Trial and Error: Tips for Experimental Shoots

I don’t know about you, but for me, experimental photo shoots are an important part of what I do. I use them to challenge myself, learn new things, master skills and equipment, and gain insights into how things work. I also have a bit of fun along the way and sometimes produce a portfolio worthy photo too. I do an “experimental” or “test” shoot every time I get a new piece of photo gear, when I want to try out a new lighting set up, and any time I get some crazy idea in my head and want to work with a new material.

Although one of these photo shoots may just be a “test” shoot, I still want to get the most from it, and want you to get the most from yours too. Here are a few things I’ve learned from doing them, along with examples from my most recent experimental shoot.
Have A Vision
While it’s sometimes fun to just “play” with no set agenda while photographing, it’s good to go into one of these experimental shoots with a set vision. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you want the final product to look like? Having a goal in mind will help you know what to change to get to where you want to be.
Example: I had an idea in my head that I wanted to shoot through ice. Living in the south, it was a pretty long shot that some magical large piece of ice would just appear, so I knew I had to make one. I decided I wanted to figure out how to make a sheet of ice that I could shoot a clear portrait through, while still keeping some texture in the ice sheet. I didn’t want to have to add any fancy tricks or filters in the editing process, but wanted to capture it straight out of the camera. After I had made the sheet, I was then going to have to figure out how to light it. I had a pretty clear picture in my head how I wanted the final images to turn out, and I came pretty darn close to that vision.
Do Your Research
Spend some time researching your topic, whether it is a new piece of equipment, a lighting set up, or new materials, before beginning to put your new knowledge to the test.
Example: I spent some time reading up on how to make clear ice. If you look at ice cubes that come out of your refrigerators ice machine, they are very cloudy, and more on the white side then clear side. So, I read up on different ways to achieve clear ice, both scientifically, and from people who had already experimented with it.

Test ice pieces, round 1

Do A Preliminary Test
Even thought the point of your “test” shoot is to experiment, I prefer to do a pre-test test with the item or material before I have a person in front of me. This way, it doesn’t waste any unnecessary time during the real test shoot and I can work out a few kinks in the first test before moving on to the real one.
Example: I first created 3 small test ice blocks. One with frozen tap water- it turned out cloudy as predicted. One with frozen distilled water- partially cloudy. And one with boiled tap water with a bit of blue food coloring in it- fairly clear but the blue coloring concentrated in the middle and didn’t produce an even blue throughout the whole piece of ice. I then shot a toy horse through the blocks to see to what extent I could see through each one.
Don’t Do A Test Shoot On A Client
This should be a given. If you don’t really know what you’re doing, don’t do it for a paying client. Ask a friend or family member to be your sit-in model for your experiment.

Model holding 1st test ice piece (fail), round 2

Be Prepared
Just like any paid shoot, you should always be prepared, especially if another person is involved. If you’re shooting a still life and it’s just on your time, well then being prepared is up to you, but again, it’s not nice to waste someone else’s time because you haven’t thought ahead. Have your equipment ready and set up, have all of your materials readily accessible, and have a game plan.
Example: Being prepared for the ice shoot was especially important because I had to work fast- my material after all would be melting away the entire time we were using it. For my official test shoot, I prepared five large sheets of ice. Each one was made a little differently, in the hopes that we would have at least two good sheets to work with, and have some back ups. Because I knew it would be cold, I prepared the model for what to expect, supplied her with gloves (since she was going to have to hold the ice sheets), had an assistant running the ice sheets back and forth to me and the freezer, and had a towel on the models lap for the melting ice droplets that would land on her.
Have A Backup Plan
This is more essential when you have another person involved like a model as well. If your plan doesn’t go anywhere near what you had wanted, is there something else you can do?
Example: My plan was to just be shooting the face, but since I had no idea how these larger sheets of ice were going to turn out, I asked the model to bring clothing for a full length shot and had a backup idea in mind incase my first idea didn’t work. I could then at least take another type of picture for her troubles that wouldn’t be relying on an experimental aspect.
Keep An Open Mind and Expect Problems
With any kind of experiment, there’s always a chance that things could not go as you had imagined. Even though you may be prepared and have done your research, expect unforeseen problems, roll with them, and adapt.
Example: Although I had done the first set of ice tests, and done my research on “making clear ice”, my final ice sheets were on a much larger scale. I ran into multiple issues that we had to work around with the final pieces. One sheet that was made in a seasoned baking pan had came out with some oily seasoning and soap particles in the water. Another that we made in a disposable plastic container came out with the brand name Glad on the ice, which was very visible in the images. Because of the size and the rate at which the sheets froze, we also had other problems such as large cracked “bubbles” in the center of some of the sheets. Oh yeah, and the frozen gelatin sheet we tried, lets just say “eww” and leave it at that. So with only one really useable sheet of ice, and a few not quite useable, we had to figure out an on-the-spot treatment to make the sheets useable. And luckily, we did.

A final shot from the “ice” experimental shoot
Photos and article by Jenn Fletcher, BlondeShot Creative


  1. this is awesome! I’ve been using shards of glass and experimenting that that!

  2. Great tips!

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