In this article, you’ll learn how to plan and execute a themed photography session. Recently I had the pleasure of doing such a session with 10 fabulous ladies and they’ve graciously allowed me to share their images and ideas with you!
Step 1 – Get ideas for a themed photoshoot
The first thing you need to do is come up with an idea for your themed photoshoot. If you are collaborating with other people, you can brainstorm together. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Old style – think the 1800s or vintage clothing and a b/w or sepia-toned final image.
- Monochromatic – this doesn’t necessarily mean black and white. How about an all-blue photo with the subject or models in blue, against a blue background or setting.
- High key – all white or light colors.
- Low key – all black or dark colors.
- 80s – leg warmers, spandex, and big hair!
- Romantic and soft – flowy fabrics and flowers.
- Urban grundge – graffit, ripped jeans, etc.
What other ideas can you come up with? Share yours in the comment area below.
The group of ladies that I was working with already had the idea when they approached me. I don’t actually do very much commissioned work anymore, but I fell in love with the project so I quickly agreed and am so glad I did!
Their concept was to do a photoshoot in the style of NYC fashion icon, Iris Apfel, who just recently turned 100. The 10 ladies have been meeting virtually during Covid and finally had the opportunity to have a day together in person. So they wanted to commemorate it with photos!
They call themselves the Bold Brilliant Broads, with most of them being over 60 and the oldest is over 70. They all certainly are bold and beautiful and I wanted to do the perfect photos for them. The next step was to find a location to do the photography.
Step 2 – Find the perfect location
Follow these steps to find just the right location for your themed photoshoot.
1 – Go at the right time
Go to the chosen location at the same time of day that you plan on doing the photoshoot. You need to view the scene under the same lighting conditions that will exist when you arrive on site.
2 – How is the light?
Once you’re at the location, look around for potentially good spots that you will be able to photograph or use as a background. Observe the light falling on the scene and ideally, a person.
If possible, take a friend with you so that you can examine the light and see how it falls on their face as I did for the following examples. My husband Rob is a very patient and frequent test subject.
This is a location I scouted for a photo session with a group of Indigenous women I have been planning. This is called Indigenous Art Park so I thought it would be ideal. What I learned was that if I want to shoot in front of this background I need to start later or use flash to handle the shadows.
This test image was shot at 8:59 pm – we have late sunset times here and I usually START the session approximately 90 minutes before sunset. Sunset time for us on the date this was shot was 10:07 pm.
NOTE: Portrait photographers shoot during the golden hours, 1-1.5 hours after sunrise or before sunset.
3 – Look for a good background and any possible distractions
Look for a good background and also notice if there is anything you’ll need to avoid. If it’s a public park you’ll be able to see how busy it is at that time of day if finding a spot to shoot will be a challenge.
Consider things like garbage cans, fences, parking lots, or anything else that might end up being a distraction in the background. Choose your camera angles carefully to avoid them or move them if possible.
I also keep things like trimmers in my car to trim long grass and weeds if need be (be careful of getting into trouble by cutting plants in parks). Part of being a good photographer is being prepared. That means planning your photoshoot, executing it well, AND making sure you have ALL the right gear to pull it off.
4 – Size of the background or shooting area
Consider how your subject will fit into the scene and the background. Is there enough room if you have a group of people? Is the best background up high, meaning that you’d have to aim up at it and the subjects? Does the scene fit the theme or mood of the session you want to execute?
The two scenes above are on different sides of the same building, so it provided a two-for-one location!
For the photoshoot with the 10 ladies, I wanted to match the Iris Apfel style. She’s over the top, colorful, and exuberant so I wanted to find some locations that were suitable and fitting for the theme. I thought of some of our city’s murals (see above) which turned out to be the client’s favorite thing, so it was perfect.
We also wanted to take individual photos of each of the ladies, so I needed to make sure the background would work well for both the group photo and those. These same locations worked well for both close-up shots and full-length poses.
