Why Styled Shoots are Like Big Game Hunts

Why Styled Shoots are Like Big Game Hunts | Mastin Labs

Styled shoots, for the most part, do not make you a better photographer.

I know this is not going to be a popular post. But hear me out. What I'm going to say comes from a place of love and experience. And I want you to succeed in photography.

In much the same way a hunter is led directly to an animal in a big game hunt, photographers are put in front of beautiful models and scenes straight out of Vogue magazine, in the name of education. As the hunter is given a rifle and tripod to shoot the lion, giraffe or whatever, the photographer is given perfect light and a scene that is ready for only the click of a shutter. There is no effort involved in the taking of the photo beyond working around 10-15 other photographers all vying for the shot.

Photos I took with my Nikon FM2 and Kodak Gold 200 at the styled shoot I set up with Jeremy Chou for the Hybrid Workshop we taught in Palm Springs in 2014. By Kirk Mastin

The student photographers come away with photos for their portfolio and some posing knowledge, but what is really learned? The real value is in the creation of the scene, and the logistics behind the shoot itself, which the teaching photographer has set up months in advance.

In the rare workshop where the logistics of creating styled shoots is taught, I see some value. However, styled shoots rarely, if ever, align with an actual wedding day where you have to think on your feet, read light, and make decisions quickly to get magazine-worthy photos without the months of prep time that goes into making a styled shoot.

Yes, you will come away with photos better than anything in your portfolio. And if you attend enough styled shoots, your portfolio can be at the level of a master.

But if you believe that you are now at that level you are fooling yourself and misleading your client.

Everything will be ok. I promise. A photo of Brian LaBrada at the 2014 Hybrid Photography workshop in Palm Springs. By Kirk Mastin

‚ÄúYou are setting yourself back and doing more harm than good if you rely on styled shoots to advance your career.‚Ä̬†-¬†Kirk Mastin

This is all tough love. I know some people reading this hate me and are saying 'But, but, I made uniquely great photos at the shoot! I got something different from everyone around me because I have a personal vision!'

I just want to add that you are setting yourself back and doing more harm than good if you rely on styled shoots to advance your career.

Here are my reasons why I don't think most styled shoots are valuable:

  1. You are not engaging your decision making and problem-solving skills. You need these skills to survive as a working photographer.
  2. You are misrepresenting yourself to your clients. If you show photos from a styled shoot, be prepared to explain these photos to your clients. You can lie to your clients about them, but it will bite you in the ass later. I promise.
  3. You are not developing your own style through a styled shoot. You're merely shooting something created entirely by the aesthetic choices of your teacher. You are copying THIER style.
  4. You are wasting money. For the price of a styled shoot workshop, you could take marketing classes, in-person sales classes, or finance a personal photography trip to shoot something you care about. Or, you could even create a styled shoot in your OWN style.
  5. There will be 10-20 other photographers with the same images in their portfolios. This creates brand confusion for clients and can really hurt you in the long run.
  6. Many publications will refuse to publish images from a styled shoot. That is if you even have permission from your teacher to publish your photos outside of your personal blog.

Photos I took of Andy Carretto at the Hybrid Workshop in Palm Springs. I offered free headshots for each student as part of their tuition. By Kirk Mastin

I don't want to leave you hanging with a big list of complaints. I also want to offer solutions.

Here is how I propose teachers provide more value at styled shoot workshops:

  1. Focus more on the logistics of setting up a styled shoot. Your goal should be to enable students to create shoots outside of the workshop.
  2. Teach how to create a concept for a styled shoot. This is the outline for everything that follows for the shoot and the most critical part.
  3. Teach how the styled shoot will play into their marketing. There should be a specific marketing goal for each styled shoot: is it for publication? A blog? A portfolio? A contest?
  4. Teach how to work with models beyond the shoot itself. How does one find the right models? How much should they be paid? Do they get photos for their portfolio? Do you need to get model releases?
  5. Teach how to work with other vendors and organize a styled shoot. What are your obligations to the other vendors? How do you set expectations, so everyone involved in the shoot is happy?
  6. Teach how to find and style a recently engaged couple so the images will be published. If the models are actually engaged, the publication will gladly publish your photos!

How I use styled shoots in a positive way:

I had tremendous success in my photography career by treating every engagement I shot as a styled shoot. I charged more than anyone in Seattle for engagement sessions, but a large chunk of what I was paid went into wardrobe, hair, makeup, and location fees. Many times I collaborated with multiple vendors to create something truly special for my clients. And for the record, EVERY engagement I shot (once I treated it as a styled shoot,) was published in a major blog or magazine.

Newly engaged couple Mario and Kate, from a styled engagement that included 3 other vendors. By Kirk Mastin

Don't be the lazy hunter led out in front big game, put there by skilled trackers. Be the tracker. Learn the real skills necessary to make amazing photos happen all by yourself. That is a true skill. If the above topics are not covered in your workshop, take the initiative and ASK your teacher. You'll get so much more out of the workshop.

(And for what it is worth, I abhor big game hunting, I just felt it was the most appropriate metaphor.)

Please tell me how wrong (or right!) I am in the comments below. I look forward to seeing what you have to say!