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Photoshoots for Fun and Profitby Ellen Million
As an artist, it is likely that others around you have noticed your fine eye for composition and your good taste. Possibly, they know you have the best camera of any of their acquaintances. Or, maybe your friends just know you're a good sport and are willing to tromp around taking weird photographs with weird people. Whatever the reason, you've been drafted for a photoshoot!
Legalities, negotiation, and money stuff
If you're like me, a photoshoot is a happy thing that you'd do on a Sunday afternoon for fun. But if you're shooting specific promotional images for a professional dance group, or photographing a wedding party, or anything at all that changes your shoot from "simple, stressless fun for me" to "I have a responsibility and some burden," there's no shame in charging for your time and efforts.
How do you charge? Make sure that, if this isn't something you'd be doing anyway, you're earning a decently hourly wage. As with most things, "decent wage" does vary greatly depending on your experience and equipment. If you are a photographer with several shows and lots of clients under your belt, and you have top-of-the-line equipment (including portable lighting or a studio) and can pretty much guarantee that your work will look top notch, $80 an hour is not uncommon. If you have a point-and-click camera, are less experienced, are shooting the kinds of pictures you aren't sure about, or are on friendlier terms with your client, you may want to adjust that down. Remember that if you will be doing any post-work or editing, take that time into account as well!
You also may want to use photo rights as a negotiation tool!
One common question is: Do the photos belong to the subjects, or the photographer? The answer is: either. It is important to have a contract that outlines exactly what each of you gets, before you start snapping shots, even if you are just among friends! I recommend using a model release form, like this one, but making sure the wording is what you specifically need. If you are agreeing to supply developing or proofs as part of your service, make sure you incorporate all of those costs into what you choose to charge.
You can always do a photoshoot for yourself, too! If you're looking for great photographs to use as reference for your own artwork, call up a few friends to model for you. The same rules of "work" apply in reverse - if they are doing work for you, you should compensate them in some manner, whether it's with money, copies of the photos, finished artwork, or just pizza. You'll still need a model release form, and you'll still want to think about what rights each of you will get to the final photos.
Recently, I was approached to do promotional photos of the local fusion bellydancing troupe, Cold Fusion. They offered to pool their money to pay me, but I counter-offered with the desire to have some rights to the photos after we were done, so I could use them as references in my paintings, and still sell prints of them, even if they looked very much like the original photograph or model. They also took me out for a sushi dinner after our shoot, and although that didn't make it into the contract, you can always put something like that into your paperwork! My model release forms, signed individually by each of them, also allowed me to use a transcription of the events, so I could write an article about my process for EMG-Zine. I was very specific about how I would provide the pictures at the end of the event (digital images), and what rights each of us would get. (We both get non-exclusive rights.) Make sure you spell out every eventuality in your release form! This document is a contract, and needs all the nit-picky thought every other kind of contract does.
You'll definitely need a camera! Make sure it's appropriate for what you'll be using it for. If you plan to print the photographs, you'll want either a traditional film-style camera, or a high-resolution digital camera - I recommend at least 6 megapixels for good 8 x 10 prints. If you're only taking shots to show on a webpage, it doesn't need to be so fancy. A zoom is almost a necessity to get the shots you really want without crowding the scene, and I also recommend a wide-angle lens if you're in any kind of cramped location. I've found that my 18-55 mm lens is perfect for all the shots I need.
Additional recommendations include: a spare battery (particularly if you're using a digital camera in the cold!), spare film or data cards, safety pins (for costume emergencies!), binder clips, something to kneel on, and fun props. If you can, bring lights!
If you will be working out in the elements, prepare for them. Have pity if your models will be scantily clad and bring a blanket for them in cold weather, and bring bugspray if the pests will be swarming.
Bring some snacks! Models and photographers alike tend to get grouchy when the bloodsugar drops, and grouchy isn't a flattering look for anyone. Having a pick-me-up in the middle of a photoshoot is a good idea.
In some cases, you won't have any control over what the models will be wearing (I doubt you'll have much say in wedding shots, for example!), but in most cases, encourage costumes and makeup. These will make more interesting shots, and provide richer reference material. Sometimes, even fun little extra parts can add a lot of zest to a photoshoot - for example, putting a serious dance troupe in sunglasses for some fun "out-of-character" shots, or putting wild party hats on the wedding officiants. (Gage your crowd, of course - some people would consider that inappropriate wedding photography. If Aunt Bessie is making disapproving noises, you may want to skip the wild party hats...)
Even the loveliest model will wash out in high light situations - make sure to emphasize their features with makeup so they show up to advantage in the photographs. If you are working with a group of models, make sure their makeup is somewhat uniform - the one wearing the least or most lipstick is going to stick out from the others in group shots!
Your control here will vary, too. In case of things like weddings, usually they will pick picturesque places with good lighting, but it's also entirely possible you will get stuck in a low-lit, cramped church with busy, competing backgrounds. Do the best you can with what you're handed, and take as many shots as possible. If you get to select your own setting, choose open areas with little clutter and good light. Herd your subjects out to these areas, if you have to.