Make sure you consider everything about the location including some non-photography things such as the next point.
5 – Accessibility of the location
Think about parking and how easy the location is to get to and find. Those are both important considerations and the spot above fits both bills. Also, consider your models – do they have any issues walking? Is wheelchair accessibility needed?
Making sure your models can find and get to the location easily is essential. A great location in the middle of nowhere with no address that doesn’t appear on Google maps might look cool, but could be a bad idea if everyone gets lost. Then you have a bunch of frustrated and angry models before you even begin the photoshoot.
Here are some other locations I scouted for the ladies. We ended up not using all of them, but now I have them pre-scouted if another appropriate project presents itself.
You can see more urban themes and even neon signs. The neon location has to be photographed after sunset when the light in the sky is a lot lower (darker) and the signs are illuminated.
The BBB ladies loved the idea of neon signs. So that factored into what start time I scheduled for the session and the order in which we put the locations.
Building #1 with the 2-sided graffiti first, large blue pegasus wall next, neon street last. These locations are all within six city blocks of one another and the final one is across the street from a pub – so we all had a cold beverage together after we were finished (their idea!). Thanks, ladies!
Step 3 – Plan clothing and props
The next thing to consider and plan is the clothing and props you will use and the models will wear. If the photoshoot is your concept and idea, you may also be required to provide all of these items. So use your network and see how creative you can get and what you can come up with. Browse the dollar store for ideas if you are stumped.
For the BBB ladies, they had the plan and idea so they came fully prepared with colorful clothing, scarves, hats, big wild glasses, and even feather boas. Here you can see how well-styled and stylish these ladies are!
Step 4 – Doing the session
Now it’s time to bring it all together. You’ve got fully prepared models, props, the perfect location at the optimal time of day and you’re all set. Here are some general shooting tips and links to other tutorials to help you out:
- Use a tripod whenever possible. When you’re photographing people it’s easier for the subject to interact with your eyes and your face than a lens. See the behind the scenes video below to see how I work with my models.
- Don’t be afraid of using flash. All of the finished images of the ladies that you see here included the use of off-camera flash. Read also: How to Balance Flash with Natural Light for Better Results
- Talk to your models. Some people rank the fear of being photographed as high as fear of public speaking, the dentist, or even death. Talking helps people relax. Tell them what you’re doing and why, ask them about their day – anything, just engage!
- Compliment them and show them the photos (as shown above). Along with the tip above, tell your models how well they are doing, and how great the images look. Then show them. This boosts their confidence level and often the model will get more open to trying things because they trust you.
- Plan some posing ideas ahead of time also. Read: Portrait Posing Tips for Women and 5 Simple Posing Tips for Groups and Family Portraits
Remember to HAVE FUN! Do they look like they are having fun in these images?
If you and your models aren’t enjoying yourselves what is the point! I only take on projects that can get into and enjoy myself – if it feels like pulling teeth, just politely decline. You aren’t doing either of you a favor by doing something that isn’t a big yes for you.
I follow this mantra: If it isn’t a HELL YEAH, then it’s a BIG NO!
Our group photo shoot with Darlene was such fun! Her personality is such that she appeared very relaxed and wanted to have fun like us. It was a party atmosphere for us customers, which speaks to her professionalism. There appeared to be no anxiety on her part. Regarding the individual shots, she quietly gave verbal or physical cues as to posing ideas, again all in a relaxed environment. As we watched each other being photographed individually, we inspired each other as to what to do and trust the camera! Bravo!Céleste
About the project
I met Darlene years ago at a course she was teaching in Edmonton. When I was looking for a photographer to photograph the BBB (-Bold Brilliant Broads), I reached out to her to see if she was available. I was beyond delighted when Darlene agreed to photograph our project.
