Getting Ready: A Guide to Preproduction

The following book excerpt has been republished from FACES: Photography and the Art of Portraiture by Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua with the permission of Focal Press. The complete book is available for purchase by users for 20% off the cover price for a limited time (use promo code “PHOTONET”).

FACES: Photography and the Art of Portraiture only is this book the most comprehensive title available on portraiture, but it contains stunning images. Each image is paired with a lighting diagram, a description of why the type of image was chosen, and then takes you through post-production to put the finishing touches on. The authors also showcase a gallery of portraits by renowned photographers.

“Be prepared.” Any Boy Scout will be glad to tell you this—and to explain why it’s so
important if you intend to live a prosperous and productive life. And to some extent, he
will be right. Being prepared can be and frequently is a very good thing—especially if you want to be a portrait photographer and not lose your sanity at the same time. Finding yourself, for example, in the middle of a location shoot that’s costing you a small fortune to stage and is far from anything that can be remotely considered civilization and running out of batteries is definitely not the kind of experience that helps to keep one totally glued together.

So with that in mind, let us give the Scouts their due and agree that the better prepared we are, the less hassle we will have to endure. And that brings us to the question, “What does the word ‘prepared’ mean?” Well, the truth is that there’s no one answer. Obviously, being prepared for a simple portrait shoot in one’s studio is quite different from being
prepared for a portrait-making jaunt into the more remote reaches of some distant land. That
being said, both situations share certain common threads and involve many commonsense steps and precautions. Those are what we’ll cover in the rest of this section.


Generally speaking, getting ready for a portrait shoot involves “what, who, when, and where”—the four “W” questions that are at the heart of so many of the preparations we make in life. Once you can answer them, you’re pretty much good to go.


The answers to two very different “what” questions are at the heart of preparing for any portrait session. The first is “What do I want from this portrait?” The second is “What gear do I need to shoot it?”

What do I (or my client) want from this portrait?

This is among the first questions I ask myself when I’m getting ready for a shoot. The answers, and those to similar questions, help me form that all-important mental image of the portrait I’m going to shoot well before I get started. If, for example, the portrait that I’m about to shoot is to be part of an advertising campaign or serve to illustrate a magazine article, it’s critical that I understand exactly what my client’s needs and expectations are. Or if I’m shooting a portrait that somebody wants to use on their holiday cards or to send along with a job application, I need to understand their sensitivities—particularly what they do and do not like about the way they look.

The key in either of these cases is to ask lots of questions and to listen carefully
to the answers given. Doing this will provide the information you need to shoot
portraits that do what you want them to.

Figure 1. Different styles of portraits can require the use of different gear. Frequently, it’s possible to rent equipment you don’t own.

What gear do I need?

Here we’re talking about things—the things needed to shoot a given portrait, to be exact. These include such items as wardrobes, props, backdrops, cameras and lenses, lights and stands, batteries, memory devices, laptops, cases, grip equipment, permits, first aid kits, and all the other gear that’s used in portrait making.

Many times, you will already have everything you need on hand for the shoot you’re planning. In other instances, you may not. If that’s the case, you may be able to rent everything you need. This is especially true if you’re working in or near a large metropolitan area. If not, you may be able to arrange for the rental items you need to be shipped to you. In either case, be sure to allow enough time for everything you need to be delivered and for you to test it.

In addition, when you are using anything but the simplest setups it’s a good idea to leave yourself enough time to put together and fully test the setup you’re planning to use. I always test the pose and lighting I have in mind for an upcoming portrait shoot well beforehand. It’s amazing how many times I discover that my original vision for the image doesn’t quite work, because it doesn’t quite produce the look I’m after. Location shooting introduces added problems to the gear selection process. Some things to keep in mind if you’re going to be shooting away from home are:

  • If it can break, it will. Take backup for all critical gear.
  • Make sure that everything arrives well before your shoot is scheduled to begin.
  • Watch the weather. If you’re planning to shoot outside, even a slight change can
    mean a big difference in how you’re going to have to do things.
  • Permits and licenses are often required, and they can take a long time to get.
    Apply well in advance of your shoot.
  • Security counts. Do whatever you have to do to make sure nothing is stolen and
    make sure that your insurance will cover any loss.

