Why A Backup Plan is Invaluable to Photography


Recently, I’ve found myself improvising way too much just because things didn’t go as planned and too many unexpected variables came into play. So for the last photo shoot for which I was commissioned, I decided to create a backup plan, and a backup for the backup, in case something went wrong.

You're likely familiar with Murphy’s law: “If something can go wrong, it will”. Somehow, this is always true for me, as nicely illustrated by my latest photo shoot, so the backup plans came in handy. To begin with, the first location suddenly became unavailable, and a rooftop and a sunset were the requirements. Luckily, I had a few extra locations at my disposal.

Available light portrait. Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski.
Sunset portrait. Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski.

But backup plans aren’t always about locations. When a larger project is at hand, you’ll need a backup for everything, since anything could happen. The wise thing to do is to make a checklist of the flow and resources you'll use for every photoshoot.

  • Location
  • Model(s)
  • Props
  • Natural light
  • Gear (Camera, lenses, lights, and everything else)
  • Time-frame
  • Legal agreements

What Can Go Wrong With a Location?

The view from the backup location, which turned out to be the main one.
The view from the backup location, which turned out to be the main one. Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski.

Backup locations are important since you won’t always have the luxury of rescheduling the shoot, nor will you necessarily have the luxury of having the time to spend in searching for an alternative location if the main one suddenly becomes unavailable. Your job as a photographer is to make sure you have at least 3 locations at your disposal for each shoot, which you have scouted beforehand, and you need to be absolutely sure that they are adequate.

Will Your Models Even Show Up?

Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski.
Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski.

You can have models commissioned to work for you months prior the shoot, but anything can happen. A simple cold can render them unable to present for the shoot, which is why you need to have several models to serve as your “go-to” models. For these, it's best to seek out the less-experienced and lesser-known models with whom you've worked in the past and who you know will be available for a last-minute booking. I’m not discriminating against famous and experienced models, but the fact is that less-experienced and less famous models tend to get commissioned less, meaning that they have a more flexible schedule. Famous modes are booked months in advance and chances are you won’t be able to get one for a last-minute shoot. Having worked with the backup models will save you the time of creating a working relationship with them, making the shoot much easier.

Thinking About the Props

Props come and go. Props get broken, stepped on, destroyed, burned, stained, and so forth. Props are often single-use items, so having spare ones is good. Most shoots won’t work without props, and if something happens to one of the main props during the shoot, it can leave your job crippled. Therefore, having at least two or three backups for each prop is a really smart thing to do.

Are You Sure You Want to Rely Entirely on Natural Light?

Backup location just after sunset. Luckily at this point I had all the pictures I needed, and some to spare as well - just as a backup.
Backup location just after sunset. Luckily, I had all the pictures I needed at this point, with some to spare, as well. Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski.

This might sound a bit weird, since you can’t control the natural light very much, let alone have a backup of it. And that is true, you can’t have a backup natural light, but you can have a backup plan for natural light. Let’s say you need to shoot at sunset, and suddenly it starts to rain. As soon as the rain clears up, the sun has already set, and the deadline is in 24 hours. What can you do? Well, you can try for the next best thing: sunrise. Yes, it is almost 12 hours away and the task will be much tougher, but it can be done. It might cost you more (actually, it surely will) but it is doable. You’ll probably have less time for editing, though.

When Gear Fails

Having backup gear is really necessary. As with the props, anything can happen, especially for shoots when it isn’t just you and the model. Light stands get knocked over constantly, tripods get broken, lenses tend to crash. For my last shoot, I took my new 7D mark 2 which has focusing issues, leaving me to shoot through live view since that is the only way it focuses properly. However, in case that didn’t pan out, I had my old 1000D as a backup camera, and a 60D, which I borrowed from a friend. All of them were Canon bodies and crop sensor cameras, so I knew I would be able to use all my lenses, and that I would get consistent results with depth of field, color reproduction, and angle of view. Also, I wouldn’t have to learn how to use a different brand of camera, being that I’m used to Canon.

Time-frame and Legal Agreements

https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3513/4052848608_890268e24b_o.jpg Photo by NobMouse

Time-frame can’t really be backed up in the regular fashion. Through your own experience, however, you'll know how long you personally need to complete one shoot with the given specifications. Let's say that the time necessary is three hours, as an example. If you need three hours of shooting to capture the necessary images for which you are commissioned, it would be best if you add some time, just in case. I tend to add an additional third of the time needed to the beginning and again onto the end, so if the shoot needs to be done during the sunset which occurs from 17:00 – 20:00, I’d start my shoot at 16:00 and end it at 21:00, because the sun is in that location where I can fake a sunset easily with some work in Lightroom and Photoshop, and it gives me spare time in the event something goes wrong.

Legal agreements are the thing that keep your images yours and limit the usage outside of the agreed specifications. This works as a backup plan for your budget in case your images get misused. They are a form of your personal backup, as well.


Having backup plans is always a good idea. It never hurts to be safe, and in the spirit of another apropos cliche: better safe than sorry. Mishaps will happen, but having a backup plan only affirms your level of professionalism. Clients understand that you can’t have everything under control, and when they see that you are prepared for those times when things don't go as planned, they will feel confident that you are the right person for the job.

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Photographer who loves challenging and experimental photography and loves sharing his knowledge about it.

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