When you hear the terms “themed session,” “stylized shoot,” or “conceptual photography,” there are many things that come to mind.
Perhaps you think of kissing booths, babies in baths, or antique children’s school desks in fields.
Maybe you imagine a fashion model with styled clothing, perfect makeup, and hair that makes a statement.
Perhaps you think of the imagery as having been carefully planned to bring a specific message to a viewer.
Whatever you envision when you hear those terms, or how involved you choose to make a particular session, it can be fun to conceive of a theme that is meaningful and plan a session based on that concept.
Some photographers excel in creating themed sessions.
Barb Uil of Jinky Art is known for whimsical, dreamy photography of children in stunning locations. Joy Harmon Prouty of Wildflowers Photography creates highly styled, vintage scenes and is masterful at creative use of materials in her imagery. The photography of Zoe Berkovic uniquely portrays the essence of childhood in beautiful environments.
Even if the wherewithal, resources, or time is lacking to create images on par with well-known photographers such as the ones mentioned above, it is still possible to successfully photograph themed sessions with your own children.
Here are some basic steps for planning a themed photo shoot:
1. Develop a theme based on the message and emotion you want to convey.
The first step in developing a concept for a shoot is oftentimes the most important. Don’t just think of a cute prop, go beyond that. First, think about your subject.
- How old is she?
- What does she like to do?
- Does she like dressing up like fairies and princesses or climbing trees and riding bikes?
- What is her personality?
- Is she shy and quiet or outgoing and talkative?
- Second, what is the message you want to send?
- What is the story you are telling?
- Third, what is the emotion you want to convey?
- Do you want the images to be dark and moody?
- Perhaps airy and magical?
- Maybe colorful and whimsical?
Answering all these questions beforehand will help you clarify your vision and aid in planning your photo shoot. Sometimes coming up with the theme for your shoot is the most difficult step, so really take some time to think about the message and emotion you want to convey.
2. Envision your scene.
Take a moment to visualize the scene and everything present in your frame.
Think about the location, the season, the weather, the lighting. Consider the colors that will be present in the surroundings (either on-location or in a studio setting), and make sure the colors you plan to add to the scene are complementary.
Carefully consider clothing options and how they will affect your photos. What focal length and aperture do you plan to use? Are there any special effects you are hoping to achieve, such as motion blur, tilt-shift, etc.?
Your imagination is your only limit, but try not to envision a scene so elaborate that it becomes overwhelming.
3. Select a prop or props that will enhance your vision.
From balloons and bow ties and bubbles to tutus and tiaras and tents, there are so many options when it comes to selecting props or accessories for your session. With a plentitude of unique vendors on the internet and a wealth of handcrafted items available on Etsy, there really is no shortage of great options.
Try to remember that the session is not about the prop or props – it’s about the child or children. If you are planning a highly stylized session, be sure that the props you select are adding to your vision and are not simply items to make your scene look full.
Sometimes less is more. If you like simpler imagery, then maybe one or two props are all you need.
Think about the colors that will be present in your frame. Are you looking for one or two bold colors? Or perhaps an array of softer pastels? Don’t forget to spend time choosing clothing that will enhance your vision and complement your scene.
4. Find the perfect location.
Sometimes this step can be hard and time-consuming. Even if finding the perfect location seems like a needle in a haystack, try hard to strive for the best site.
You may have already spent time and money planning, so to settle for anything less than a great location would be unfortunate. Keep on the lookout for possible locations when you are out and about, and don’t hesitate to ask friends and family to scout for you as well.
Remember to ask for permission if you are planning to shoot on private property.
5. Plan carefully for your shoot and be flexible.
You’ve got your concept, a list of your goals, your subject(s), props and clothing, and a location. Now you need to think about the details.
There is nothing worse than spending so much time planning the big picture and showing up at a shoot having forgotten something simple like drinks, snacks, or insect repellent. Something like a hungry belly or pesky mosquitoes may thwart all your efforts.