Generally speaking, the closer your location is to home, the easier it is to follow these guidelines. If you are forced to work in some distant location, be sure that the project budget is large enough to cover such things as preshoot visits, document procurement, delays, and shipping services.

Figure 2. We used a professional kimono dresser to help style this shoot.

Who and When?

Whom do I need for this shoot and when do I need them? Because these two questions are so intimately related, it’s helpful to think of them together. Sometimes the answers are simple and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the only people involved are you and your subject. On other occasions, however, lots of assistants, of one kind or the other, may be a part of your shoot, some of whom are responsible for getting different tasks done at different times.

For example, it’s common to involve both hair and makeup and wardrobe stylists in the sort of
high-end portrait shoots made for advertising or magazine covers or articles. Food and floral stylists may also be involved. Professional models are also frequently used in such shoots, along with photo assistants who help with the actual picture taking.

Prior to a complex shoot, you may also employ such experts as set builders, prop makers, backdrop artists, guides, location scouts, caterers, drivers, and security personnel. And managing even a few extra people can be a lot of extra trouble. So leave yourself plenty of time for taking care of the “human” side of things. In my experience, most of the problems involved with it come from misunderstandings. With that in mind, make it a point to:

  • Provide everybody involved with your shoot with written instructions that include precise instructions on where they are to be and when they are to be there. Include instructions on how to get there and provide a map and/or GPS locators if the location is hard to find. Also include your, or a trusted assistant’s, cell and land line phone numbers.
  • Call or email everybody involved prior to the shoot and confirm any arrangements
    you made with them.
  • Build plenty of “slush” time into every schedule. Unforeseen problems have a
    nasty habit of cropping up in even the most carefully planned shoot.

Figure 3. Shooting in remote locations can present some interesting challenges. The better prepared you are, the better you’ll cope with them.


Where will you be working? Your answer will have a huge impact on your preparations. Shooting in your studio is one thing. Working in a relatively close location is another. Going abroad to work in some place you’ve never visited is about as complex as portrait shooting gets. If you’re working in your studio, one of the most important “Where” preparations is to make sure that everybody involved knows how to get there. I was once held up for over an hour because the hair stylist had trouble finding the studio we were using. Perhaps the simplest way to avoid such a problem is, as I suggested earlier, to email a map and “how to get there” instructions along with a contact phone number to everybody involved well before your shoot.

Location shooting can be—and, unfortunately, usually is—more complex than
studio work. One of the keys to surviving location shooting is to scout anywhere you are thinking about using before you commit to it. Look around carefully. Ask yourself questions such as these: What are the best vantage points? What are its potential problems? What’s the ambient light like at different times of the day? Will I need a generator or battery-powered lights? How’s parking? Is there room to work without getting in people’s way? Does the area look safe or do I need to hire security guards? Are there restrooms available? Will I need any permits? How about places to eat? These are the kinds of questions that you need to answer
before deciding to use any shooting location.

Sometimes it may not be practical for you to scout locations yourself. If that’s the case, consider hiring someone to scout it for you. Fortunately, in many locations professional location scouts are readily available.

In addition, a web search will produce numerous hits on location scouting services. Some, such as the California-based Plan-It Locations, Inc., provide web-based archives that include pictures of literally thousands of different potential shooting locations. Others are small—often one-person—agencies that specialize in a particular city or area. In addition, many national, state, and local governments support media and tourism offices that can be of help. Guidebooks and magazines can also help in finding good locations in which to shoot.

There is so much detail to be captured in a face. Cicero (106-43 BC) said: “The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.”; To capture a person’s personality, there are many things to keep in mind, and the authors of FACES show us how to match up a personality with lighting, posing, and composition. Portraiture is truly an art, and this book dives deep into the details so that you end up with a gorgeous portrait that both you and your subject love. Not only is this book the most comprehensive title available on portraiture, but it contains stunning images. Each image is paired with a lighting diagram, a description of why the type of image was chosen, and then takes you through post-production to put the finishing touches on. The authors also showcase a gallery of portraits by renowned photographers.

Text ©2010 Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua. Book excerpt courtesy of Focal Press.

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