The American film, Domino starring Keira Knightley, was about a female bounty hunter whose good looks took a backseat to her martial arts skills and the tough treatment of the criminals she hunted. This film and some other current pop culture touchstones inspired this portrait shoot.
1. The Concept and Preparations
In the search for my next portrait, I took advantage of the strong community of make-up artist and hair stylists in my city. If you live in a city with more than a couple hundred thousand people, you should be able to find one.
A make-up artist named Rachel Lisa, who I had connected with through Facebook (we’ll meet her later), was very affordable and willing to collaborate, so we started talking about models and ideas.
I do a lot of personal portrait work that I often share here on Phototuts+. This usually means working for trade with models and stylists. I provide them with pictures they can use in their portfolios and they provide their services for free or at least at a discount.
There are great resources out there to facilitate this. In the U.S., you might check on Model Mayhem, a site filled with aspiring (and some established) models, photographers, make-up artists and others.
Having done this for years, I just use my personal social network to find the folks I work with. In this case, the make-up artist had a close friend who was willing to model.
It’s also worth mentioning that if you can pay you should. Even if it’s not very much. My entire income for the last decade has come from photography and photography education. I’m not a struggling artist, so I try to pay fair rates. At the same time, my time and skill are worth something, too. So if I’m giving out free photos, that helps negate the cost.
After examining some previous photos of the model, Marguerite Swallow, I noticed most of her work is what I would consider “high fashion.” It’s beautiful, classic and feminine.
With my background in photojournalism, my portraits are more about a personality and a narrative. So, I thought to go in the opposite direction of fashion. Juxtaposition is a really power force in art.
Our portrait would still have the fashion flavor, but the message and context would turn the whole thing inside out.
Rachel and I started brainstorming. I came up with a list of tough women in history and fiction and we landed on Domino. The only thing left to do was schedule a date.
2. Make-Up and Wardrobe
One of things I’d like to emphasize in this tutorial is the importance of working with professionals. While we can’t all hire professional models, lighting grips, hair stylists, wardrobe personnel and assistants, having just one or two of these people on set will take your portraits to the next level.
Rachel Lisa has worked in Los Angeles in all sorts of industries from film to fashion. Not only did she rock out a great make-up job that matched perfectly with the feel of the shoot, she also has experience with hair styling and helped put together a couple great outfits for the shoot.
Professional models like Marguerite already have big wardrobes, too. Working with people new to the industry can be fun, but the time professionals will save you is well worth it. Models already have poses in mind. Make-up artists are just that, artists.
With an expert team assembled, I knew I had to bring it.
3. On Set Lighting
For all of these portraits, we were working with Marguerite about four feet in front of a textured wall. I had her stand that far away so the light I was creating with my flashes wouldn’t create shadows of her outline on the wall behind her.
I not only had to light her, but also the wall. I didn’t really have lights dedicated to lighting the background. With careful positioning, I let the other lights I was using do the work.
The first thing I did was set up my key light. This was a flash with an umbrella. Initially, I set up the flash to her left (I’ll change this later). The flash was four or five feet away from her, positioned at about eye level and almost directly to her left, but a little forward.
You probably noticed the unsightly shadow on the wall behind her. I don’t have her in the final position yet, and I’ll be adding more lights. We’ll talk about all those settings in a minute.
Next, I’ll be adding an accent light on the opposite side of her. This will act partially as a rim light and a fill light. It’s a bare flash set about the same distance away, but at a much lower power since it’s not being reflected and diffused. The light is positioned slightly behind her, but still off to the side.
The key with setting an accent light like this is to not over expose. You want it bright than your key light, but you don’t want to blow out any highlights. The positioning is also important. I find that if an accent like this falls on the front of the face, it can cause problems. The area of her noise might be distracting, so I’ll watch out for that. I was more concerned about her eye socket and the front of her cheek.
Now it’s time to fire the lights together to see what other changes need to be made.
Oh yuck! Something is way off about this portrait. Can you tell what it is? Her hair as been styled in an asymmetrical way. The side of her face being featured by the key light has bangs obscuring her eye. Let’s fix this immediately.
Luckily, this problem can be solved by simple switching the lighting. I moved the key light to the model’s right, and the accent light to the model’s left. I also decided I wanted my key light more in front of her face so the light would reach her left eye as well as her right.
Much better! The correct side of her face is being featured. Now we’re getting somewhere.
The last light I added was another bare flash pointed straight at the ceiling. I didn’t note the power, but it was very low. This light is meant to be a hair light filling in the top of the head. In the following image, you can see what it does and how all the lights are arranged in my final setup.
