Shooting the $2million image
Keywords: martin_turner, studiophotography, concept, planning, composition, lighting, shooting, postprocessing, pro, professional_photography, studio
This is the first in an eight part of the series Studio Photography: Shooting the $2million image that looks at studio photography.
I’m going to look at Concept, Working With People, Planning, Composition, Lighting, Shooting and Post-processing. In passing I’ll talk about gear, but, really, studio photography is not about gear. It’s not even about having a dedicated space called a ‘studio’. For the past ten years, my studios have been set up in multi-use spaces, the larger the better. We bring in backgrounds, lights, models, sometimes a dress-maker, a make-up artist and a hairdresser, and usually some kind of caterer. Studio photography is a concept and a category that exists first and foremost in the mind. It is there that compelling images begin.
First, though, what is studio photography? I’ve already said that it isn’t about having a dedicated space, though a dedicated space is helpful for leaving gear set up. Think of a film studio. Most films these days are shot partially, principally or entirely on location. What characterises a film studio is process and workflow. Even seemingly low budget films have pages of credits of people who worked on them. I’m going to define studio photography in this way: it is the craft of controlling every element in an image to produce a result which makes its own case in the busy marketplace of ideas.
Let’s unpack that for a moment. If you live in a city, chances are that you see around 3,000 brand messages, many in the form of visual advertisements, every day. How many do you remember? There are usually five or six images at any one time which stick in the memory. You may have no intention of buying that product, now or ever, but it still sticks with you. One shot which I saw once and have never forgotten was a picture of a RangeRover, with the slogan ‘off-road, not up-kerb’. The car was completely covered in different kinds of mud. It must have taken a day to get it looking like that, and I guess that the mud was applied by hand, because in studio photography you leave nothing to chance. I don’t know the guys who did it, but it’s quite possible that the concept began as a snapshot of something someone saw. The finished image, though, was a careful work of craft, supported by a solid base of science. In almost every other branch of photography, we start with something we find: a landscape, a street shot, news, sports, objects on a table, a unique face. In studio photography we build up our images from nothing. We decide the subject, the background, the props, the lighting, the body language and facial expressions.
In today’s article I’m going to look at the makeup of the entire process. To help us, I’ll be using an image I put together a few years ago to advertise an arts project, called theBarn Arts. theBarn was already an established brand, and theBarn Arts was building on that. It needed to show the main logo prominently, but not too obviously. This is what we got to:
Now, I did this as a voluntary project, so no one paid $2 million for it, but I put the same care and process into it that I would on a campaign aimed at 5.6 million people, with hundreds of lives at stake.
However, at this point I should say that you are unlikely to ever be actually paid $2 million for any image. What I mean by the $2 million image is one which will eventually be required to play a $2 million (or so) role. If you’re shooting an image for a major rebrand, it may cost up to that amount to pay for all the new packaging with your image on it. If you’re shooting for a major health campaign, the cost/saving of getting it wrong or right is likely to be well in excess of $2 million. If it’s an international advertising campaign, the actual media spend may be that much. The reason I’ve chosen that particular figure is the way it breaks down.
The components of the compelling image
In my opinion (and this article is, after all, my opinion) the strength of the image is post-processing x shooting x lighting x composition x planning x working with people x concept. But here’s the rub. Imagine that you can score either zero or one for post-processing. No matter what filters you bought for Photoshop, you will never turn a bad image into a good image using post-processing. You will either achieve the necessary quality for production, or you won’t. Allow zero, one or two for shooting. There’s more you can get wrong in shooting. Indeed, there’s so much more that in studio shooting you may end up doing 200 or more images just to be sure, and you’ll be looking at them on a big screen before you close the shoot. Allow up to four points for lighting, up to eight for composition, up to sixteen for planning, up to thirty-two for working with people, and sixty-four for concept. 1x2x4x8x16x32x64 = 2,097,152. Or more or less two million. You still have to get every element right. If you supply the document at too small a size because of a last minute mistake in post-processing, and you’re right up against the campaign deadline, you still score zero in total, even if you score maximum points on everything else. To be fair, very few images really do score maximum points. The ones that do are those images that you remember for years. By far the most important element in that is the strength of concept.
Let’s talk about this particular shoot. Almost anyone can come up with an arresting image for a one-off. Doing it as part of an existing brand is more difficult, but studio photography is all about working to a set of requirements. In that sense it’s almost the polar opposite of art photography, where the image is created for its own sake. Both can (and should) be executed to the highest quality that the photographer can produce, but the destination is different.
