The Aspiring Photographer Part 3 | Setting Up Your Photograph

I saw an image a photographer shared once from a senior portrait session where she had her client stand in front of a graffiti wall, only to realize that there was a massive penis behind the client. Of course this was once she had already delivered her photos to the client and shared them online. Talk about awkward.

Today we’re talking about setting up your photographs - the little details that can be forgotten in the moment but can be avoided with practice. While these might be less dramatic or detrimental than a penis behind your senior client, these common occurrences are good to keep in mind when you’re shooting so you won’t have to spend hours in Photoshop later from choosing a bad spot for your photograph. If I had a penny for every time I saw a photographer in a Facebook group ask for help Photoshopping something out, I would have a loooooot of pennies.

Buckle up, photogs - let’s get creatin’!

If you missed the first few parts to The Aspiring Photographer Series, you can read ‘em here - Part One | Part Two

Protruding Objects

The most common offender - the ol’ thing coming out of your client’s head. This is a really easy thing to happen and also can be difficult to notice while you’re out shooting, but with practice you’ll learn how to avoid it in the first place.

This will happen a lot for photographers who work outside - trees sticking out of heads, street signs popping up behind your client’s shoulder, or horizontal lines from buildings running straight through your subject. If you’ve seen it, you know how annoying it can be and you know how it can ruin a photograph - so do yourself a favor and take a minute to position yourself or your client before you start snapping away.

For example, when I’m photographing with a client outside, I’ll put her where I think will be the most flattering, then I’ll take a photograph to see if anything looks funny - if it does, I’ll shift where she’s standing or where I’m standing and try it again. I’ll do this over and over until the background looks as clean as possible and there’s nothing funky going on.


First Shot, Trees Behind Head


Second Shot, Shifted to the Right

What I’m looking for when I do this are any objects sticking out from behind my client that will give them “antlers”, anything that looks strange, or even stray hairs that will take time to edit out in Photoshop later. I’ll also look for objects around the edges of the frame to make sure nothing looks awkward or shouldn’t be there.


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Messy Background

9 times out of 10 there will be something in the background that you don’t want in the background. If you’re outside, it’s trash on the ground, people walking behind your client or neon signs. If you’re in a client’s house, it can be ugly wires in their work space, dirty dishes in the sink, or laundry on a chair in the background.

When I’m setting up to photograph a client, I’ll look around to see what could be organized, what should be taken out of the frame, and if I’m in their home I make sure there’s nothing personal that shouldn’t be there. I remember one time after I had photographed an interior designer’s desk area they emailed me to ask if I could edit out their notebook that had been sitting there with the credit card information of one of their clients, and they couldn’t share their photos online if they notebook was included.


Messy Wires


Clean Workspace

This stuff will happen to you more than you think, so be sure to communicate with your clients to ensure that everything that’s in the frame is supposed to be in the frame.


Why You Should Take Time to Set Up the Scene

Taking time before you start photographing can seem tedious and potentially awkward while you’re with your client - but making these habits of yours are invaluable for a few reasons.

1. You’ll save toooooons of time in post production.

You won’t have to edit your clients hair to make it look smoother, you won’t need to get rid of dirty socks in the background, you won’t have to figure out how to get rid of other people in your shot in you photograph outside. The list goes on.

2. Focusing on the scene up front will make your client trust you.

You might feel awkward and like you’re wasting everyone’s time, but it will actually make you look more professional and like you really know what you’re doing. There are times when I’m photographing in a clients home and they don’t even notice the holiday card hanging behind them that no one wants in their photo, because they aren’t looking at their surroundings, they’re looking at me. It’s my job as the photographer to set the scene for my client and give them as much ease as possible.

Check out in this behind the scenes video with Leslie of Burgundy Fox to see how I help my branding clients with this while I'm photographing them.

3. Taking time to set up what’s in the frame will make you feel more in control.

Every photographer has had a session where they feel like they jumped into the deep end and are toooootally in over their head. An easy way to make yourself feel more confident in your abilities while you’re in a session is to slow down and look at what’s in front of you - take the time to organize, add props, talk to your client and make them comfortable before you bring out your camera.


  • Before your start taking pictures, look at what’s happening behind your client. Make sure there’s nothing coming out from behind them that looks awkward and if there is try a different angle or position before you start photographing.

Questions? Drop ‘em below!

Katharine Hannah

Katharine’s work has graced the walls of institutions such as The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Harold Washington Library of Chicago, and local galleries such as Dreambox Gallery, Siragus Gallery and Blick Art Materials. She has also been featured on websites such as the Huffington Post, Phlearn, Fstoppers, Tigress Magazine for Girls, Bitchtopia, and Golden Boy Press.

In addition to photography, Katharine has been a mentor and educator in the arts since 2013. She has worked with students in various organizations and projects over the last two years, including Hive Chicago’s PROjectUS initiative and Digital Youth Network’s Digital Diva’s and Chicago City of Learning programs.