Styled Shoots: Problems You May Face & How to Fix Them

DISCLAIMER: The opinions that follow are my own and were not endorsed by any organization. Styled shoots work great for some certain people and vendors, but I'm not necessarily one of them. I wrote this post because I thought it was important for me to share my experience and overall opinion about styled shoots; I did not write this post to discourage anyone else from participating in them. This post is also not directed at any specific third party. I do share experiences but I do not name any names. Please take into consideration that this post is written from the point of a calligrapher/stationer so my experience may be different than that of other vendors in the industry. Multiple wedding vendors have expressed how much they agree with many of the points I am about to share below. Also, I feel that I should state I am by no means against collaboration! I think a certain amount of collaboration is incredibly healthy, though too much can start wearing you out. It’s up to you to find that perfect balance in your life and be working with people that you trust and enjoy :)

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That being said, I’m pretty much done participating in styled shoots and I only have a few people I will say “yes” to in the future (people that I really trust and love working with). This decision did not occur from one breaking point, but rather a culmination of many different experiences and situations. In the future, I will be doing styled shoots purely for my enjoyment and only if I can attend in person and actually hang out with people and style my work!

First, before I discuss why I will no longer be doing styled shoots, let me take some time to go over why people love participating in styled shoots and why they can be incredibly helpful for your business:

  • Styled shoots allow you to collaborate with vendors you wouldn’t otherwise work with and hopefully build some sort of connection with them!
  • Styled shoots help you create and experiment with concepts that you might not necessarily get to do for a real client.
  • Styled shoots can help your SEO once they have been published because the back-links to your website make Google rank your site higher within their searches!
  • Styled shoots will hopefully provide you with beautiful images of your work if you aren’t good at styling/photographing your pieces yourself.

Next, I’ll be dissecting some problems with styled shoots that I encountered during 2016/2017 when I was participating in styled shoots almost once a month. You might not even be aware of some of the problems I’m about to outline, which is why I think it was so important for me to share this post. I want it to be as educational and transparent as possible, especially if you are considering participating in styled shoots! I will also be sharing a “problem solve” or “fix” for each of these situations as well, because I don’t think it’s fair for me to share problem areas without at least attempting to offer a logical way they could be made better in the future.

PROBLEM 1: Some styled shoots have become a money-making scheme rather than a relationship-building experience.

I have friends that have participated in “paid styled shoots” before that involve around 20 photographers taking photos of a styled scene. The first problem is that photographers are paying to attend these shoots but other vendors are still being asking to provide work for free even though the event includes paying customers (the photographers). This is not how styled shoots are supposed to work in my opinion! Styled shoots should be a collaborative effort where no one involved is making a profit off any sort of client.

FIX: Vendors that are running these workshops need to be more transparent with the vendors that they invite to participate, including offering to pay them for their services. Vendors who are invited to participate also need to do their research on the event first before agreeing to send work for free.  

The other problems is that all the photographers are paying money to get a bunch of photos that will be identical to all the other photographers that are there. It makes it super difficult for those photographers to then differentiate themselves from the other photographers in the area, though they might not realize that’s a repercussion at the time they sign up. Styled shoots were originally intended to facilitate friendships and relationships between vendors and this type of situation does not encourage that because people are climbing over one another to take photos. Here’s another interesting blog post from Mastin Labs called “Why Styled Shoots are Like Big Game Hunts” if you want to read a second opinion on this specifically.

FIX: As a photographer, maybe you make the decision not to attend these types of shoots anymore and, instead, put together something fun with you and a few other trusted friends that you can use in your portfolio.

PROBLEM 2: Styled shoots are often used as a guise to ask for free work.

I’ve been approached on multiple different occasions asking for free work under the pretense of a “styled shoot”, only to discover that there was a paying client on the other side of the equation. Luckily, I have always found out about this far enough in advance and I have declined sending my work at that point. As a vendor, if you have a client paying you for your work (whether that is photography, planning, etc.) then it is not polite or proper etiquette to ask other vendors to provide any sort of work for free, and it is most certainly not ok to treat a real engagement or anniversary shoot as if it is a styled shoot. You can, of course, submit that shoot for publication, but when a real client is involved there are limitations of what you can ask for from other vendors.

FIX: Vendors need to understand the limitations of what counts as a “styled shoot” and what does not. Basically, if anyone is getting paid, the term “styled shoot” should no longer apply. For example, if you are hosting a styled shoot workshop, it should be correctly labeled as a workshop.

PROBLEM 3: Invitation suites created for styled shoots are often impossible to replicate for a real wedding without it costing $7,000 + which makes it incredibly misleading for brides.

