Photo Session Guidebook

              I really want to set you all up for success here. Even if you’ll never ever be my client—please read this for the sake of my fellow photographers. I believe the things that I’ve written in this guidebook generally apply across the board. Be forewarned: it's called a guidebook for a reason. If you would prefer, you can download the pdf version of it here.  This guide touches on some of the expectations, questions, and misconceptions that generally surround photography.

Why aren’t I gorgeous?

                So often, we see gorgeous photos of drop dead gorgeous people online. And we tend to think, “Ugh. I wish I looked like that.” Then we go into a photo session expecting the photos to render us suddenly our thinnest, smoothest, tannest, most flawless selves. But when we see the final images with our critical eye, we suddenly notice every curve, bump, blotch, and wrinkle. This is something your photographer can help you with—by posing you in flattering angles, by trying to give you prompts for natural laughs and expressions, by advising your wardrobe choices, etc. But it is not all on them. You could wear the most figure flattering outfit, be posed in the most natural, flattering light, with a magical smile on your face—but if you still eye yourself (or others in the photo) with criticism, even the most gorgeous photo will fall flat. 

                As your photographer, I want you to feel beautiful, and I will try to do everything I can to make that happen. Your participation is essential—if you’re not into it, it will show in the photos. Sometimes I may ask you to do crazy or silly things, I may advise against a certain outfit, I may ask you to whisper something in your partner’s ear—just relax and have fun and the rest will fall into place. And above all, accept yourself.

Location vs. Background

                Location is everything in a photoshoot. But not in the way you think. Some of the best photos are taken in a place where the background or setting is less than ideal. So often, we want to choose the absolute best place for our photos—so we look for a spot with a cool background. It makes sense, right? But then, when we get the photos back from the session, for some reason it just doesn’t look as good as we imagined. So the question is, “What makes a great photo?” And the answer is, “A great bac--” NOOO STOP. Don’t do that to yourself. Great photos are made with great light. Light is to photography what paint is to a painter. Without light, we have nothing. So when looking for a location, what we’re really looking for is great light. Now, great light is tricky (I mean, really—what does great light even mean? Sunny? Cloudy? Shady?). And I’ll get to that in a second. But for now, I just want you to know that oftentimes, what may look to you like a cool spot for photos may actually be a bad spot in terms of light.

               As your photographer, I want you to know that a good background does not equal a good photo. Please give your suggestions for photo locations, but please also listen to me when I advise against certain areas and trust that I have experience in this sort of thing. If you insist on going to a certain spot, I won’t deny you—but I also want you to be aware that the best locations are worthless if there’s bad lighting. I’m happy to go scouting to find a good location for us!

What is the mythical Great Light?

                I’m sure you’ve heard photographers say all kinds of things about great light. Some say cloudy is the best. Some say indirect window light is the best. Some like shade. Some like sun. Some like studio lighting. Some swear by sunrise golden hour. Some only shoot at sunset. So which is it? All of the above. Back to the painting analogy--just like some painters use watercolor, some use oils, and some use acrylic, different photographers use different light for different looks and purposes. The absolute best light to me is the light that occurs in the hour or so before sunset and that continues for a little after sunset—this is golden hour light. But does that mean that I want to be out in the middle of a wide open field during that time? That would be GREAT light, right? Perhaps for some photographers, that would be perfection. But that is definitely not my preference. I want to find that light in a particular setting: open shade. Open shade is when the area around me is in shade, but when I look up, there is still open sky above me. Open shade can be found at almost every time of the day, though the closer you are to noon, the more difficult it becomes.

                As your photographer, I want to photograph you during golden hour in open shade. Now, I know that especially with a wedding day, this is not always very easily accommodated. But when possible, this is what I try to aim for. Please understand that different times of day give off different kinds of light, and that your photos taken at 10 am will look different than ones that have been taken at sunset.

What Editing Actually Is

                #nofliter. Did you know that every single digital photo has been edited in some way—even if you didn’t add a filter to it? When a camera—be it your point and shoot, iphone, or dslr—takes a photo, you first have a raw image (really, think about it like a raw steak). Most cameras will take that raw image and automatically add things to it to make it look closer to what we see with our eyes. They will add a standard amount of saturation, extra light, color temperature, etc. The file then produced is the photo you see and it will most likely be in the file format jpg. If you were to see the raw image, it would look pretty bad. They look grey, flat, and unappetizing. Like a raw steak. And that’s where editing and artistry come in. As a professional, I want full control over the outcome of my images and I don’t want the camera to add the standard adjustments (the difference between a precooked steak and one cooked by your personal chef). And so I take the photos and leave them in their raw format. Then I apply the adjustments that will produce the outcome I want (and that’s editing in a nutshell). It’s just like a steak—everybody has their own way of cooking it. Some people get super gourmet and some people just keep it simple. 

