If you can dream it, you can do it


Planning out the 100% perfect photo shoot can make you a better photographer. Here’s how.

Think, for a moment, about every single photo shoot that somehow went wrong. The props you wish you had, the equipment you wish you could afford, the models you wish you could hire, the locations you wish you could scope out, light properly, and use as you please. Imagine for a second that you could hire the best make-up people, the best lighting assistants, the best stylists – everything you could possibly dream of.

Sounds insane, doesn’t it? Perhaps not – There’s a lot of limitations on your photography, but many of them will be entirely artificial. To find out what’s actually holding you back, put away your camera, and grab a pen and a ream of paper.  


I have done a lot of ad-hoc photo shoots. Glasses of water perilously balanced on top of books. Tripods that didn’t quite reach high enough perilously balanced on top of books. Needing to get higher up, I’d stand on books. I guess a lot of my photo shoots involve books. Or stacks of paper. Or dodgy tripods.

Either way, I once had an imaginary photography teacher who I wish would have come up with the following exercise: Design your perfect photo shoot. Hold nothing back.

If you can dream it, you can do it

Think about the location – where would you do your shoot? Personally, I’d head straight back to Utah – and bring a polarizer filter – some of the best skies I’ve ever seen was in northern Arizona and southern Utah. Perfect, deep blue skies with tiny clouds dotted across the heavens, combined with the rich red sandy colours of the ferrous desert, and the deep black asphalt with its bright, pearly white stripes down the middle snaking its way through the landscape. To me, that’s America – and I’ve only seen it once. It was awesome. It was amazing. And I want to shoot there again.

Arizona by me, on Flickr

So, you’ve got yourself a location and a perfect day – what’s next? Seeing as I’d want to photograph late in the evening to catch the golden hour, I’d need a bit of help – specifically, I know that lighting is my weak spot, and I’d need a bit of help getting the lighting right – someone to hold some huge reflectors to lift heavy shadows etc.

One of the things that makes me a great photography blogger is that I know my flaws as a photographer. Of which I have many. Embarrassingly many, in fact. Truth be told, my faults are pretty much universal, and I haven’t got any strengths beyond nattering on about things I’d love to be good at on this blog. (Prove me wrong by friending me on Flickr and favourite some of my photos already :-).

Nonetheless, I know that another huge weakness is that I’m rubbish at make-up. I had a brief stint of wearing black lipstick, but that’s many moons ago, and it never looked good – so the next people I’d get involved is a good make-up artist and a hair stylist. Sounds poncy, but the photo shoots I’ve done where I had professional help look universally better, and if I’m going to put together my dream photo shoot, then hell, I’m going to take all the help I can get.

Finally, I need a concept. I’m a huge fan of surrealism and such, so here’s my idea: The old Highway 66, rolling off into the distance. Sun is about to go down – golden light everywhere. There’s a young lady standing there – in her mid-20s perhaps, with unfeasibly large breasts. The light hits her from the front and the right. She’s standing there, in a pair of loose running trousers, legs quite a distance apart, one foot on each side of the centre line of the road. She’s got bare feet. A sports-bra. A general Aura of Awesome™.

Completely gratuitous shot with boobies; Tina Nude 1, by me on Flickr

A wind machine is sending her hair flying in all directions, and a spot flash from behind is turning her hair into a fantastic glow. On her right is a perfect tiger, just standing there. On her left, a toy Fisher Price tractor with gloriously garish colours. She has a look as if this is the most natural thing in the world. The photo is taken from low – very low, in fact, so she and the tiger tower out of the tarmac. She’s gorgeous. The tiger is gorgeous. The tractor just adds a very strong undercurrent of random.

The piece is called “Tiger, Tits and Tractor – Business as usual on Highway 66“. Because I like crude. I like fun. I like unexpected.

Making it realistic

Once you have your ‘perfect’ dream, you can start turning it into reality. In my day-to-day job as a digital producer for a TV station, we’d call this exercise ‘cutting scope’: You find out what the base level of functionality you think would work, and then you take it from there. In the above, I can probably find a buxom friend of mine who would model for the fun of it. We could make do without make-up – or perhaps I can get someone to do that for fun. As for hair – it’s entirely possible to go to a hair dresser and get it sorted for relatively cheaply.

As I’m stuck in rain-heavy London, I don’t think there’s much of a hope of being able to recreate the actual Highway 66 feel – and seriously, you ain’t going to get much use out of polarizer filters in this neck of the woods. But there are some bloody gorgeous back roads running through forests nearby. Outside East London, Epping forest does the trick. Down south, the New Forest is awesome. Heading north, the Nottingham Forest is gorgeous. Out east (and abroad – ooh, amazing) is Wales, with tons of cool little places. You need to recce, and you need to get a bit lucky, but it’s doable.

The point of this exercise is to see how good you can make something, and then start replacing. You probably can’t get Nathalie Portman to model for you (although I know you want that – as do I), but there are lots of models who money can buy; and there are probably a lot of beautiful people in your vicinity who can model for you for your project – simply create a list with your ideals, and think hard at where you can replace the ‘perfect’ solution for one that is merely pretty damn good – because you’d be amazed at the results.

But what if…

But what if you didn’t have to make short-cuts? What if you had an opportunity to make your full photo shoot, with all the bells, whistles, artists, models, and experts you need to realise your perfect photo shoot? Well, there is one way… The clever folk at Lenovo (Never heard of ‘em? They took over IBM’s Thinkpad range a while ago, and undid all the damage that IBM did to their own reputation. If I wasn’t such a mac addict, I’d probably buy a Lenovo laptop) and Microsoft have a photography competition going – with a twist: You don’t submit photographs, you submit ideas – and the best idea wins a semi-obscene $50,000 towards realising their photography idea.

Shaken, not Stirred by me, on Flickr

Rent a hot-air balloon or a helicopter; rent the most expensive cameras you can think of. Hire all the staff you need, fly out to any location in the world – imagine what you could do if you had $50,000 to spend on a single photo shoot. I know, it boggles the mind – but wouldn’t it be awesome? Hell, who knows, for $50,000, you may even be able to convince Nathalie Portman to model for you.

So here’s the deal: I want you to think hard, and to do the exercise above: Remove any financial barriers which might stand between you and your ideal photo shoot, and write up your perfect, ideal scenario. Then, if you are happy with it, submit it to Name your dream assignment – and, what the heck, post a comment to this post with the outline of your idea too – I’d love to hear about it.

On the even brighter side, I just might be one of the judges for this competition, so I’m looking forward to all your outlandish ideas.

Money-back guarantee

And what the hell – even if you don’t win, I’m convinced that putting together an idea like this is going to make you a better photographer. In fact, if you’re not a better photographer after writing down this idea, I promise you your money back. If you’re not happy at the end of doing this, and if you don’t feel that you have improved as a photographer as a result, I’ll send you 3 sheets of blank A4 paper and a pen or pencil (which is, in fact, the money you’ve invested into your idea)…

Go on, you know it makes sense.

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