Creative Process Behind the Photo Shoot

Hi there!

I’ve decided to do a post about the creative process behind my still life and food photo shoots. I won’t be talking about the technical aspects of shooting (I will save that for another post), just the thought process that goes on behind the scenes.

Learning my basic creative process took about a year and a half and I’m still tweaking it as I learn. When I first started out I would just wing it. I learned quickly that this wouldn’t work in the long run. I was having to redo a lot of shots because I wasn’t happy with the end result. I’d end up shooting the same product/food over and over with different props until I found something that worked. It took forever. I’ve learned that planning is they key to success. Now I do so much planning I would say it usually takes me about 2 day to prep for a basic photo shoot.

Every photographer has a different process so please don’t feel like I’m saying things have to be done this way. This is simply what works for me. If you are struggling to find your process, maybe by sharing my experience I will save you some time.

On larger photo shoots you usually work with a food stylists, prop stylists, and art directors. These are amazingly talented people that take on a lot of responsibility. I highly recommend working with them as much as much as possible. However I also understand that when you are starting out it’s not always an option. Sometimes you just have to do it yourself. For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to write from the DIY perspective.

Side note: Don’t be afraid to get in touch with stylists and ask if they’d be interested in doing a test shoot with you. It builds up both of your portfolios and is a great way to network.

So, here it s:

1. The Subject

Obviously the first thing I do is figure out what I’m shooting. For this blog post I will be using Slingshot Coffee as an example since I just wrapped a shoot for them. The rest of the Slingshot photos are at the bottom of this post.

Slingshot Coffee, by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography

2. Branding Words

I make a list of 5-10 branding words or phrases. If I’m working for a company, I ask them to provide a few words that describe their brand. You can also come up with a list of words yourself by just spending some time looking a their packaging, their website, etc. These were my words for Slingshot shoot:

1. Mix modern & vintage
2. Mix messy and clean
3. Bright
4. Pops of color
5. Modern
6. Young
7. Approachable
8. Fun

Dapper Paper (the designers behind Slingshot Coffee’s awesome packaging design) provided me with this phrase which helped a lot:

“We wanted a balance of clean, crisp and modern mixed with our vintage-inspired aesthetic to create a timeless and classic beverage label that could be plucked from yesteryear or today.”

Say you are not shooting for a company, you are shooting soup for your blog or a personal project. This list is when you decide what aesthetic your photos are going to have. Dark, moody, rustic, vintage? Modern, light, colorful, approachable, friendly? If you aren’t sure where to start, think of what the food/product says to you. If you are shooting margaritas it’d be kinda weird to have a a super gloomy vibe, right? You’d want to choose branding words that work with the margaritas, not against it.

I think this step is the most important because it sets the direction for the rest of the shoot. In my experience, when I try to create a mood board (step 3) or go prop shopping (step 5) without this list, I get overwhelmed by choices and end up wasting a lot of time.

3. Mood Board

Create a mood board. A mood board is basically a visual version of the branding words. It’s a collection of images that reflect the feel I am are going for. In the past I would create a collage of images in photoshop. Now I use Pintrest’s secret board function. I keep my branding words in the forefront of my mind while pinning. It’s an easy website to get sidetracked on! When I see an image I like, I ask myself if it is on brand.

Oh, and the nice thing about Pintrest is that I can invite clients to pin images with me.

Pintrest Mood Board

4. Sketching

Sketching helps me visualize the compositions before I start looking for props.

If I’m working for a company I will need to get a shot list and any specifications from them before I start sketching. They most likely have some requirements (orientation, angles, room for copy, etc.) that effect my decisions.

These sketches aren’t super detailed because I don’t know what props I will be working with. They just give me an idea of how large my subject will be in the frame or where the subject will be placed. Knowing these things helps me figure out how large my background needs to be, how big my props can be, what size plates I will need, etc.

…It’s just a great way to brainstorm.

 

Sketching planning for photo shoot

5. Prop finding

Now is when I go prop shopping. With my mood board and branding words in mind, I seek out props that help create the vibe I’ve decided upon. I rent most of my props (Lost and Found Props is my fav) but you can also buy and return them.

A few prop shopping tips:

Find your background first. It’s usually the most visible element and a good starting point.

