#QuarantinePhotoShoot Tips with a Pro Photographer
I shouldn’t have been nervous. We’ve worked together before. I could blame the isolation snacking, or the TedTalk I’d watched at 2:00am about the phenomenon of a ‘True Mirror’, (which if you aren’t familiar, prepare to never look in a mirror the same way again). Either way, the nerves were present, all to do something I’d done many times before with a photographer who, in all likelihood, has seen my every bad angle.
“We might need to do some re-decorating and rearranging here,” Scott Edwards-Silva tell me, as he looked at my apartment through his phone, assessing my tiny place for interesting spaces to shoot. “We need to get that light.”
I’m not a model by trade; I do it for fun, and only with brands, photographers and designers I actually believe in and want to support. But for this project, a photoshoot inside my home done via Facetime, wasn’t about product, it was about challenge. The challenge of confronting atypical hurdles (a lesson in lateral thinking) which included that we’d be shooting via a video call in screenshots. I had in mind the idea to cover my mouth with a floral scarf; a covering of half my face to reflect the times. The flowers to indicate what might bloom of lips when not impeded, and the eyes left to convey, as we’ve all been tasked to do, every emotion and reaction. It was not the photoshoot that clued me in to what a challenge it is to speak solely with the eyes, despite their harboring of a different soul.
But it was dually for the task of making art out of thin air. There was nothing to highlight here, no clothing to showcase, and no fancy set tricks. Just a phone, my apartment, and whatever I pulled out of the closet to wear that day. I was both intimidated - thus the nerves - and enthralled by the idea of making art out of nothing, or I might say everything I have and am, out of the very settings I otherwise overlook all day long, and from poses, places, and props that make up my actual life. With very little to hide behind other than my phone, it might be unsurprising that all the same insecurities presented themselves as might occur during a Facetime call to a crush.
“Even though the discipline of any art requires periods of isolation and introspection, we all thrive when we create with others. These shoots are one way to break down some of the creative distance many of us are experiencing at this time.” Edwards-Silva told me.
This is the circumstance of social media photography (barring the terminology: ‘content’) that baffles me. We spend so much time making the small, innocuous details of our lives look flawless: our breakfast bowls, our outfits, our makeup. And yet completely ignore the details, small though they may be, of our lives that are already beautiful in their own right. Those that do not necessitate perfect propping, but rather thrive beautifully in their utilitarian messiness. In our constant grooming, flat-laying, and plate positioning, and yet what we needed was a less critical eye on the subject and a more discerning, compassionate eye on the natural order (or striking disorder) surrounding us.
Which made the day’s task, a #quarantinephotoshoot, all the more intriguing. Here on my phone was a professional who I admired for his work and his candor, and here he was making my humble home interesting, picturesque. Free of the bells and whistles often associated with a shoot, it was just my life through the lens of another artist.
So, being the opportunist I am, I picked his brain:
What kind of lighting is best for indoor/at home photography, especially on an iphone camera?
"Everything depends on the effect or expression you want to achieve. The FaceTime camera needs a strong light supply; otherwise, you'll get grainy photos. Outdoors in open shade is great, such as what you'd get at the edge of the shade from a large tree or a patio cover. Indoors a large window can also do the trick. Keep in mind that the camera will expose based on the average amount of light in the frame. In other words, if you put someone in bright light against a dark background, the bright spots (such as facial highlights) will be blown out. But, again: it's all about the effect you want. A lowly lit scene and lots of grain may give you the expression you're after."
How can you make the most of that light?
"Tight portrait shots work well when the light is fairly even throughout the frame. Play with the angle of the light on the face for shading effects that can be emphasized in post processing when you can deepen shadows. You can also play with shadows from objects such as plant leaves and fabric or the slats of window blinds."
Being a writer, Edwards-Silva wanted to show me in my element.
“It’s basically me surrounded by books and pens just being a mess,” I told him.
“Great. Show me.”
I filled the bed with books and notebooks, a favorite pen, and a trust sweater - my sartorial security blanket. I sprawled them out, opened a copy of Madame Bovary, and worked the props. The props of my own and actual life, funny enough.
What should people keep in mind in terms of angles to shoot from, camera settings, and other logistics?
