How to create a staged photograph

I started creating staged photographs when I was a student.
Imagining the story, sketching it, directing the models, taking the final photo…it was so exciting! It quickly became my favourite type of photography.
When I visit exhibitions, I often notice that staged photography isn’t as widespread, and, perhaps not as appreciated as photojournalism, portrait photography, and street photography.
Yet, I assure you that it’s possible to enjoy seeing and creating staged photographs. It’s fascinating to interpret these images, and it’s also delightful to entirely make them. That’s why I’ve decided to write this “guide” so that you too can create staged photographs.

1. What’s the story you want to tell?

The first thing to do is to ask yourself what you want to tell with your image.
What‘s the plot? And what atmosphere do you want to convey?
This step is essential because you can’t create an image without knowing what it will be about.
So take a sheet of paper, write down and sketch the story you want to tell.
You have to remember two things:
- The image you have in your mind is usually different from the image you’re going to make. Unless you have the perfect setting / lighting / weather / editing…you cannot really create what you have in mind. But that’s nothing to be sad about. In fact, creating within your means is a great challenge because you have to succeed in telling a story without having the “perfect” means to do so.
- Also, remember that a staged photograph doesn’t have a sequel. You can create a series of photographs on the same theme, but each photograph should represent a different story.
For example, if you look at Gregory Crewdson’s “Beyond The Pines” series, you can see that there’s the same atmosphere in each of his images, but every picture tells a different story.

Pauline Le Pichon, Dialogues & Interstices #1, 2015

2. The means

Once you know the story you want to tell, you need to think about how to create your photograph:

- First, think about the models: will there be any? How many and who will they be? What will they wear? What will they have to do? Where will they have to be?
Once you’ve answered these questions, contact your models and clearly explain to them the image you want to create. Let them see your sketch and read your notes! And don’t forget the different contracts.

- The setting / location: will your photo take place indoors or outdoors? Where exactly will it take place? What will be the relevant elements of the setting (furniture, cars…) and where will they be?
If the place is easily accessible, don’t hesitate to go there and take photos.
This will give you a better idea of what you could do there.

- Your position / the tripod position (You should definitely have a tripod if you want to make staged photographs)

- The lighting: will it be natural? artificial (flash, indoor lighting..)?
Where will it be placed?

- The editing. When I have an idea for a photograph, I also often think about the editing. But it also happens very often that I change my mind during the editing process and do something a bit different from what was planned. Remember, it’s your work, so you can do whatever you want with it (unless it’s a commission).

3. The photoshoot preparation

For many years, I’ve been in the habit of sketching the photographs I want to create. I’m very bad at drawing (although I’ve had great drawing teachers), but sketching what I imagine and including notes helps me to clearly see what I’m going to do. And it also helps me to anticipate the photoshoot as much as possible.
Imagine that you want to create a staged photo in the middle of winter, in a street with 5 models. First of all, you don’t want them to get sick. Secondly, taking a photo in a street means that there will probably be parked cars and people driving and walking. I think you’ve figured it out by now: the photoshoot has to be quick. So if you arrive at the location having prepared everything in advance, and everyone knows what they have to do and where they have to be, the photoshoot will go much faster than if you hadn’t prepared anything.
You should anticipate as much as possible. There‘s always a risk of unpleasant surprises. The weather can easily change, you may arrive at a location and see that it’s closed…This is why you really need to anticipate and have a plan B (if possible).

Pauline Le Pichon, Sketch & Asymétrie #3, 2020

4. The photoshoot

Once everything is ok, you can start taking pictures. Don’t hesitate to take lots of pictures (even if you’re working with an analogue camera) and try new things if you feel like it. In my case, seeing the scene as I had imagined it sometimes gives me other ideas (like a different way of placing the model, for example). Unless you’re pressed for time, feel free to try new things, and you’ll see if you like the pictures or not.
Speaking of models, remember to direct them well. They’re not in your head, and even though they’ve seen your sketch and read your notes, they don’t necessarily know what you expect them to do.
So always direct them, but do it in a friendly way (and don’t touch them, just show them how they should “pose”). Remember that they’re here to help you.
Concerning the editing, I don’t really have any advice to give. Everyone does what they want according to the photograph they want to create.

.Bonus

If you look for inspiration, there’s a long list of artists who have practised or still practice staged photography, such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Cindy Sherman, Erwin Olaf, Elsa & Johanna, Alison Jackson, Brooke Shaden, Arthur Tress…
Keep in mind that you can look at their works and be inspired by them, but you must never copy them. You have to create your own artistic universe. It’s not easy, but once it’s done, it’s something to be proud of.

I really hope you’ve enjoyed this guide and that you find it useful.
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
And if you want to create a whole series of staged photographs, just repeat this exercise over and over again.

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