Near the end of 2017, I read an article by Mastin Labs discussing how Styled Shoots are essentially “Big Game Hunts”. The article can be read by clicking here and it’s well worth the read, but I figured I’d give my two cents on the subject being on both sides of the topic myself over the past few years.
I want to start off by saying I’ve been a part of 4 styled shoots and have been the only photographer, and I have learned an immense amount about my shooting style and how to better direct and set up my shots as a result, because of the way I approached each shoot. Mainly, the bridal styled shoot featured in this post was a huge stretch for me because it was a single model and I almost exclusively pose couples. Another shoot was almost entirely indoors with mixed lighting sources, live animals, and dark colors. This taught me an immense amount about my shooting and editing style that has really helped me grow recently. I thoroughly believe styled shoots can be hugely beneficial if coordinated with a great group, and by approaching with respect and understanding that they are not a “fix all” to a lackluster portfolio.
If you read the original article, you’ll note they begin their post by saying “I know this is not going to be a popular post” but I really think it should be a popular post. With the massive, constant inflow of new photographers, everyone seems to have it in their head (thanks to Pinterest, Instagram, and by idolizing photographers who have the most polished portfolios thanks to their years upon years of hard work) that they can attend/create X amount of styled shoots, have a gorgeous portfolio on their website, then charge thousands upon thousands of dollars because they took a few really great photos.
The scariest part about styled shoots being a majority of someone’s portfolio (and this applies to everyone within the wedding/creative industry — florists, event rentals, planners, hair & makeup, etc.) is that the styled shoot are planned well in advance, usually with every vendor’s involvement to some extent. Everyone more or less knows what to expect, they have beautiful *idealistic* scenarios, models, and details “all in the name of education” but what do you really learn about shooting a wedding, when no wedding allows you nearly as much time or flexibility as a styled shoot does?
Don’t get me wrong, I think styled shoots have their benefit, but you’re way better off and your clients are way better off if you take the steps to work yourself up over a few years to build a solid and honest portfolio you can be proud of. That portfolio of real weddings is also far more valuable to your growth as a creative, too. You’ll gain invaluable insight from being in the craziest of scenarios – dresses breaking, rings being lost, being 2 hours behind schedule, parents not showing up when they needed to, drunk bridal parties, sparklers that don’t light for the sparkler exit, coordinators that disappear halfway through the day — you name it. These are the things photographers are expected to handle with ease along their client’s wedding day, and still capture the beautiful moments along the way. This simply isn’t the kind of information styled shoots teach you.
In my opinion, styled shoots should be approached as a creative exercise and a collaboration for vendors, and if anything, an educational session for the technical aspects of photography (being in scenarios where you have the flexibility to control lighting, timing, location, models, and so on). Being able to 100% control your scenario and your subjects to get the photo you imagine is what everyone should be learning about, not a free for all so everyone can fluff up their portfolios.
Styled shoots should also be somewhat informative for clients, showcasing what’s possible if you leave some creative freedoms to your trusted vendors, leave extra wiggle room in your day-of timeline so we can control additional elements for lighting and portrait shots that are stunning.
If you haven’t already, you should really read the Mastin article – it’s honestly so well done and I have no intention of paraphrasing it. However, I think my favorite quote that sums the entire thing up is
Yes, you will come away with photos better than anything in your portfolio. And if you attend enough styled shoots, your portfolio can be at the level of a master.
But if you believe that you are now at that level you are fooling yourself and misleading your client.
So, what makes me so inclined to say these things?
I’ve experienced it for myself.
I almost shelled out nearly $2,500 once (for both Austin and myself) to attend a styled shoot retreat out of state with a teaching photographer who I really admired, and 5-10 other photographers learning alongside. It was a 3 day retreat and went over marketing, sales, technical elements, editing, consistency, but was primarily centered around 4 styled shoots “guaranteed to advance your portfolio and your worth”.
Thankfully, Austin talked me out of that and suggested I invest in a few smaller courses and see what works best for me between a mix of different professional’s opinions, and if I really wanted to style a shoot, I should host my own that I can control, so I can best represent my own vision, not somebody else’s.
This was probably some of the best advice I’ve ever had throughout my photography career.
I ended up investing in online courses that provided takeaway resources and ones I could continually reference back to – many of the videos even offered a portal or download option so you could watch them over and over again, even after the classes are over. This ended up being a great inspirational tool for my growth.
Not only did I save a ton of money, but I also managed to find resources that I could compile and create my own brand from – I wasn’t just trying to copy the professionals’ success word for word.
Then, when I felt comfortable enough to handle my own styled shoot, I reached out to a ton of local vendors to see who was interested. Since then, many of these have remained as my best friends and I can’t imagine how my personal or professional life would be without them! It’s so amazing having a tribe of wonderful vendors you can count on and work with in your area – I think that’s far more valuable than getting to tag along on the coattails of other professional’s successes.
Moral of the story in my opinion:
Don’t attend or even create styled shoots with the expectation that you’ll have a high end portfolio overnight and that will bring you the clientele you want, at the prices you want, and that you’ll be able to maintain that quality. That’s unrealistic and the key issue with the way styled shoots seem to be perceived in the industry.
Instead? Plan your own! Invest time in making long-lasting connections with vendors YOU pick, that fit your brand image so you can more effectively collaborate together! Make friends in the industry – share knowledge and actually grow together instead of riding along behind others.
I do think attending styled shoots and workshops are a great opportunity to learn, make new friends, get to photograph some gorgeous details, and likely learning a lot about how the professionals pose, direct, and shoot. But my advice: before you go spending a ton of money on these retreats, workshops and events, do a little research into what the course offers. Do they offer takeaways? Will there be one on one time with the educator(s) and will you have enough time to get your money’s worth out of the time you’ll be spending. Or, will it just be a fun girl’s weekend where you make some new photographer friends, get to rub elbows with vendors you idolize, and come away with some good portfolio images?
If it’s the latter and you want that, then go for it! But if you’re hoping for more centered educational experience, maybe do a little additional research beforehand to make sure it’s the right workshop for you.
A huge thank you to the most amazing Laura at View Point Events for her stunning rentals and coordination, the oh so talented Sherice Emilie MUA, the ever amazing Glamology Beauty Lounge for their impeccable hair styling, Cassia Foret for her beautiful floral arrangements, and the always gorgeous Celina Kay for modeling.
Fun fact? This shoot didn’t cost any of us a thing aside from gas, time, and base operating expenses. We didn’t have to invest endless money to make stunning images happen, and you don’t, either!
What do you think? If you read the Mastin article, what’s your favorite point they made? I’d love to hear how you think I’m right or wrong in the comments below! We’re all in this together, after all.