Marketing & Promotions

Anatomy of a Photo Shoot

Learn about the life of a session manicurist and get a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes at a photo shoot.

<p>Working on set has grown my nail skills while allowing me to be a creative ambassador for the nail industry to the rest of the beauty industry, demonstrating that nail artists are serious professionals. (Photo by Sage Etters)</p>

As a session manicurist, I’m often asked by other nail technicians how to begin working on set. Working behind the scenes can be an exciting way to share your creativity with the world, so I’m sharing some tips and tricks to get you photo-shoot ready. Every project can be different, so specific situations may vary, but the following are the basics I’ve learned over the past five years of working on print, TV, and film sets in Chicago.


<p>You’ll likely be working on your model in a small, non-traditional space, so pack your supplies to be easily accessible.</p>

You’ll need to pack strategically as the traditional “two chairs and a table” station isn’t always available on set. You may be working on your model while other services are being performed, like hair and makeup, so plan accordingly. Pack everything you’ll need to perform a basic dry manicure and pedicure, along with polish choices in every color. This includes implements, treatments, brushes, and a way to hold them all. I usually come to set with a roller bag full of polishes in zipped organizer bags, and my tools and treatments in a plastic container that allows for easy access. Complete your kit with a couple of clean microfiber towels that can cover your workspace or the model’s lap to prevent filings and other debris from damaging the wardrobe.


<p>You’ll likely only have about 10 minutes to execute your nail look from start to finish, so bring products that work hard and have an idea in mind ahead of time!</p>

The biggest difference between working in a salon and on set is the amount of time you have to complete a nail look. If it is a nail-centric photo shoot, you’ll likely have more time between looks to change the nails, but standard salon service times are much too long. There are shortcuts you can take to help with these time constraints. Since a photo shoot is more about how the nails look and not how long they’ll last, you can use tools like full cover tips, temporary adhesives, and base coat films to help speed up transitions. Have a few ideas in your head or sketched out ahead of time to ensure that you’re not spending precious minutes thinking about what you want to do. Expect to work with the other members of the team to determine the final look and how hair, makeup, wardrobe, and even props will all fit together to make the images the best they can be.


<p>It takes a village to create a single image. On the best sets, everyone works together to achieve a cohesive final product.</p>

Every project is a bit different, but depending on the shoot, one of three people is in charge: the photographer, the client, or the art director. The person in charge will likely present themselves when introduced, but if you’re not sure, ask who will be giving nail direction. Introduce yourself to everyone, and try your best to remember names.

Photographer: This is pretty self-explanatory, but the photographer is the one in charge of executing the images. The photographer handles the lighting, posing, and directs the model. The photographer is also the person who retouches or outsources the retouching of the images, and owns the copyright to the final images.

Producer: If there is a producer, they are in charge of the operation of the shoot. From assembling and hiring the entire crew to making sure there is food and a place for the model to change, the producer is the person who makes sure the shoot actually happens and runs smoothly.

Art director: The vision of the shoot is the responsibility of the art director. This is the creative professional who imagines the mood, story, and inspiration that guides the rest of the creative team.

Wardrobe stylist: The wardrobe stylist or “stylist” is responsible for the clothing, shoes, accessories, and jewelry on the shoot. They assemble looks that help guide the beauty team to create their work on the model.

Makeup artist/hairstylist: Sometimes this is the same person, sometimes it’s two artists. These creatives translate the inspiration into makeup and hair artistry on set. You’ll work closely with these team members to ensure the nails complement and complete the image, but don’t distract.

Model: The person who translates the vision of everyone on set into physical action. It is important to be kind to the model since she is the one making your work look amazing!


<p>A basic studio set-up will look like a variation of this. Lights and cords and more cords.</p>

The equipment on set can be a little intimidating, since there is usually so much of it! Be prepared for lots of lights, flashes, and temperature fluctuations. There may be monitors where you can see the images as they are being produced. The photographer will likely be using a very expensive camera and different lenses to achieve the images. I wasn’t ready for all of the terminology when I first began working on set, so I’m going to share some basics here.

Beauty: Imagery of the model’s face and hands, generally framed from the shoulders up.

Macro: Extreme close up shots of a part of the model’s face, for example, one eye with two nails, or her lips to show detail.

Three-quarter: When the image is framed to show three-quarters of the model’s body.

Cheat: A direction for the model to show something specific to the camera. Example, “cheat your hand to camera” which asks the model to turn her hand to the camera in her current pose.

Beauty dish: A type of light used for beauty imagery that wraps the model with light.

