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Fix it in Pre-Pro: How to Prepare for a Photo or Video Shoot

7 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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(If you're past the prep, check out my post on how to have an amazing shoot, because after the prep comes all the fun.)

I was working with a creative. She's super smart, super talented, hungry, and has a great work ethic. I wanted to give her some autonomy in an upcoming photoshoot, working with producers and the photographer to plan everything out. Then she came to me with a question…

"Um, what am I supposed to do?"

Oh shit, I realized that she'd never done this before. And I had just thrown her into the deep end of the pool.

Spoilers: she killed it. The shoot went off without a hitch and it was on her shoulders every step of the way. But it was only after we had a little crash course in what was expected of her for the shoot. She soaked up the info like a sponge, and now it's your turn.

Photo and video shoots are probably the most fun part of being a creative. Sure, things like craft services and traveling to cool places (like my last shoot in exotic Atlanta, Georgia!) are great perks. But the best part is when you actually get to create the thing you've been thinking about for so long!

Fix it in pre-pro.

And because of that, there's a lot of prep. A lot of responsibility. A lot of crap you've gotta do before and during the shoot. And if you've never been on one before, you have no idea where to start.

So, let's dive into how to be the best damn junior on photo and video shoots.

Before the Shoot

There's the popular phrase amongst creatives: fix it in post. Basically, it means, "It's okay if we don't get it right on the shoot, because we'll just fix it with visual effects or retouching or something in post-production!" It's a Producer's nightmare.

So, I've started saying, "Fix it in pre-pro."

In other words, prep the hell out of the shoot, so you get it right the first time. And this is how you do that...

Mood Boards

This is often overlooked, but is incredibly important, not just for the director, but for the client and agency, as well. Mood boards are kind of like those collages that people made back in middle school in the '90s. It's a collection of images that you think convey the emotion, tone, and visual aesthetic of what you want the final product to look like. Usually, you use this as a way to sell through an idea to the client, but it's super important to use it to get on the same page as the director, so they know exactly what you're envisioning.

Photoshoots - You can take a couple directions with these mood boards: tonal and representative. The trick is identifying what the purpose of each image is. If you're putting a bunch of photos on a page so that they know what kind of lighting you're looking for, say so. If it's because you think the person's pose in the shot is perfect for what you're looking to capture, then label that.

Video Shoots - In addition to making sure that you identify whether the mood board images are tonal or representative, you may want to capture some video clips that do the same. Perhaps you're looking for a certain energy in the shoot that can't be expressed in a still image. Maybe you need to reference another director's work to illustrate that (be careful you don't insult your director in the process, though). Getting on the same page with a mood board keeps things very clear throughout the process.

Shot Lists, Shooting Boards, and Storyboards

Around the time you pick a director (read this to find out how important that is) you'll need to solidify what exactly you're shooting.

Photoshoots - Bare minimum, you'll need to create a "shot list." It's exactly what it sounds like: a list of the shots you need to take. Now, sometimes it's pretty simple, because you might be shooting a print ad or OOH board, so there's really only one or two shots you plan on getting, when all is said and done. (The reality is, to get that perfect shot, you'll usually take 5-10 different shots and composite them together. Don't worry, that's for the photographer to figure out.)

But, you may have a more extensive shoot, with lots more shots. The key is a paradox: specificity and flexibility. The shot list should be as clear as possible. But, when you're actually shooting, you'll find out that what you planned on getting isn't quite right, and you'll need to make a change on-the-fly. That's okay, and it's expected. Make sure there's a little room to experiment.

(Pro Tip: Make an "Alt Shot List" with all your "wish list" shots. You know, the ones that you'd really like to get, if you have time, but will probably forget about when the pressure is on. Prepare for the opportunity to arise.)

Video Shoots - Of course, you'll need scripts. But the director's job is to shoot those scripts. And that takes form through storyboards and shooting boards. They're not the same thing, though they're sometimes confused. Storyboards are drawn-up frames, created by the director, outlining the key shots of the script and how it'll flow. Shooting boards are the exact shots that they need to capture on the shoot itself. Make sure you have both (though, the shooting boards may not materialize until the shoot itself).

If you have concerns about the angles, the shots, the order, or anything, make sure you address it when looking at the boards. This is the time to change things, because usually, the entire shoot is structured around those drawings. But just like with photoshoots, be specific and be flexible.


As creatives, we forget that, as people come into the creative process, they're not totally in the loop. They didn't concept with us, see the idea come to form in our minds, and understand the context of the shots.

Photoshoots - Even if it's an early comp, make sure you've created a rough layout for the photographer of every application of the photos. That means, if you think that the shot will be used in a wide billboard, as well as a single page print ad, as well as a square banner, then the photographer needs to know what that will look like.

Lay out the logo, drop in some dummy copy, put the headline on there so that, while you're shooting, you don't get a great shot that's unusable because the hero is going to be covered up by a giant logo.

Video Shoots - Same goes for video shoots: figure out what shots will have supers on them and which ones will have a logo on top of the shot. It's way harder to add more sky or ground to a video than it is to a photo, so get it right in-frame.

But it's even more complex. As our digital world gets more and more complex, we have more sizes to worry about. Sure, YouTube pre-roll is still widescreen, but best practices show that in-feed videos on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn should be squares. And InstaStories and Snapchat are vertical formats.

So, if your director is planning on shooting everything anamorphic (you know, how movies are shot, super wide and short), then that shot isn't going to work for most of the places it'll live. You may need to shoot it a few different ways. Show them what it will look like so they can help prepare to get the right shot.


Here's where it can be a bit heartbreaking: not everyone always goes to shoots. Usually, a higher-level team will be the ones to attend, while junior teams sit it out (even if they worked on the project). But, the good news is, most agencies will actually try to get key players to go, especially if it means making sure junior teams get the experience they need. Just make sure you get clarity way before the shoot, because it'll help you mentally and logistically prepare for it.

Also, remember: the client will almost definitely be there.

Photoshoots - Art Directors and Designers are key for photoshoots. Kevin Forister made a great video about the role of Art Directors and Designers during these, so check it out. Your visual eye is necessary to make sure the end product is right. There's an argument to be made for Copywriters to attend, as well, though it's a tougher call to make if and when the attendance sheet is cut short.

Video Shoots - This is where you need both of the brains on the job: Art Directors and Copywriters. What I've found is that it's the AD's job to make sure the visuals of the shoot are right: the hero looks heroic, the key story visuals are framed up correctly, and the focus is on the right things at the right time. Copywriters, you need to do two things: if there's dialogue captured on the shoot, you're all over it. And second, you track the overall story and performance. Of course, in the end, all the jobs go to all the creatives, so figure out who's responsibility is whom's before the director calls "action!"

Fix it in Pre-Pro, Finish in Post

Initially, this article was about what to do before and during a shoot. But it became so long that I knew I had to focus on one part at a time. And you should, too.

Don't take it lightly, and don't take it for granted. Preparing for a shoot is incredibly important, whether it's for a photo or video, because it's going to dictate what happens on the shoot itself.

Preparing for a shoot will give you the best shot at getting it right.

Thanks for reading!

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