How to Make a DIY Photo Shoot Work

These days, it seems like everyone has a DSLR (a.k.a. “one of those fancy cameras”). The truth is you can get some pretty good shots without hiring a professional. With a little know-how and some experimentation, you’d be surprised what you can capture on your own.

You’re obviously reading this because you’ve been in need of professional images, so let’s talk about how to make a DIY photo shoot work for your organization.

Note, if you’re opting to DIY a photo shoot for something that bears significant weight for the success of your project — you need to hire a professional. At the end of the day, your ingenuity can’t outweigh the importance of representing your business with quality work that emits longevity and thoughtfulness. 

However, if you’ve got a project that isn’t make-or-break and you have the wits, gall or rigor to create a DIY shoot, here are some tips.

Step One: Must-Have Equipment

First off, you’re going to need a DSLR or a solid smartphone. If you’re reading this article because you encounter the need for photos regularly, then it’s not a bad idea to invest in a utility camera. Don’t get ahead of yourself trying to find the right lens; a stock kit will do. If you’re worried about the initial investment, a camera with video capabilities can provide significant ROI if put to good use.

As a beginner, you probably won’t be able to purchase professional lighting for some time. A great way to supplement minimal and/or natural lighting is a reflector. Reflectors serve to balance light and illuminate your subject without photo editing or expensive equipment.

While photographic reflectors are reasonably priced, don’t be afraid to use materials you already have in your office, like a portable dry erase board or — my favorite — post-it easel pads.

How to Make a DIY Photo Shoot Work

Use the reflector to fill natural light on your subject by positioning it parallel to your natural light source. Experiment with placement until you can see a visible difference in your subject; the goal is balanced light that eliminates shadows, but you probably won’t be able to do a perfect job, so some shadows are okay.

Step Two: Setting the Scene

If you work in an aesthetically pleasing environment, selecting a scene for your photo shoot won’t be as difficult as it will for someone who works in a corporate office with drab fluorescent lighting. Depending on your subject matter, you may need to do some re-arranging of the office furniture to get the right setting for your image. 

If you don’t have much to work with, building a set might not be as difficult as you think. With some simple Styrofoam and spray paint, you can create dynamic backgrounds. And hey, if the background doesn’t come out great, shoot the scene with focus in the foreground and use the smallest possible aperture on your camera to blur the background out. Your camera will have a setting for aperture listed as “A” — adjust it to the lowest number for a blurry background. Zooming in will force the aperture open, so you’ll need to get up close to your subject to achieve this. Easy peasy.

If you do use a background, remember to keep it simple. Placing the subject on a flat surface or a piece of colored paper is a great alternative to a busy background. If you opt instead for a plain wall, position the subject a couple feet away from the wall to avoid a flat-looking image.

If you need a specific color for the backdrop, run to a local fabric store and look for something that complements your subject without being too distracting for viewers. Tape the fabric up to a wall using painter’s tape (which won’t leave a mark on the wall) and voila! Shoot time.

If you’re shooting products, your best bet is to create a light box, which is basically a contained micro-environment where you can control light. It’s not so hard — this guy did it with some tape, a lamp and a box. Plus, you’ll be glad to have the materials around afterwards for future shoots. 


Step Three: The Perfect Lighting

Photography is nothing more than capturing light, so be warned: while this section may be longer than others, it will only tap the surface of lighting.

Good photography isn’t about gear, it’s about creativity. I’d like to introduce you to your new best friend — windows. Natural light is your go-to weapon for creating quality photos in your office. 

Plan your shoot for when you know you’ll have plenty of light flooding in through your windows. If the sunlight is direct or too harsh, hang a white sheet over the window to diffuse it. Even on an overcast day, opening a window is your best option for creating a professional looking photo. If you’re shooting outside, overcast days are ideal, as direct sunlight can wash out your image and cause you to lose details on overly lit subjects. Clouds naturally diffuse sunlight and let you capture true colors.