                As your photographer, I want you to know that editing is not magic. It does not make you look more beautiful, it does not fix bad light or a bad location, it does not blur the background or remove random objects (that is called retouching, which is different), it does not take an otherwise bad photo and make it look perfect. If you have a good grass-fed well-marbled steak, chances are that it’s going to taste pretty awesome when it’s cooked. It’s the same with a photo. Editing is simply the adjustments I make to the raw image to make it look like what I see.

What’s The Big Deal with Posing?

                It’s true that posing is mostly the responsibility of the photographer. And every photographer has a different style. Back to the painting thing again (the steak one was making me hungry)--posing is to photography what surface is to painting. Some painters like linen, some paint on wood, some paint on plaster, some on canvas, some on a myriad of types of paper. Each one produces a different style, look, and feel. With posing, every photographer has a style that they identify with, and each has their own definition of that style as well. Generally, if a photographer’s portfolio is filled with one style of posing, that is what you should expect from them. However, feel free to ask a photographer how they approach posing and express what you are seeking. If they mostly do family portraits, they may have no experience with fashion shoots—but they may be willing to try something new. Be upfront with what you are seeking, but don’t expect a photographer to produce images that are completely opposite of their style.

                As your photographer, I want you to know that I have a personal style of posing. I try my best to pose in a natural and relaxed way, and I am working towards having even more of an unposed style. I will ask you to say funny or romantic things, I may ask you to answer a question, and I may tell you to move in a funny way. Just be in it for the fun and know that what feels awkward in front of a camera, may actually look really natural.

How to Pose Like a Model (posing part 2)

                Have you ever looked on Pinterest before a photo session for poses to emulate? Have you ever thought, “Ugh. I am just not good at posing.” Guess what—you’re not alone. So many people feel like they are going to fail their photoshoot because they don’t know how to pose. Okay, take a deep breath. I have something to tell you that is very important. Posing is the photographer’s responsibility. YOU DON’T NEED TO WORRY ABOUT IT, I’VE GOT YOUR BACK! Seriously, it is so so important that you have fun at a photo session. The best way to do that is for you to trust that your photographer has experience and to simply follow their prompts. Just relax and have fun! Now, it can be very helpful to a photographer if you express your nervousness about problem areas.  If there is something you’re insecure about, let them know and most likely they’ll try their absolute best to avoid certain angles or poses. If you are tense and worried that the photos will make you look like you have a double chin (which you most definitely DO NOT) or that your arms will look twice their size (seriously, how does this happen?) , or that you’ll look super short, or overly thin, or deathly pale, or whatever, it will show in the photos. Your emotions show in a photo more than you think.

                As your photographer, I want you to know that I’ve studied all kinds of posing and that I too have been the victim of poor posing (I’ve even done it to myself when taking self portraits). I will try my absolute best to direct you and position you in a way that is comfortable, relaxed, and that shows your personality. Please know that even unposed styles and those “in-between moments” are still most definitely posed or directed in some way. All I need from you is to be all in and to not be afraid to relax. Please tell me prior to the session if you have any concerns—I want to know what you’re worried about so that I can explain it better, avoid certain angles, etc.

What In The World Am I Supposed To Wear?                

                This question is a big one. I mean, seriously. It’s hard enough deciding what to wear to go buy groceries, much less for a photoshoot that you may hang on your walls for years to come. So often we think that in order for our photos to look good, we need to have stunning clothes. While cool outfits DO make a difference in photos, there are a few important guidelines to follow.

Guideline 1: Wear something that you are comfortable in. Note: I did not say, “Wear something comfortable.” Cause there’s a big difference. Unless it’s a suuuuper chill session, it’s probably best to not show up in a sweatshirt and yoga pants (in-home session with ice cream, anyone?). But you should wear something that you feel comfortable in and that you think makes you look good. I have multiple pieces of clothing that look SO FREAKING ADORABLE when they’re on the hanger. But when I put them on, I suddenly look and feel just blec. So I will look better in a photo where I’m wearing something simple and understated but comfortable, than I will in a photo with a super cute outfit that I don’t think looks great on me.

Guideline 2: Avoid bright colors and busy prints. Your outfit is not the main subject of the session. It is generally best to avoid very saturated colors and things like wide stripes, chevrons, damask, plaids, etc. Can some people pull these off? Most definitely. But as a general rule, it’s better to wear an outfit that has texture as opposed to pattern. Some examples of texture: a cable knit sweater, an accordion pleat skirt, a linen shirt, a silky polyester dress with slightly wrinkled fabric, lace, a very tiny print.

Guideline 2b: Keep it simple. Try to put outfits together that are minimalistic, with various layers. Again, back to the texture thing. Use layers and neutral colors to create texture in your outfit, rather than using prints and bright colors.