"First of all, I've had fun playing with the unusual photo dimensions. If you take photos with your phone held vertically, you get some incredibly long images, which I've enjoyed when shooting a fully extended ballerina. (But forget about getting that unusual dimension to fit on an Instagram post.) If, however, you turn your phone horizontally, it will take photos in the traditional 2:3 ratio of 35mm cameras and DSLRs. The FaceTime lens will exaggerate distance, which can be fun if you want really long legs coming at the camera. But if your subject is leaning away from the camera, their face might end up too small. Because the shutter speed of the FaceTime camera is not very fast, you can also create some fun effects with motion blur. Have your subject turn their face or wave their hands as you shoot. See what you get!"
How do you like to stage a self-taken photo or photo taken at home? (location, props or other elements, color, anything that comes to mind)
"The location is determined largely by the need for light. Once you've got a good light source established, play! You can introduce elements (in our outside of the frame) to create shadows. Fabric is also a great source of texture and unusual light patterns. I find myself tending toward black and white on these shoots unless some bold color is introduced. Solid colors work especially well as intricate prints and patterns will be lost on the FaceTime camera."
When we decided to give the scarf concept a try, at first the idea fell flat. Even for someone praised for their unique (and abnormally huge) eyes, it was hard to convey a mood. A message. An emotion. “How do you feel having to wear that out in public?” he prompted me. “Angry. Bitter. A little scared, if I’m totally honest” I admitted. Those are not the virtuous emotions I had expected to share. But they were honest. And when it comes to modeling, at least for me, the emotions need to be genuine for them to come across the lens. Lacking the experience, if I’m uncomfortable, you’ll see it. Was I uncomfortable with the emotions the mask brought out of me? The resentment, the fear? Absolutely. But that was the emotion that needed conveying. As long as the discomfort is endured honestly, the shot will work. I didn’t trust the mask. I didn’t trust a society covered in masks. But I did trust myself. And once we got the light right and the feelings exposed, the shots started to pull through.
What makes a photo interesting to YOU? (Your opinion on this, doesn't have to be the academically agreed upon element!)
"When I'm going through a set of photos from a shoot, the ones that make the cut are the ones that say something to me. They have movement and rhythm and the subject expresses something for the camera. Know when to apply the rules of composition but also the right time to stretch or break them. "
Are there any basics for body posing tips or tricks you recommend people try that can enhance a photo overall?
"The most important thing--for both men and women--is not to slouch! It sounds like a paradox but a straight back has a wonderful natural curve to it. I also like to play with what I call open and closed body language. Is the subject's body in full view or is it obstructed by arms or objects or shadows or even the rotation of the body. And where are the eyes in relation to that position? Are the eyes turned away with the body or are they looking straight into the camera? Is the body fully open to the viewer but the eyes turned away? I play with these relationships constantly. What's best? It's all about what you want to express. Are you trying to show defiance, flirtation, vulnerability, fright? A lot of expression comes down to that open or closed body language."
I’m not blind to my luck. Because I’m tall, and because share my own work online, I’m offered opportunities like this. Authenticity and its required bravery is a natural attractant to fellow artists and thus opportunities to collaborate. I am grateful for artists like the photographers I’ve been blessed to work with who are willing to allow me to explore. But most importantly: I’m willing. I’m curious. If I believe in the cause, I’ll put myself out for it. Willingness to allow one concept - a phone photo shoot - to turn into two more: an act of self reflection and conversation on photography. Willingness to look stupid, foolish, clumsy, messy, to show my disheveled home. Willingness to explore space and time, to ask questions, and to collaborate what’s in my imagination with that of another person. Willingness, a fundamental ingredient to creativity. To a life well lived. And of course to a great photo.
I find that, in spite of the physical distance between myself and the model, these shoots are actually quite intimate. Part of that comes from the subject letting my camera into her home, which rarely happens when I'm shooting with models. But this intimacy also comes from our need to connect during this unusual time. The images are not high resolution and sharply focused and the light is often less than ideal, but making those concessions to imperfection frees the collaborators to just connect and express. And that is the lesson I hope to take back to my live shoots when the time comes.
A special thank you to Scott Edwards-Silva for this shoot and interview.