Sometimes the best projects come together with very little planning. The goal was simple, gather a team of talented people and shoot something cool. The words "dark and dramatic" got thrown around a lot in the beginning and it was up to each individual to take that "concept" and bring their A game.
The team consisted of the usual suspects, a MUA, a hairstylist, a model, and myself. This time around instead of a stylist, we had a badass designer and her assistant. Matt Goodlett is an awesome make up artist that I've worked with before. Michelle Villarel is a hairstylist who I hadn't worked with before but I'd seen her work before and was impressed. Melanie Smith is freelance model who was touring in a couple of cities. She had multiple shoots that weekend and I was glad that we were able to get her in. Francis Lewis is the owner of Ann DeEvelyn, a boutique thats been featured in multiple fashion shows. It was all looking very promising but the shoot day was quickly approaching and no formal plan of attack had been set in stone. And like a battering ram out of hell the day fell upon us.
The studio held an air of uncertainty as the crew slowly began to show up. The shooting area was already halfway pre staged, ironically reflecting the unsure direction of the shoot. I naturally grabbed a 12 ft roll of black paper to start. I had an idea of the relative light set up I wanted to try, but I wasn't sure if it would work out. I drew inspiration from a shoot I assisted Clay Cook on that was featured in his tutorial. Could I rework the technicalities myself and could I manage to make it my own?
After a brief powwow with hair and make up, I went back to work. Michelle decided to add texture to Melanie's hair and Matt decided to give her deep red eye shadow. I started out with the key light, a Profoto D1 boomed out fully on an Avenger C Stand with a 51 in Profoto Deep White L umbrella as the modifier. The light was facing down at the floor butterfly style. She would be standing just behind where the umbrella was facing so that her face and body would be lit by the spill and not so much by the light itself.
Since the light would be would be shooting down, I anticipated that it could potentially leave some dark shadows under her eyes, nose, and mouth that might not look pleasing to the eye. The next logical step would be to set up a light behind me that would fill in some of the shadows. Ideally it would be a huge soft light source, so I picked up the biggest modifier we had available, a 65 in Profoto Deep White XL modifier with another D1 and slapped it (carefully) on another C stand. This light alone would have been enough, but I decided to rig a 6 ft by 6ft Lastolite scrim in front of the light to further diffuse it and make it softer. I raised both the light and the scrim up and angled both down about 45 degrees so that they wouldn't completely get rid of the shadows but they would soften them without taking away from the dramatic feel of the image.
Last up would be the kicker. I put a third D1 on a C stand and placed it behind and off to camera-left of where Melanie would be standing at. This light would add some separation between her and the background.
The Story Cont.
Francis brought in about 5 of her designs. Having a good wardrobe can dramatically increase the production value of any shoot, thats why its so important to have a good stylist or designer on your team. My eyes lit up as she pulled each piece out of its protective covers. The team unanimously agreed on 2 pieces in the matter of seconds. The first was a black intricate coat reminiscent of something you'd see on the set of Hollywood's newest dystopian flick. The second was a long form-fitting red dress that shreds towards the bottom. I instantly fell in love. Seeing these helped me figure out what gels I would use on each of the lights. For the first look, I'd use a blue gel in the key light and a red gel in the kicker. For the second look I'd get a little crazy and use a purple gel in the key and a yellow gel in the kicker. The fill wouldn't need any gels for the look I was going for.
The Light Cont.
Once Michelle had finished up with hair, I asked her to stand in for a light test. I got my composition and clicked the shutter. My heart stopped. It was nothing like I envisioned. My palms started sweating and it took all I had to remain calm. I thought to myself "lets take this step by step." Nail these lights one by one. I had set up pocket wizards plus III's on each of the lights and synced them to the same channel, but assigned them different zones.
I began triggering each of them separately to see exactly what they were doing, then dialed them in where I needed them to be at. The key was the first to get set. Then I added the subtlest of fills and locked in the kicker.
The last problem left to solve was the random rays of light peeling into my frame. It was 11 am and the sun was shinning bright through the windows. I had to rig some black fabric on 2 Manfroto stands to completely block the sun out.
This was my first time working with Melanie and I was glad to find that she was a natural. I usually like to the let the model do their own thing in terms of posing. Occasionally I'll ask them to try something or to hold a pose as I try to find a different composition, but I never like to micromanage them. It's an easy way to make the final image feel unnatural.
As soon as we started shooting, I noticed an issue. I felt like the black jacket was fading too much into the background, so I pulled out an olive green roll of seamless and put it up behind her. You can see the difference below. It's subtle but photography is all about subtleties. The image remained dramatic but now had just a touch more contrast in the background so it didn't look like Melanie was blending into it.
Check out the final image below and a full behind the scenes shot of the whole set up.
I was pretty happy with how the final image came out. The light was great and I liked how the gels complimented each other. It's important to note that these colors weren't randomly picked. Red and blue gels look really good together and are commonly used in combination with each other in the creative community. If you consult a color wheel, you'll see that they are not fully complimentary colors (complimentary colors are found on opposite sides of the wheel. An example would be red and green.), but their a go to combo that'll make anything look good.
In all honestly, as happy as I was with the first image, that whole set was just the warm up. We were about to get real crazy. Looking at the color wheel again, I decided to go fully complimentary and use purple and yellow gels like I mentioned before. It's not a combination that usually pops to mind when thinking about these kinds of things but I was really excited to test it out.
With this next set we'd shoot full length so Melanie could really get into some interesting poses. Once Matt and Michelle adjusted make up and hair and Francis had made her adjustments to the dress, we were ready to go. Since I was shooting full length, I had to get low to the ground. REAL low. Gotta be willing to get down and dirty for the shot.
I found that the yellow kicker was a little too strong. I decided to just throw on a sock to soften the impact of the light a little bit. My camera settings stayed locked in at 1/100 F.5 ISO 160 for both sets. The light settings remained around the same as well. I tweaked them here and there, but for the final shot in the red dress they were locked in at 7.3 for the key, 5.8 for the fill, and 7.0 for the kick.
Melanie was dialed in and free flowed through poses as I happily snapped away. I moved composition here and there, but was limited but the small borders of the olive green background. I was pretty sure I got the shot 30 images back, but she kept flowing in different poses that I didn't want to miss.
The Special Guest
This was hands down the most technical shoot I've done so far. I loved how they looked straight out of the camera. I was shooting tethered to Capture One and did some slight grading on the raw file to further set the mood of the image. The last step was retouching. I went ahead and retouched the final image in first set.
The image of the red dress however was a different story. I decided to reach out to Jordan Hartley, a high end professional retoucher and all around cool dude, to retouch it. It was the first time I'd reached out to someone else to retouch one my photos. Its incredibly nerve-racking but I knew it was in good hands. It came back looking incredible. Check out the final image below.
In the end it was really great shoot. I had fun trying something new and pushing my limits a little.
If you'd like to follow any of these talented individuals, you can find their social media pages below:
Melanie Smith: @mel618
Matt Goodlett: @mattgoodlettmakeup
Michelle Villareal: @hairbymichellev
Francis Lewis: @ann_deevelyn_clothing_co
Jordan Hartley: @jordanhartleyretouch