Photographic “play days” fuel my soul and flex my creative muscles. These play days, also known as test shoots, are days where I create without any client or restraints.
I may be testing out a new makeup artist, experimenting with a new lighting technique or maybe I’m just creating images that have been floating in my head for awhile. The idea (first and foremost) is to have a day where there’s time to try new things and explore new people/processes without the demands of pleasing a client. I am the client.
Typically on these test shoots, I prepare a few concepts beforehand and bring some inspiration images, but from there I just create freely. My concepts may morph and I may be inspired in the moment by the designs, the model, or the light I have created.
For this shoot, I knew that I wanted to play with graphic silhouettes. I would focus on bold shapes, lines and dramatic interplay of light and shadow. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been inspired recently by the work of Lillian Bassman and some of the other greats of the 1950s/60s.
I asked my friend and designer Lory Sun to design a skirt with graphic structure that would be emphasized in silhouette. I also asked her to bring me a circle cut out of black foam core. At first, I could tell she was unsure about me styling with cardboard… but soon she’d see where I was going with the concept as I knew this would make a great prop to act as a ‘hat’ in a graphic silhouette image.
When you know the purpose and the concept of the shoot, all elements of the visual language should communicate this photographic message. Because ‘bold and graphic’ silhouettes were my goal, I would use graphic props, graphic clothing, bold lighting, and graphic poses.
My model Susie Brey was wonderful! I explained the vision for this particular shot and she was totally on board. It’s always great to work with models that channel the essence of each particular image in a different way. We did several different shots, and for each, she was a chameleon giving me different emotions and body shapes.
I began by lighting a Savage seamless paper “Super White” background. I used two bare strobes, one on either side of the background to help give me relatively even illumination. Then, I placed two black V-flats up against the white walls on either side of my set, preventing light bouncing off of the walls and filling in the shadows (a common problem when trying to achieve silhouettes in a white space).
For this shoot, I was tethered into Lightroom which allowed me to apply a high contrast preset to see better how the light would look in the final shot. I could envision just how the light, poses props were working together.
Once the silhouette was looking good, I added my main light. For this shot, I wanted as much of the image as possible to be in shadow. I only wanted a tiny swath of light to illuminate the model’s face, while leaving the rest of the clothing/body in shadow. On my main light. I used a 5 degree grid, creating sharp shadows in a narrow area.
Once I got the main light right, it was time to add my ‘hat’ prop using the large black foam core board. At all times the prop became an important graphic and compositional element in the frame. Sometimes it was placed directly behind the subject’s head, forming a bold circle around her. In another shot it was placed in front of her face, casting a crisp shadow across her eye, and giving more of the impression of a brim of a hat. I had one of my assistants hold this ‘hat’, knowing that I could easily remove her hand/body in Photoshop because the hat would appear solid black and the background solid white — no need to match textures when removing her.
What I love about this shoot is that the hat looks large, avant-garde and expensive, yet it was made of foam core! The reason I was able to use nothing more than cardboard was because I knew that the hat would be in pure shadow, nothing but a silhouette. Therefore the material or make of the hat was inconsequential to the final results. Of course, having a concept beforehand allowed me to previsualize such a graphic headpiece and plan ahead to shape the foam core. Just because something isn’t actually expensive doesn’t mean it can’t look VERY expensive (and beautiful!) in a photograph!
Retouching & Final Images
In the retouching for this shoot, I needed to exaggerate the contrast — make the white pure white, and blacks pure black. Furthermore, I would clean up all of the lines in the frame, the edges of the ‘hat’, the lines of the skirt, and any other shapes. In short, I would remove any distractions that detracted from the cleanness of the image. I believe that in any image you should remove or reduce distractions that aren’t supporting the visual goals of the shoot. This may come in the planning process, and post-processing can also help give the finishing touches.
In some of the shots I mirrored the frame to create centered and balanced compositions. In other images, I ‘cut’ out of the headpiece to create abstract and surreal results. Furthermore, when color grading (toning) the image I went for extremely pale skin and strong cool and blue tones in the color images. I felt that this emphasized the surreal nature of the imagery.
In closing, you can see how using obscure and inexpensive objects can create striking images when you just think outside the box! 🙂