How to shoot portraits on location: Tips for beginner photographers

Shooting portraits or any photography on location should not be confusing. The best way to shoot portraits on location is to plan ahead of time and communicate on location.

I remember being really nervous and not really knowing what to expect for my first portrait shoot. I brought every piece of equipment I owned because I didn’t want to forget anything.

Turns out, I could have packed light if I had just taken the time to think through my process and put together a plan.

TFP model shoot with Nasiba - how to shoot on location

How to shoot portraits on Location

  1. Practice with your camera and lenses ahead of time and start planning
  2. Line up your model or subjects and get all the details together
  3. Create mood boards and make these ready to share
  4. Communicate all details ahead of the shoot via email or messenger
  5. Show up early to the shoot so you have plenty of time to prep
  6. Scout the location beforehand to know where you want to shoot and plan ahead
  7. Start taking photos and make sure to give feedback to your model
  8. Share some of the images as you shoot with your team
  9. Do multiple looks and get your model to change her style on location if they can
  10. Wrap up the shoot and make sure everyone knows the next steps

These tips can help you get more from your portrait shoot but there are many steps in-between as well. Remember that practice makes perfect.

Example street fashion portrait shoot breakdown

The best way to teach you about how to shoot portraits on location is to show you an example shoot and my thought process for the collaboration. I’ll go through my process step by step so you can start planning for your next photo shoot.

Planning and getting ready

There was a moment I thought to myself, how am I going to pull off this shoot, and make sure I delivered the best images possible.

Pre-planning was the best place to start. I made sure that I had a make-up artist lined up and that the time and day worked for everyone involved including the model.

I created a small mood board with images of urban fashion for inspiration. With a concept in place, I emailed these to my make-up artists for inspiration about a week before the shoot took place.

After I got the details including the address, styles, and mood board images, I sent these to everyone and made a small checklist of the next steps.

Doing this allowed me to gather all my thoughts and get everyone on the same page.

You are considered the leader and everyone will be looking to you for guidance and inspiration during the photoshoot.

makeup artist and model preparing - how to shoot on location
Make-up Artist and Model getting ready for the shoot

What to pack for a portrait shoot

Make sure your camera and lenses are packed the night before any shoot. This way you’re not rushing to get everything together on the day of the event.

A camera and extra batteries are a must but there are also a few other things to keep in mind.

Everyone carries different equipment for portrait shoots. I was packing light because I knew I was doing a natural light shoot with no assistant to help carry around gear.

Here is what I packed in my camera bag:

These items are a must for pretty much all portrait shoots that I do. I also had a small 5-in-1 reflector with me but I kept that in my car and not in my camera bag.

No matter what you bring, just make sure you keep yourself mobile. You’ll be walking and moving around a lot, so keep that in mind when you pack. Don’t overload yourself.

I tend to still pack the same things for every shoot, but I have now added a notepad and pen for notes right after the shoot. I like to document my ideas if possible.

location scouting - Deep ellum dallas
Scouting locations and looking for backgrounds

Location Scouting for Portraits

When you arrive on location, be sure to get there a little early so you can scout and get some ideas of backgrounds you want to use for your portraits.


Of course, this is not always possible, so I actually learned a quick trick that might help.

I use Google maps and utilize street view to see what is around the area I will be shooting. If you are shooting in an urban area, there is a good chance that google will have a street view of the area.

It won’t work all the time but pop in an address and drill down to street view. This should give you a pretty good idea of the area.

If you can swing by the location a few days early, this will also help with planning. Try to go around the same time of day that your shoot will take place.

This can help you get an idea of lighting and if the area will be busy or not.

If you can, plan out your path or draw yourself a small map. You can also take pictures with your phone and save the best spots to refer back to during your portrait shoot.

Being prepared is a great way to show professionalism and to keep you ahead of everyone on location.

be on time for your photoshoot
Don’t be late to your own shoot

Don’t be late for the portrait shoot

This is for the people that love showing up fashionably late. Don’t be late. As a courtesy, I always try to show up at least 15-20 mins early.

This will give you time to set up your camera, do a little scouting of the location, and get ready to shoot.

If you’re going to be running late, I would message the other people attending the shoot to give them a heads up. Make sure to check traffic throughout the day and make sure no major wrecks or traffic jams will keep you from being on time.

You also don’t want to show up late and be rushed during your shoot.

communication is key for great portraits
Communication on posing is key for great portraits

Communication is key before the shoot

Before getting started on the shoot, I like to talk with the model and MUA to see what kind of shots they may have in mind.

