How To Plan A Photo Shoot For eLearning

Organizing and managing a photo shoot for eLearning is more complicated than you might think. You have to organize by location, have the right props on hand, keep things going at a steady pace and be empathetic to the needs of everyone involved.

If you’re planning your first photo shoot or if you want to smooth out the wrinkles in your current approach, here is the method I recommend. But first, make sure you need custom photos.

When do you need custom photos?

Purists use custom photography in their online courses all the time. Many of us don’t have time for a shoot and resort to stock photos with less than ideal results. Some possible uses for custom photos include:

  • When visualizing a scenario that takes place in a unique environment
  • When you need an actor or model to wear clothing or a uniform specific to the scenario
  • When you need shots of equipment or machinery
  • When you’re featuring an expert or doing a bio piece

(Note: Before you take the time to plan and carry out a photo shoot, you may want to check the wide array of people cut-outs and backgrounds from my friends at eLearning Art and the eLearning Brothers, just in case they have what you need.)

Advantages of Planning a Photo Shoot

Regardless of whether you hire a photographer or shoot the photos yourself, you’ll find that planning a photo shoot for eLearning saves time and money. It makes the process efficient, reduces stress, and provides a more professional product.

For me, the main advantage is that nothing slips through the cracks. With a solid plan I never startle awake in the middle of the night remembering the shot I forgot to take.

The Planning Process

The process of planning a photo shoot for eLearning is very similar to planning a video shoot, but it’s easier. You don’t have to worry about audio, though I do include a script in a second column if there’s acting involved. Here’s the way I do it.

1. Create the Shot List

  • Go through your eLearning storyboard or script and list the details of every shot you need in a separate document. Here are the types of details that are important:

– Location/scene
– Subject (person, machine component, etc.)
– Action and facial expression
– Type of shot, if needed (close-up, establishing shot, etc.)
– Lighting, is something special is required
– Corresponding script to be read by voice over talent (reading it aloud can help the model and photographer understand the goal)

  • Group the shots by location or scene. If the model will need different clothing, then make those shots a subgroup. Photos are typically not taken in the order they will appear in a course.
  • Then organize the order in which each scene will be shot. Use a logical reason for the order, such as the locations are close together or one location has the most complex shots and you want to get those done early.

2. Create a Props List

As you’re writing the shot list, pull out the props you’ll need for each scene and track them in a props list. Props could be things like books on a desk, photos on a dresser or a gym bag in the hand of a person walking. Props make photos more realistic if you’re simulating an event.

3. Create Your Schedule

Create a schedule estimating the time it should take to complete shots at each location. This will help you stay on track. Ask the photographer how much set up time he or she will need and account for that in the schedule. Think about time for meals and snacks.

4. Get Permissions

Assuming you have already scouted out the locations, find out who is in charge and get permission to shoot photos there. Have alternatives in mind if it doesn’t work out.

Print copies of model release forms and ask each person who will appear in a photo to sign one. These state that you have the rights to the photos, preventing any possible legal issues. You can find these online or get an approved one from your legal people.

I like to have model release forms on hand for those spontaneous moments when someone else might become part of the shoot. At a recent photo shoot in a hospital waiting room, the receptionist agreed to be in several photos. I simply had her sign the release form prior to taking the shots.

5. Communicate with your Talent and Photographer

Provide the shot list to the photographer and to each model or actor. As you review the list with them, let everyone know the purpose of the shoot and your goals. Tell the models how they need to dress.

6. Be Creative (and Flexible)

When things are well-planned, you can focus on the creative aspect of the shoot. Perhaps there’s a subtler way to get at the emotion you’re trying to express. Maybe a tilt of the camera or moody lighting will communicate your message. Stay flexible and let the photographer and model find their voice. That’s the way to get a great photo.


Here’s a short example of a shot list from a recent photo shoot I planned for an eLearning course. Because it involved acting for a scenario, I included the script, even though at times, it was out of order.

Good luck with your next photo shoot!

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