In Defence of Styled Shoots

Like many creative careers, getting booked in our industry is based on your portfolio. This is the same if you have been shooting for a few months or a few decades. People investing in you, need to see up-to-date, relevant examples of your work. Not once have I been asked to show my qualifications in photography but week after week people will look at this part of my website.

There might be times when you could easily fill a portfolio with images that you have been paid to take but at other times, this might not be the case. Maybe there’s a realignment that needs to take place so that you are commissioned to produce the kind of images that you want to shoot. Another example might be when you are relatively new and you are building up your experience, then you might need to shoot for your portfolio.

Over my 30+ years as a photographer, I have always shot for my portfolio in some form or other. These might be via self-motivated shoots, or tagging on some more experimental shots to the end of a paid job. Having the mentality that being a photographer involves maintaining and updating a place where my latest work can be viewed by prospective clients is part of the job for me – It is a part of my workflow and part of how I present my work.

Even now, I cannot imagine being a photographer and not having this element. It feels like it would be impossible to stay current and always be inspired by what you shoot. I invest both time and money into my portfolio and I cannot imagine reaching a point where I do not have to anymore.


I might be very established now but when I was first building my business, either as a music industry photographer or again as a wedding photographer, I very much focused on portfolio images as a way of showing what I was capable of. It’s also a good way to show what you are most interested in, what direction you’d like to take, or what kind of jobs you would be interested in booking.

So why did I find myself sitting at Heathrow a few days ago, just off a long-haul flight, waiting for my ride to collect me, when I jumped onto the airport wifi, the first thing I saw was a photographer having a pop on my social media account about the role of styled shoots for wedding photographers? Now I might have been particularly tetchy as I hadn’t slept for many hours but my tolerance for this kind of thing is pretty low anyway.

For wedding photographers, the styled shoot is a portfolio shoot. The ‘styled’ part of this might be anything from a simple wedding outfit to a full-on set-up that includes multiple wedding suppliers. Anything where there are wedding elements but no wedding is a styled shoot.


I’ve done them since day one of working as a wedding photographer and 22 years later I still make room for them. And from that first one, it is something that other photographers feel the need to criticise.

The implication is that they are somehow cheating.

Whilst it is true that models who are used to posing and know their angles are less challenging than non-models to shoot, there are not lots of real couples that are into letting you practice your photography on them.

Any shooting that you do will improve your general skills with composition, lighting, and framing. With styled shoots, there is no pressure from having a paying client so learning can be achieved through experimentation and pushing outside of comfort zones.

At the very least you will progress your skills, but you should also get some good portfolio images.

If you’ve ever tried to produce a styled shoot yourself, you will know that they can be stressful, time-consuming, and expensive. So you might opt instead to attend a group shoot where you pay to shoot content that is produced for you. The only downside is that you have to share the space and the glory with the others in your group.


Whether you are shooting for yourself or as part of an organised group shoot, please do not feel that you have to pretend that these are real weddings. No matter what stage you are at in your career. Be proud that you shoot for your portfolio, any prospective clients should admire that you invest in this part of your business. I’ve never bought into the Fake It Until You Make It ethos.

You might be sitting there thinking that you would love to attend a group-styled shoot but don’t know which ones are worth investing in. Here are the red flags to look out for when searching.

?They advertise the shoot with images from styled shoots they attended and did not organise.

?They look for models to take part without being paid. EVERYONE should be compensated if tickets are being sold.

?The person organising the shoot has very little experience planning them. Some people want to use these as a way of funding their own portfolio and will prioritise that over you getting your fair turn.

?There’s a lack of info about what happens at the shoot, or the details and what is expected to happen.

?If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right so before investing a lot of your hard-earned cash look for proof that it will be worthwhile. Search any hashtags for the shoot producer so you can see what previous attendees came away with. Reach out to them for honest feedback about their investment. Ask around in Facebook groups of photographers to see if any previous attendees had a good experience.

As a shoot attendee, you are the client, and the vast majority of shoot organisers are devoted to making it a good experience for you. However,  if it isn’t then voice your opinions at the shoot and give the company a chance to put things right for you. There are a lot of logistics and moving parts involved in shoots but you should always feel safe and that you had your fair chance to shoot.

And if some random tries to criticise you for doing a styled shoot, refuse to absorb it. People who are satisfied with their own work and how their business is running NEVER feel the need to have a pop at anybody else and how they present their business in an online comment. Fact.