Six Tips For Photographing Models In The Studio, By Ray Rapkerg
In this guest article, Ray Rapkerg discusses using large format film cameras in the studio to shoot models, and how you can make the most of your time and energy. Shooting large format isn’t the easiest at the best of times, but these tips might help you get the best from your camera and your model.
With my film cameras I shoot mostly fashion, art nudes and studio portraits. If, like many film photographers, you usually shoot street photography and similar genres, you might not be sure what studio model shoots are all about. So I thought I would provide some tips in case you feel like trying out this aspect of film photography.
A few days ago I had a photoshoot with model Raphaella, so we will use that session as an example. Often my fashion photoshoots are quite hectic affairs, with lots going on to create a “buzzy” photoshoot. In the past I have worked that way with Raphaella. But this time I decided to aim for a sedate sort of shoot. The reason is that Raphaella was just getting back into modelling after being off work for several months due to ill health. I felt like doing a portrait shoot rather than a fashion or glamour session. I wanted Raphaella to be able to take it easy and be herself. My aim was to capture Raphaella as a slightly older, wiser, more thoughtful person than before her health scare. If the photos turned out to have a bit of a wistful look about them, that was fine.
In the studio: model Raphaella and Wisner Expedition 8×10 view camera
As you can see I had a clear idea of the shoot beforehand, which brings me to my first tip:
Tip 1: You need to have an artistic vision
This is just a pretentious way of saying you need to know what you want. If you are unsure about the look you are aiming for, the hustle and bustle of a photoshoot will distract you to the point where you end up shooting randomly. That is a hopeless position to be in! Decide what you want to achieve, and bring along some printouts of photos you like, or create a mood board on Pinterest. The advantage of Pinterest is that you can send your mood board link in advance. However physical prints are more compelling on the day. Whatever you use, it does not need to be anything fancy: models and makeup artists love to see any sort of evidence of “the look” so that they know what is required of them.
While on the subject of the people involved in a photoshoot, here is my second tip:
Tip 2: Don’t forget your social skills
This is what a photoshoot is really all about: chatting with the model, directing the shoot, and basically making it all happen on the human front. I guess I am a typical male who finds multi-‐‑tasking difficult, because I find it challenging to be in “social” mode chatting with the model while also being in “technical” mode operating the camera. But without the social side, there is nothing to photograph, so the technical side becomes pointless.
My personal aim is to be very friendly and chatty with the model, but also totally professional. Some male photographers seem to think the situation calls for a “flirty” approach, but my advice is don’t go there! I have never met a female model who appreciated a male twice her age delivering the same cheesy comments she has heard far too many times before!
It is not uncommon for the model to be more experienced (and more artistic!) than the photographer, and a smart photographer is not threatened by that: he or she uses it to achieve the best possible results. It is always worth asking the model for ideas and taking the time to truly listen. Remember that a photoshoot is about two people working together as equals to achieve an artistic result.
In the case of the session with Raphaella, we chatted even more than usual. We both knew there was no rush: we had the studio booked for several hours, and I explained beforehand that I was intending to do some relatively simple portrait shots involving “slow” film photography. In fact on this day I was using an old wooden view camera to make 8×10” Impossible instant prints – a particularly slow form of film photography. You may be familiar with Impossible: the company manufactures instant film from an old Polaroid factory in Holland. Impossible’s largest instant film requires rather specialist equipment: you have
to take the photo in a big 8×10” film camera and then crank the exposed sheet of film through a mangle to press together the separate negative and print sheets and spread the chemical pod.
I loaded my Polaroid film holder into my old wooden Wisner Expedition 8×10 camera, took the shot, cranked the print through the mangle and waited the required five minutes. Then I triumphantly lifted out the print to reveal … a totally blank shot.
This brings me to my third tip:
Tip 3: Don’t be nervous
My first shot was a failure, but I no longer worry about things like that. I have learned to accept that I am a bit of a putz who will inevitably make mistakes, and that is absolutely fine because I always get there in the end. This attitude enables me to be relaxed in photoshoots. I have seen other photographers get incredibly nervous and flustered, but there is no need. A photoshoot is a supportive environment, and the model will be perfectly used to working with beginner photographers or people having trouble with equipment. However, it is important that you manage to stay relaxed when things go wrong, otherwise you will soon destroy the atmosphere. Continue to chat while you solve the problem, or make a joke of it, but do not do what I saw one photographer do and hurl your camera to the ground!
