Whether you are new in your career, just beginning to build up your business and create your brand, or more established, consistently shooting dream jobs and working full-time as a photographer, you have likely seen images that make you stop in your tracks. Beautifully styled images, starring model-esque couples and over-the-top visuals, consistently appear on over social media profiles, Pinterest boards, and Facebook photography groups.
I’m not talking about the most recent Jose Villa or KT Merry wedding (although we all love looking at those). I’m talking about styled shoots.
Styled shoots have become commonplace in our industry; they are often posted proudly and accompanied by long lists of envied wedding vendors and inspired concepts. A constant source of both inspiration and controversy, styled shoots appear almost more frequently than real weddings. They are especially popular in blog publications that, ironically, typically request actual wedding images. But really, who can pass up a model bride in a couture gown?
While there is, no doubt, a long laundry list of ways styled shoots have negatively and positively affected the industry, it’s hard to argue that they haven’t become an interesting aspect of weddings. After all, as wedding photographers, we primarily create our work on commission for other people. Our job is to document the big event and to deliver creative images of this event that showcase the styling created by the bride and groom (or their team of hired vendors). It’s our job to work around their style and often (unfortunately) their lack the creativity that we (as artists) crave.
I started my wedding business in January of 2016, and, while I did book a few solid weddings that helped my confidence and allowed me to experiment with my techniques and style, I was undeniably drawn into the beautiful, editorial wedding images I saw posted on Facebook groups every day. I would spend hours staring (and pinning) these incredible ceremony spaces dripping with florals, brides in gowns of pink and blue, and creative details that were unique and unusual.
In an effort to create my own version of these amazing styled shoots, I sourced a “model”, a girl who eagerly volunteered on my local photography Facebook group. I purchased some florals from whole foods and borrowed a dress from Rent The Runway, which I paid for with a “first rental free” coupon. My model bride went barefoot because I had no idea where to get shoes she could wear, I shot the session in the park because I didn’t know of any venues, and I did her hair and makeup.
When I look back at the photos I took that day, I realize they are kind of funny and are not a great imitation of the beautiful work from which I sourced my inspiration. But still, creating my own styled shoot was a way for me to feel creative and inspired by my own work. I was hooked.
While some people critique the concept of a styled shoot because it gives couples unrealistic expectations of your skills as a photographer and documenter, I was incredibly grateful for my first styled shoots early on in my career when I was trying to identify who I was as an artist. I was fresh out of college. I went to an art school in NYC, where wedding photography was hopelessly mocked, and had spent the last few years photographing families on the weekends to make money. All of a sudden, I was knee-deep in beautiful gowns, ethereal styling, and filmy-tones (Of course, I hadn’t yet tried my hand at film photography).
I truly believe that it was my early ventures into styled shoots that helped me develop my style and curate my portfolio into something I love and cherish today.
To clarify, I feel it’s important to distinctly separate my version of a styled shoot, which I did as a creative, self-driven process (akin to sketching in a sketchbook or being my own art director) to the mass-styled shoot events that have become more popular today. While I believe this type of styled shoot can be valuable learning opportunities, and I have even hosted some of my own, I have often left those group events feeling like I got more out of socializing with new friends than capturing portfolio-worthy work that would catapult my career to the next level.
For that reason, I am specifically talking about solo styled shoots. These styled shoots are shot with the intention of developing and designing an idea, or collaborating with a stylist. These shoots put the entire situation in your hands as the art director, conceptualizer, documenter, and promoter.
Constructing this type of styled shoot has been influential for me as I’ve developed and established my brand and my style. I highly encourage you, if you adore styled shoots (like me!) to design your own styled shoots in the same way.
