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Shot Lists 101

One of the things we focus on when teaching a Crossroads workshop is an invaluable skill known as, “developing a shot list”. Acquiring this skill goes beyond what can be taught in a typical photo workshop where the majority of time is spent chasing beautiful single images. Our job as we see it, is to challenge you to embrace the even more difficult task of creating a group of images that when shown together tell a story. Crossroads is where you move beyond the challenge of good basic capture and it is also, most likely, the point at which you move beyond your comfort zone!

Do not fret, this is exactly what we are here to help you learn to do. What it requires is an editor’s brain, and a distance runner’s discipline. I know this doesn’t sound sexy or fun, and at times it is not, but ultimately you end up with an extremely satisfying experience that will sour you on single image collection for life – consider yourself warned!  I am quite certain that if I learned to love this type of work so will you. Note – I learn all things the hard way. Then I learn them again. The hard way. And then again.

When I did my first book project, The Lobstering Life, I had enthusiasm in spades and discipline in teaspoons. Nothing made me happier than taking photographs of lobster traps, buoys and boats. Especially traps. I took a lot of really really good photographs of lobster traps – in all colors, all weather, and all kinds of light. I thought I was doing a great job.  Luckily for me, and for anyone who purchases The Lobstering Life, I was working with a pro – David Middleton. David is a seasoned professional and he, unlike me, prefers to do things the simple and easy way. He also has a discipline that has developed over the course of many many many many decades of work and many books and projects. And, as some of you know already David is, well – let’s say “direct” in his comments. At some point in the process as he watched the weeks go by and the photos of traps pile up, he said something subtle like, ” We don’t need any more #%@$#^^#%  photo’s of TRAPS! Step away from the traps or I will lock your camera in the trunk and throw you off the @(&$*&(#**@^ dock!!” End quote.  Lobster Traps, Maine

It was a very good lesson learned the hard way. I want to spare you this lesson, or spare you part of it, and tell you the secret to creating a shot list. It’s not hard. Takes some thought and discipline to stick to it, even when red, blue and yellow traps are calling. First, figure out your story. The main point you can illustrate in the time allowed for your project.  Most of us bite off too much. Once you have the story, there are three categories of shots you will need. You need all of them or you risk losing the story and therefore the interest of your viewer.

1. Establishing shots – the “Big picture”. These are the shots that tell us where we are and locate us in a specific place and time. Sets the overall scene and establishes where the action of the story will take place. If you read the last blog post on the recent Vermont workshop the establishing shots are the big landscapes or big scenics with the overview of the farm or the Green Mountains in them. This is where the story takes place. For the Lobstering Life, the establishing shots were the various harbors on the gulf of Maine.

Corea harbor

Corea Harbor, Maine


2. Middle or Intermediate shots. Bring your audience closer to the action. You have already established where we are and now you  invite the viewer to step further into the scene. You will need more of these intermediate shots than you will establishing shots. Often these middle distance shots will include some type of action. Someone feeding a calf, or a single boat getting fueled at a dock, small group of people or maybe a pond within a larger woods. If the establishing shot is a chapter then the middle shot is a paragraph. These are tricky little rascals and very hard to do well. For me the middle or intermediate shots are always the biggest challenge.

Fueling up at dawn, Stonington

Fueling up at dawn, Stonington


3. Details, details, details!!!  Now, the the fun begins. Dive in and look closely. You will need lots and lots of detail shots. You will need many more details shots than anything else. This is the hand on the neck of the horse, the close up of the red eft who lives in the woods, the lobster buoys or the single leaf floating on the surface of the pond, the intimate portraits.  These are the sentences and phrases that make the entire story really come to life.

Bagging bait 1

Bagging up bait on lobster boat.

Baby lobster in hand

Baby lobster in hand

Hand detail Lobstering Life

Hand detail Lobstering Life

The reality is that each type of shot is vitally important to telling the whole story. We all get into a comfortable rut in terms of what we like to shoot or what we feel we shoot well. To really do the job right you have to push yourself to do all three. Some of us do wide angle landscapes all year long –  big pretty skies, and maybe mountains and beaches, big scenics – calendar shots. This is what “we do”. However, if this is all you do, you will never allow yourself or your viewer to step in closer and see what is living in that tide pool or pond. We need to engage the viewer more deeply, they want surprise moments and discovery. If all your shots are versions on the same theme it becomes boring. Same with macro. It is easy to get lost in the small world. It’s very exciting and addictive (I know of whence I speak) but at some point we need to step back and find out where that little bug or flower lives. Sometime we even have to add….gasp…people!!! I know this is horrible for you pure nature shooters to contemplate; however, people and the ability to photograph them may be what is needed to tell the complete story of that flower or pond. Each of the three levels of shots provides context and depth for the others levels, ultimately leading to a story with more depth and a greater level of satisfaction for the viewer.

Lobsterman preparing traps on Monhegan Island, Maine

Lobsterman preparing traps on Monhegan Island, Maine


This should give you a bit to consider. If you come along on a workshop with us you will be forced to consider as well as do this thing!  For those of you currently working on your own projects this post should serve as a reminder to check your work. Check your shot list every time you head out. Ask yourself, am I shooting all details and have not yet established the big picture? Do I have the big scene and enough detail but no intermediate shots at all?  Challenge yourself to shoot the middle distance with out feeding the inclusion monster. This is a hard task to accomplish well. Maybe David will write something concise on the topic.

One thing I do know, and you will discover when you begin shooting stories and not just single images, is that it is incredibly rewarding not only for the viewer, but for you – the photographer. You learn more, you experience more and you become more engaged with the subject.  It is deeply satisfying work. Not all the shots will be killer shots or “stand alones”, but if you get a strong group together the whole is much more powerful than any individual shot. Try it and let us know how it goes!

The gallery at the bottom of this post is an example of the story of a day starting in a rural village in the Usambara Mountains in TZ. See you can identify the three types of shots used. Yes, this is extra credit…. if you do it David will give you chocolate.



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