The first thing I wanted to mention is something you may have noticed in the previous image. I wanted to adjust my white balance. If you’re shooting RAW, this isn’t such a big deal, but I like to be able to visualize what I’m trying to achieve. My flashes are balanced at 5500K, or at least that’s where I usually start. Your flash might be 5600K or 5200K, it just depends on the brand.
I changed the white balance setting on my camera to 6200K to give the photo a warmer look.
I always start my thought process on settings with ISO. When using flash, you should always have enough light. This allowed me to use the lowest ISO my camera offers, ISO 200.
My camera, and yours, has “low” settings. This is like the expandable ISOs on the high end. This allows you to use even lower ISOs, but it’s been said that this lowers the dynamic range of image. Unless I really need it, I always use the lowest labeled ISO and avoid the extra low settings.
Next, let’s talk about our shutter speed. The shutter speed is dictated by two factors in the case of this photo.
First, we had a lot of ambient light coming in through a window. I had to use a high shutter speed so the none of that ambient light would appear in the photo.
The second limiting factor was the sync speed of my flashes. Every flash has a highest possible sync speed. Timing the firing of the flash to the exact moment when the shutter is completely open is really hard, and some times mechanically impossible. Using too fast a shutter speed will result in part of your frame being underexposed or blank.
I used the fastest shutter speed my flashes would sync at in order to limit as much ambient light as possible.
My aperture was a result of balance the other settings. That being said, if I wanted to use a wider aperture to achieve a shallower depth of field, I could have lowered the power on my flashes.
However, I wanted a to use a deeper depth of field to make sure my subject and my background was in focus. The reason I chose to have everything in focus is that I wanted a hard-edged look to the photo. I didn’t want anything to soften to look, literally or figuratively.
5. Shooting a Variety of Poses
When you work with a professional model, setting up the lights and scene is the hardest part. Models create the interesting moments and poses. Everyone has their own style, but I just offer small directions to aid my composition and then give a lot of encouragement. If I like something, I tell them and we stick on that for a few frames.
If you take senior portraits or engagement photos, working with a professional model is like jumping off a bicycle into a race car. So be prepared to react to them, and slow things down if necessary.
Most models like to establish a rhythm. My rhythm is decided by my flash recycle time, so when you’re using hot shoe flash like me, it can be a little frustrating. Don’t use your flash on full power if you can avoid it. Using your flash on lower powers allows you to take multiple frames before completely depleting the reserve.
These first few frames I just used to get things moving. The simple composition with a 50mm lens allowed her a lot of room to move and it allowed me to see how the light was behaving for finer adjustment.
6. Getting Hardcore
This next set of images take the shoot to a new level. This is a bounty hunter shoot, so obviously a good prop would bring the message home. We’re still working with the same light, and no changes were made to accommodate the new element in the frame.
I want to take a second to talk about working with models on projects that might be controversial. In my case, the controversy was asking a model to hold a gun. We wanted this shoot to reflect a film, not a political agenda. That being said, the model was well aware of the concept before agreeing to do the shoot. I hope that these photos portray a tough, strong female in a fun, action movie kind of way.
The most common controversy that hurts relationships between models is the level of sensuality and romance that’s expected in the shoot. Boudoir shoots and pin-up shoots are becoming more and more common, but the majority of models aren’t particularly interested in doing them.
If you want to do a shoot that comes even close to being this way (whether it’s concept, wardrobe or even posing), you need to be clear about it upfront.
7. Changing Outfits and Locations
After we made some photos in the first situation, we changed gear. I switched to a different wall, but moved my lights in very similar set up. She changed her outfit.
Whenever you’re doing big shoots like this, remember to take breaks every 30 minutes or so. You try standing with your shoulders back and your head still for longer than that. It’s hard work.
For the following shot, I changed my position to include some of the accent light in the shot to get some lens flare. I think it looks alright, but it could be better. There was something about that gray background that didn’t work well with flare.
I like this next image better. The sitting position seemed more natural, and gave off more of the tough nonchalance I was looking for.
Now, we’re going to take a look at how to take an image from what you’ve seen already to the final state. All of the images you’ve been looking at are how the JPGs looked straight out of the camera. Watch the screencast below and see what I did to improve an image.
9. Final Image
Here’s how one of my favorite images turned out. I had a lot of fun making it. I’d like to thank Rachel Lisa and Marguerite Swallow for their general awesomeness.
If you have any questions or thoughts about the photos, hit me up in the comments!