Level Up Your Portfolio with Styled Location Shoots

michael anthony Mar 26, 2021

by Michael Anthony

The professional photography market may appear saturated and highly competitive. Moreover, many photographers’ prices are so low that, to compete with them, you would have to work for less than a liveable wage.

One solution to this issue is not to compete with them but to offer something completely different. Considering yourself to be ‘different’ in a creative industry such as photography might sound like a cliché, but there are tangible things you can do to set yourself apart. For instance, improve your website, make your branding and logo consistent and communicative, and hone your business skills. Above all, create a portfolio that is different.

Quite often, a client will not be experienced in assessing photographic quality. They’ll not be able to tell the difference between a good photograph and an exceptional one. Therefore, to get a client’s attention ahead of all those photographers offering a cut-price service, your photography needs to stand out. It needs to be substantial not only technically but in terms of its concept too.

Smartphone camera technology and the ease with which people can share images on social media platforms have contributed to a growing trend among many photographers. Some believe that blogging about their thoughts, opinions, and musings is what sets them apart from the competition. It may well set them apart, and it could generate more eyes onto their website. However, a serious client will want something exceptional to look at and aligns with their needs when they get to your site. Therefore, your portfolio must be your priority; leave talking about what you had for breakfast until later!

How Can You Be Different? 

It may come across as slightly flippant, but the easiest way to be different is to do something different. Try something that your competitors aren’t doing or that the cut-price photographer cannot do because they’re overwhelmed with underpaying clients. Look at the current trends and work out a way to develop those into your unique style. Give potential clients something that will stop them in their tracks and say ‘Wow.’

Impact is a quality that evokes feelings of attraction or excitement in someone or something. Cinematic Images are a trend that is beginning to take hold in the photography industry, and it is one that you could use to set yourself apart.

Professional photography is considered a luxury, particularly nowadays when most people carry as much photographic technology in their pockets as was available to the top photographers a mere decade or two ago. Showcasing photography has never been easier than it is today also; take a look at Instagram and the more than one billion ‘photographers’ that use this platform.

One thing you might take away from Instagram is the widespread desire for people to look glamorous. Cinematic photography can make the ordinary look fantastic, and the fantastic look extraordinary. Regardless of the setting, one of the most crucial things you can do to boost your portfolio is a location styled shoot with an emphasis on creating these cinematic images.

As a wedding photographer, your images sell a dream of romance and glamour. Just how far you are prepared to take your portfolio is up to you. You can be confident that if you create an exciting and unique portfolio during the off-season, it will give your business a boost moving into the following season.

So, what can you do to make your location portfolio shoot a success?

Develop a Concept

Strong portfolios lend themselves to being conceptual, so use this. Start by generating some ideas, and rule nothing out. Once you have an idea, visualize it, and start developing your concept. Get creative, and push the boundaries. 

An example of how we pushed these boundaries was our desire to shoot some wedding portfolio photography with the bride in a red dress. As you might expect, red wedding dresses are not exactly easy to find, so we had to get one made by a local seamstress. When it came to doing the shoot, we teamed up with a local salon that we frequently use during the wedding season. We also involved our whole team in the project. Having our suppliers and team engaged in this way helped ensure the shoot was a success.

Get the Lighting Right

Cinematic photography is all about highlighting your subject’s best aspects, and there is no better way to do this than with lighting. Your lighting choice will allow you to influence the mood and accentuate the part of the photograph you want to showcase. Using off-camera flash is an excellent way for you to set your images apart from everyone else’s, as many photographers seem to be intimidated by this lighting method.

I’m not too sure why this type of lighting would present such an issue for some photographers. Lighting is one of the most straightforward aspects of photography to pick up, and there are plenty of tutorials available to learn how to use off-camera flash.

However, as there is so much content online, there is also quite a bit of poor information in circulation about the method. Therefore, be careful about your source of information. When working with flash, work in manual mode if you can control scene elements. Doing this will allow you to learn faster about controlling the light and achieving more reliable results.

Flash allows you to influence the scene's look, giving it a surreal or more natural look. By using a light meter, you can measure the ratio of ambient to flash light.