My first shot turned out to be blank because I had made the simplest of errors: I had forgotten to remove the dark slide. Doh! The next shot worked fine:
￼Raphaella, Impossible 8×10 instant print
Impossible film has its quirks such as chemical spreading flaws, narrow exposure latitude and slightly odd tonality, but that is part of its charm. We took a few more Impossible shots:
￼￼More Impossible 8×10 instant shots
Then I took some shots using a medium format camera. Large format is fun but challenging, so I always find it a bit of a relief to intersperse it with medium format roll film.
This brings me to my next tip:
Tip 4: Know how to operate your camera
How many times have I seen digital photographers endlessly scrolling through menus while a model gets cold and bored? Don’t go there! Film cameras are often simpler than digital cameras, but you have to get it right. So it is important that you are fully familiar with your camera. A good example is one of my favorite cameras for studio work, the Fujifilm GX680III.
Fujifilm GX680III studio camera
On the one hand this is a simple camera: no menus, manual exposure, manual focus. On the other hand, this means I need to take a light reading with a light meter, transpose the readings correctly onto the camera, focus accurately and so on.
If you are involved in a studio group shoot, typically the flash units will be set up and someone will guess an aperture. Digital photographers will then begin “chimping”: they will set their camera to the guessed aperture and repeatedly take shots. They will check the shots on their camera’s rear screen, and adjust the aperture until they are satisfied. Film camera users do not have the luxury of chimping. We have to use a light meter to get it right first time. The light meter needs to be a flash meter (able to read the brightness of flashes rather than only reading continuous sunlight). I had a top-‐‑of-‐‑the-‐‑range Sekonic touchscreen flash meter but I changed it for a simple Polaris model that is more idiot-‐‑proof!
There are many silly mistakes that a film photographer can make, so I force myself to double check everything. Did I set the flash meter to the same ISO as the film? Did I load film and wind it on? Am I sure I set the aperture to that indicated by the flash meter (in dim studio lighting it is surprisingly easy to set it wrong). If shooting large format sheet film, is the film facing the right way, is it a sheet I have not already exposed, have I stopped down (after focusing at maximum aperture), have I cocked the shutter? And so on – while also not forgetting to tell the model she is looking great!
Here are a couple of the medium format shots I took of Raphaella:
Medium format shots made with a Fujifilm GX680III camera
You can see why I like the Fujifilm GX680III camera: it makes large 6x8cm negatives and it has tilt-‐‑shift for focus effects that cannot be achieved with digital. The GX680III is not well known outside Japan, but in my view it is quite a phenomenal camera. It was designed to be absolutely top of the range and was incredibly expensive when new – more than twice the price of a Hasselblad. Yet it is surprisingly affordable now. The build quality is staggering and the lenses are the sharpest I have ever come across (there is a reason modern Hasselblad lenses are made by Fujifilm.) The downside is that the GX680III is heavy and bulky – definitely a specialist studio camera.
Here are a couple of other ideas for studio cameras:
Hasselblad V series or Bronica SQ series: both produce excellent results. Hasselblads cost more but give you more credibility. Bronicas work just as well and are far more affordable. The only thing I dislike about Bronicas is the clattery sound of the shutter – Hasselblads simply sound better! (I had a Bronica SQa and changed it for a Hasselblad 501CM. Although I love the Hassy it does not really justify costing three times as much as the perfectly good Bronica).
Pentax 645n or 645nII: an excellent studio camera with excellent autofocus. If you struggle to focus manually in dim studio conditions, an autofocus film camera like the Pentax can be a life saver. I would not be without my 645nII, although I must admit there are two downsides for me: one, the negatives are smaller than I prefer (6×4.5cm), and two, such a modern camera leads me into a slightly more “digital” shooting experience.
Of course just about any film camera can be used in the studio. You will need a camera that enables you to set the shutter and aperture manually. Plus it will need to have a flash sync socket (sometimes called a PC socket) or a hot shoe so that you can add a flash sync adaptor. Apart from that, my suggestion is that you should feel confident to shoot with whatever camera you have. A photographer with a modest camera and good social skills will get better shots than a photographer with a fancy camera and no social skills.