Guideline 3: Coordinate instead of match. This one can be tricky. When you have more than one person in the photo, it is best to avoid having outfits that match exactly. Rather, try to aim for outfits that coordinate using various shades of your main color with similar complimenting shades. Pinterest and Instagram have tons of great ideas for outfits that look well together. Just look at photography that you are drawn to and see what the other people are wearing.

                As your photographer, I want you to know that you are the most important part of the photo session—not your clothes. Simple outfits are almost always the best way to go, and will not distract from you in the photos. If you do not feel comfortable in your outfit, it will definitely show. Wear something that fits your personality and that you really love. I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to feel like yourself! Look at photos that you love and see what others are wearing—most likely it will be something simple.  I’m happy to give my opinion on outfits and I’m guessing you probably have a couple of friends who would be willing to do the same.

The Conclusion

                Everybody wants that passionate embrace, wind-blowing-your-flowy-dress, sun-setting-behind-a-mountain, drop dead most magical photo ever. But there are several reasons why the majority of us don’t get that photo. 

                First let’s address the passionate embrace. This goes back to posing—if your photographer doesn’t direct you, it won’t happen. BUT even if your photographer directs you, sometimes it still doesn’t happen. If your photographer says, “I want you to hug like this is the last hug you get for the next six months.” But your response is to hug like you would hug your frail Aunt Gertrude, chances are that you won’t get the same outcome. So relax, and be all in.

                Next, let’s address the dress—if you wear jeans, they will not have the same texture and visual interest as a full chiffon skirt. Am I telling you to wear a full dress? Not necessarily. Wear what you’re comfortable with, but don’t expect it to look like something it’s not. A full, flowy dress will give an image a totally different look than a sleek, slimming black dress.

                The next one is two-part. First, we’ve got the sun setting behind something. The sun only sets at certain times of the day. If you want that hazy, golden look, you have to be there at the right time. And the weather itself has to cooperate too. Taking photos three hours before the golden hour can yield beautiful results. But it will still look different.

                Now for the mountain part. I don’t know about you—but I live in the Midwest. We don’t exactly have mountains here (insert sobbing emoji). There’s just something about them that is so rugged and beautiful. It simply cannot be replicated. If the only photos you’re looking at prior to a session are other sessions with mountain photos, you will likely be disappointed by a photo session that is done in a field. And just because you do have mountains, does not mean that getting that mountainous backdrop is easy. You may be required to scout ahead with your photographer and hike to a location for the session itself. I know it sounds silly to say that we expect a field to have the same visual interest as a mountain, but this does happen more often than you think.

                And lastly, you wonder why you don’t look drop-dead gorgeous in your photo. Chances are, you actually do. I’ve done it too, okay? I’ve looked at a photo and thought, “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Surely I don’t look that stupid.” My husband will look at the same photo and say, “Ooh you look really good in that photo.” Sometimes I’m pretty sure his eyes are broken. But it’s definitely true that we are our harshest critics. So give yourself some breathing room. Try to be objective rather than critical about the way you look.

The Last Thing I Want You to Know

                I believe that I speak for every photographer when I say this, so listen close: Your feedback means everything to me. I work so hard to make the session go smoothly—first I communicate with you prior to the session to make sure you have all of the necessary info, then I prep for it by getting all of my gear together and by scouting the location, we plan and hope the weather holds, I show up for the shoot and try to make you as comfortable and relaxed as possible, I try to say funny things to make you giggle, I try to pose you right and get the best light, then I go home and sort through the photos—which takes some time, I edit all of the photos and then edit them again, I upload your gallery and check and recheck the photos, I deliver the gallery to your email and then I wait. Then I get your reply, “The photos look great, thanks!” 

                This is what I want you to know: I’ve worked very very hard to create these photos for you—I’ve put a lot of time, energy, and work into them. This is what I would love to hear you say, “Oh my goodness, these are gorgeous! I love them so much! They’re exactly what I was hoping for and I can’t believe how good we look in them. You were so fun to hang out with and did your job so well! I can’t wait to show these to my friends. They’re gonna be so jealous.” Now, I realize that not every photographer may be deserving of a gush like that (and if you feel like I’m one of those that doesn’t, that’s cool). But most of them are. I have a lot of photographer friends who deserve gushy replies and it is for their sake that I say this. We love it when you gush, and it means the world. It lets us know that you appreciate all the work we’ve put in and that you recognize that we are the driving force behind our photography (not our cameras).


So that’s it folks. I know this got pretty long, so if you’re still here—congratulations. I hope this guide helps your next session to be as amazing as possible. All my love, Melody Rose.

Still have questions? Send me a message at my Contact Me page.