Test Shoots: Best Practices

Amy V. Cooper Posted by Amy V. Cooper on Nov. 14, 2019


Updating your portfolio on a regular basis is important. If you are not stacked with paid work, or perhaps you want to try out a new style, test shoots are great for freshening up your website and providing new content to share in your marketing stream.

Test shoots have also been called “TFP” or trade for print in the past. Before digital, photographers would trade their services (and provide physical prints from shoots) to collaborators who worked with them for free; models, stylists, makeup artists, etc., who also need new images in their own portfolios. Win-win.

Anyone who has ever worked on a test shoot knows that setting expectations is incredibly important, especially since generally no one is getting paid, but everyone is providing a valuable service.

Who is the producer?

Generally the photographer will initiate the test shoot idea, but sometimes a stylist or modeling agency will ask a photographer to do a test shoot for/with them. Whomever is initiating the shoot, should also assume the role of producer. The producer should set and communicate expectations between collaborators, manage the schedule, cover costs or negotiate cost sharing, secure location, models, other collaborators, snacks, etc. The producer should also create a contingency plan and communicate final deliverables.

Communicating deliverables.

The photographer (and/or producer) should clearly define how many final retouched images will be provided and when exactly they will be delivered. All collaborators should have a say in how many and what types of shots they are interested in receiving. A makeup artist may need close-up shots while a model may want a range of mid to full length shots. A stylist might have specific needs for showing wardrobe and accessories. Defining these expectations in advance will help determine a shot list as well as help the photographer determine how much time they will need to shoot and post-process. Assessing everyone’s needs will also help the producer schedule the day to make sure all shots are achievable.

The photographer should clearly define the usage rights granted to the collaborators, and if talent releases will be presented. They should also communicate any preferences regarding how the images should be credited, and if filters and cropping of the images are allowed when sharing. The photographer should also clearly define in advance if collaborators will be able to select images, how many, and when. If collaborators need or want more images than the photographer is willing to provide for free, a price and timeline per additional image should be offered in advance of the shoot. Retouching can be very time-consuming.

Always remember that the copyright of the image stays with the photographer. Collaborators should be very careful in tagging third parties or allowing others to repost images without the photographer’s permission (especially businesses/brands.) The photographer should also practice the same caution when considering allowing a brand to repost without permission from collaborators (especially models and their agents!)

Your stylists and models are not “the help.”

All collaborators should be equally respected for their time and talents. Testing is not cheap for photographers, nor is it cheap for stylists who have to spend time gathering wardrobe, purchasing props, makeup, cleaning and prepping tools, etc. Inviting all collaborators to weigh in on creative ideas, inspiration boards, schedule, shot list, deliverables etc. goes a long way in showing respect and creating a positive, fun and supportive environment for a shoot.

Treat a test shoot like it’s the real deal.

Everyone is donating their valuable time and talent and should get rewarded with the best possible images for their portfolios. Testing is also a way of ‘interviewing’ collaborators for future paid work, so show up on time, dressed professionally, with a can-do attitude that would impress even the highest paying clients. Your team will remember how you showed up.

Canceling on a test shoot sucks for everyone involved.

All collaborators have cleared their schedules, sometimes sacrificing paid work, and if one person cancels, it can ruin the whole shoot and taint potential future collaborations. Of course, things happen, paid work comes up, but if you must cancel, do your best to let everyone know far in advance. Offer a replacement for yourself or a new date to shoot.

Give everyone proper credit.

When posting images from test shoots, credit everyone involved, every time. Photographer, model, model’s agency, stylists, location, etc., especially if you want the favor to be returned. It can never hurt to tag more people on social media, it means getting more eyes on your post, and potential future work. Ask people how they want to be credited, what their social media handles are, etc. Send that information with the final images, or even better, embed those credits in the image file info.

I often hear stories from makeup artists and stylists that never received their ‘prints’ from test shoots. I hope that all collaborators will know their worth and not value themselves any less than the photographer. It’s fair, and even critical that stylists, models, etc. set their own boundaries and expectations for test shoots. I even encourage stylists to come up with their own contracts for photographers to sign before agreeing to a shoot if they are working with someone new. Communication is everything. Don’t leave room for assumptions or interpretation or you will ultimately be let down… and if you are working with someone new, ask around to make sure they are good to work with or ask for references.

What have your test shoot experiences been? What would you add to this list?

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More About Amy V. Cooper

Amy V. CooperAmy is a photography business consultant and coach, and founder of the artist representation agency, Trove Artist Management. She has worked in the photography industry for over 20 years as a photo editor, art buyer, digital asset manager, consultant, and rep. Amy has worked with clients such as UPS, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, MTV, Capital One, Teen Vogue, The New Yorker, Esquire, and more. As a consultant, Amy specializes in helping her photographers better understand their target market, edit their work to reflect that market, develop marketing strategies, goals accountability, and building confidence to attract the clients that they really want to be working with.

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