Our group was formed at the beginning of the pandemic. We are a group of women from 58-74 who gather monthly. Most of our meetings have been via zoom but in July 2021, we were finally able to meet in person. I organized a day of festivities celebrating the sisterhood of women’s friendship, strength, and survival while living in a pandemic.
Documenting life through photography is essential to me and Darlene’s ideas for our photoshoot supported my vision. I embraced her suggestion for an urban edge look. Unbeknownst to Darlene was my love of all things murals. You can imagine my delight when she suggested using murals for our photo backdrops.
Darlene’s skill in capturing each woman’s inner beauty was amazing to observe, as she photographed us individually and as a group. I indicated to Darlene some of the women were a bit hesitant to be inspired by Iris Apfel who embraces color, layers of accessories, while wearing her signature large glasses.
However, Darlene quickly and intuitively had each woman feeling at ease during our session. She honored and supported each woman. Darlene has an ability to connect with others and thus she brings the best out of people while photographing them. She is extremely skilled and masterful at her art form – photography. She exudes kindness, professionalism, flexibility, spontaneity, and has an innate ability to listen and observe.
The evening photography shoot was beyond what I had hoped for. I trusted Darlene and the process which resulted in stunning individual and group photos. Darlene’s photography was the creme de la creme of an extraordinary day of celebrating women’s friendship. Thank you Darlene for capturing our memories of this historical time in our lives.Group organizer – Lynette Husam
Step 5 – Culling and processing
Choosing the best images from a photoshoot can be challenging and time-consuming as well. I use a process called “edit-in” where I go through and choose my very favorites instead of trying to eliminate the outtakes. I usually end up with approximately 20% of the total number that I shoot.
Go through and find the best expressions, don’t worry about the ones where the flash didn’t go off or you missed the focus. Just find the best images then work on them in your photo editing software.
Without going into great detail, this is a quick summary of my workflow:
- Edit in and choose the PICKS that are my favorites
- Process them to proof or preview level (adjust the color, contrast, and brightness).
- If the subject is part of the selection process, this is where I get them involved to choose their faves.
- Do final editing and retouching on the selected winners. This is when I do things like remove or clone out signs, facial retouching (I do my portrait editing with Luminar AI), blur the background (see more on that below), and any other advanced edits.
Here are three examples of the difference between my preview level editing and the final image.
In the two examples above, I did facial or portrait retouching using Luminar AI, and I also use the new Portrait Bokeh AI to blur the background a bit more. I also used the Liquify tool in Photoshop to adjust their clothing that looked overly bulgy and puckered (stomach area on the top image, back of shoulder on the one right above).
I have tutorials on how to use both of those Luminar AI tools here:
- Photo Editing Challenge Day 4 – Portrait Editing with Luminar AI
- Why the Exciting New Portrait Bokeh AI Tool Will Knock Your Socks Off
I also did a couple of sky replacements using Luminar AI.
Finally, I used Luminar AI once again to finalize the image below. I wanted the colors to really POP and the sky to be a darker, richer blue. The Face Light slider in the portrait tools in Luminar AI makes it SO easy to just quickly lighten all the faces as well!
I actually did a sky replacement on the final image using Luminar AI. I bet you can’t even tell, right? I also used the Orton Effect tool (you’ll find it under Glow) which is the same one I used on all of the final images of the ladies. It adds a gentle softening that is more flattering for people and I apply it to almost every portrait I create.
6 – Be ready for anything!
Sometimes things just happen that are serendipitous. Just go with it!
As we were just wrapping up our photoshoot doing the image above, some lovely ladies in colorful traditional Mexican dresses just happened to walk by. So we invited them to join the group! They fit the theme of the session perfectly and loved getting in on it as well.
So be ready for anything, good, bad, or surprising. Then go with the flow and adapt.
Now get planning and start working on a themed photoshoot for yourself. Get friends involved and make it fun for everyone.
Behind the scenes
To see how much fun and laughter we had during the photography session, watch this behind-the-scenes video.