In terms of concept we brainstormed until we came up with the idea of artists actually creating something, and the thing to be created was the logo. I don’t recall if we came up with reversing the logo at that point, though we may have done. The original concept was to have pure black silhouettes, like this:
It was only once we had set up the shot and seen how the pictures came out of the camera that we decided to go with the wraparound lighting. I’ll come back to that in a minute. But this is an important point: concept is not what you start with, it’s what you finish with. Photography is a visual medium. You should expect to be inspired as you work, and you need to be able to change and improve the concept as you go. Sometimes, as you’re working, you will find that the original concept was not right. At other times you have to go back to the concept, recognising that what you have produced doesn’t not match it. We once did an obesity campaign entitled ‘The Weight’s Over’, which needed a picture of a very fat man being measured up by two sports trainers in tracksuits. The model fat-man was booked and we did the shoot. I had some misgivings, as he didn’t look quite convincing enough, but as we’d already paid for his time we did the shoot anyway. A couple of weeks of design and other things passed. Two hours before the advertisement had to go to the media company, my boss walked in and said ‘that fat man isn’t fat enough’. He was right. We had to frantically hunt round for a really fat man, get new sports trainers in, and buy track-suits and other sports equipment. We made the deadline with minutes to spare, but the campaign had an enormous impact, with more than one person in a hundred in a town of a quarter of a million people ultimately losing 5% or more of their body mass within six months (that’s pretty much a record in this kind of work, since you ask).
Working with People
Once you have what you think is the right concept, the next biggest issue, which will make or break your studio result, is working with people. This is at every level. From the word go, you have to inspire the client that this really is what they want. Many promising studio shoots have been abandoned because the client couldn’t ‘see’ it, and didn’t trust the advertising team enough to pay for the shoot without their approval first. You have to work with your team: studio photography is a group activity, unlike most photography which tends to be relatively solitary. Although it’s quite common for an art director or photographer to mock-up a shot, possibly using Photoshop, on their own, the full-blown shoot will probably involve everyone you can lay your hands on. There’s an awful lot of standing around, which is one reason why catering is so important. If you’re feeding people they don’t usually complain about you wasting their time while you set up. After the client and the team you have the models. When I was working in health, we had a policy of always using real people as our models (ie, real patients or health-service staff and users from the community, rather than models we had paid to do it.) I took the same approach for this shoot. These particular people were actually very easy to work with, responding with a range of emotions and postures as I asked them to move around. Unlike portraiture, where you tend to want to pose the sitter’s body for the best (that is, most flattering) look, with studio photography I try to direct them by engaging their emotions directly. I tend to say ‘imagine’ or ‘this is happening to you’.
The result you can see in this digital contact sheet, managed in Phase One’s Media Pro.
This was a fairly easy shoot. For health campaigns I’ve often shot 200 or more in various poses, postures and states of emotion. Learning how to engage a person’s emotions is crucial if you are working with regular members of the public, but it’s surprising how hard you have to work with paid models. When choosing models, always go with people who can respond with a range of emotions, as demonstrated in their portfolio, rather than models who look nicest. I once worked with two models whose only facial expression was ‘glum’, no matter what I tried to cheer them up.
After working with people, the next most important area is planning. A studio shoot requires a lot of planning, because there is essentially nothing available unless you have organised for it to be there. Need an extra light? In most cities it will take you at least another two hours to acquire one. Need props? They usually have to be ordered. It may be tempting to try to do it in post-processing, but the results are rarely satisfactory. Even skilled actors will have trouble mimicking holding an object that isn’t actually there, and most models are not skilled actors (though they may well be out-of-work actors). If you are renting a space, you need to make sure that everything and everyone arrives in the correct order at the correct time. Planning is not just a matter of managing lists and logistics. You have to take the concept and work out all of the practical ramifications. In TV this would be called ‘production’. I actually thought about using that word here, but I think it’s confusing as the entire process is ‘producing’ an image. The producer’s job is to ensure that everything is there at the right time to the right specification.
For this shot the requirements were relatively simple: the art supplies were provided by the team, the coffee mug was part of the catering, and we set up using a Lastolite Hilite and two Profoto lights. The venue was provided by the organisation, and all three of the subjects were involved with it in one way or another. We had a laptop on hand so we could inspect the images before striking, and we chose to shoot separately and then composite. At the other end of the spectrum I once got permission to close off the High Street in Worcester, UK, for a photoshoot that would last one hour with six paid models and required three battery powered Profoto lights, the procurement of six silver-grey large sized bags, six white umbrellas and one red umbrella. We’ll talk about that in another article. Getting the High Street involved getting £2 million insurance, and, because we only had an hour to shoot, I also acquired a D800 so we could shoot and subsequently crop as needed.
This brings us to composition. As you can see, the images were shot in different iterations and then composited together. This makes things harder not easier, because you have to sketch out fairly carefully the result you are going for and then previsualise it. Otherwise, you are likely to have three great shots which are impossible to effectively combine with the other material. On the other hand, it’s a lot easier getting each model’s facial or body expression perfect as separate shots. We’ll look at composition in a later article. For now, it’s worth noting that, fairly late in the day, we flipped the figures on either side for the final image, so that the line of the paintbrush was taking you back into the image.
