Setting the Mood for Your Shoot

In the fashion industry, creatives use all types of mood board techniques during their creative process. When I was a model, I would see designers with notebooks bulging at the wired edge filled with fashion illustrations, fabric samples, color pallets, quotes and tidbits of inspiration tacked to sketchbook pages. Hair stylists and makeup artists almost always had some sort of reference images or color cards near them to inspire the look they wanted to achieve. The same was true for creative directors and photographers I worked with, who would use poster boards of collaborative chaos or even emailed versions via Pinterest or Google Slides, so that the creative team could be on the same page.

Since I became a photographer, I’ve found that mood boards are a necessary tool. My version of mood boarding has been varied from bar napkins and notebook pages to poster boards. I am certainly no stranger to the shared Pinterest board either. Images from the shoots below are my personal inspiration and results.

Getting inspiration

I find mood boarding a lot like journaling. Inspiration can come from anywhere. Writing down the song lyrics that are stuck in your head, tacking on a photo of beautiful lighting that you saw in a magazine, and throwing some paint all on the same page can be therapeutic and inspiring. You are taking those small things that seem to linger in your mind a little longer and shaping them into something else completely. When another artist inspires you, the goal is not to copy their work but it honor it and let little details reflect that.

Mood board for a water shoot: bits of inspiration from the season (fall), our location (Hilton Head Island) and a Mert & Marcus magazine spread I love.

If you look at the mood board and the resulting images from my shoot, you can clearly see that the goal was accomplished and all the elements are in the shot. But, even though I got the shot I wanted, I kept shooting and got many more great images.

Images from my autumn water shoot. Model: Caroline Molloy and makeup by Jessica Mock of Southern Sugaring.

Testing Ideas

Showing mood board images on a tablet is a great way to share your ideas with everyone on the shoot.

I found these plastic wrap dresses by THOMAAS on Pinterest and really wanted to try it out. I picked up four rolls of plastic wrap at the grocery store on the way. My friend let me borrow her dance studio in Beaufort, SC, and I had another friend who was willing to let me wrap her up. I know: my friends are awesome. It’s hard to not think about the song “Barbie Girl” by Aqua while you are literally wrapping a girl in plastic. Music like this keeps the shoot loose and fun, which is important when your model can barely move. FYI, it only took two rolls of wrap to make the dress. The unicorn head was just taken from the wall of the studio.

Image from my plastic dress shoot. Model: Elizabeth Richter. Location: Devout Pole & Aerial Fitness, Beaufort, SC.

Because this was a test shoot I didn’t have any real goal other than testing plastic wrap as a wardrobe option. We were also testing the studio as a location option. The images came out as I would have hoped, if not better. Pulling in the studio owners wall art as a mask gave the little edge and strangeness that has come to be my signature.

Model: Elizabeth Richter, Location: Devout Pole & Aerial Fitness Beaufort, SC.

Staying  Flexible

While mood boards serve as an amazing visual aide in shoot prep, don’t become tied to them when you are actually shooting. Use them as a starting line. The autumn pool shoot was a collaboration for which we used Pinterest to trade ideas. Even though our vision was clearly realized, I continued to shoot and switch to monochromatic mode because I was being inspired by the movement and fluidity of her hair and the gown in the water. Because I was open to seeing something else we ended up with a second series of photos that was published and noted as a Vogue Italia’s “Best Of “ Photo Vogue Image.

Model: Caroline Molloy, makeup artist: Jessica Mock, location: Wexford Plantation, Hilton Head Island, SC.


The only reason you really make a mood board is to try to convey to others your artistic vision. If you lead the shoot, you lead the vision. If you are calling something a collaboration, make sure to try to see the other creatives’ vision. Sometimes I feel stuck, and uninspired. Surrounding myself with other creatives in collaboration and viewing their mood boards and sketches can be creatively refreshing. Loosen the reins and try not  to take yourself too seriously

To see the things that inspire me you can follow my photoshoot inspiration board on Pinterest and to see what they become, you can follow my blog or Instagram.

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Starla Little is an ex-model who’s turning her in-front-of-the-camera experience into behind-the-camera smarts as a fashion photographer. She lives and works in a sleepy suburb of Washington DC and really likes road trips and art shows. For more Starla inspiration check out her website Starla Dawn Photography or follow her on Instagram