Circus Act

As artists we are inspired, and then we are compelled to create. Over a year ago my approach to photography evolved when I was introduced to the work of Shannon Sewell. After hosting a workshop with her, and through trial and error on my own, I learned the life-cycle of a styled shoot. Here are a few things I consider once I decide to go ahead with a concept.

                Knowing I’m about to spend hours on a project, I have to have a good reason to make it all worthwhile. I love planning, shooting, editing, and looking at the story-like images that are created from a themed shoot. So really if nothing happened with the images from there, I would consider it a win. With the circus shoot, however, I knew I wanted to try my hand at getting published online. This objective was the force that made me put in the necessary time and energy to make it exactly how I envisioned.
                Identifying an objective, and evaluating it throughout the process, also helps me decide what is useful stress and what is just distracting stress. For example, for this shoot I found myself getting side-tracked by the backdrop… should it be a tent, an arena, garlands, lights, what if I didn’t do a backdrop at all, should I sew one or buy one… and on it went. It gave me such a creative block that the backdrop almost derailed the whole shoot. I had to keep reminding myself that I wanted the outcome to be an identifiable nod to the circus without taking it too literally. So I threw out overly complicated options while still getting the structure and color pop that I wanted.

                Regardless of the size of each project, planning is crucial. It’s also one of my favorite parts of the creative process. I’m not exactly a control freak, but I’m also not a person who loves surprises… like “Surprise! Wardrobe doesn’t fit.”, or “Surprise! Model A’s mom doesn’t want her images shown online.” I know things will come up that I can’t control, like “Surprise! I accidentally had my assistant set up the backdrop on top of poison ivy.” (eh-hem… true story), so it’s very important that I anticipate the things I can control.

I keep a checklist to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible. My checklist varies depending on the needs of each shoot, but here’s how it looked for this project…


– Models: how many, what age, where to get them, how will they be compensated

– Model Releases: Get them signed. Period.

– Hair and Makeup: who will do it, what styles for which look, which models have a hair and skin profile to match the desired look, hair accessories needed

– Wardrobe: accessories, shoes and clothing (in this case a combination of dance costumes, items from my closet and the girls’ closets, and a contribution from Lillipops Designs)

– Props: details support the theme, added visual interest, aids posing, where to get them

– Location: what will the light be like when we shoot, is it easy to get models there, is it right for the theme

– Timeline: coordinate multiple models to arrive at staggered times, what will the light be

like when we shoot

– Grab Bag: contains “floating” accessories in case I decide an outfit needs something else, safety pins, pretty much anything that might come in handy

– Print: list of models and their looks (make copies so the makeup artist, moms and anyone else assisting don’t have to hunt me down with questions), directions to the location, timeline to keep us all on track, notes to myself about specific angles or lighting or poses I want to use

– Treats: because food and drinks make everything more fun

                Most of the time I can figure out anything with the help of search engines and a hot glue gun. And then there is hair and makeup… and then I’m kind of stuck. The fact is great hair and makeup makes models look better, post-processing easier, and is a key element in completing certain themes. Thank goodness I met Courtney Peters, a hair and makeup artist with mad skills and a need for portfolio images for her upcoming website. I sent her the “character” information, along with model specifics, but ultimately I left the creativity and execution to her.
                My style of photography emphasizes details. Which is another reason I rely on assistance for large shoots such as this one. On the day of a shoot there are a lot of random details I don’t want to miss. Props need to be moved to the location, model releases need to be signed, outfits need to be put together in a specific way… you get the idea. These are all things that, when added up, can drain me and affect the quality of my work when it’s time to shoot. My friend Cortnie was a great help in taking care of loose ends during the circus shoot and problem-solving some of the planning. She also chatted with the models and their moms so that I could focus on my own thoughts.
                Collaboration with other creative people can offer perspective and insight that give your project depth. It’s also a way to spread the burden of coming up with all the ideas, props, plans, and work by yourself. But for me, the biggest reason to collaborate is that the whole process is more fun. Don’t be afraid to reach out to stylists, vendors, designers, and other photographers.

