camera cleaning kit – lens cloth and dust blower
  • Spare batteries and memory cards
  • Sustenance – water, snack bars, fruit

Download my handy photoshoot preparation checklist so you don’t forget anything.


5. Arrive early

You might wonder what arriving early has to do with preparing for a photoshoot on location, but as location photography is unpredictable, it’s an essential part of being prepared.

Don’t take for granted that the location will be exactly as you saw it the last time.

I once arrived at one of my favorite locations to find that one of the walls, freshly painted just a few days earlier, was now covered in spray painted profanities. Being early meant that I had some time to think about how I was going to use the location without including the profanities in the images. If children had been involved, I would have diverted the shoot to another location.

Another reason to arrive early…

Years ago, on the way to photographing a wedding, I was delayed for an hour in traffic. I knew from having visited the venue a month earlier that traffic could be a problem, although not to the extent it was that day. If I hadn’t planned on being really early, it would have been disastrous.

As it was, I arrived with a few minutes to spare. And a massive rush of adrenaline!

Detailed planning and packing is needed when preparing for a styled photoshoot on locationAll the hard work and preparation is worth it when a shot comes together.

6. Don’t leave anything valuable in the car. Ever.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of photographing on location (choosing the perfect location), I hear all the time about camera gear being stolen from cars. It’s horrible to have to think of these things, but thieves watch car parks and will see what you take out of your car. If you come back to your car to put stuff in it, they will see this too.

They know that if a wedding is taking place, a photographer’s car will be parked nearby. They know the popular car parks for the start of hiking trails or dog walking locations.

So, think carefully about what you take with you and don’t leave anything valuable unattended in your car.

7. A location photoshoot isn’t over until you’ve unpacked

I know what it’s like. You’ve been photographing for hours, driving for ages, you’re exhausted, starving, thirsty, need a shower and can’t wait to check out your photos. But a photoshoot isn’t over until everything is unpacked and tidied up.

You have to do it straight away so that nothing gets forgotten. Camera gear is too expensive and, if you’re relying on it to make a living, too vital not to be cared for properly. So, immediate unpacking and cleaning is part of photoshoot preparation – for the next one.

While your photos are loading to the computer, clean your gear.

Because I photograph on the beach a lot, it’s not an uncommon sight in our home to see a tripod drying on the draining board. I always wash the feet off thoroughly to get rid of corrosive sea salt and sand.

If you photograph in cold weather…

BIG IMPORTANT POINT: After photographing outside in the cold, don’t take your camera out of your bag as soon as you get in. Let it warm up to room temperature slowly in your bag to avoid extra condensation forming. All the moisture in the room will be attracted to the cold of your camera.

An extra tip for cold and wet weather photography – collect the little silicon packets that come with so many items these days and, before heading out on a photoshoot, throw a few in your camera bag so that they can absorb any moisture in your bag.

Alternatively, you can buy packs of 100 silica gel sachets on Amazon for less than $8.

My computer guy’s advice for MacBooks:  if it’s cold and you’ve been using your MacBook outside, or had it in the trunk of your car on the drive home, don’t turn it on as soon as you’re in.

Let it warm up to room temperature first. When you turn it on it gets warm and, because of the aluminium casing, the sudden change in temperature from very cold to quite warm will attract condensation to the inside of your computer…and we all know that water and electronics are not the best of friends.

Anyway, back to unpacking after a location shoot…

Remove everything from your camera bag, including tissues, hairbands, photoshoot plans, business cards etc. You’d be amazed what winds up in my bag during a photoshoot.

I have a little bag of useful bits, but in a fast moving photoshoot I often put stuff back into a random pocket of my camera bag, instead of into its rightful place. So, when I arrive home I empty all the pockets and repack my little bag of useful bits.

This may seem a bit over the top and pedantic to do straight after a photoshoot, but if everything is returned to the proper place straight away, it cuts out the “where on earth did I put xyz” when packing for the next shoot.

Because everything has a place, if I need to reach for something during a photoshoot, I’ll know exactly where to find it and won’t waste valuable time.

Once empty, take your camera bag outside and give it a shake out to to get rid of any sand or vegetation that may have found its way inside. I take great care to avoid dust getting into the workings of my cameras, so a dusty camera bag is counterproductive.

I’m not precious about using my gear, it’s after all a tool, not a display item, but if I take good care of it, I’ll have fewer issues and interruptions to photoshoots. And it saves spending on repairs. Win win!

Preparing properly for a photoshoot on location is essential to getting amazing photographs and enjoying the shoot. 

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Also, I love good news, so if my location photography tips have helped you to understand photoshoot preparation, share that too.

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