How to be a Photographer: Test for Success


Learn how to be a photographer; take the test for Success...

A good test shoot should show how creative and versatile you and your team can be. We reveal our tricks to a successful test shoot, from mood-boards to locations and approaching an agency.

Generating interest in your work has never been more difficult or more important than it is now. In an age where we are constantly bombarded with imagery from every angle it’s important that new and existing clients see that you’re exercising your creative muscles even in the lean times.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last 10 years of being a full time professional it’s that the more I test, the more I work. Test shoots can mean many things; some photographers charge for them, others such as myself throw them together with the help of a band of like-minded fellow creatives including a make-up artist, hair and wardrobe stylists. Couple that with a willing model agency who is more than happy to let its new faces gain valuable experience and you’ve got yourself a winning combination.

Initially I’ll start off with an idea which could come from any one of the creatives, so it may be the make-up artist wants to showcase her own style or the wardrobe stylist wants to produce
a set of images for their own book. Either way it tends to start out with a mood-board of images in the style of what we’re trying to achieve. More often than not in my case it comes from a stylist I’ve worked with on many occasions, Natalie Armin. What Natalie and the rest of the team bring to a concept isn’t just their own skills, it’s important to me that they are all enthusiastic and willing to discuss ideas right from their very inception up to and including the shoot itself. It may well be that the finished article is nothing like that initial idea which might sound backwards but the difference with personal work is that you can let your creativity run free. Remember, the aim of this is to show clients what you are capable of and not just show them run of the mill.

Introductions over, one model goes into make-up (pictured top) and the two hairstylists get to work on the other two girls whilst one model sits patiently eyeing up the selection of biscuits and crisps that just happen to have fallen out of my spare gadget bag. Never underestimate the importance of nutrition on a big shoot, and by nutrition I mean Pringles, cake and chocolate digestives.

For the purposes of today’s shoot I’ve acquired the use of NQ Studios in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, handy because of its close proximity to the model agency offices so the models shouldn’t have a problem finding it. The facilities are good and there’s plenty of space for everyone to spread out and work in comfort. I’ve set up a white backdrop and metered the model about eight feet in front for two reasons, the first being that the white will fall off into a nice deep grey and also so I can eliminate any shadow by placing my one Elinchrom slightly to my left. Behind me and at 90 degrees I’ve set up another backdrop, this time yellow, and I’ll be shooting the model very close to it using one direct undiffused light to get the most out of the bold colors. It’s two very simple set ups lighting wise and it will allow me to work quickly and get two totally different looks.

First model onto the background is Charlotte (pictured above) and I’m utilizing the stylist, Natalie, by getting her to hold a small reflector just left of the model to push a little bit of light back onto her shoulder and neck. I like shadows, but I feel a bit of subtle fill with a white poly-board is in order. It also allows Natalie to keep a close eye on her accessories and garments. I’ve ruined many a good image with a wonky earing or upturned collar.

Happy with the set up and shooting quickly, I direct Charlotte onto the yellow backdrop behind me. Speed really is of the essence for this shoot as we want two looks from each of the four
models so I’ll be sticking to the two set ups for the whole of the day. The music is blaring out, we’ve got milk for a brew and the shoot is in full swing. Happy days.

The next girl to be ready is Alice and as she steps confidently into position (pictured above), Laura (make up artist) and Verity (Hair stylist) step in to make a few last minute tweaks. When working with an agency’s new faces section you really don’t know what you’re going to get, some models will have a few shoots under their belts and be very confident, needing little or no direction, whilst others might be fresh off the street with no experience at all. As a photographer I’m told that I do direct models more than most but Alice is happily getting into poses by herself, such is her confidence, and I’m happy to leave her to it. Like models, we photographers tend to rely on the same style of posing so it’s nice when someone comes along and does their own thing.

Here you get an idea of the two different looks we’re achieving, shot just seconds apart you can see how easy it is to maximise your studio time in this way (pictured above). More importantly it is something you can use to show any potential clients your versatility and just how much value for money they’d be getting in booking you. On such a bright day with natural light flooding into the studio I could have even done a daylight shot too, but with four models eager to be shot I figured it better to keep things simple.

Whilst Michelle and Verity work their hair magic in the corner of the studio, the next model, Madeleine, is ready to be photographed (pictured top right). Her hair and make-up is faultless and it’s all tied in with complimentary styling to finish the look. You’ll notice here I’ve added a little bit of gradient toning to the background using the same two colours that she’s wearing. This was only an afterthought really but that’s how I tend to come up with new techniques. It’s always worth trying new ideas, most of the time they won’t work but I think this one has paid off. One thing that’s often struck me, particularly with hair clients, is they don’t often know what they want until they see it, which means I often have to read between the lines or actually just take a risk and do something totally different. This line of attack has worked well for me over the years.

Choosing a Studio

For years I rented my own studio in Sheffield but being in one place proved limiting. Having left my studio I now target clients in most major cities in the UK, and when the need arises
I’ll rent a studio as close to them as I can passing this rental cost directly onto them. For this test I’ve used NQ Studios in Manchester on the recommendation of my stylist. The cost
of the studio is very competitive with half and full day rates available. More importantly it is well equipped with many backdrops and a range of lighting even though I used my own Elinchroms simply because I know them inside out. The studio also boasts good natural light, so if like me you shoot indoors using daylight then it’s the perfect place.


I can’t stress enough the importance of retouching. Good beauty and hair retouching isn’t for the faint-hearted, it is time consuming and laborious but when done properly will finish off
your images nicely. For me the key to good retouching starts with good metering; you can do a lot with a correctly exposed image and, call me old school, but I still use a lightmeter, especially with multiple light set ups. In the image to the left I’ve cleaned up the hair on the face and removed any non-permanent blemishes. A little surface blur on a semi opaque layer softens the skin further whilst a little noise always helps to avoid that waxy look and retain a bit of texture. Eyes get a lift in Curves then Curves again on the whole image to the desired effect. Subtlety is the key with retouching.

Approaching an agency

If you’ve never approached a model agency before I can understand how daunting it may be, but something I always say to clients is ‘your images will only be as good as your model’. For the last 18 months I’ve been testing solely with Boss Model Management in Manchester. The best thing to do is just send an introductory email with a link to your portfolio outlining that you’re looking to test. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get a reply straight away, a good agency is a busy agency but if you have to, follow up with a phone call. If your work is good enough, and as long as the images aren’t used for commercial use, then you should be able to strike up a good professional working relationship. Always make sure you follow up each test shoot by sending the images straight away to the booker you dealt with, this way you’ll ensure the partnership continues in the correct way with everyone benefitting from the test.



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Photography Workshop: How to be a Photographer: Test for Success
How to be a Photographer: Test for Success
Learn how to be a photographer; take the test for Success...
Photography Workshop
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