On rare occasions, things happen that are beyond your control. In that case, try to be as flexible as possible and schedule your session for another day.
6. Photograph your session, edit, and share.
You pulled it off and your photos came out great! Edit the photos in a manner consistent with your vision for the shoot.
Now celebrate! Share the photos with friends, family, clients, other photographers, etc. Be proud of your images.
I recently developed a concept for a session with my girls that would be very meaningful for my family. Here is how I went about planning for that photo shoot using the process outlined above.
Develop the concept
I have always had a love for butterflies and have tried to nurture that same fascination and curiosity in my daughters. My girls adore animals and would much rather be pretending to be puppies than princesses, and they also love to explore.
They are the best of friends and always in their own little world of friendship and imagination. I wanted the images to reflect who they are at this point in their lives, so having them pretend to be butterflies was very meaningful. I wanted the images to have a magical quality, but also an elegance and peacefulness to them.
My girls are very thoughtful, compassionate, sensitive, sweet, and gentle, so I wanted the photos to reflect those characteristics. I wanted the photos to show my little butterfly girls exploring a beautiful forest both separately and together as best friends.
Envision the scene
When I envisioned the scene, I saw a woodland area with lots of trees and evening light streaming through a canopy of leaves above.
I knew that light would be critical to achieving my goal, so I made a point of not even attempting this shoot unless it could take place during the evening on a day with full sun. I did not want there to be any sign of human intervention in my frame (such as structures, mowed grass, trails, planted fields, etc.).
Keeping the environment as natural as possible was critical. I knew I wanted the focus to be on my girls and their incredible bond as twins and friendship as sisters.
I envisioned the girls wearing simple white dresses with colorful butterfly wings, their hair down and natural. I prefer a minimalist approach to use of props, so did not include anything beyond the wings.
I was thrilled when I found the perfect wings at an online retailer called The Magic Cabin. I purchased orange, purple, and pink wings, knowing that I loved orange but that my girls’ favorite colors are purple and pink.
When the wings arrived, I knew that I wanted to use the orange and purple wings, which are complementary colors that would stand out in a green woodland area. Having them wear different colored wings was important for me because it shows that while they are similar, they are also different.
Beyond using the wings as a prop, I knew my girls would love to play with them so I was happy to make the investment.
Find the location
A location that was completely natural was paramount to my vision, so I headed to the closest state park. When I stumbled upon a beautiful little clearing with fallen trees and a high canopy of leaves, I knew I had found the perfect location.
Plan for the shoot
Since this took place in May (tick season) in an area endemic with tick-borne disease, I made sure to bring insect repellent.
I prepared my bag of snacks and drinks to keep the girls happy, packed all my gear and reflector, and put their clothing in the car.
Photograph, edit, and share
I’ll be the first to admit that things don’t always go as planned. Usually I can get the images I want in one attempt.
In this case, the third time was the charm. The first time I attempted this session the light was beautiful, but I just didn’t get enough great images. The girls were very hungry and spent a significant amount of time snacking, instead of pretending to be butterflies.
There was also an oversight on my part – I forgot to iron the wings, so all of the close up shots showed wrinkles in the wings that were unacceptable. The second time I attempted this session, just as I was getting out of my car a park officer informed me that I couldn’t park alongside the road and requested that I move my car to the closest lot. Knowing that I had one girl asleep in the car already, I decided it wasn’t worth it to try and carry her and all my gear such a long distance.
The third time, the girls were in a great mood, the sun was shining, and it all fell into place. I edited the session in color and shared it on my blog with a letter to my daughters, as well as on Facebook. I plan to print some of the images for my daughter’s butterfly-themed bedroom.
With a little bit of creativity and planning, anyone can successfully shoot a themed session that speaks to one’s own aesthetics and vision. No matter how elaborate the session is, it is all worthwhile as long as the images you create are meaningful to you.