It is always the brightest part of an image that attracts people’s attention. Therefore you can influence where the viewer will look first by manipulating the flash to ambient light ratio. The greater this ratio is, the more surreal an image will look. Consequently, the more balanced this ratio becomes, the more natural look you will achieve.

To get a good idea of how attractive lighting can be, try this simple test. Take an image, close your eyes and turn it upside down. Then, open your eyes to look at the picture. Your eyes will be automatically drawn to the most prominent part of the image.

Going back to our red wedding dress shoot, we wanted to create a surreal-looking scene. Therefore, we left the background slightly underexposed to allow for post-production enhancements.

There is only one source of natural light, the Sun. If you are shooting an outdoor daylight scene, and want to make it look more surreal, consider using a multiple light setup.

Always bear in mind that these portfolio shoots aim to sell a dream. Therefore, ensure this aim is incorporated in the planning of your portfolio shoots. 

Generally, we prefer using one or two rim lights behind the subject and a 45-degree key light in front. The subject is turned away from the light, with their face brought back towards it. Here are some images using a multi-light setup. 

Let’s consider the use of modifiers. There is a place for all types of modifiers, including the absence of one, in your portfolio shoot. 

However, try not to make your light setup too complicated. Here are a few general rules to follow:

  1. Match Your Lighting to the Scene’s Ambient Light

If shooting outdoors in bright sunshine, avoid using modifiers. Creating hard shadows will allow for a seamless lighting transition. In contrast, during a night shoot or in overcast daytime skies, you can soften your light with the use of a large modifier. 

  1. Match Your Modifiers to the Shoot Location

Your shoot location might be remote and involve a bit of a hike to get there. In this case, you'd want to opt for foldable umbrellas and softboxes as they are easier to transport on foot. You also may wish to make alternative plans for other equipment such as beauty dishes.

  1. Control is Crucial

Controlling your lighting is crucial and is a great idea to carry a set of grids when on a shoot. You have to be careful where you place your lighting to achieve good results. Indeed, in many situations, it’s the placement of light that is more crucial than its softness or hardness. An excellent grid choice is Magmod, particularly when using speedlights. Another is the B1/B2 set from Profoto.

  1. Consider Color 

Don't go on any shoot without CTO and CTB gels as a minimum for your lighting sources. With these, you can achieve both creative and corrective color balance. We've written a separate article on achieving creative color balance with gels.

Attire and Location

There are no rules regarding attire or location when you are doing a portfolio shoot. However, you should consider these aspects of the shoot together rather than as separate entities.

Your location can be as outlandish as you dare. For instance, for the holiday and St. Valentine's season, our competitors are mostly shooting in hotel rooms with a single-window providing light. Our approach is to construct an outdoor boudoir setting. It is the same target marketing, but a totally different approach, with an incredibly different result.


photo by Jen Loizzi

Forward Planning

An on-location shoot involves dealing with a multitude of people and processes. Transport, access, permits, lighting, makeup, refreshments, facilities, and so on, all need to be considered and planned for. Then there are specific aspects of the shoot. For instance, if you’re doing a beach shoot, you need to consider tide times.

If you are shooting at a city building, make sure you know if they require permits.

Use Your Shoot To Network

Your shoot is an ideal opportunity to network, and your vendors are the perfect people to do this with. Shortly after completing our red wedding dress shoot, we were contacted by a local makeup artist about shooting a bridal glamour event. The event involved high-end gowns made by an influential gown maker with over 50,000 social media followers, many of whom were from the bridal sector.

Our gown maker posted some behind-the-scenes images from the event, and the response was almost immediate. We started receiving inquiries the very next day. This response shows that, with a bit of planning, you can turn your shoot into a marketing opportunity. 


During the off-season, you have the ideal opportunity to re-evaluate your business. Just because you've had a successful year doesn’t mean you should take your foot off the gas. Failing to plan for the forthcoming season could mean a year of sub-par income. 

Think about setting yourself aside from the competition by doing something different. A creative portfolio presents you with the means to do this. Take care when planning your portfolio shoots, but let your creative spirit run wild.

For more information on planning destination portfolio shoots, you can watch this video...



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