5 Things That Should Be On Every Photographer’s Pre-Shoot Checklist

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon3 Comments

Five things every photographer should have on their pre-shoot checklist to make sure they are ready for whatever comes their way

5 Things That Should Be On Every Photographer’s Pre-Shoot Checklist

I don’t know if full-time photographers have the same challenge, but as a hobbyist photographer fitting in client shoots wherever I can, it seems like I am always rushing like a tornado to get out the door and on the way to the shoot.  

Most of the challenge was making sure I had everything I needed for the shoot.  After I created my pre-shoot checklist that fear subsided.  I am still rushing to get out the door, but I no longer worry that I have left something behind I am going to need.

I don’t go over this list because I am perfect at doing it myself.  I am on this path to master photography just like the rest of you.  I am going over this list because I really need to do better on a few of them.  It will be better for my health and my relationship with my wife to improve.  Here are the five things I think should be on every photographer’s pre-shoot checklist.

Photographer’s Pre-Shoot Checklist #1 – Batteries

Have you ever had a shoot end early because your battery died?  It is not fun when it is a personal shoot, but it is much worse when it is a paid shoot.  You look so unprofessional having to beg the client to reschedule the shoot for another time, usually having to reduce the cost of the shoot or maybe do it for free.

Paid or not, having fully charged batteries (more than the one in the camera) is a must for every photo shoot.  Since batteries take hours to fully charge, this can take more planning than just a few minutes before the shoot.  Though you can make it something you don’t have to think about too much by having enough extra batteries that at least two are always charging.

That is my approach to this.  I have 6 batteries and three chargers for my 2 cameras.  I always have 3 batteries charging at a time, which means I can have three with me.  One fresh battery goes in each camera and then I have an extra in my pocket while I shoot.

Before I leave for the shoot, regardless of what the battery meter says on my camera, I take the batteries out of the cameras and swap them with the fully charged batteries.  The partially charged batteries go into the charger where the fully charged battery came from.  Takes about 2 minutes to do this dance and I have yet to need more than one fully charged battery for a client portrait shoot – which are most of my paid shoots.

The place I have been in trouble on this most recently has been with camera rentals.  When you rent a camera it comes with one battery, and even if fully charged it may not be enough for a shoot.  That happened to me when doing a High School basketball shoot a little while ago, it was a mirrorless camera that I was testing out and the battery gave out a little after half-time.  I was without a camera for the end of the game!

I learned a valuable lesson there, when I rent I need to make sure I rent an extra battery with the camera just in case the camera works differently than I am used to and I have a shoot where I need more juice.

Photographer’s Pre-Shoot Checklist #2 – Memory Cards

Very similar to batteries, your shoot is dead if you don’t have a memory card.  Just like batteries, I don’t leave for a shoot without formatting a card in camera and bringing an extra card in case I fill it or kill it somehow.

I rotate my memory cards as well, though not nearly as easily as I rotate my batteries.  My plan for organizing this is to use a Pelican Case ($18) to hold my cards and have cards showing the labels meaning they are ready for use and cards turned over showing the gold connectors as cards that may have photos from other shoots I am not ready to format just yet.  When I am done with a shoot and have validated the photos have been backed up, put the card into the case face up.

Not a system I thought up myself, heard it as advice somewhere over the years, but while this front/back scheme sounds great I have found it hard to do in practice.  Looking at the desk in my office right now there are six memory cards near the card reader, all of them label up.  No idea which is ready for use.

So this ends up being one of the things that I have to make a mad dash with as I am leaving for a shoot.  I put one card in the camera, quickly use the camera to look at the photos on the card, and once I have validated I have finished the edits of the shoots on the card, I format the card using the camera.  Sometimes that validation includes getting on the computer and making sure I have all the photos on my hard drive, which slows things down tremendously.  Still, better than losing photos.

I do the same for the backup card.  Quickly validate I can format that card if need be, and I put it in the Pelican case label up.  That part of my rules I do follow.  If I ever put a card into the case that I know is NOT ready for use, like filling it up when I am away from home, I put that card in label down so that it is clear I can’t use that card until I unload the photos to my computer and backups.

I also use two memory cards if my camera supports it.  Only one of my cameras does.  It has one SD slot and one CF slot.  I have a large CF card that I just re-use with every shoot, it is there just as a backup in case the SD card fails.

Last thing to mention here is that I use a sharpie to put the date I first use a memory card on the back of the card.  Once it hits three years old, I replace that card.  I am rotating through them all enough that 3 years of use means a lot of writes and they are inexpensive enough I just replace them when that date says 3 years.

Photographer’s Pre-Shoot Checklist #3 – Lighting

OK, so this may not be number three for the landscape photographers, though there is a light they need to think about too.  With most of my paid shoots being portraits of some kind, I need to have my flash kit with me.  This isn’t exactly the same with every shoot.  I have one lighting setup I use with 1-2 people, another for 3-5 people, and a third for more than 5 people.