“I truly believe that it was my early ventures into styled shoots that helped me develop my style and curate my portfolio into something I love and cherish today.” - Sophie Kaye
How to Create Your Own Styled Shoot
If you’re reading this, you are most likely interested in doing your own styled shoot, whether it’s for personal reasons, for creative inspiration (maybe you’re just sick of weddings), or for your business (perhaps you want to make more connections, or attract a certain type of client). When I design a styled shoot, I make it (what I consider to be) the best of all worlds. See, I shoot about 95% film now, and if I’m going to be spending money on shooting film in a styled shoot, that shoot needs to help me book new clients. Historically, they have helped me book new clients, and that’s one of the big reasons I still consistently do styled shoots. They book me clients who are now getting married in ceremonies dripping in florals, with creative details. It has been remarkable seeing my vision and ideas translate so beautifully to real-life clients. This is one of the biggest reasons I encourage other photographers to do styled shoots. It has been a great way for me to connect with the couples I love.
Start With A Digital Mood Board
I keep a number of private Pinterest boards online that hold my inspiration, I treat them like my digital mood boards and I fill them with countless aesthetic images filed under abstract visual concepts like “Cendrillon” (French for Cinderella) or “Dutch Masters Florals”. I base them off of amazing venues and locations I’ve seen and want to work at, like the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, or Giverny in France. I store these ideas and concepts on Pinterest boards because I’m an extremely visual person and like the idea of keeping abstract ideas safe until one is needed. I go to these boards when a stylist, planner, or florist reaches out to collaborate so I have ideas that I love, ready to go. Sometimes, we come up with new ideas and a new board gets created, which is always fun. But regardless of how long they sit in my queue, these boards are the hub of my potential concepts.
Make Sure Your Mood Boards are on Brand
The number one piece of advice I give to my mentees and anyone else that inquires about styled shoots is this: The shoot needs to reflect your style and appeal to your ideal client. If you want to be shooting rustic, beautiful old barns in the country, with eucalyptus runners and flower crowns, you need to make those elements the focal point of your shoot. Too often, I see people questioning why they aren’t booking their ideal weddings, and yet their website is filled with the opposite of what they want. If you take only one thing away from this blog post, let it be this: You must show what you want to attract.
I know my ideal client is a young professional, working in Manhattan, and in love with history and the old-world aesthetic. I love France, I love flowing gowns, loose bouquets, and European-inspired venues. These are the top characteristics I’ve kept in mind while designing each and every styled shoot over the past year, and this consistency and strong knowledge of shooting what I love has led me to consistently booking this type of real wedding.
Work Up To Your Dream Vendors
If you asked me back in 2016 who my favorite vendors to work with were, I probably wouldn’t have a very long list. It wasn’t until I had created a few personal editorials that I was able to reach out to others in the industry who I loved and wanted to work with. I had to have images to show them. I had to show a visual representation of how I photograph rings and wedding invitations first. I became a constant Instagram searcher, messaging my favourite vendors to request a spare paper suite to practice my styling or buying knock-off fake rings at Target to perfect my macro-focus.
If you’ve never worked with other vendors, you likely won’t be able to reach out to a ring designer and ask to shoot their pieces. Claire Pettibone might not return your emails. But stay humble and work hard. Shoot borrowed gowns, off-brand rings, and offer to pay for florals. Invest in building a portfolio and aesthetic, and it will help you gain credibility when you approach those big brands later on.
Remember my previous point about Pinterest mood boards? I always include a solid mood board when approaching a vendor about a styled shoot. I have a concept or idea. I have an idea what my budget (if I have one) is. I’m realistic; if it’s the middle of May and I want to shoot in June, many people I reach out to might say no, as it’s a busy time of year. Plan ahead and gather your visuals and ideas so that you can prove to a potential team that you’re a solid shooter with a vision for a styled shoot that they’ll want to be a part of.
Set a Realistic Budget and Work-Trade When Possible
Budgeting is hard, and I understand most people don’t have much of one when they’re in the portfolio-building stage. Many vendors will agree to collaborate with you, but I prefer to reach out with an open discussion in mind. For example, rather than approaching a florist and saying “Here’s a styled shoot I want to do, I’ll need a bouquet and tabletop centerpiece, I have no budget, this is exactly what I want.” I might say “I really love your work and the florals you used on that wedding in XXX. I’m hoping to do a styled shoot the week of July 2nd, and was wondering if you might be interested in collaborating.” Most florists I know have such high costs that they require some sort of payment. It’s up to you to decide whether or not that is worth the investment.
