Why Testing is Important
As creative individuals, we are always trying to improve our skill set and push ourselves further. One thing that I have been wanting to do for a while now is extend my portfolio and begin photographing more women. There have been a few jobs that I missed out on simply because of a lack of women in my portfolio. Think about it- photographing women is a completely different ball-game than photographing a guy. While I know I am fully capable of capturing the essence of a woman on camera, sometimes you have to prove it to other people in order to be commissioned for a project. Therefore, sometimes it is necessary to just set up a test shoot. Many of the busiest photographers are busy because they are on jobs, but also because they test to push themselves further and explore new territory.
Model: Aitana from Ford Models
Stylist: Beagy Zielinski
Hair: Elsa Canedo
Make Up: Fumiaki Nakagawa
Light Ripper: Khalid Mohtaseb
Assistants: David Krysl, Jason Koontz and Raymond Bishir
Skin, Hair & Clothing Retouching: Pratik Naik at Solstice Retouch
Tonal / Coloring Retouching: (Me)
First thing was finding a model. I found Aitana through Ford Models. She was perfect for the look that I was going for, and of course super nice to work with. I’m not interested in shooting high fashion, so her naturalistic look lent itself to the style I wanted to capture, and contribute itself to my other work. Aitana has a wide range of looks and poses – though none of them felt forced or unnatural. This process is not only beneficial for me (as I needed to expand my portfolio to include more women in my book), a modeling agency often has models who are interested in expanding their portfolio to include different types of shots in their books. (Just like photographers!) I also collaborated with a great creative team consisting of a stylist, make up artist and make-up. These folks on set add so much production value to the final look of the image. Their web links are above and I highly recommend them as true pros.
I needed to decide on a location. I wanted this shoot to look different than the typical glamor / high fashion locations that you typically see. I envisioned a darker mood, but I wanted the whole thing to feel natural. I finally decided on using my own apartment in Brooklyn for the location. I haven’t done a shoot in it before, so this was a fresh yet comfortable environment. The old, classic looking furniture combined with the earthy grey tones on the wall made for the perfect vibe.
My Camera Bag
Camera (First setup in natural light): Canon 1DS Mark III
Lens (First setup in natural light): Canon 50mm 1.2L
Lens (Second setup with flashes): 80mm f/2.8 lens
Light Heads: Two Profoto ProB Heads
Main Light: One Elinchrom Rotalux Deepthroat Octa Softbox
Fill light: One Silver Beauty Dish
Power source: Two Profoto 7b Power Packs
The Natural Light Setup
Another aspect that made my apartment an ideal location for this shoot was the windows that line one side of the main living space. I usually shoot most of my subjects using artificial light (strobes, continuous light, etc.) However, the windows allowed for natural light to come through and actually give the shape of artificial light but with a very organic quality. There are four large windows in an array, each of which act like a soft box. A soft box is simply a square box which causes light to bounce around inside and be substantially diffused. The light source passes through the diffusion, and the result is a soft, radiant effect. The apartment windows have a matte finish over them (mainly to keep people from peeping in, and is also coincidentally very similar to what a an actual soft box has), and so when the sunlight coming in hits the windows, it was diffused as it entered the apartment. By dimming the lights in the rest of the apartment, I was able to utilize this diffused light to create a surreal glow on the subject and environment, which produced an effect similar to using strobes and soft boxes. Even if you don’t have your own lighting or access to studio lights, the world can be your studio, as long as you learn how to perceive light in the right way. Pay close attention to how light hits and goes through various objects, and how it is “shaped” by those objects. You can clearly see the position of the windows in the image below.
Although photographing a woman subject was one of the main reasons for conducting this test shoot, I also wanted to capture video portraits as well. Therefore, my good friend Khalid Mohtaseb from Variable collaborated with me on the project. Khalid and I often share a similar vision for lighting and it helps to bounce (no pun intended) ideas off of each other.
The Studio Light Setup
After we had finished with the natural light setup, it was time for something new. The goal of the next setup was to create a more dramatic vibe. I wanted the light to be soft enough to capture Aitana’s natural beauty, but create enough shadows to make the overall mood quite dramatic. The key light was a Profoto head beamed through a large Rotalux Octabank. This was mounted camera-right about 8 feet up, and pointed down at a 45 degree angle so that it was almost directly over the subject’s head, about 3 feet away. This provided light for the subject’s head/face and for most of her body. It also lit the wall behind her on the right side. The shape the light even further, we added negative fill (a black flag) to the opposite side of the light. Putting black material near a lit surface will suck away light, and create more contrast.
After lighting the subject, I noticed there was a stark shadow cast on the wall from our main light. Understandable given the angle of the light, but not desirable. Even with a blag flag providing more contrast in the face, I needed a fill light for the wall. This fill light was provided by a Profoto head beamed through a silver beauty dish. This light was mounted about six feet high directly to the right of the camera, beamed straight ahead. This filled in the dark shadow opposite the main light, and also gave us a nice reflection in Aitana’s eyes.
“The Khalid Special” : Continuous Lighting Equipment
The second light setup I’ll talk about here is one I can’t take credit for. It was actually created by Khalid (we call it the “Khalid Special”), then tweaked further by me afterwards for my still image. Since he works primarily shooting video, he had a continuous light set up rather than using strobes. I prefer this on shoots, but a lot more equipment and power is needed, which can get expensive. Khalid set up a 640w continuous light beamed straight ahead (through barn doors) about 5 feet high directly to the right of the camera, about 3 feet in front of the subject.
The interesting thing that Khalid did with this setup was that he actually beamed the light IN FRONT of the subject’s face (not directly at the subject’s face). The light then bounced it off a burlap type fabric (roughly 2 1/2ft x 3ft) which was hanging to the left of the subject. The last component of this light setup was a flag (2 1/2ft x 3ft) which was mounted directly behind the 650w light. The flag was necessary to shape the main light. Because we were actually bouncing the light off the fabric for the key light, we didn’t want too much of the non-bounced direct light from the 650w hitting the subject and losing all the shadow and texture. The bounced light created a very warm glow on the left side of the subject’s face and also on the couch. This worked perfectly for the overall vibe of the shoot, as it provided a cozy and warm environment. Another really nice effect this light setup had was that it actually produced two catch lights in the subject’s eyes. (Catch lights are the little glares in the subject’s eyes which come from a source of light, such as a strobe, flash, or even the sun.)
You can actually see the main catch light on the left side of her pupils, coming from the light that was being bounced off the fabric, and a second catch light just off center to the right coming from the continuous light aimed at the fabric. This is just another subtle piece that adds to the overall feel of the image.
I’ve been wanting to set up a test shoot to capture some women subjects for way too long. Finally when I found a free weekend, I decided to take action. It only really took three days of planning, one day of shooting, and two days of post-processing (thanks to the help of Pratik at Solstice Retouch handling the skin, hair and clothes while I focussed on the tones and coloring.) It goes to show how little time things actually take when they could impact the feel of your portfolio for a long period of time. I think it’s important for all creative individuals to continually push the boundaries of their skills and abilities. No matter how long you’ve been doing something, you can always improve on it. You can always learn more. Striving to get to that next level keeps us growing and maturing. But let’s not stop here… Next weekend I have another test planned. We’ll be in touch,