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Creating Incredible Portraits: A Model’s Point of View

by Jen Brook
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Photo courtesy Jen Brook.

When I tuned in to watch the creative duo that is Lara Jade and Sue Bryce join forces to deliver Create the Incredible: Fine Art Portraits, I knew I was in for a treat. Knowing that Sue has a strong background in posing and photographing real women, and Lara regularly works with fashion models confident with shaping their bodies, I was keen to discover what the balance and difference would be between their respective approaches.

As a model myself, I have always learned to focus on what I have, when it comes to my body — and not on what I don’t have. I am tall with a naturally slim waist, a small bust, and quite a curvy bottom half. All of these are both pros and cons, depending on the context — all I had to do was learn how to use them to my advantage.

Lara opens the workshop by explaining how she prepares. Her key points to assembling a shoot are incredibly important to the model, as well as the rest of the people involved, specifically if it is a conceptual fine art portrait. Why? Because, as the model, I want to feel it, I want to be in that story, and, by working with the photographer to understand their vision, I want to understand the character I am meant to be in the photographs. To organize her team, Lara constructs mood boards to demonstrate the colours, tones, styling, hair, make up, lighting, and overall feel she is aiming for. She also regularly uses tear sheets from magazines to support her inspiration and often refers back to old art masters from Renaissance paintings to develop an idea.

Photo courtesy Lara Jade.

The use of a mood board is vital for a consistent theme, allowing all team members to ride the same wave. A step up from this would be the use of sketches and story boarding to enrich a concept with greater depth and a better understanding to all of what is to be expected. As a collaborator with a keen interest in artistic direction, I am never far without my notepad to jot down these ideas as they come to me, and I can only reiterate both Lara and Sue’s supportive use of sketches to express a vision, leaving less room for error.

Once a shoot is properly set up, in terms of concept and styling, all that’s left to do is bring the concept alive on the day. Now, we all know that the perfect hair, the perfect make up, the perfect location and the perfect dress don’t make a perfect picture… Even with photographers as good as Sue and Lara! The only way to ensure perfection is to cast for the perfect model with the perfect poses.

Once you know your theme, finding the right type of model is essential. For the vintage ballerina portrait Lara wanted to create on set during the course, she had to cast a girl with soft delicate features, a beautiful natural face and the ability to pose with elegance to suit her style. For another shoot during the course, Lara set out to capture a 1920’s Gatsby look. In order to do so, she needed a pale girl with a vintage look about her face — the model she chose demonstrated her choice excellently by consuming the character, beginning to take on the era personified.

Sue Bryce took a different approach during the course, attempting to create an ethereal fine art look and needed to find a model with long flowing hair dressed in a pastel colour to suit the setting and her male model needed great definition in his body. The people they used were not happy accidents, they were carefully selected for a reason.

With reference to posing, many photographers regularly refer to the ‘ballet hand’ during their training workshops. The term is often used to describe a soft and gentle positioning of the fingers. By keeping the middle finger lower than the others, whilst relaxing the rest in a slight curve, it allows the hand to look more fluid and loose. Avoiding showing the back of a hand by rolling it onto it’s side will also make a world of difference. The elegance depicted in these small changes can transform a picture entirely and once you notice it, it will be all you will ever see in your shot! Bad hands, bad hands, bad hands! Thunderbirds or claws no more!

It is also worth keeping in mind that hands and feet have a personality of their own. If the story expects a certain mood, then the hands and feet must follow. Using Sue’s model on the wall in the ivy as an example, she showed how a submissive posture created a haunting feel where the hands were almost accepting of their situation and neatly held down. Whereas the more dominant struggle fighting the plant from the body demanded clenched fists and the tension of pushing it away. It is worth remembering that even feet can express a story and generally pointed toes are the most elegant.

Photo courtesy Nikki Closser.

I know I am working with a good photographer when he or she allows the pose to develop by the models own habits, then refines the pose and light accordingly. Each pose, if it is a dramatic movement such as the twist of a hip or a turning of the head, requires a fresh look on the drop off of light and how it now affects the shadows. The light must reflect the story; so if the model is to look vulnerable using her body language of holding herself tight, hunched over, with her chin down; then the light cannot be shining from too high above as it will cast intrusive shadows under her eyes without the filler light from a reflector. For this reason alone, it is vital for photographers to elaborate on direction to their model, telling her to lift her chin slightly, as it will be something the model cannot see themselves. As a team, they can work together.

Watching Lara work I noted that she said “it is up to me as the photographer to move as much as it is the model”. To me, this really represents a professionals way of thinking. As the model moves from pose to pose she was always looking for a new angle, a new crop and a new way of composing each shot. Whilst all the time, along with her team, keeping one eye on the pose as well as the variables around her. When the material looked too bunched, they stopped to alter it instead of carrying on hoping to fix it later in post. This echoes the notion of taking the time to perfect a shot makes all the difference, instead of rushing ahead.

Another one of the key factors I have found on shoots and something Lara discusses too, is the use of music on set to create the mood. An upbeat track or music set to the era of the concept are great ways to keep spirits high in the studio and for the desired atmosphere to be created. Not only this but both Lara and Sue constantly talk to their models giving praise as well as direction and telling them when to hold a pose – even demonstrating it themselves to explain more precisely.

 

Photo courtesy Jen Brook. 

Models are humans too, and we all respond well to compliments, this includes the tone of voice – getting excited using pitch and words encourages the model to work harder. By building a confidence in your model you will in turn build trust allowing him or her to relax. This will in turn create much better poses and expressions.

When I first started modeling I was lucky enough to work quite closely with a photographer who had a mirror in his studio that filled the entire back wall. It was because of this that I could see how my body moved. It is probably largely down to that glass that I have the knowledge I have now. As I was shooting I could see the errors as well as the good shapes that worked. Through this I was able to educate myself. When Lara begins shooting the Gatsby model she makes this point of using mirrors and I found myself nodding along.

Both Sue and Lara are experts in their field and understand that shooting a model isn’t always that different from shooting a client. Although models are generally more experienced with a better understanding of what is expected of them, overall it is the combination of incredible ideas, incredible styling, incredible light, incredible posing along with incredible direction that creates an incredible portrait.


Are you ready to learn how to take powerful portraits using your mirrorless camera? Join professional portrait photographer Miguel Quiles as he walks you through using your mirrorless device to capture stunning portrait images. Watch for free on November 3-4!

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Jen Brook

Jen Brook is a fine art and fashion model, as well as a freelance photography writer. Follow her work on her Tumblr and her Facebook Page.