This brings me to my next tip:
Tip 5: Don’t over shoot
Digital shooters fire away relentlessly. It makes them appear as though they are panicking – hoping desperately that if they take enough random shots a few will turn out well. Film shooters cannot do this. Anyway, why would you want to? Even if you are using a 35mm camera through which you can pump films quite rapidly, it becomes too much of a burden to develop/scan/print all those shots. With a camera like the Fujifilm GX680III – which only fits nine frames onto a roll of 120 film – the need for restraint is greater still. My suggestion is this: think of yourself as an artist. You are there to create the shot, not snatch it by chance. Take your time, enjoy yourself, set up the shot nicely: achieve something worthwhile.
How many shots did I take during my photoshoot with Raphaella? I shot eight Impossible 8×10 instant prints in the Wisner large format camera, plus two rolls of 120 film in the GX680III (at 9 frames per roll that’s 18 shots). Plus 2 digital background shots (one of which heads this article). That is 28 shots in total – the lowest number I have ever shot in a studio session. I consider about half the shots to be successful – the highest success ratio I have ever achieved. In other words, by slowing down I got better results. Plus I really enjoyed the shoot – it was as much a relaxed social session as a photoshoot. I will definitely “shoot slow” more often.
That wraps up my tips on photographing models in the studio
Except for one final tip:
Tip 6: Enjoy yourself
Remember that photography is a creative endeavor. It is important that you have fun if you are to achieve results that “sparkle”. It sounds trite, but actually it is fundamental. All too often I have seen photographers turn a photoshoot into a bit of a grim endeavor – the lively human element quashed under stony silences interspersed with muttering at the camera. You can do better simply by allowing yourself to have fun!
(Check out Ray’s photos on Pinterest www.pinterest.com/rayrapkerg and see what he is up to currently on Twitter www.twitter.com/rayrapkerg. Follow the modelling adventures of Raphaella at www.raphaellawithlove.co.uk)
Thanks to Ray for sharing this insightful and useful article with us. Bes sure to check out his work and make sure you come and comment.
Lovely article-good read-thank you! Although I really like the 8×10″ shots (especially the first one-wow!) I just can’t get over the low fidelity look of the impossible project film. The streaks, imperfections, strange tonality, and an over soft look/utter lack of acuity…ok, everyone’s taste is different, but do these “quirks” as you put it, not negate many of 8×10″ advantages? Not to mention the price…jeeez. The Mamiya/Tr-X pics on the other hand are perfect-from both an artistic as well as a technical standpoint. lovely!
You didn’t have to bash digital photography, Ray. First, tilt-shift lenses are available for both film and digital, and second, photographers have been firing away relentlessly with film decades ago when film was inexpensive.
You’re not wrong, Stuart. There is definitely something illogical about using a “high fidelity” 8×10 camera to shoot “low-fi” Impossible film. But maybe having fun and being creative is not always about logic!
I do admit that wouldn’t mind giving it a try if I could get my hands on some cheaply. I just can’t justify its price though-especially when I can buy some regular film for the money (and get at least 25 sheets of it!). You’re totally right about the illogicality of creativity/fun though- and admitted-there’s nothing like the instant gratification of a polaroid! I suppose even in todays world, where cameras are tethered to computers while shooting and everyone sees whats going down, there is still something spectacular about holding a big print!
Good article and fine photos.
I would like to add the following:
a. Never shoot alone – the model may bring a trusted friend, or you may have a studio assistant.
Don’t allow a boyfriend or girlfriend onto the set. You & the model are working on a concept/idea/vision. BF and/or GF are distractions.
b. Create a trusting environment.
I can’t agree with the “Lo-fi” look of impossible film. These are absolutely gorgeous films with incredibly large and smooth tonal gradations without any form of grain (and they’re not cheap either). Combine that to the fact you don’t enlarge for print here. I suppose the lack of acuity and most strains must be caused by a bad holder/processor (and maybe combined with too much front tilt and not perfect focus, too slow shutter and very large aperture) but certainly not the film here.
Check out Ray’s photos, he his perfectly capable of absolutely jaw dropping fine images in 8×10 with instant film (or negative).
You’re right Matso, I forgot to make it clear that the out-of-focus effects on the photos were done on purpose by using tilt-shift and the extremely narrow depth of field of 8×10. Stopping down to say f22 would produce sharper shots. I just felt like getting some artistic blurring on the day I took these shots.
Hi Satrain18, I hope you don’t feel I am “anti-digital”. Digital is great! Film is great! (Whoa, too much enthusiasm – I’ve had too much coffee this morning.) But seriously, it’s all good.