Remember that portrait shoots are collaborations and that sharing ideas is a part of the creative process.

Since my first shoot was a TFP (trade for photos) session, I wanted to make sure to capture angles and shots that the MUA and model specifically wanted for their portfolio if possible.

Set some rules and expectations on the time frame of the shoot. If you say it will last an hour, try to make it last an hour, and don’t go over.

If you need more time, make sure to communicate and ask everyone on-site if it will be ok to extend the time.

Check with the team and it everyone is good, then keep the shoot going and build on that momentum.

set expectations for the shoot
Start taking portraits on location

Taking photos on site

After all the planning and getting ready, it’s time to start taking your photos. Remember that you’re not going to recall all the details of your planning and that’s ok.

Be kind and give yourself some space to make small mistakes. Take out the small USB speaker and play some of your favorite music.

Get a vibe going and start having some fun. Get your camera settings dialed in and get the session going.

Constant feedback and sharing of images

Taking a few test shots and showing the model and MUA/Stylist can help set expectations.

This is more of a visual reassurance that you’re all on the same page, and you’re getting the images everyone expects.

Explain that SOOC (straight out of camera) shots will be edited in case you tend to shoot under or over-exposed.

I shoot with a Sony mirrorless camera, so I tend to move a few images via wifi to my phone so it is easy to view versus the back of the camera.

Whatever process you follow, this tends to be a big step in helping keep a shoot moving smoothly.

Wardrobe changes on site

During longer shoots where you know, you will have wardrobe changes, keep time in mind.

Making sure you are aware of your timeframe (especially with natural light shoots during the evening) can allow you to get all the shots you are looking to achieve.

When you have a model change a style, make sure to take a few test shots again and share them with the team. This will let everyone make tweaks if necessary like makeup or hair.

how to shoot portraits on location: Share ideas
how to shoot portraits on location: Share ideas

Making a connection with your team

When you meet models and other creative professionals, I believe it’s important to make a connection from the start.

If you tend to be shy or are an introvert like me, don’t talk about the shoot just yet when you first meet. Ask some general questions just to get the conversation going. Break the ice and get everyone comfortable.

Then, ease into some of the details of the shoot, and start asking questions that may have come to mind.

Being prepared can make other people feel more confident in your skills and your work.

how to shoot portraits on locaiton

Take behind-the-scenes photos

I love to take behind the scene shots with my phone if I have time. I regularly post quick pics to Instagram stories.

Not everyone is comfortable doing this, but I find it is a great way to engage with my social networks and let people see what it is like to work with you.

If you have some extra people on-site, ask them to help tack behind-the-scenes shots for you. Show you and your subject in action so you can share later.

I find that sharing these photos or small videos helps others understand what it is like to be on location shooting portraits.

The more you can share the better.

Safety and being aware of your surroundings

It goes without saying, that safety should be at the top of your mind during any on-location portrait shoot. If you’re interested in uncommon items for photographers, including safety items to carry, check out this article here. 

It sucks that you need to be aware of this, but keep in mind you’re carrying around a big investment and you want to keep yourself, your team, and your gear safe.

Be sure to lock up your belongings in the trunk of your vehicle. Don’t leave anything out for the public to see. Especially don’t leave out camera gear.

If you can have an extra friend or family member with you, this would be ideal. they can help carry gear or at least keep an eye on it while you shoot.

Use common sense and keep everyone safe.

Post shoot breakdown

After the shoot, make sure everyone has all their belongings. I don’t know how many times someone has left something on location. Just do a quick reminder to everyone and make sure they have all their gear from on-site.

Once the shoot is complete, this is a great time to make sure to give everyone a timeline for delivering final photos and setting final expectations. I normally remind my team that I will be delivering photos within 7-12 days.

I like to try to deliver before that time frame but I don’t like to rush.

This is also a great time to ask for any feedback. See if anyone has any constructive feedback for you. Don’t take it personally. Just take the feedback and ponder about what could be done differently the next time.

Quick reminders for on-location shoots

  • Pack your gear the day before
  • Make sure to scout ahead of time
  • Always have a speaker and music with you
  • Think about safety on location
  • Share images and feedback with your team
  • Take behind-the-scenes photos or video
  • Set expectations for the final delivery of final photos

Final Thoughts

Above all, you want to make sure you make this a great experience for yourself and your team. Not every shoot will go smoothly, but you can plan ahead and make it go as smoothly as possible.

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