Finding Your Vibe

A few weeks ago I was asked by good friends of mine to do a "Bump Shoot", or "Maternity Shoot".

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I've never done one before so I agreed, albeit with a bit of trepidation. After all, I'm a single dude with no family of my own, so would I have the emotional involvement to be able to capture this important life stage for this couple?

I think at the end of the day I did ok.

We ran through a series of shots indoors, working off my iPad and a Pinterest Board which we had compiled together as a reference. I tried a few light set ups and attempted to replicate some of the shots with the limited space we had available, but I didn't really feel like things were clicking. I knew I had enough to go on, but I was keeping an eye out for golden hour because I knew they had beatific surroundings which would really offer us some gems if the light would only play ball.

And it did. 

For those not familiar with the term, Golden Hour is a photography term for the first and last hour of sunlight in a day. Obviously it's often not strictly an hour, but the point is that at sunrise and sunset the quality of light is softer, with less harsh shadows being cast, which makes for more diffuse light and flattering pictures.  

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I use a great little app called "Sol", which tells me the exact times for golden hour each day based on my location and time of year. It really comes in handy with planning shoots. 

For example this screen grab is telling me the best time to shoot today, here in South West England is between 15:06 and 16:29.

The evening in question we had a beautifully rich, orange sunset which played so well in the golden fields behind their house. 

We walked around for a good 2 hours, well into 'Civil Dusk' and got some really great light. Leanne and Conan were both troopers, being willing to trudge some distance to search for good locations, not to mention Leanne being willing to lie down in some very uncomfortable stubbly grass to get some beautiful shots in the newly manicured fields.

So all in all I was happy with the results at the end of the day, but I did end up driving home in my car wondering, "Did I just do my first maternity shoot, or did I just do another model shoot with someone who happens to be pregnant?"

I suppose I was questioning whether I shot on brief or not. Did I get the vibe right? As I played the shots back through in my head they didn't feel like other maternity shoots I had seen fellow photographers post. Had I messed up? 

I suppose this is the tricky part. Was what I had produced a 'maternity shoot in my style', or a missed mark by unprepared portrait photographer falling back on tried techniques? I think there is a fine line between deliberate stylistic choices, and a lazy reliance on your usual bag of tricks.

A very good photographer friend of mine did make the comment, after seeing the photos, that they 'weren't smiling', and this was supposed to be a 'happy event'. I suppose the insinuation was that I should have been getting them to smile and laugh throughout to give the sense of 'joy' which comes with birth. Did he say that because those are his stylistic choices, or because I had done it wrong somehow?

That got me thinking some more: I'm not really a 'smiley' photographer. Everyone knows how mother's feel about their imminent children arriving. I don't believe that we need to go through painful hours of me cracking lame jokes until one lands and I can catch that moment of 'genuine' joy. Maybe it's a personality thing, and I am an introvert so I prefer a more contemplative style of photography. I think even if I went to the shoot with this advice in mind I still would have aimed for the same vibe.

I remember when I shot for a company a few years ago as their in house photographer I was constantly criticised for not getting people smiling and laughing in shots. They wanted me to paint this picture that around the office everyone was always joking and laughing, which they obviously weren't, and to be honest those weren't the shots that interested me. It took me ages to own that that just wasn't my vibe, and it doesn't make me wrong, or a bad photographer, it just meant I had to work against my natural grain to meet the brief.

Now I understand that my more sober, thoughtful vibe may not be everyone's cup of tea, but at some point, with my own work, I either have to own it and make it the best it can be, or spend my career pretending to shoot like other people.

So this is my journey at the mo: to define what my vibe is and move away from the generic feel of my shots to give them more character. I may lose business that way because it doesn't appeal to everyone's taste, but I have to hope that those who latch on to my ever-defining style will be loyal followers and effective evangelists in helping me get the word out about my work.  

NOTE: Thanks to the amazing Sarah Howse for an awesome job retouching images 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. Check out her stuff here, and hire her: http://sarahjhowse.wix.com/sarah-howse-editing ... and I'm not just saying that because she's my partner. She's bloody good. You can also read more about her under the 'retouching' menu link above. 