For portraiture, you can have a lot of fun with natural lighting. One popular lighting style for portraits is called “Rembrandt lighting.” Technically, this look is achieved using a key light and fill light (which mean a main light set at 45-90-degrees from the subject and a second light to illuminate the scene and background) but you can imitate the style with nothing more than a window and a reflector to satisfactory results. Here’s how it works.

Turn off all the lights. Position your subject two to three feet from an open window with natural light pouring in. Clearly, one side of their face is lit, and the other side is in a shadow. Your goal is to have them turn their head just so that it creates a little triangle of light on their cheek on the shadow side. The photo below was taken applying a Rembrandt Lighting approach using a Canon 80D DSLR with a natural light source 5-feet to right.

How to Make a DIY Photo Shoot Work

Settings: shutter speed 1/200, Aperture 4.5f, ISO: 1200. Subject 70-degrees facing open window, one LED fill light, no overhead lighting.

 How to Make a DIY Photo Shoot Work

Pro tip: Rembrandt lighting looks awesome in black and white. If you have the opportunity to shoot on a dark background, you can create very dramatic portraits.

To the experienced eye, you’ll see that we’re using natural light with a small fill light opposite the window. This fill light was built using a cardboard box, one LED light bulb, a white t-shirt and most of a roll of duct tape. Examples of more complex solutions you can build are available on YouTube, find the light that best suits your needs.

Step Four: Composing Your Images

Composition may seem like a difficult subject to tackle for a DIY photo shoot crash course, but it’s actually pretty simple to grasp and will change the way you take photos forever.

Introducing the Rule of Thirds.

How to Make a DIY Photo Shoot Work

See where the four lines intersect? That’s where you should place the subject of your photo. Why? Those spots are where the human eye is drawn to. By putting the focus of your picture into one or more of those four points, you’re creating naturally stimulating images. Even better, the rule of thirds applies to all visual mediums like paintings, films or graphic design pieces. Keep your eyes peeled because now that you know about it, you’ll see it everywhere.

The rule of thirds is great for scenic photography or shots featuring models but is not necessarily ideal for headshots or product photography. And that’s okay — it’s not a perfect rule that will make or break every photo, it’s just a rule of thumb to keep in mind that can lead to more interesting and dynamic images.

Our in-house model, Mika, will be standing in to help demonstrate this rule.

Using rule of thirds composition:

 How to Make a DIY Photo Shoot WorkNote: don’t cut off people’s tails in your frame.

Ignoring the rule of thirds:

How to Make a DIY Photo Shoot WorkWho’s a good model?

As you’ll see, the rule of thirds just sort of makes sense. It uses the right amount of the frame to provide some scene and context without the subject becoming lost in the background.

Step Five: Putting it Together with Photo Editing

This is where you’re going to need professional materials.

If you don’t have Photoshop, you can get a free 30-day trial from Adobe. These YouTube tutorials will give you an idea of what you need to edit. As a general rule, less is more with photo editing. The last thing you want is to doctor a photo in such a way that viewers can clearly see the photo has been altered, so if you’re adjusting colors or retouching someone’s skin, the smaller your changes, the better.

Take advantage of Photoshop’s powerful tools and online resources to instruct your editing techniques.

Step Six: Cover Your Bases with Consent Forms

One problem that we frequently encounter when photographing for digital mediums is model consent. If your organization hasn’t already issued a group participation and photo release form to any employees involved in your photoshoot, then be sure to distribute them to anyone appearing in a photograph you intend to publish.

While the age of digital phone photography has radically shifted our society’s understanding of privacy from 10 years ago, be courteous and respect your coworkers by offering them the opportunity to not participate in promotional photos.

There you have it. You’ve got your equipment, a scene, a cause and a dream. As with any new skill, photography requires practice and research. Luckily, there’s no shortage of resources available from professionals and artists online. Take your time, do your homework and you’ll be shooting quality photos in no time.

As with any marketing tools, you’ll want to create a list of photography best practices to honor your business’s voice and brand. Once you’re comfortable with using your camera, the onus is on you to approach marketing materials with a discerning eye.