Themed shoots require extra work coordinating a lot of moving parts. After the circus shoot I was exhausted… and maybe not-so-fresh after hours in the heat and humidity. So I thought when I walked in the door after the shoot I would be ready for a break. Instead my mind was enthralled and working on my next ideas. 

What are you compelled to create? Today we would love to hear some of your ideas.


Image and words courtesy of Laurel Hogge of Laurel Photography. For more about Laurel and to see the other images from the circus shoot visit her website.


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  1. says

    I only have my camera since July (before, I used my cellphone) and since I don't have much people available to photograph (and I want to do it) I decided to offer a free 30 minutes session to anyone interested, in exchange I offer them 3-5 photos from the session. I only got one model so far (and I loved the experience so much that I obviously sent her more photos than the mentioned numbers). would love to have your feedback:

  2. Robin Troxell says

    great information – I don't think I'll ever do anything that large but anythign with my three kids does involve some planning!!!

  3. says

    EEEEEK! That's my girl! Laurel, I mean :)

    Laurel…amazing words and equally amazing work. I always see your beautiful work…it's nice to hear your process before the shoot. LOVE!!

  4. says

    I have yet to feel "called" to do theme shoots, though I certainly admire the results from other people willing to do the work to make their vision happen!

  5. says

    really enjoyed this great article on setting up this great photoshoot. Such a neat example of collaboration in being successful. Really appreciate all of the informative hints on this type of shoot. For the past 2 years, since I got my first DSLR, I have become increasingly passionate about the opportunity to create with my photos, and then create a blogsite to share with others in. Have gone forward from someone who was practically afraid to touch a computer, to having my own computer, and having the privilege and joy in creating my own blogsite as a place to share wisdom with others, and the beauty that can be found behind the lens. Am still a neophyte, but am loving this experience, and feel as if I could not live without this , now that i have found out how much fun it is! Sharing a bit about my path on my blogsite

  6. says

    What a crazy awesome shoot! Loved them! I also loved all the tips and insight, very informative. I really enjoy recreating images from movies/videos and I also love dressing in vintage clothes and doing self portraits. I've only been able to pull it off a few times, but I have so many ideas in my head that hopefully will see that light of day soon. Here are a couple: Penelope Cruz, in Volver The Only exception, by Paramore Firework, by Katy Perry Retro Girl

  7. says

    This is a very good article, I think there will be many people
    like it, of course, I was one of the people. I think this article
    increase my knowledge. Thank you!

  8. says

    Wow you inspire me so much! Now my wheels are turning and I'm dying to do a styled shot! I always see stylized photos and wonder what the process is. Makes me think of some of the cool shoots they do on America's Next Top Model! As far as projects go, I am trying to get my website set up…I have ideas but Trying work without one is impossible! But afterward I'd love to try something like this. A couple questions…where do you try to get published? Contests or magazines or? I think your work is stunning and I'm about to hop over to your site. Also, the cost of the shoot, paying for models etc do you get that back by getting published? Or do you just look at it as investment? Inspiring post thanks for sharing!

  9. Randi says

    Good tips! I like how it's possible for it to be such a win win for everyone (make-up artist and prop supplier gets shots, you get make-up and props!)

  10. says

    I'm SO happy to see that this feature inspired many, and was well-received. To answer a few questions…
    – Models in this shoot all worked in exchange for digital images. Some were neighbors, one was my niece (the red-headed gypsy :) , one was my friend's daughter.
    – Finding models is tricky, because you don't want to pull random people from the street. Family and friends worked best for me here because they were the age I needed, and they were familiar with me already. You can do a model call from your website or blog. I recommend starting small if you're just beginning to try something like this. Get a neighbor and their friend, or a niece…
    – Someone asked about getting published. This really was my first time attempting publication, and the reward for me was that I could see my work on a respected site other than my own. Publishing isn't generally a good way to make money. It's more a way of promoting recognition of your work while contributing to the creative community.

  11. says

    Thanks for sharing your process. I am nearing the point where I'm contemplating a styled shoot, and this insight is extremely helpful.

    The challenge for me right now is the concept/theme/idea. It is still in development, and as such I haven't reached the point of planning or trying to assemble a shoot. When I do, I will definitely come back to this.

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