Here are more shots from the day:

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Model Mayhem and 'TFP assignments'

A couple of months ago I signed up to 'Model Mayhem', on the recommendation of another photographer.

'Model Mayhem' is an online collective for models, actors, photographers, make-up artists, designers and stylists. The idea, as far as I can tell, is to create a community where you can work together on projects; some paid, some free.

After posting my profile as a local London photographer I quickly began to get requests for 'TFP assignments', something which is very popular on these sort of sites. I had never heard the phrase, but let me fill you in briefly on what I've learnt, because if you're looking to shoot in this space it is something you are going to have to become familiar with.

Wikipedia says:

"'Time for Print', or 'TFP', is a term used in many online photography communities describing an arrangement between a model and a photographer, whereby the photographer agrees to provide the model with an agreed number of pictures of the best photographs from the session and a limited license to use those pictures in return for the model's time. There are benefits to both parties of such an arrangement: the model can build a portfolio of prints to show to prospective clients at little or no cost, while the photographer gets a model for a particular project with little if any outlay of cash."

The specific terms of the TFP agreement have to be decided before the actual shoot. This includes things like how many shots you will deliver, how long it will take you to edit and handover, where the images can be published etc. It is worth spelling this stuff out in an email when you begin to talk about the shoot so there is no confusion later, and both parties know what they're getting into.

Beyond the specifics, I agree to do these TFP assignments on a few of conditions:

  1. That the model has a concept which will result in shots that will enhance my portfolio. The time and effort spent has to benefit both of us, and considering I will be spending many more hours editing the images I need to ensure that it is time well spent.
  2. I don't limit the use of the shots I hand over, because I believe that generosity will come back to you in the end. My only stipulation is that if the shots are sold at any point that I would receive 50% of the fee.
  3. I also ask models to do practical things like always crediting me, including a website link, when they post the shots online, as well as 'liking' my Facebook fanpage and generally helping me get the word out there.

My Model Mayhem profile is here is you want an example of the environment: http://www.modelmayhem.com/2929596

Here are some shots from a recent TFP assignment I did with Cecilia from Paris: http://www.modelmayhem.com/714751.

She was staying in a very swanky flat in Bermondsey for the week, and so we met up and shot in the streets around the apartment. We didn't have very long together, and unfortunately I had no specific brief, but I was able to deliver the 10 shots I promised, and I ended up using a couple to broaden my fledgling headshot portfolio.

I always set myself the goal of editing one image an evening in the days following the shoot; that way the model waits no longer than 2 weeks for the final images to be delivered. I want the people I shoot with to remember me as being timeous and professional, as well as able to make a good image.

On a related note: I found this 'open letter from a model to photographers'. Definitely worth a read: http://jenbrookmodel.tumblr.com/post/45762723033/dear-photographer-kindest-regards-model-xxx

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Shooting on Brief

I mentioned in a recent post that Brooke contacted me to do a shoot with her. She had quite a strong vision for what she wanted to accomplish. In her words, she wanted a "Lolita" feel to the shoot. I haven't seen the movie myself but, between a quick google image search, and reference shots Brooke sent me via email, I quickly had a decent mood board full of shot ideas.

What a pleasure.

It meant that I wouldn't have to pull every shot out of thin air on the day, with an expectant subject looking at me, waiting for visual inspiration to strike. She had done the work for me. She knew her look, and she understood what she wanted. It was then just left for me to interpret it and make the technical choices to get the shots she was looking for. I know this won't happen every time, or even very often, but it showed me how much better a shoot can be when shooting for a client with a clear vision.

On a practical level I obviously wanted this reference material with me on the shoot.

Pinterest turned out to be a ready solution.

The week before I set up and shared a Pinterest board with Brooke where we could both pin images to use as a guide on the day. I downloaded the app to my phone which meant that I could pull up the different images we had pinned as we were shooting to use as inspiration, and to ensure we were getting the kind of shots we agreed on. It was like having a portable mood board.

Perhaps embarrassingly, this is the first time I've shot like this (with this much planning and purpose I mean), and it made for a much less stressful, and more productive, shoot. I often have those quiet moments of inner panic where I am trying to work out what the hell to shoot next, and what the client will think of my next crazy shot idea; but using this method I had all that covered before I even arrived.