Lighting is probably the most important element to photographs. Whenever possible, use outdoor, indirect light. This is going to be the most flattering and allow the most brightness and clarity. Direct sunlight will tend to wash out your subjects and make them squint, as well as cast a lot of shadows. This is definitely something to play with, and you should experiment with the fun effects that dimmer light and direct light with shadows can create, but for the most basic clarity of facial features, bright but indirect is your best friend. The flat, shadowed side of a building can be a good uniform backdrop (if somewhat boring).
If you can manage it, scope out the place you will be photographing before you are actually doing the shoot. Snap some shots of potential areas for photos and check out how the lighting comes across. If you can do this a very short time before the shoot, and have a few locations lined up to make sure you stand people in, even better. If you have power available and can manage it, bring your own lighting - they make diffuse lighting setups specifically for this kind of shoot.
Watch out for busy background elements! Ideally, your background will contrast in color to your subject so that the subject jumps out. Snowy white trees behind brightly colored tribal fusion dancers is a great combination, for example. You want to avoid areas that are high traffic where you'll have to wait around for people in the background to get out of your shots, and having streets and cars in the background will most often look tacky and messy unless you are deliberately going for an industrial kind of look. In that case, play it up! Find some chainlink fence, or head on over to your local power plant or industrial area. You can always hang a cloth for a background, even outdoors, if you want to block out some undesirable section of your backdrop. Just be aware of what kind of shot you are looking for, and pick a setting to compliment it.
Ideally, of course, you'd have a huge, professionally lit studio for photoshoots, but those of us without that can still get creative and capture some fabulous photographs. Playgrounds make a great place for fun, playful shots for groups or individuals, and can really help break the ice if you're working with new models - who can resist playing on the swings for some great action shots? Plus, it has the advantage of outdoor lighting. Parks and recreation areas have great natural backdrops, and often museums and colleges will have public areas with large staircases and good lighting.
So you've got your people, you've got your backdrop, the paperwork is all signed, your camera battery is charged... now what? Taking pictures!
Chances are good that if you're not working with experienced models, there will be a certain amount of "What do I do?" on their part.
One of the most common things you'll find your subjects flailing over is what to do with their hands. Bellydancers are relatively easy, since they tend to have several poses that involve flared hands and interesting finger positions, but for more standard portraits, consider giving them props to play with. Suggestions for fantasy portraits in particular include weapons, globes, staffs, folds of fabric (including drapey skirt parts) and garlands of fake flowers or leaves. If they are available in your setting, use trees and branches. Play with "pointing" poses, and conjuring positions, cupping of the hands and such.
Posture is important! Remind your subjects to stand (or sit) tall and roll their shoulders back. Don't hesitate to tell them to put their right arm down a little further, or their chin up a little, or to back up. They can't see how the picture is going to look like you can. Avoid things that cross in front of each other (unless it's deliberate), or compete in different planes.
Singles and pairs and groups, oh my! Even if you are technically shooting a group, don't hesitate to mix it up with some single shots and pairs. Play with height, and explore different combinations and poses together. Some pair suggestions include back-to-back shots (have them mime pistols with their fingers and look at the camera for a fun Western theme), waltzing/dipping shots, linking elbows, staredowns, spins... anything that seems appropriate to what you're aiming for. Remember that shots don't have to be front-on - play with profiles and over-the-shoulder glances, as well as shots from above and below. They don't have to be standing, either - encourage kneeling and sitting poses, as well as leaning, balancing, and action shots.
One very effective suggestion to loosen up a new models is to give them an emotion to portray. Start with easy ones, and have them really ham up the idea: anger! frustration! exhaustion! love! angelical inspiration! As you move through these emotion and pose ideas, you'll find some that truly suit your models, and you can go back and play with these further.
Bringing mood music can be a good way to get the creative juices going, too - it's great fun to get some dancing action shots and more easily done if they have some tunes to promote movement. A cheap portable radio or CD player may help your models find good poses. (You may want to ask about their musical tastes before you start so you aren't playing something they hate!)
Most importantly of all, take lots and lots and lots of shots, particularly if you are using a digital camera, where the only thing you have to lose is a little dataspace. I can't count how many times I've flipped through my photos, only to realize the photo I really like isn't quiiiite in focus. If I took the shot a few times, chances are good that one of them is in focus.
Take the same shot from several angles - you'll find that some are more flattering than others, depending on the light and your particular subjects, as well as all kinds of weird stray things like bugs on the lens or the airplane contrail you didn't notice in the background. If you find a really good scene, back up and get a shot of it from further away, and up closer, and with different flash combinations. It might take an extra minute or two, but you'll greatly increase your chances that one of them will be the Great One, not just close to great.
Don't limit yourself to serious shots, either. Grab some candid snaps of folks as they're coming out of a pose - sometimes these can be the best and most natural photographs, and surprise you when you're looking back over the results of your shoot. They can also be a lot of fun for the folks involved to look back at later, to remember the "backstage" elements of the photoshoot.
Photoshoots are a great exercise in seeing subjects with more clarity, and can garner you a great collection of wonderful reference photos as well. Hopefully this article will make them a less stressful and more productive experience for you. Go get those cameras and have some fun!
Ellen Million has always had a passion for projects. Visit her site for prints and embarrassing archives.
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