Handmade paper is extremely beautiful for a one-off invitation suite for a styled shoot, but tremendously expensive for the bride that might want to bring that inspiration to life. There are small percentage of brides out there that can actually afford to pay for handmade paper for an entire wedding invitation suite. If one of the reasons for doing styled shoots is to try to get more clients, then we (as stationers and calligraphers) are not doing ourselves any favors by creating inspiration that will cost an arm and a leg for a bride to bring to life. I’m myself am guilty of making a ton of styled shoot suites with handmade paper or acrylic, only to realize no one was ever going to hire me to create something like. It’s super hard to explain to a real-life bride that all of the inspiration she has found on Pinterest or a wedding blog is going to cost a ton of money, let alone explain that the suite in the photo was created as a one-time-thing. This is really confusing for a lot of brides that have inquired about my services!

The one exception to this rule is if you are a stationer/calligrapher that specializes specifically in bespoke wedding stationery, and I know quite a few lovely ladies that do!

FIX: We need to take some responsibility and stop creating work that cannot be duplicated on a larger scale for a reasonable amount of money. If you don’t usually offer handmade paper to your clients (and that’s not your normal clientele), then don’t use handmade paper for a shoot.

PROBLEM 4: Styled shoots unintentionally help to build a “professional façade” for vendors that don’t actually have real client experience.  

I will be the first to admit that this point is a little bit of a Catch-22. A lot of you are probably thinking, “But, Elisabeth, if I can’t do styled shoots how do I build my portfolio?” and I will address that in a minute. There are so many vendors that are trying to gain experience, but the problem is that they are using styled shoots as a crutch to make it look like they have a much larger portfolio full of real clients. Heck, I’m guilty of this too so I’m definitely not pointing fingers!

The following example is from one of my photography friends. She told me that she hired a second shooter that looked like she had incredible work and experience, only to find out that the girl had no idea what she was doing when it came to shooting and working a real wedding with real clients. Here’s the dilemma I was speaking of: obviously shoots are great for adding work to your portfolio, but they are also great at making people look way better than they are. My photography friend said that wedding day was a terrible experience because her second shooter was completely helpless. Even though she looked professional and experienced thanks to the styled shoots she worked on, she didn’t actually have any experience in the field.

No one ever intended for styled shoots to have these kinds of repercussions, but these are the types of things that have started to happen in the wedding industry! And when things like this happen, everyone’s trust in one another begins to steadily drop.

FIX: Getting work within the wedding industry takes a lot of time, relationship building, and trust. You cannot jump your way to the top by only doing styled shoots and acting as if those were real clients. I am guilty of this thought process. I thought that by doing so many of them I might be able to “cut my way in line” to getting better clients and working with better vendors but that’s not the case at all. It’s better to put the hard and honest work into your business and continue working with real clients as much as possible to grow your business and experience. And it takes years to successfully build a business. You have to be patient and you have to be determined.

Here are some ways to gain experience in the wedding industry without participating in styled shoots:       

  • Option 1: Attending networking events outside of the wedding industry to meet a variety of people that might be able to send you business and real clients!
  • Option 2: Take time to create work yourself that you love, whether than be an invitation suite, floral bouquet, cake, etc. and have a close/trusted friend help you take photos of it. This helps you showcase what you can do while skipping the craziness of a styled shoot.
  • Option 3: Find a mentor within the wedding industry that can give you solid advice and direction about building your business. This might include a monetary investment, but it is a great option!

PROBLEM 5: As a calligrapher/stationer it became frustrating that stationery and wedding invitations at a styled shoot often seemed to get overlooked.

This was definitely not the case for every shoot that I was a part of, but it is applicable to a few of them. I’ve had my work treated without respect on several different occasions, including having my work mixed and matched with a different stationer’s work (which renders it absolutely useless for my portfolio and the other artist’s portfolio as well) or having it reused for another shoot without my permission. I made sure I was as friendly and honest with the vendors I worked with in regard to these situations; the vendors apologize for their error of judgement, so there are no longer any hard feelings over this. That being said, it still happened because stationery tends to get treated a little differently at shoots. The lead vendors often seem to care more about the model, flowers, cake, design, etc. and don’t leave time for the stationery, or rush the styling of it. In addition, many photographers don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with styling stationery pieces, which means some of the photos I’ve received back haven’t been the greatest.

Once I realized I was fully capable of shooting my own work, I was less inclined to send free work to shoots and risk not getting good photos back. That being said, I’ve had photos from styled shoots that turned out amazing and I’m very thankful for those but it’s been a very hit or miss process!

Lastly, if you’re a vendor involved in a styled shoot it’s extremely important to know how to spell “stationery” right. The word “stationary” has an entirely different meaning and it may make you look a little silly if you use the wrong one.

