Happy new year! I’m pleased to announce that the Miss Aniela Fashion Shoot Experience from now on has a new lighting collaborator. I am now a Broncolor Ambassador! To kick off our new exciting alliance, I will take you behind the scenes on producing Surreal Fashion image ‘Elegant Elegy’, below, on a shoot we did as part of our special Fashion Shoot Experience, ‘French Fairytale’, at the Chateau de Challain a little while ago.
Fashion is the genre of photography with the most ingredients involved, and they all come together with devotion, often chaos, and an all-important flair of soul to conduct the busy orchestra. In this blog post I will break down the ingredients for this shoot. The location and model were already set (there we were, shooting in the Chateau on our French Fairytale Shoot Experience) but the leading ingredient of this particular session became the dress. This directed the choice of room within the location, styling of the model and the way we accessorised the shoot with effects.
So, starting with the dress…
This piece was a one-off creation by Kirsty Mitchell Photography. Kirsty had joined us on our week-long adventure mainly for fun and a break, but ended up contributing in full creative force. The dress was originally a colourful carnival of flowers which Matt and I had commissioned, but turned out to be a bit too garish. With a few hundred quid’s worth of tools and materials from the home store (B&Q, to us Brits) Kirsty spending 3 days customising the dress, turning it from loud parade into an archaic relic. We wondered which model was best to wear it…
From our 4 models we chose Kimberley, an American redhead we’d flown over. As well as the dress hanging the best on her tall frame, she also had a classic mournful look about her that I knew from my previous shooting with her in NY. In the final image you see that mournful look that I felt encapsulates how I saw this dress being presented. I do not tend to plan my shoots out rigidly but go more with a gut feeling, as was our instinct with pairing this model, dress and location.
Styling, hair & makeup
There were no accessories added to Kim, which was decided between Kirsty and Minna our stylist, and on reflection I think this works well because it draws attention more to the story of the woman’s mood rather than the value of her adornments. Both hair and makeup were quite simple, which was a bit different from the rest of the shoots where we went OTT with wigs and colour. The hair, done by Anne Veck (below) was all her own hair simply placed into a small asymmetrical pile atop her head, so that the neck ribbon made by Kirsty could be seen effectively on one side. Later I even experimented with enlarging Kim’s hair in Photoshop for fuller effect, but then reverted. It was fine as it was, and I judged that this picture was not the place for that embellishment. There was enough going on.
This was a Shoot Experience, so I was not shooting alone. For the whole week I was teamed with fellow photographers Ian Mears and Greg Sikorski. For years on our events we’ve stuck with a structure of 2 photographers per model for one hour, but on the French Fairytale, we changed the structure to have 3 photographers shooting one model for one whole morning or afternoon. This gave us more time to immerse ourselves.
I recommended to Greg and Ian that we shoot Kim in the Taxidermy Room. It was my favourite room, but for good reason: characterfully aged with musty wallpaper, paintings, props like a huge chess set, and a whole army of slightly creepy dead animals. It just had so much going for it. The dress would fit in like another creepy, aged prop. After nearly two hours shooting in the Taxidermy Room, we did try another adjoining room too for diversity, but for me, the absence of quirky props meant it waned by comparison.
Lighting & shot angle
We shot with two lights, both Unilite 3200j. One light modified with a Broncolor Para 88 as the main light, and the other inside a reflector dish, both lights connected to a Scoro S 3200 watt S generator.
Greg and Ian were shooting too, but I can talk only from what I was aiming for during my turns. We’d unanimously agreed to first remove the huge desk from the room, opening up the space. We tried many different angles, positioning Kim in and around the animals and props. In every position, the Para 88 would be positioned high up, pointing downwards. The smaller light – the reflector – was always at a lower angle (roughly my height) placed in varying positions as we experimented this way and that. Seems that once you have all the ingredients in place, the recipe itself – and the quantities – become the mystery… I felt overwhelmed with possibility of angles, placement of animals, pose, composition and its opportunities to stitch a wider scene… and in that wider scene, how much smoke, how much light…
Below, a mock-up of a test composite.
Gels and haze
Just to throw into the mix to make life even more difficult, we had haze pumped into the scene and shot with coloured gels too. It’s exciting to add haze for instant atmosphere, but it irrevocably changes your images with an effect you can’t remove, and can go overboard with too much smoke. One thing that smoke can do is add depth to images, but not if it covers the subject completely – so timing and moderation is key.
Finally, the position that produced my final shot was the last set-up in the room. We had Kim stand over in the corner by all the animals. The Para 88 was positioned camera-left, high up top at approx 9 o’ clock angle. Haze was pumped in behind her, and my chosen shot was one where the effects of the haze were very subtlely spiralling up behind her, and not spilling in front of her. The second light was positioned just ahead of the Para 88 so its light came in at approx 11 o’clock angle into the shot, adding a subtle back-light diagonally across the scene from the door just to the left, as you can see in the shot above.
Picking the right pictures was crucial. I had many images that just did not speak to me. An aloof facial expression, a wall that is just too lit up (from constant tweaking and experimentation) a shot where the smoke is too thick, too thin or just too odd looking; the dress looking too clumped up or a blurred arm in motion… the criteria for picking the right image boiled it down to a select few.
A shot of Kim with a faraway expression connected with me. I stitched this portrait with another shot so that it became one wider scene. It was a ball-ache job but I was committed. So much so, I actually had it done that same night.
Above is the wide shot, which I combined with the shot below (where I liked the gaze…)
The resultant composite:
And from there I cropped to remove the excess on the left, changed Curves, and embarked on a seemingly endless series of tweaks so it was ‘just right’…
Bit tight on this blog, view larger on flickr if you wish.
Now usually in my Surreal Fashion you have the addition of something in post production that was not there in the shooting, e.g. paintings, or stock imagery, that interacts with the model. But it did not feel right to even contemplate it, for the scene was busy as it was. The surrealism and story are already there. To add something two-dimensional or fake risked desecrating the ‘truth’ of the scene already captured. It was complete in itself.
This picture is a favourite of 2014 partly because of how I felt about the result. It inspires me to shoot more with production effects in camera, but also, it reminds me of what the objective of any photographer is…
…fashion and all that production jazz aside, universally in photography I love images that just simply capture the depth of a scene. Whether it is fashion, journalism, portraiture or wildlife, the core aim is to make an image that is a window onto something more interesting than the mechanics of the camera frame. The problem is, the eternal quandary of how to do that. It is not as simple as picking the camera up and shooting. Whatever subject is being shot, the picture always risks (and usually does) being all but a dismal shade of what the eye saw and what the heart felt. That is the mission of any photographer, of any genre: to make their photos breathe life, make you feel you are there. But in genres that involve production, often we have to put in an awful lot of effort with lighting, shooting shot after shot, technical jiggery-pokery in both shooting and processing to get something looking natural and whimsical, as if you just found it and snapped it one moment! It is the paradox of creativity in photography. It is why the job of the photographer is often undermined and why we as photographers work so hard, and it is why the best photography out there often looks so effortless.
Full credits for Elegant Elegy:
Model: Kimberly Davis / Dress created by Kirsty Mitchell Photography / Stylist: Minna Attala / Hair: Anne Veck / Makeup: Grace Gray / Assistance: Greg Sikorski, Matt Lennard, Ian Mears / Behind the scenes by Bernard Yeoh and Johnathan Clover / Shot with Nikon D810 & 24-70mm.
Video of entire shoot: