Using Shot Lists

As most of you already know, I recently became a guest writer for FStoppers and I am thrilled about it! In addition to writing for FStoppers, I will be introducing a new series of posts to my own blog called Shoot Tips. If you have a heart for learning, stick around. Education is awesome and free education is even better. Below is my first post in the series. Enjoy!

Shot Lists

When I first started shooting, I would spend absolutely no time planning my shots. I would focus tons of time and energy into every other aspect (location, wardrobe, mood, etc) but in some weird turn of events, it must have slipped my mind that the end goal is “The Shot.” How that slipped my mind still baffles me. Instead of putting in the effort to plan what my actual finished images would look like, I found a model, found a location and showed up on shoot day with a plan to wing it. I would put together shots on the spot and when I was ready to move on to the next one, I would. To be honest, I am glad I started off this way because I believe it gave me a strong ability to think on the spot while on set which is something I often put into practice but as I started to find more value in preparation I began to plan every aspect of my shoots in order to have the most control of my final images. Now, instead planning to wing it, I create with a complete shot list and I already know what my finished shoot will look like before I even step foot on set. This switch was a huge change in the way I do things but it puts me in a better frame of mind on shoot day and keeps me more organized and effective than I ever was.


Shot List Image

This is what my a page of my pre-shoot planning looks like. Yes, I know that your 5 year old sister can probably sketch better than I am. That’s why I am a photographer. Even though they don’t belong in a museum, these sketches help me keep me organized on set and often times, sketching out a shot will spark an idea for something else that I may not have had otherwise. You may have noticed that in the top left corner, I have a little check box to mark after I get the shot and in the top right corner I have written down the lens on plan on using depending on what mood I want to draw out. Organization keeps me sane.


Shot lists are just about the last thing I work on before shoot day. At this point, I already have almost all of the visual details worked out (wardrobe, location, mood, hair, make up, etc.) and just need to plan what my finished images should look like. This is where my trusty journal comes in (these journals are my personal favorite). My shot lists started as a few scribbles and notes of things I wanted to remember to shoot and now include a full rundown of shots (some are even sketched out) that I want to bring to life. These are all shots that I had visualized, and loved. I had already seen the outcome in my mind and all I have to do is create them. Making these shot lists left me with a shoot that was practically already finished and ensured that I didn’t have an image in my head that I might forget to create. Even though this means you have a complete shoot built out, don’t feel restricted. It is absolutely okay to go off script. I always bring a shot list to my sets but I spend about 50% of my time completing the list and 50% going off book. This means that even if  100% of my unplanned shots are complete failures, I still have a complete shoot because of the images I had visualized before hand and brought to life.

Shot lists come in all shapes and sizes. If you are shooting a test or personal work, you have the freedom to include anything you want and leave out what you don’t. The joy in test shooting is that it is absolutely free of pressure and restraint. On the other hand, if you are working for a client, they may have a shot list already made up for you that includes a list of images that work for the advertising or editorial campaign that you are shooting for. If that is the case, easy peasy. You have the list and you are set to go! If not, you have a bit more work to do. When I am working on a shot list I typically spend about 5-10 minutes freely writing every possible shot that comes to my head. The good, the bad and the ugly (and sometimes the hideous). I get everything out and then begin to narrow it down into a list that I feel fits exactly what I am aiming for. Typically, I break my lists down into three sections; Must Haves, Details, and Extras. The Must Have list includes the images that I would be absolutely heart broken if I forgot. These will be the shots that drive the shoot in the direction it needs to go. For example, in my recent Mountain Fitness shoot these would include the shots of my model running, stretching, posing, etc. Next up is the Details list. These are the shots of things that draw more attention to the smaller aspects and can help solidify the shoot as a whole. In that same shoot, these would be the shots of the model tying up her shoes, putting up her hair, her shoes on the ground or even one of her foot prints on the trail. Last up is the Extras list. These would include all of the other shots that I would want if time permits. When on set, I am under the schedule of the sun. Since I shoot in almost all natural light, I need to budget my time so I don’t run out of light with items still on my list. This is why I have an Extras list. If I have a shot in my head that I want but isn’t crucial to the shoot, it goes here. If there is still light left after completing the Must Haves and the Details list, I move on to the Extras. Having this well organized shot list keeps me sane, organized and effective on set.




It is pretty much a given that most photographers are visual people. That means that when a spark of inspiration hits, we already know what we want our finished images to look like. This is why shot lists are just about the easiest part of our planning process. This is also why we don’t have any excuses for not building them out. Consider yourself encouraged to spend a little bit of extra time to plan your shots and I promise you that not only will your shoots seem less chaotic and stressful, but you will come out on the other end with images that make you proud.

  1. Brilliant. Just like a movie. Im going to start trying this to stay more organized and less frazzled for my engagement sessions.

  2. These are stunning! I saw the original post too. I love seeing the creative process! Thanks for sharing!

  3. This was fantastic! Great info. Thanks for sharing! 🙂 Love your work as always. 🙂

  4. Great post! Those are my favorite notebooks. I am currently part of the wing-it camp, but I’ve been contemplating taking time to pre-visualize and sketch out my shoots in advance. I’m going to try that for my next session. Thanks!

  5. Ben, these are fantastic tips – and in such a visual industry, I love sketching out what I’m going to do before I do it! It also helps in those “ACK” moments where something might go wrong/I get inside my head and I need something to “fall back on” while I mentally recover! Ha! xo

  6. I love this article. You are the first photographer that I follow to actually write a post about making a shot list and so for a while I thought I was one of the few that actually does this. I started because I had a wedding in my early years where I had a videographer that was being snarky with me and a complaining mother and I froze up and couldn’t remember the different ideas I had brainstormed. Luckily, my second shooter stepped in while I pretended to switch some gear out and I tried to compose myself. Since then, I have religiously planned every session with a shot list and I feel so much more secure and in control during sessions. No more freezing up and feeling inadequate. Love it and love that you promote it!

  7. Thank You for posting. I never thought of doing this, but after reading I went out and got myself a sketch book and Ive done this for my last couple of sessions. BIG help and keeps the session flowing smooth and efficient.

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