Towards a Mise en Place for Photo Shoots

This started as an insta-story and I’ve decided to put it someplace a bit more permanent.

I don’t know what other photographers think about before/during shoots, but it’s the part of my work that has changed the most since I began taking pictures. 

None of the work of interacting with subjects and making photos came naturally to me and so I found myself writing little notes to myself over the years to remind myself of certain things. 

To that end, there’s a French culinary term called “mise en place”, which means “everything in its place.” It describes that practice of preparing and organizing ingredients and your workspace to ensure there’s no distractions while cooking, allowing you to focus solely on the task at hand. 

At the heart of it, you’re trying to make sure there’s nothing extraneous to think about so you can focus on doing your job. I think this is important on a practical level, but the real power comes from the mental prep work to get into the right frame of mind for taking pictures. 

The following is a first draft of a mise en place for photo shoots (mostly applicable to the quick-paced higher-profile editorial shoots that I do a lot of). If you have things to add, I’d love to hear them.

  1. Walk into the room, pause, look through it. If time, ask for a tour. Be gracious, but insistent if the space isn’t right.

  2. Consider the possibilities, both safe and absurd.

  3. Don’t be afraid to change everything. But, don’t give up on your first impressions too quickly, your instincts are worth something.

  4. Lighting setup in place, cords taped down when needed, setups on different wireless channels to prevent lights from triggering when not in use. Mints in bag, and caffeine. If settings change, it’s written down on paper, with the channel, in chronological order. Physically walk from setup to setup to make sure there’s nothing for subject to trip over. One lens with 50mm, one with 85mm or sometimes 35mm. Test Pocketwizards, and remind self to shoot vertically holding camera rotated counter-clockwise, or wireless triggering is inconsistent.

  5. Never appear to be rushing, even when time is short.

  6. Decide when to lead the shoot and when to let your subject lead. Let them take you down their path if they’re willing. Take them down your own path if they’re willing.

  7. Make eye contact when not behind the camera. Use your hands.

  8. You owe your subject your respect and your honesty, but unless they’ve hired you directly, you don’t owe them an obligation to help them look “good.”

  9. Be absolutely aware and alert. Be ready, you may be given something in return for your attention, but maybe only for a moment.

  10. On that same point, a missed photo is a hell of a regret, I’ve never forgotten any of mine.

  11. This may be the last time you and your subject are ever in a room together again. Consider what’s essential.

  12. Never finish a shoot thinking, “I’ll just solve that problem in post-production.” @thomas_boenig

  13. Post-shoot post mortem! When shoots go bad, spend a couple of minutes sketching out what went wrong (I just use my notes app). It’s cathartic to get it off your chest AND can be super helpful in noticing patterns and things to improve.

  14. [Ask] what do they need from me. What do I need from them. What do I want these pictures to feel like? @bermanphotos

  15. I think about if there’s something conceptual I’ve done previously with a subject that worked that I could repeat again to make a series out of. @terencepatrick

  16. Arrive early. If it’s a place you’ve never been, arrive even earlier. Time can be your friend and smooth over so many issues that may arise on a shoot. @rachellanemakeup

  17. Have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D. Know where those plans will take you and what they will look like. Leave a bit of room for improvisation, but be ready for any speed bumps including but not limited to time cut, wardrobe change, drastic weather, temperature change, equipment malfunction, the subject and their mood.

    Also, do your research. You never know what bridge you can build through something that is relatable. It’s a small world. @claycookphoto

  18. Most points have been logistical, but I think doing some emotional check-ins is important, too. Are you nervous? Take a couple deep breaths, rein in any nervous ticks/taps you might be putting out. What is the mood of the host/handler who has let you into location? How can you assure/comfort them? Can they give you insight to how the person going to be photographed feels? Do you have ideas on conversations to have with being photographed? Questions to ask them? Stories to tell them? @logan_mb

  19. When you think you’re done, you might not be done. Keep your camera ready even while packing up. Something may present itself after the shoot. @thomasrboyddotcom

  20. Sometimes if I have time, I scout the location the day before. @jamesrajotte