When we came across the magnificent Belvoir Castle, we knew we wanted to shoot something there. However, not in every grand location is it possible to do a full-on Shoot Experience affair with 25+ people. So, we got the budget together for a small private shoot for ourselves. I thought it would be interesting and insightful to share a behind the scenes on this blog.
At Belvoir we gained permission to shoot in two very special rooms: the Elizabeth Room, in which fashion has never been shot before, and the Tapestry Room, in which stands the tallest bed I’ve ever seen. I had Tim Walker-esque visions as soon as I walked in there. It became apparent that I’d plan the model look for this room, and Matt would plan the look for the Elizabeth Room.
The starting point
Every shoot has a starting point that the whole plan hinges on. Usually in commercial situations that would be the client’s brief. But with this fine-art shoot, the starting point was the location itself, from which we drew our inspiration. For example, the colours in the Elizabeth Room inspired the styling for the dress we put together. And for the Tapestry Room, Matt and I sat and thought about what would make an interesting idea within the space of the huge four-poster bed, and we thought of two: a fishing theme and a playing card concept.
Moving forward with moodboards
Moodboards were the crucial engine in planning, communicating our ideas to the styling team. It was very important to Matt and I to achieve our visions successfully, especially as the shoot’s cost and purpose depended entirely on producing quality art images to sell. In order to achieve that, we wanted to control and dictate everything on styling, but we are also aware that we are not stylists, and wanted to be able to ‘hand over’ some reigns to those with the necessary expertise. Thus, there was a balance to maintain between dictation and delegation.
After the starting point is identified, the ingredients fall into the bowl: models, styling (dress, shoes, makeup, hair); lighting, shooting technique, and processing.
The prime ingredient we next addressed was the styling. We wanted fashion costumes with historical flair, rather than fixating on fashion labels or designers, so we had a good look round at costume departments with our stylist Minna. We were not particular on one era, but we were inspired by the Ragged Rococo shoot we’d done in London the month before. Rather than pin down an era, we thought about what elements we just liked. On the agenda were ruffs, military jackets, and dresses with huge shape and volume. We bought fabric to build out one of the looks, assembling this on our mannequin beforehand; went to Brighton to hunt round fleamarkets for prop inspiration; and rummaged through our bags of tulle dresses from workshops years ago, cutting up some of them to ‘upcycle’ into volume-building dress material.
Also top on our list was hairstyling. We wanted looks with a powerful shape and statement. We got hairstylist Ceri Cushen on board, and showed her the moodboards of what we’d gathered so far. It helped to get her opinion early on what she could create. We seemed in sync already: we knew vaguely we wanted a voluminous red wig and a tall blonde wig, which she was ready to make, and we strongly approved of her first working-progress pics.
Ceri also brought another element to the table: a choice of shoes from designer Natacha Marro. I selected a pair I thought would work well with the Tapestry Room look, intrigued by the prospect of fusing contemporary fashion with period costume. I chose the most muted colours. The other look – the Elizabeth Room – did not require shoes as the model would be wearing a very big dress which would obscure her feet.
Makeup was not an extravagant biggie. We are learning more that we want simple makeup, especially when there’s a lot going on with hair and costume. We got MUA Morgan Defre on board, who’d worked some impressively simple looks at a recent shoot of ours in London. ‘Dewy’ was the word on our lips for what we wanted.
Now we hunted for the right models. It is fair to say we had a look we already wanted to fit: a tall (at least 5 ft 8) model, so the clothes would hang well and give the image maximum ‘fantasy’ impact. We knew we’d be using blonde and red wigs, and we’ve learnt these work best on fair-haired/skinned models. We sought Kristina for the Elizabeth Room, and Sanna for the Tapestry. I could see Sanna’s ice-blonde Scandinavian look working well with the envisioned white wig, but really the models could be used interchangeably on either shoot if we wanted.
Because we’d not worked with either of these models before, we were sure to get fresh and unprocessed pictures of them to check out their stats, current hair etc. We regularly hire models direct, preferring to eschew agencies where possible.
My two main lenses of choice were the 24-70mm and the 50mm (using Nikon D810). I also toyed with a longer lens, the 70-200mm, for some spontaneous portrait shots at the end of the day. All day I shot tethered to my iMac, using Lightroom for importing only (all subsequent processing done in Photoshop CC.)
We thought carefully about our lighting options. We knew that we’d need strong strobe action in the Elizabeth Room because we would not be shooting anywhere near the window for chance of any natural light anyway, we’d be shooting further back into the room to capture the walls and ceiling, where there was little light. Whereas In the Tapestry Room, we wanted to simply accentuate the effect of the window light coming in from the right side, for a more natural look.