If you can’t afford to invest with money, try investing with your time or skills. There is a bridal shop in NYC that I adore and we have a wonderful relationship. When they first redesigned their store, I had only worked with them once or twice, shooting for their open houses, parties, etc. but I reached out to ask if they’d like some gorgeous images of the new décor for social media, and I offered this to them for free. I wasn’t about to pay them to pass my name on to clients, but offering my time and talents to create that relationship with them has benefitted me so incredibly, I can’t even begin to explain. They’ve hired me to shoot bridal fashion week, connected me with designers and brides, and lent me stunning gowns for editorial shoots.
If you find yourself lacking funds but want to create a relationship with someone in your town or city, reach out and offer your services to them. Here are some ideas:
- Offer a florist images of their shop or arrangements.
- Offer a designer new headshots.
- Offer a calligrapher some photographs of their invitation suites.
It’s important to see these connections as investing in your business and establishing relationships that can help you later on. And yes, I know, I will no doubt get people who will say, “But they should pay you for headshots!” Yup, I agree. And the next time they reach out for updated ones, you should send them your pricing. But investing an hour or two into a relationship that can benefit me three-fold is absolutely more valuable to me than making sure the local fine art planner pays me for a few headshots, especially when I reach out to her about a shoot I’m planning and she already has a great standing relationship with me.
Understand Venues are The Hardest Part
Venues are tough. They’re often at the top of the wedding food chain, and many are booked solid for years. I’ve been turned down to shoot at countless venues. Thankfully, I’m lucky that NYC is full of beautiful public spaces to shoot. Unfortunately, it often leaves me without a venue to tag in my post on social media. Brides getting married at a specific venue won’t look for inspirational photos taken in Central Park. When emailing a venue about shooting there, request specific dates. Include spaces in and around their venue in your mood board, so they can envision an event there.
Here is an example mood board for an earthy English countryside shoot at St Giles House, a dream venue of mine. With rich, romantic colours and a romantic aesthetic, I would likely reach out to St Giles to discuss collaborating together. I’ve included some of their spaces to make it clear I’ve researched their venue and know it would be the right fit for this editorial. I’ve put together everything, from a colour palette, beauty inspiration, and lighting methods. You’ll notice that most of the images I have picked have a sort of moody, grey, window lighting. It’s usually difficult to get a venue to agree to a photography proposition without providing them with a mood board or conceptualized idea.
- Determine your target audience. You should be designing styled shoots to attract a particular person or couple, otherwise, you’ll end up with non-cohesive images that may make you appear scatterbrained.
- Become inspired. Draw ideas from music, paintings (I spend a lot of time at museums), the landscape, or venues. Feel free to imagine and go a little wild, then scale back to what’s realistic. Don’t feel restrained during the creative process or you may find yourself becoming bored.
- Research vendors you’d like to work with. Consider vendors that you’re inspired by or would like to do a real wedding with. Extend an offer of your services or time to build a relationship, instead of just requesting from them.
- Create your team. Reach out to vendors with a mood board, ideas, and a concept. Have a reason you want to do this shoot. Have general dates, budget, and know which parts are non-negotiable for you.
- Shoot! Work with your team to get images for all of them. Be inspired by collaborating with others in the field. Be open to their ideas and concepts. You may find that you leave with a strong, solid relationship that can help you book amazing weddings in the future.
- Show off images you’re proud of. Use your images to develop a relationship with editors, publications, and fellow photographers (…but that’s a subject for another day).
I hope this helps you all who are hesitant or ready to jump into styled shoots without knowing which direction to go. If you are willing to invest in your portfolio, things like this can help identify and create your style as an artist.
I hope it helps you feel inspired and creative and lets you direct, not just document.