The biggest challenge with the lighting for portraits on this pre-shoot checklist is the batteries for the lights.  Just like with the camera, I really have to make sure I have fully charged batteries in the lights and a backup set.  Unlike my camera, I have often needed to change out the batteries in my lights during a shoot, so those backups are crucial.

Just like my camera, I have enough batteries I can rotate them out of the lights and into a charger with every shoot.  Three sets of batteries for the lights.  One goes in the lights as I am heading to the shoot, one is in the bag as backup for when I need to change the batteries out, and the third is in the chargers.  It would be better to have four sets and enough chargers to keep two sets charging while two are in the lights or in the bag, but they are expensive enough I haven’t done that.

The lighting kit means light stands and modifiers too.  Some modifiers I bring on every shoot, others are only for the larger groups.  I know what each are and I check them off the list as I load them into the car.

As to the landscape lighting, and this is one I am not very good at following because I don’t do nearly as many landscape shoots as I do portrait shoots, it is a really good idea to have a flashlight and/or headlamp with you.  Too many times I end up using the flashlight on my phone so that I can see the buttons on the camera because I didn’t think about bringing a light.  

A headlamp with an option for red light helps save your night vision and is the best choice.  I have three of them, I just have to remember to take them and have good batteries in them when I head out.

Photographer’s Pre-Shoot Checklist #4 – Camera Settings

It is hard to explain the horror you feel after a shoot to come home to the computer and realize that your camera had some settings you didn’t think to check the entire shoot.  The worst one for me is shooting JPEG only.

I will shoot JPEG only a couple of times a year, and it is really hard to remember to switch back to RAW unless you check your camera settings before a shoot.  I actually shoot JPEG+RAW these days because I use WiFi and an app on an iPad to have my client see the photos we are creating while we are shooting.  So much easier to change things to make the client happy while you are shooting than it is to do Photoshop backflips afterwards.  Shooting JPEG+RAW makes the transfer from my camera to the iPad go faster.

Turns out this has also helped me check this setting more consistently with every shoot.  Though I recently did a shoot where we used both of our cameras and I was horrified when I got home and realized my camera had been set to JPEG only.  The images were OK, but it was a low-light shooting situation and it would have been much better to have the RAW files.

Of all the things on this list this is the one I think I have the most to work on.

Photographer’s Pre-Shoot Checklist #5 – Attitude

All of the things I have outlined here has put me in a little bit of a state of frenzy just reliving all those mad dashes to get out the door.  It can be stressful and wear down my patience right off the bat.  It can make me rude to my family, which I always regret, but that attitude can easily bleed over into the shoot.  Not cool to treat a paid client poorly because you were frazzled trying to get out the door.

My wife usually helps me here quite a bit.  She goes through the checklist with me as we are leaving and most of the time helps me get to a calm place so that we can be the happy and excited photographers our clients deserve.  Sometimes, she is just as frazzled as I am because we got such a late start to getting out the door we are way behind where we should be.

I don’t think we have every let that attitude impact how we treat our clients, it helps that we usually have at least a ten minute car ride to get to the shoot and change our attitude.  It has become something I have been far more aware of in the past few shoots, enough I thought I should put it on the list.

What Is On Your Checklist?

Now I would love to hear something that is on your pre-shoot checklist that didn’t make my top 5.  Let me know in the comments or in the Facebook group what you would put in your top 5 that I don’t have here.


Jeff: Crucial MX500 2TB SATA 2.5” SSD ($250).  Not quite as fast as M.2 connected SSD drives, but  about 75% faster than spinning magnet drives with 560MB/s read and 520MB/s write speeds.  The best part is that it is 2TB in size and between 20% and 60% less expensive than similar SSD drives.  I just recently used the free Macrium Reflect software to upgrade the SSD that was ¼ the size for running Windows, Lightroom, and Photoshop.  I will still keep my Lightroom catalog on a separate SSD.  The advantage being that there is now a full terabyte of disk that Windows 10 Pro can use for swap space as I am working on massive Photoshop composites.



  1. I had a good laugh today. On the way home from church I decided to photograph a railroad bridge. On the way home I also listened to this podcast and got to part on remembering memory cards when I arrived at the bridge. I parked in the parking lot, took my camera, walked a few minutes to a traffic bridge so I could shoot the railroad bridge that was upstream. I adjusted my settings, pushed down on the button — nothing. Pushed the shutter button again — nothing. Looked at the message on the lcd screen: no memory card. Thankfully I always carry extra memory cards, so back to the car, put in the memory card, formatted it, and back to take my photo. I downloaded bunch of photos yesterday and forgot to put the memory card back into the camera. I chuckled as I photographed the bridge.

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