THE ELIZABETH ROOM: CREATING THE GOVERNESS
Below shows working moodboards in planning the Governess look. Even though the room looks beautiful in the shot with the chairs, it is a different story once a model is placed in there… an interesting interior shot is not the same as an interesting model shot. We sought permission to move some of the delicate furniture to make space for the model in her big dress.
In planning the composition for this shot, we both had our image ‘Swan Lake‘ heavily in mind. This was created during our Creative Live class in 2014 (below) and is a good example of where we have fused dramatic dress with interesting location also with tables + chairs cleared out, showing the grandiose ceiling and chandeliers, with a base for surrealism in the lower half. We had this ‘formula’ in mind.
Model Kristina is sporting a voluminous wig made of real hair, teamed with the outfit Matt had put together, assembled and accessorised by Minna. She stood on a box to elevate her height. Within our furniture-moving restrictions we did our best to keep the remaining chaises/chairs in a symmetrical position.
The ceiling was the main thing I wanted to show off in the image, and because of limited time I knew I should get cracking right away (later we came back to this room to do other compositions but this was the main piece we created in this room.) I decided upon a two-picture stitch, one for the model and one to add on more ceiling. Kristina stood in the same place to keep a central, symmetrical position, doing different poses in that spot.
We set the shutter speed to 1/5 second, and utilised the rear curtain sync setting on the camera to ensure the flash went off at the end of the shutter, not the beginning. This captured the ambient light of the room whilst allowing us to shoot at our desired aperture and low ISO. There was a chance of ghosting if the model made a tiny movement during the shutter click, but in this case the room was ‘dark’ enough for it to work. We were sure to check for any ghosting by zooming in close on the iMac.
Onto processing. Because of the myriad of potential colour interpretations of this room, I did a few raw conversions (cool, warm) and favoured the one where I kept the temperature of the shot fairly warm. This meant the walls don’t look so blue as they really are, but the whole room overall more golden. There wasn’t much more to add, everything was in-camera, the model larger than life within a room dripping with detail. The choice of title gave more to the story of the identity of this character, looming within her opulent lair.
THE TAPESTRY ROOM: CREATING CASTAWAY and POKERFACE
We knew very clearly what composition we wanted in the Tapestry Room, from the first moment we walked in during the recce. Simply, the bed on one side and the furniture and window on the other – though I played with compositional proximity to the model. Below shows some of the working moodboards we used to decide on concept. Amongst the moodboard pictures we referenced, there were some Tim Walker shots as part of inspiration for the use of a tall bed, which you see below.
Below, for clarity, I specifically broke down the outfit into component parts. I knew I wanted a high wig very similar to the moodboarded shot pictured, teamed with an array of historical nuances. I was torn between having a feminine tulle and boyish bloomers – so we did both.
Above and below shows the hair in progress by Ceri (who worked with her co-stylist Julia), fashioning Sanna’s wig made this time from synthetic hair, and adorned with spray-painted flowers by Minna.
We played with lighting more on this set than in the Elizabeth Room, because the ambient light had more contribution which naturally changed as the day progressed. I wanted adequate illumination but I also wanted a natural look, and it took time to achieve the balance. What was also hard about shooting in this room was the space of how much I could actually step backward, especially because this room was also used for styling. I found myself backing into the hairstyling table, which in retrospect I would have taken time to move elsewhere had I known that this spot would become my favourite to shoot from. Time was running out just I was getting my favourite shots – typical! Once Sanna stood on top of the bed, the lighting and clicked for me. It looked perfect.
As mentioned earlier we had two concepts; fishing theme, and playing cards. The fishing rod and lake was dreamt up by Matt (“i literally saw the finished image in my head beforehand” he claims) whereas I thought of the playing cards, buying several packs of oversized cards which we glued together in advance to make one single strong deck, then securing the built house on the bed.
Probably my favourite look ever.
The second look in this room, adapting boyish to feminine: with corset, tulle, a different ruff, and Natacha Marro’s shoes, with the oversized house of cards, spilling over the bed.
For this set we also pumped a smoke effect into the shot using a hazer. It was tricky to know exactly how to make Sanna interact with the scene and the cards. I directed her into a variety of different poses, and in processing, chose a seated pose for a panoramic stitch and a bluer edit than the other images.
Et voila, three finished fine-art pieces in one hardworking but incredible day.
Tannith Wesson at Belvoir Castle
MODELS: Sanna Takalampi & Kristina Vaiciunaite
HAIRSTYLISTS: Ceri Cushen & Julija Baranova
MAKEUP: Morgan Defre
STYLIST: Minna Attala
SHOES: Natacha Marro London
ASSISTANT: Aneil Sharma
Nikon, Broncolor and Manfrotto