Want to get the most out of a photo shoot? Focus on all you need to do before photo day. 

I’m sharing how we’ve perfected photo shoots over the years through advanced planning, production and art direction.

There’s so much planning to pack in before the shoot that I’m delivering all the details in two parts: 1) how to create a great photo plan and 2) how to find the right photographer and negotiate your contract.

But for starters, don’t leave things like weather and locations up to chance. Build a plan that addresses these factors along with transportation for your subjects and crew, releases, approvals, security clearances, props, makeup, backdrops, recruiting and scheduling.

Whether you’re partnering with an external creative agency like Zehno or tackling your photo shoot in-house, follow these steps and tips to plan and produce a photo shoot that delivers on your goals.


Define Your Goals

How do you know when it’s time for a new shoot?

  • If this is the 10th time you’ve updated copy for student profiles but you’re still using the same shots
  • If you’re constantly retouching old logos in photos that appear on students’ t-shirts and campus signage
  • If you’ve recently invested in rebranding your institution

There are many possible reasons for a new shoot, and for each of them, you’ll need a different approach. Some common goals include:

  • Creating a body of work that truly differentiates you from your competitors
  • Featuring star students and alumni and their accomplishments
  • Attracting more men, women, non-traditional, domestic or international students
  • Building a photo bank of campus beauty shots
  • Highlighting star programs — or ones that aren’t as popular
  • Populating your new website with new images

Figure out your goals, and start prioritizing them so that you can begin your photo plan.


Create Content Strategy

To have a great shoot, you need to start with great stories.

If you don’t develop creative that stands out from your competitors, you’re left with the same generic, staged shots that everyone else has. Your content should provide all the details to support what differentiates your institution from competitors and to inform your most powerful visual ideas.

It’s easy to imagine how copy and editorial voice can reinforce your brand and key messages, but how does photography bring your brand to life? Photo style can equally connect with your audiences and elicit emotional responses from readers. But how do you know what your stories need to convey visually?

Consider one of our client examples. When approaching its photo shoot, Union College needed to show off a top-tier education that mixes liberal arts with engineering and stand apart from the typical northeastern private school vibe. We represented its students, campus and community through lifestyle photography — the type of shots you’ll find in advertising, film and fashion — because it brought out individual personalities, felt less staged and resonated with its audience.

Union College

Compositions are colorful, reflecting the color palette in subjects’ clothing and surroundings, and show relationships between people, the campus and the city of Schenectady. We placed subjects in their natural environments doing what they love, which allowed us to capture their real emotions and genuine enthusiasm for their work. Their stories also map back to specific key messages.

For example, photos capture a student presenting blueprints on her human-powered vehicle (key message: undergraduate research inspires personal discoveries), a coffee-shop conversation between a student and professor on the physics of coffee (key message: faculty champions bolster your success), and a student mixing his interests in electrical engineering and music while single-handedly composing a piece for a trombone quintet in the studio (key message: our academic ecosystem develops integrated thinking).


But your compositions don’t all need to revolve around one person to represent your key messages. Sometimes you’ll need to show people working in groups, diversity or campus beauty. The key is finding groups of real friends who make these settings feel authentic.

Find the people who embody your key messages, figure out what their stories need to convey visually, and find the most interesting environments to capture them. Then write it down. Once you’ve selected your subjects, draft a summary of their stories and/or map subjects back to key messages. Their stories will help you identify possible setups, environments or props to include in your photo plan.


Create Your Photo Plan

Don’t just hire the photographer, schedule people to show up and hope that everything works out. Because it probably won’t.

To get the most out of a shoot, schedule a lot of people. For lifestyle shots where you’ll be roaming to different parts of the campus, you’ll need to capture students doing things. That requires students, locations and props that vary. For these lifestyle shots, scheduling eight-to-10 students every 30 minutes works well because it gives you more flexibility to vary shots with different people. Even for classroom shots, getting a few faculty who are willing to stage a class is ideal, especially if you can get the students and faculty who actually know each other — because we don’t want it to look staged. And if there is a dynamic faculty member in a room with natural lighting, you can capture the real deal.