When you go prop shopping bring your subject with you. If, for example, you are shooting bottle of liquor, bring it with you. If you are shooting tacos, bring a taco shell, a tomato, and a piece of lettuce (or whatever elements will be showing in your taco photo) with you. As you are shopping for props hold your subject up against the props to make sure they don’t clash.

Create a little pile of all your props in a corner of the store. Make sure they are all working together to reflect your branding words.

Photo shoot props, Vanessa Rees

6. Basic setup.
I consult my sketches to figure out what shot I want to do fist. Once I’ve decided, I get my background, tabletop, test subject, and camera in place on a tripod.

7. Lighting
I start messing around with lighting. I’m not going to get into how I setup my lights- I’ll save that for another blog post. The important thing is that the lighting (whatever means you go about lighting your images) works to create the vibe you decided upon back in step 2. If you want a dark and moody shot, make sure you’ve got yourself some dark and moody lighting!

Side note: If you use natural light instead of artificial lighting, you may want to find your lighting before you do the basic setup.

8. Detailing
Now that you’ve got the right lighting, start adding prop details that complete the image.

9. Put in the hero
If you are shooting food now is when you’d want to swap out the test food with the hero. I’m not going to get into food styling because it is not my area of expertise (I rely heavily on food stylists) and there is already a lot out there on food styling. Check out La Tartine Gourmande for food styling tips.

So there you have it.

I hope this sheds some light on the process I go through to set up a photo shoot. I have these steps written on the wall of my studio and I find them super helpful to follow. Please feel free to ask any questions or share any of your own steps!

Below are some of the photos from the Slingshot Coffee shoot that I’ve been blabbing on about:

Till next time. xx

Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees

Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa ReesSlingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees

Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa ReesSlingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees

 

47 Comments
  • Sanjeeta kk
    Posted at 05:27h, 10 April Reply

    What a treasure, always loved your food pictures and styling! I am never comfortable with white background..but your pictures give confidence to try my hands on the same.

  • Sarah
    Posted at 23:33h, 09 April Reply

    Thankyou for sharing this post with us – this is great info for anyone just starting out in the industry, whether we have access to big prop stores or not. I will definitely put a lot more thought into how I gather the pieces for my images!

  • Emily {Jelly Toast}
    Posted at 21:25h, 09 April Reply

    This is such a great post! Your photography and unique vision never fails to blow me away. I need to organize and plan my shoots more and this has motivated me to do just that. I’m looking forward to your lighting post! Thanks so much!!

  • Leinana
    Posted at 21:06h, 09 April Reply

    I’m such a fan of your photography and always trying to improve my own. Thanks for posting this, you are an inspiration!

  • Ashley
    Posted at 20:10h, 09 April Reply

    This post is absolutely amazing. To catch a glimpse into your process is such a treat. You can tell that your shots take hours and hours to perfectly compose. You are mighty talented, Vanessa, and your work is incredibly unique. You continue to wow me with every photo you post! xo

  • Chelsea
    Posted at 19:42h, 09 April Reply

    your work is drop dead gorgeous – so glad i found your blog! this post was incredibly helpful for someone new to blog photography like me! thank you xo

  • christelle is flabbergasting
    Posted at 19:35h, 09 April Reply

    It’s one super interesting post Vanessa! Thanks for sharing! Can’t wait to see your other post on lighting! And I will definitely check Lost and Found props… I am in NYC in May, would you have some places to recommend where I can find interesting props? (to buy! I’ll bring them back in Montreal!) Thanks in advance! :)

  • Amanda Areias
    Posted at 18:22h, 09 April Reply

    Thanks for sharing Vanessa! I love using secret boards on Pinterest too, so handy! Beautiful photos as always!

  • Dana
    Posted at 18:15h, 09 April Reply

    Stunning photos and amazingly helpful guide for setting up a shoot. I’m getting more into food/product photography now and am so thankful for your advice as I’ve already found myself wasting time on some shots. This will undoubtedly ease my process. Thanks, Vanessa!

  • thyme (sarah)
    Posted at 18:11h, 09 April Reply

    This is a fabulous article. Thank you so much for taking the time and giving us a glimpse of your planning process. What I found especially interesting is that “Prop” link for renting items for a shoot. I didn’t know something like that exists.

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