Lighting is, in a certain sense, a subset of composition, but it is so important to photography that we’ll take it separately. As mentioned earlier, this image was originally planned as a flat silhouette, to be achieved with the Threshold effect in post-processing. Silhouettes are harder to get than they look, so we set up with the Lastolite Hilite, which is a double-skinned backdrop that you put lights inside, or, alternatively, an enormous softbox which you use as a backdrop. The idea of the Hilite is that you over-expose the background getting a perfect white every time. However, because it’s so big, you get a very nice wrap-around light. Normally this is merely fairly flattering (often without the photographer really understanding what is going on, so it’s easy to think your lighting skills have just improved dramatically). In this case, without a front light, the effect was quite mesmerising, so we opted to keep with the wrap-around light, which allowed us to use the full facial expressions of the two outer figures. Using a flat silhouette, I would have had to pick one of the other images for the figure on the left.
We’ll look at the various techniques of studio lighting in some depth later on. Generally, the simpler you can make the lighting, the more compelling the image. However, making the lighting visually simple may actually require a very complicated setting, because you may be introducing unwanted artefacts. Always do your best to turn off house lights, especially fluorescent lights. if your studio strobes are powerful, you are syncing at 1/250 with a low ISO and narrow aperture they may not make much difference, but if you start to widen the aperture to get exactly the effect you want, you may have an unwelcome surprise when you review the images later and discover all the shadows are greenish-brown.
We now come to shooting. In portraiture we usually like to have a fairly wide aperture, typically one or two stops narrower than the maximum aperture of the lens. For studio work, we’re often shooting at f16 or f22. You can always soften it afterwards in post-processing, but you can’t recover the dazzlingly sharp sparkly look of deep field and 1/2500 flash exposure if you shot too shallowly. You still need to get the focus on the eyes: it is very rare for the depth of field to be great enough to compensate for a soft shot. These particular images were captured on a D3 with a 55mm Micro lens at f11, syncing at 1/250.
Studio shooting requires a lot of space. You need to have at least six feet and preferably 12 between you and the subject, and then you typically need the same distance between the subject and the background. With a Hillite or a Chromakey backdrop you don’t need this, although you will need some space if you don’t want the wraparound lighting effect on the Hilite. Even so, if you are shooting full length shots, you will want a large room. This is one reason why I have never set up a dedicated permanent studio: they are always, eventually, too small for the shot you want. I prefer to rent, borrow or beg large warehouse type spaces and then bring all the equipment. This also ensures that every lighting setup is done for the job. It’s too tempting to have your ‘favourite’ lights set up the way you want them, but this will mean that, in time, your images all start looking the same as each other. It’s good to record the exact placement and power of lights so you can reshoot if you need to, especially if you are doing the dreaded corporate headshots, but you really need to set up anew each time to give every image its own distinctiveness, which is what the client is paying for.
Needless to say, you’ll want to shoot with high quality prime lenses whenever possible. If you are compositing, you need to stick with the same lens length and relationship to the camera, otherwise the final image will look distorted. I almost never use a tripod in studio shooting, though some people do like a studio stand. The reason is that the exposure on studio flash is so short that you could throw the camera in the air and it still wouldn’t blur. I like to be able to move around, change the angles and keep shooting until I have what I want. Fan-cooled strobes are a must: you need to be able to keep shooting for an hour without risk of them overheating. My Profoto strobes take about ⅔ of a second to be ready after a shot, and I have them set to beep when ready. If I’m working well the model and we’re getting a range of different, useful, expressions, I’ll shoot again as soon as the beep goes. It helps the whole shoot to stay in rhythm and gives a sense of business and excitement which keeps enthusiasm high.
Finally, post-processing. As you can see, this image has been heavily composited onto a graphic. I allowed a slight halo around the centre figure’s hair. This helps to emphasise the light coming from the sign. If I was doing it again, I might want to reduce that somewhat. On the other hand, this image was no more than a couple of minutes in Photoshop: its power resides in the concept, which implies a window strongly illuminated from the other side, and conjures up the impression of the work being finalised before a grand opening.
In the coming articles, we will look at each of these components in more depth.
Originally written on September 24, 2017
Last updated on December 31, 2020
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Tom Jacob (sevendayimages) on September 27, 2017
Thanks for writing/sharing this article Martin, a very fine reading indeed. I bought some basic stuff to make a make-shift studio at home, see how that works out. Looking forward to the rest :) Cheers, Tom
Geoff Baylis (GBaylis) on September 26, 2017
Thanks for dedicating so much time to this detailed exposé of your craft. Episode One has spiked my appetite for more and I rather wish it were a Boxed Set so I could 'binge read' through the rest. Your ad brought back memories of my painting days in my late teens/early twenties when I often inadvertently dipped my brush into a mug of tea...just as it appears the lady on the left is about to do. Geoff
Philipp Duffy (Nuvolari) on September 24, 2017
Thanks for this, Martin. Very informative behind the curtains look which is helpful to an amateur like myself. I look forward to the next instalments!