Not only this, but Brooke could see exactly what we were aiming for as we were setting up for the next shot, and she could instantly know how to pose and hold herself, rather than me having some secret vision I was slowly trying to direct her towards. It really greased the wheels and meant we got all these shots done (and more besides) in under an hour.

I am hoping to make this part of my work flow for all briefed shoots in the future.

It really works.

For the technical stuff; these shots were all taken with my 5DmkII and either my 50mm f1.4 or 85mm f1.8 lenses. The only additional light used was a large reflector with mixed silver and gold to bounce the sunlight back in as fill. Shot 3 is a Bokeh Panorama, which I will get to explaining in a post soon.

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Shooting Models

I have been trying to build a portrait portfolio.

If you want to make a real go of a career in photography, you have to pick a lane at some point. You have to decide what sort of photography you want to specialise in long term. It's all very well broadening your skill base and being able to shoot many subjects and in varying contexts, but at some point you want to specialise because it's how you 'get known'.

So to this end I have decided that I would like to work hard at becoming a good portrait photographer. Being a bit of a humanist at heart this seems to be the area I am most happy shooting in, and one I could see myself doing into the distant future.

In order to start building up a portfolio of work I decided to contact a friend of a friend who I knew was keen to dip her toe into modelling. I offered her a shoot with images we could both use for our respective portfolios, an old TFP (Time for Photos) model arrangement (something I will get into in another post).

I was really lucky with this shoot. Lauren was a star. In fact she lulled me into a false sense of security because I think I thought that it would be this easy all the time. She just knew what to do. Every time she heard the shutter click she would alter her pose to give me something different to shoot. As I clicked away I would wait until something she did looked interesting, at which point I would tell her 'stay there, and make smaller moves'. I would give fine tuning directions more than anything.

I have no doubt it won't be this easy with every model shoot, and some will need more direction, which I am going to have to learn how to give, but I got a glimpse into what makes a professional model so good at their job. They really have to be fearless and give you poses which look ridiculous when you're standing there watching them, but which translate into something beautiful on camera. It's a strange dynamic. It takes a huge amount of personal security, and body knowledge, on their part as well, and I instantly acquired a respect for their craft.

Another really helpful aspect of this shoot was that Lauren's room mate is working with Vogue and offered to act as stylist for the day! She had prepared a number of outfit options which we cycled through as the day went on. Some I didn't use. Some I did. But what a pleasure having both the poses and styles constantly changing. If I had just stood in one spot and clicked the shutter, I would have had a wide variety of stuff.

So what was my role, apart from camera monkey?

The challenge for me was to chose the set ups. When we arrived at their flat I walked around and looked at the space, then took a tour around the little garden. I picked backgrounds which I thought would work for different looks, and quickly summed up the light to see where we could get the best looking shots, and at what time of the day. I also began to plan where to create an indoor backdrop (what turned out to be just a white wall, or a patterned sheet over a door frame) so that when we began to lose light outside we could move indoors and carry on.

I learnt a few things on this shoot:

1. Come up with a short list of shot ideas while you're doing your initial location tour.

2. A good model is a joy to shoot. Let him/her move and watch for what works. Then 'fine tune' when something she/he does catches your eye.

3. Having a number of changes of clothes and make up options helps to vary your shots, and inspire ideas. It also gives you time to come up with a new set up and test the light while your subject is getting ready. From now on I will always ask a model if they could bring at least four changes of clothes, and see if they would like to bring a friend who can help them with changes. I will likely get a lot more options and the model will be more relaxed with a close friend around.

I shot all day on my 5DmkII and switched between my 50mm f1.4 and my 85mm f1.8. I had recently bought a softbox for my speedlight, which I mounted on a monopod and had a friend hold for me, so most of the shots I took are just using the ambient light and filling with a softbox, or using the softbox as a one light source when shooting indoors.

I think we got some good stuff between us.

Some thanks:

Lauren Franklin for Modelling: http://laurenfranklinmodel.wordpress.com/

Frith Carlisle for Styling.

Sarah Howse for retouching on shots 1, 3, 4 and 5: http://sarahjhowse.wix.com/sarah-howse-editing

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