Stationery / n. / Paper Goods

Stationary / a. / To stand still or not move.

FIX: As a stationer/calligrapher is it crucial that you do not rely on a styled shoot as a means to receive good photos. Either collaborate one-on-one with a trusted photographer friend who can shoot your work, or take the time to learn how to shoot it on your own! As a photographer working on styled shoots, take some time to practice styling stationery on your own. For anyone wanting to learn stationery styling tricks check out my Stationery Styling YouTube Series.

PROBLEM 6: Styled shoots provide huge wedding blogging companies with FREE content… content they didn’t have to work for at all.

This is the point that is the most interesting to think about. The blogging giants are taking your work for free and profiting off of it. Basically, all the large blogging companies are posting gorgeous work and submissions from vendors that, in the end, they don’t have to pay a single dime for. And sometimes, you have to pay them to be able to submit something. Even though getting published in a large publication might offer you some business clout, I’ve had a harder and harder time being ok with this.

Not only do those publications then have beautiful work that elevates their own brand and blog, but it also gives them good reason to charge vendors a hefty fee to officially advertise with them, with the promise that they are “more likely to be featured” since they are now a paying vendor. They are making thousands upon thousands from vendors that pay to be on their website because other people have given them a whole bunch of beautiful, free work. And then they turn around and write articles like “How to DIY Your Wedding Florals” when they have dozens of professional florists that are paying them advertising money (this was a real thing, btw). Maybe you disagree with me on this point, and that’s ok! But it’s something I’m not ok with anymore and something I don’t want to personally feed into. I am not trying to diminish the amount of work that goes into creating a successful wedding blog because I know it's a lot, I'm just trying to shed light on an interesting phenomenon in our industry. 

FIX: If you do a styled shoot, you can make a blog post that will be featured on your own website with wonderful SEO as long as you are doing the due diligence to take the time to label your photos, use keys words, etc. Just make sure to communicate with the other vendors that the ultimate goal is to have everyone write their own blog post. Back links aren’t only successful when they go to a large wedding blog; they are also super successful when you are linking to other vendor’s websites as well. Also, if you're extremely preoccupied with getting featured in a wedding blog, you do have the chance to be featured in a post about a real wedding which is an even bigger deal! This is why it's so important to be working your butt off to find real clients. 

PROBLEM 7: There is not a universal standard or rule book for styled shoots.

Last, but not least, everyone approaches styled shoots differently. Some photographers take 4 weeks to edit the photos, other photographers take 8 months. Some planners like to style everything themselves, some planners like having all the other vendors assist them. Some photographers let you share the photos right away, other photographers require you to not share until the shoot is featured (a better tactic, in my opinion). I made the mistake in assuming that all styled shoots operated similarly with a similar set of rules/guidelines attached. Ha!

If I was told up front exactly how everything will operate and what I was getting myself into, then I had no problems participating because my expectations have been set accordingly. It’s when almost nothing was communicated that things start getting very tense and I, and other vendors involved, started getting annoyed or upset by the situation. Also, please notice how I did not mention that one of my reasons for no longer participating in styled shoots was having to wait a long time for the photographer to edit the photos. I really don’t care about that at all! I was more than happy to wait for the results, though it did bother me when a timeline was not communicated.

I want you to know that I have never received business from a bride/groom because they saw work of mine in a publication. I only received business from one wedding vendor (a planner) that I worked with on a couple different occasions. If you are participating in styled shoots, you need to be aware of that fact that recommendations about you will be coming from other people at the shoot, not necessarily people who view the shoot online later. That’s why it’s so important that no one is getting “screwed over” during a shoot.

FIX: If you decide to host a styled shoot, it is important that everything is thoroughly communicated such as: Where will the photos be submitted (if anywhere)? How long will it take for the photos to be turned around? Should we be sharing these photos before they are accepted by a publication? What are expectations for proper credit methods? Expectations are key in any situation, especially styled shoots!

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To those of you who participate in styled shoots regularly and love it, I’m proud of you! It ended up becoming too much for me and the focus of my business began to steadily change. And to those of you who hope to participate in more shoots in the future, here is an amazing blog post from my friend Ruth of Seniman Calligraphy that outlines some misconceptions, etiquette, and guidelines for styled shoots! 

Like I stated at the beginning of this blog, styled shoots can be a wonderful tool for so many reasons, but the more I participated in, the more I started to see the frustrating and unhelpful side of them as well. They really are a double-edge sword. Please take all my words with a grain of salt since not everyone shares my same opinion (obviously). The world would be a boring place if that was the case!

A big thank you to two of my best friends that helped me edit & reshape this post. What started off as an “airing of grievances” that I had with styled shoots turned into something much more productive and helpful. You know who you are :) 

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