BEHIND THE SHOT
with Magic Owen
As a fashion photographer who is lucky enough to shoot a lot of large-scale editorials, many of my shoots take a great deal of careful planning and coordination. A huge amount of time and effort goes into doing research into current and upcoming trends in fashion, couture, hair and make-up, making mood boards and bringing the right creatives together, working with the stylist, looking at designers, finding and booking a location, and ensuring all the creatives understand the same vision. And then it is all about the details, like always ensuring that the clothes have been steamed and that someone knows the correct way for them to be worn, the make-up artists also need to know the skin tone of the models they will be working on, and it’s also important to check that the venue has electricity if you need it.
A shoot can be exhausting (but always fun) for everyone involved, but only after weeks of preparation. However, sometimes it’s nice to throw all of that out of the window, just play creatively and see what happens! In fact, a lack of any expectations and having complete creative freedom within a small creative group is very often the best way to come up with something new. This shot in particular was entirely unplanned and came together very organically.
A big problem with well-planned and executed photo shoots, especially when there is a client with an expectation of quality paying for it, is that photographers will inevitably fall back on what they know works. Most photographers can’t afford to take a risk when their business and reputation depends on the results, especially when a large team has worked so hard on a project. However, this is how photographers get a ‘look’ and are then widely associated with that look, and hired only when the client would like to achieve that particular look. Experimentation is essential to keep things interesting – if it’s not working, move on and try something else.
Several weeks ago, my friend and muse Ceci Zhang got a new haircut. Going from very long hair to a bob is a dramatic change so she needed some new, simple portfolio shots for her agency. Nothing exciting, just the kind of clean, minimal and accurate shots that all models need on their agency books. Gemma Huh, who is both a model and make-up artist, agreed to do the make-up, and so we set a date and shot it in my studio. Ceci and I shoot together regularly and work well together, and between the three of us we had the whole thing done in under an hour, well ahead of schedule.
As we all had time to spare, it was an opportunity to play creatively and to shoot Gemma again for the first time in a while. Gemma has a very unique look, she has very pale skin and red hair – her features are highly editorial. I had been meaning to organise a shoot with Gemma for ages, so it was the perfect opportunity. We didn’t have an agenda but had a whole afternoon of being spontaneous, where we shot two entirely different sets of images; while both were based on latex outfits, they are otherwise entirely different. Of the two sets, the first was sharp and clean, featuring Couture PVC neck pieces from Patrick Ian Hartley, while Ceci provided additional hands and arms, wearing some elegant long latex gloves. For the curious, you can see a blog on my website, showing both sets. I am lucky enough that, every once in a while, designers like Kim West send me samples to shoot. Her designs have been worn by celebrities for many years. So, after shooting that first set I immediately thought of the petal bodice, which is a sheer colour. It was actually created for a photo shoot organised by Vogue, and it just felt right to use on Gemma. However, it’s not a piece that everyone can wear and own.
I enjoy shooting latex, especially when it is used to make genuine fashion pieces, like those designed by Kim West. So, for the second set of images I really wanted to produce something more artistic, something that had the feel of a painting.
One corner of my studio is home to a foldable, three panel, wooden screen with perspex mirror panels on the inside. We made it for a specific shoot, but it’s been featured in several others since then. The mirror panels were initially purchased for yet another shoot years before, to convert the studio floor into a single large mirror. They’ve been in and out of storage ever since and repurposed as needed. I really wanted to put Gemma inside a box of mirrors, but the screen is intended to be upright. So, we laid it flat on the ground, folded up both sides on their hinges and placed a spare mirror panel against the far end. Ceci stood at that end physically holding the hinged sides and additional panel in place, while Gemma posed inside. This effectively surrounded Gemma, although not at one end and on top, like a mirror coffin!
Lighting was tricky because of the limited access and because of all the mirrors, it was a challenge to keep things out of the frame. I opted to set up a single Bowens studio flash with a diffuser from above and slightly off to one side. This time the mirrors helped by reflecting the light back inside the box, allowing a single flash to provide both the key and fill light at once.
Finally, there wasn’t a lot of space left for me to actually take the picture, but by squatting at the one open end of our box and under the light, using the articulating touchscreen of my OM-D E-M1 Mark II and leaning inside, we managed to find the poses and angles that worked.
In the studio, I always use manually controlled flash and adjust it while shooting to taste. With the electronic viewfinder you can see an immediate preview and so it’s very quick and easy to adjust anything and see the results immediately. My OM-D E-M1 Mark II was set to 1/250 shutter speed, which is the fastest generic flash sync speed, and ISO 200. In this case, I set the aperture to f/10, a little smaller than usual, but the way the flash light reflected in the mirrors looked better with a slightly stronger flash, so a smaller aperture compensated for that.
Finally, I used the M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens at 17mm, a little wider than is traditional for portraits, but in this case I think going a little wider helped emphasize the feeling of being inside a box. Editing was minimal, I used Lightroom to import the RAW image and then made a small colour balance adjustment and a slight crop.