UNG Volleyball

Organize your photo plan with documents that you share with your team and photo subjects. You’ll need to include these key documents in your binder:


The schedule document outlines each day with time allocations, a description of each setup and location. It should include notes about how many students will show up for each setup and how much time should be allotted for each setup. Plan to shoot all outdoor setups before 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m. for best use of light.

A usual timeframe for a schedule is to allow at least 1-1.5 hours per setup. Depending on the complexity of the shot, you might be able to do several options at the same location. If travel is required, you’ll need to build in extra travel time.

If your setups require lighting, allow at least 30 minutes to prep the lighting before you begin shooting. If you use natural lighting without any additional lighting and if you’ve scouted locations ahead of time, only leave about 15 minutes to prep subjects for shooting.

If you are doing classroom setups or focusing on one person with people in the background, make sure to plan for the people in the background. Don’t rely on extras just hanging around.

Photo Schedule


The art direction/style document should describe and show aspirational examples of each style needed for the shoot. For example: If you are shooting heroic portraits in environmental backgrounds, show professional examples of this.


Create a separate wardrobe and prop document for women and men. Ask all subjects to bring two options for clothing.

Your wardrobe guidelines should include a color palette, inspirational clothing images, and instructions on what not to wear (such as clothing with brand marks). You don’t want your photo to be a billboard for Nike, Coca-Cola or a competitor school.

And if you don’t hire a stylist, ask subjects to bring their own hairbrushes, combs or makeup.

After learning your subjects’ stories, you can tap into what will make them look like rock stars. Ask subjects to bring special objects — anything from bikes to pets — that represent an important part of their college lives. And make notes in the photo plan on what they are bringing.

For example, for our photo shoot with Union College, we asked a subject to bring in the blueprint from her winning design-competition entry. Marjorie Chee designed her own human-powered vehicle and won an American Society of Mechanical Engineers challenge that draws students from around the world. We were able to get illustrations of her plans for the vehicle in advance, brought them to the shoot and got her to talk about her project. This produced enthusiasm that we could have never gotten without this background.

Union College Majorie

The art director should also shop for props with your color palette and wardrobe guidelines in mind. Consider spending $500-$600 on shirts, cardigans, scarves, colored notebooks, headphones, background colors or even plastic tablecloths that can be used on set. And if students wear the supplied clothing, let them keep it. It’s a perk they won’t turn down.

Loyola University props


Each shot or setup should have its own documentation that includes:

  • An image of the subject(s) with contact info, location meeting spot and time of shoot with inspirational shots.
  • Interviews of each subject’s story and/or the layout for how the image will be used.
  • Any props that each subject should bring.


Include a map, either campus map or city/region location map, and plot each of your photo locations.

Chicago Location Map


This document outlines all of the people on the set with contact information for everyone.


Assemble the Photo Team

Your photo team should include:

  • Project lead (and designated internal support on-site)
  • Creative team (art director — on-site, writer, designer, account manager )
  • Photographer (on-site)
  • Photographer’s assistant (on-site)
  • Stylist (optional on-site)

Tippie photo team

While you have flexibility in team assignments, these are the roles and responsibilities you’ll need to fulfill. For example, for our photo shoot with Forté Foundation, we assembled a great on-site photo team. Here’s how your team can work together for best results:


Make one person at your school the project lead. Assign one or two additional people (if you have them!) to assist the project lead with securing subjects and managing other project needs. The project lead should determine the goals of the shoot and consult with the art director to make final decisions on the photography style once the creative team weighs in on the creative approach.

The project lead should be the main point of contact for photo subjects, before and during the day of the shoot. The project lead and art director work together to create a schedule that accommodates subjects’ availability and shot locations. For any given shoot, the project lead must contact each subject and work on the final schedule according to the plan outlined by the art director.