Post: After the shoot, where retouching happens. It’s short for post-production.

In camera: Refers to how the image looks before any manipulation or editing. As nail artists on set, we should always be working for perfection “in camera.”

Read: How something looks on camera versus how it appears to the eye. Some colors and finishes will read or look totally different on camera, like chameleon and shimmer finishes, neons, and dark colors.


<p>Here’s the reality of a set workspace — organized chaos.</p>

The non-traditional environment of a photo set is an exciting place. You get to be creative and work with other creative people to produce something beautiful. An environment like this can be very freeing; however, there are some unwritten rules to set life. There’s etiquette you should follow and skills needed to prepare for set work before you get there.

Do practice polishing with traditional polish quickly and cleanly.

Do familiarize yourself with full-cover nails and how to size, apply, and blend them.

Do introduce yourself to everyone on set. Be professional and easy to work with.

Do work with the hairstylist and makeup artist to determine your workspace.

Do collaborate with the team and take direction.

Don’t pepper everyone on set with your business card.

Don’t gossip or badmouth crew from other shoots you’ve been a part of. It’s a small world.

Don’t wear short skirts or low-cut tops — you’ll likely be sitting on the floor for a pedi at some point.

Don’t bring every nail item you own with you — scale down and consolidate where you can.

Don’t put something on the model that she can’t safely remove herself at home.


<p>Marta is one of my favorite models to work with because she can pose and work her hands into very cool shapes. (Photo by Carissa Lancaster)</p>

Working with models on set can be a varied experience. It is best to work with experienced models who know how to move and work their hands; however, that isn’t always possible. Ensure when you are creating your nail look that you take all angles into account (yes, even the underside!) as the camera will catch everything. Parts modelling agencies are the best source of hand models, along with social media. You can even source models from within your clientele, but they must be good at creating lovely shapes with their hands and fingers. You can search beauty imagery inspiration online to assist with pose ideas that will complement your nails.


If you’re serious about a career behind the scenes, you should begin by building a portfolio of professional images. Complex nail art is always tempting, but make sure your imagery also shows how well you can pull off a clean look. Look for beauty/portrait photographers in your area that test, meaning they regularly put together unpaid shoots where the crew can receive images for their books — it’s how everyone gets their start.


• Behind-the-scenes photos are generally allowed, as long as you don’t post them until the photos are published or released. If you’re not sure, ask someone else on set what you’re allowed to document. We all want to do it for the ’gram, but don’t jeopardize a repeat booking just to impress your followers.<p>This is a box of premade nails for a Nylon Magazine beauty editorial based on Girl Scout cookies. Can you guess which nails go with which cookie?</p>

• If you’re putting a shoot together to enter a competition like NAHA, or NAILS’ Cover Tech Contest, it helps to have a very strong concept that is easily communicated through inspiration images. See if you can step into a few test shoots before setting up your competition shoot. It helps to have some experience under your belt before you’re in charge of the whole thing.

• Only bring items in your kit that are reliable and that you’re familiar with. On set is not the time to experiment with systems, finishes, and new items. I learned this one the hard way with a set of neon geometric nails that I was very proud of. Unfortunately, when the model stepped under the lights and in front of the camera, the nails looked solid white and all of the detail was lost.

• Ask a session manicurist that you admire if you can assist her on a shoot. We need assistants from time to time if there are a lot of models to complete in a short time or we just need another set of hands. Assisting is a great way to learn the ins and outs of set life, but remember you’re there to help, not make contacts with the other artists. Passing out your card or reaching out to the lead manicurist’s contacts is a surefire way to never be asked to assist again.

• You can pre-make nails and bring them with you to set. In general, a set of 10 nails will require at least 18 pre-made nails to ensure proper sizing and replacements in case you lose a few in action. I usually bring some pre-made nails if the shoot requires more labor-intensive nail art looks.

Nail tech Ashley Gregory is a session manicurist based in Chicago and the creator of The Nailscape blog.

Facebook Comments ()

Leave a Comment


Comments (0)

Featured Products & Promotions   |   Advertisement

Market Research

Market Research How big is the U.S. nail business? $7.3 billion. What's the average service price for a manicure? Dig into our decades' deep research archives.

Industry Statistics for

View All


FREE Subscription

VietSalon is a Vietnamese-language magazine and the sister publication to NAILS. Click the link below to sign up for a FREE one-year subscription.

Get a free preview issue and a Free Gift
Subscribe Today!

Please sign in or register to .    Close
Subscribe Today
Subscribe Today