What you need to know about working to a photography brief

For many professional photographers, working to a brief is nothing new. But for those just starting their professional journey, the concept of working to a brief might seem a little overwhelming and intimidating.

I recently provided a challenge for our members, where I gave them a set advertising brief to execute. This task provided an opportunity to experience what it’s like to work to a set brief, interpret mood boards and execute pre-determined concepts. This is all explained in more detail in our Business class, ‘Working to a brief’, but I’ve also provided some information that you might find useful here.

Example of a photography brief

Working To A Photography Brief

Tuesday 5th May 2020 - 15:00 BST / 10:00 EDT

In this live show Karl provides members with a photography brief outlining a creative concept to execute.

Watch Now
Watch Now
Join Now

What is a photography brief

Photography brief and final image
This is a typical example of a photography brief that you can expect to receive for commercial shoots, which includes moods boards, reference images and written explanations. The final image is shown on the right.

When it comes to commercial photography, it is common to receive a pre-determined brief before the shoot, outlining the concept, target market and specific visual required by the client.

Depending on the type of work you’re shooting, the brief may be more or less specific. For example, briefs for product advertising will likely be far more detailed than those for editorial or fashion images.

Typically, a good brief will detail everything from the lighting and styling of a shot, to the perspective, tone and contrast. This will be outlined through the use of mood boards and reference images, along with a written description of the concept.

What to expect when you receive your first brief

Example of a brief for product photography
Example of a brief for product photography
This is an example of a brief I received for a commercial project, with examples from the art director. As the photographer, I had to photograph the gold and silver bars along with other items that would later be Photoshopped in.

Before you receive a brief, you’ll likely have a call or conversation with the art director/client. This will not only be to check your availability, but also to outline the concept, audiences and goal for the campaign.

When dealing with advertising agencies, the concept will be fairly clear-cut, whereas with some smaller companies you may be called on to offer your thoughts (although keep in mind that this is not your idea and that the concept should have been carefully researched, thought-through and particularly designed to sell a product to a specific audience).

Many companies, big and small, conduct extensive research regarding their target market. Those creating the brief will have a clear idea of what exactly appeals to their customers and how best to convey this.

Once you receive the brief, the next step is to make sure you clearly understand the concept and your role in the project This might sound obvious, but it’s an important point worth highlighting. As the photographer, your job is to bring the art director’s vision to life. If you don’t have a clear understanding of what they want, you will not be able to fully and accurately realise their idea.

Rough sketches, mood boards and reference images will usually be included, which should give you a good idea of what the client wants and any details about the different elements of the campaign. For example, some campaigns may include several other stages like post-production, CGI or even video. If there’s any phase of the project you don’t understand or are uncertain about, make sure to talk to the art director/client before the start of the shoot.

In some cases, for commercial projects, you will deal directly with the client. In these cases, especially if it is a smaller client that is not necessarily used to giving direction to photographers, you may have to consider some of the things that would usually be handled by the art director yourself.

In these cases, you should consider how and where the image will be used, what the layout will be, the brand guidelines etc. Giving thought to each of these will not only help ensure you deliver the best image for your client, but also demonstrate a level of professionalism that your client will value.

Pricing, planning and pre-shoot testing

Image of an artist's studio
This particular shoot included a number of final shots, which meant one general set had to be built and numerous props for each shoot had to be sourced.

Pricing is something that may already have been discussed in earlier communications, but until you’ve seen the full brief, it can be difficult to calculate a final cost. Once you have a clearer picture of what the project entails, you’ll be better able to determine what to charge for the project.

Planning and pre-shoot testing are two other important stages that come before shoot-day. When it comes to planning, the brief should act as your pre-visualisation (this is something I often talk about in our classes), but it’s still important to have a clear idea of how the shoot will proceed.

Make sure you have everything that you need before the day. For example, you may need a background of a certain colour, so make sure you have that ready for the shoot. You may need specific props or outfits, so those also need to be organised in advance too.

Preparing for a photography job
Invisible man photograph
This particular shoot required a certain background, which we had to prepare and paint beforehand. Specific props also had to be found for the shoot, including the outfits for the mannequin.

Pre-shoot testing is another factor to consider, both for the pricing and planning for the job. With many of my long-standing clients, I no longer do pre-shoot testing because I am familiar with their preferred style. However, if it is a complex or new concept, I may take half a day to run through the basics of the shoot to ensure everything runs smoothly on the day. This is something that both product photographer Jonathan Knowles and liquid specialist David Lund discuss in their live talk shows.

Day of the shoot

Art director and photographer
Commercial photography behind the scenes
The art director will commonly be present on the day of the shoot to oversee your progress.

On the day of the shoot, the art director will often be with you in the studio to oversee the shoot (sometimes a representative from the client will be there too). Having the brief, along with mood boards and reference images, on hand to refer to throughout the shoot can be a good idea. This will allow you to check and make sure you are on track and don’t forget anything.

If the shoot comprises of multiple stages or elements, it can be a good idea to have a shot list too to ensure you don’t miss anything. If there is no-one with you on the day of the shoot, you may be expected to send jpeg files through to the relevant people at regular intervals throughout the shoot for them to keep up to date with the progress and check that what you are doing is what they had in mind.

If it is just the photographic elements that fall to you for the shoot, once the shoot is complete and the director is happy with the images, the next step is to deliver the images they need. If you are also doing the retouching, you will have to confirm which images the client wants to be retouched and when the deadline is for delivery of the final images.

The key thing when working to a brief is to remember that your role, as the photographer, is to bring the art director/client’s vision to life. Often it is less about your own creativity and more about your skills as a problem solver that will help you deliver the desired images.

If you’d like to practice executing a brief, make sure to watch our live show, where I provide a brief for a Cider advert. You’ll see what a real commercial brief may look like and also see how mood boards and reference images are used.

© Visual Education. All rights reserved. No content on this page may be used or shared by third parties.

Recommended Content

To learn more about photography, working to a brief and the commercial project workflow, make sure to take a look at our Business of Photography course. Below are a few popular classes along with interviews with top professional photographers, that will also help you better understand how commercial photographers operate.


  1. Hi Karl,
    you invoice your pre-shoot testing, procure the props and making the background the right color?

    1. Hi Guido, thanks for your question. I have a live show next Thursday ‘Business Advice for Photographers’ so I’m going to bring your question up then and answer it on the show.

  2. Hi Karl, hope all of yua are well.

    I am trying to get the blue shade seen in the gold photo and in other photographs, I have only managed to get gray tones, I have not seen you use any blue gel, I wonder if it has to see the distance of the acrylic with respect to the product. Thank you and have an excellent weekend.

    1. Hi Daniel, the frosted acrylic i’m using naturally has a slight blue tinge but I think i put a weak blue CTO gel on the light from behind the acrylic on that one.

Leave a Comment