To secure photo subjects, enlist people who know the students, faculty or alumni to supply the best candidates to fit the story, key message or subject matter. Consider someone who is persuasive in recruiting — folks on the frontlines who know which people will best represent your content.

Once you’ve completed an initial photo plan (including a proposed schedule, art direction/style, wardrobe and prop guidelines, each setup, a map and who’s who on set), set aside three to four weeks before the shoot just for scheduling. Then check in at least one week out, and again the day before, to make sure your subjects are still available.

The project lead should also assign someone to support the on-site photography team on shoot days and to coordinate when and where subjects should arrive as the shoot progresses. The internal support person should help in communicating with subjects, greeting subjects as they arrive at the shoot to spot any clothing or prop issues, troubleshooting location issues, and recruiting more subjects if someone drops out unexpectedly.

If transportation is needed for subjects, the project lead should arrange for subjects to get to the shoot. If on-site at a college or institution, supplying a golf cart is a must in saving time in getting from location to location. On most campuses, golf carts can only be driven by employees who have been trained and approved to drive the cart, so plan accordingly. If off-site, arrange for someone to drive a van, or provide a budget to cover taxis, Uber or public transportation.

Tippie photo shoot golf cart

If the shoot occurs around meal times, provide food for subjects. Bring food on location, using either on-campus dining and catering services or a nearby restaurant delivery service.

TCU_Neeley rooftop photo

The project lead will need to supply and secure media releases or consent forms for photo usage on behalf of the university. Most institutions also require permission for shooting anywhere on campus, especially in stadiums, libraries, labs and classrooms. If you are shooting on a rooftop, in a city square or even in a corporate building, the project lead must acquire security clearances from the proper authorities in advance of the shoot.


As part of the creative team, the editorial team is responsible for generating key flagship content. This content provides the details required for the art director, designer and account manager to plan the shoot. Generate this content by interviewing subjects and writing the content for tools—whether it’s a viewbook for admissions or content for the university website.

The art director and designer are responsible for designing the style, determining the look and feel, and choosing and communicating with the photographer.

The art director/producer is responsible for working with the photographer to make sure that the photos are being taken according to the plan. He or she communicates to the subjects what the vision is for each shot, manages expectations and answers questions that anyone might have.

Forte Art Direction

The art director also works with the photographer on-site, scouting locations, problem solving and making adjustments as needed. If the art director is also acting as the producer, the art director keeps everyone on schedule by keeping an eye on time, deciding when to wrap each shot and approving the shot. If the schedule changes during the shoot, the art director has the authority to make further changes and communicate those to the project lead and subjects.

The art director/producer assesses each subject’s wardrobe and recommends other supplied clothing, if needed. The art director also makes the final decisions on props and any makeup or styling needed for the subjects. This can include ironing and/or steaming clothing or hair and makeup touch ups.

TCU Photoshoot

The photographer is responsible for getting the shot and communicating to the assistant any needs for equipment, lighting, backups, etc. The photographer also works with subjects to get the right expression and body movements needed. He or she communicates with the stylist for any styling details needed on set such as hair touch ups, clothing adjustments, etc.

A professional stylist is responsible for any makeup, hair and sometimes clothing needs for subjects. A stylist is not usually required for fast-moving shoots, but for studio portraits, we highly recommended one. A stylist can save much time and money in post-production retouching. And if you can afford it, a stylist can come in handy for those fast-moving shoots to remove sweat and oil from skin that can be difficult to retouch.

 Makeup Stylist for Photoshoot

What’s Next?

Photo shoot planning doesn’t stop here. You’ll need to decide on a photographer that matches everything outlined above. Stay tuned for part 2 of this white paper. In the meantime, find more great photo tips in our blog post about day-of photo guidelines.


Read about Zehno’s content development services.