The first thing you notice when you enter a cavernous photo studio is the stark emptiness of the space. It can be an incredibly intimidating experience because you can’t escape the fact that it’s all up to you to create something. It’s very much like the writer staring at a blank page or a painter confronting an empty canvas. The sterility evokes possibility and terror at the same moment. An empty studio is a photograph waiting to be created. The studio is a place designed for complete control—and that’s why it can be terrifying. It’s also one of the best environments to shoot both models and celebrities because of that complete control. There is ample space for make-up to be done, hair to be styled, and wardrobe to be steamed. There are portable fans to introduce movement into the hair and clothing, and a kitchen to feed the crew. Most importantly though is that the physical environment of a photo studio is not subject to heat or cold, the setting sun, or an unexpected rainstorm.
I tend to book a studio whenever the project revolves around wardrobe, styling, or both. And nowhere are those two elements more prevalent than when shooting fashion or celebrities. Fashion projects are generally all about the fit of the clothes, the details of the garment, and the mood that the model is able to convey. Celebrities tend to be about the mood as well, but it’s often more about the hair, the make-up and the number of images we can capture in the allotted time. In both cases, we’re looking for at least one great image from every wardrobe change or “look.”
One of the more delicate aspects of a studio shoot is working collaboratively with all of the people involved. For example, there are often two wardrobe stylists for each person being photographed. So, when a music group is the subject for the day it tends get pretty crowded on the set. Then, there are hair and makeup specialists, publicists from the record company or TV network, publicists that represent the artist personally, assistants, caterers, and of course, the client. Ultimately, everyone needs to have their say in the way the photographs look, but ultimately it’s the photographer that everyone is counting on to make the talent and clothes look amazing.
Psychology and patience goes a long way toward success with both the people in power and the subjects themselves. Standing in the middle of a gigantic set with dozens of eyes evaluating you can be intimidating for even the most photographed models or celebrities. I always try to gently ask everyone to clear the eye line of the person in front of the camera to try to keep them from feeling scrutinized. I also gently insist that I am the one voice that the talent hears. If the client, the publicist, or anyone on the set sees something wrong or has an idea, it’s almost always best to simply mention it to the photographer and let them communicate it to the subject in a way that doesn’t break the flow of the shoot. Simply because a hair is out of place is not reason enough to interrupt a brilliant string of pictures. No one ever breaks into a take on a movie set to fix hair or makeup and it should be expected that no one should be “stepping in” until there’s a suitable break in a photo studio.
“It’s the photographer’s responsibility to be in control of the set and if that control is established early, the subject will always know where to look for guidance.”
You can always fix the hair in post but you can never create expression, gesture or mood on the computer. All of this control is not a power play. It’s the photographer’s responsibility to be in control of the set and if that control is established early, the subject will always know where to look for guidance. That way, it’s just the photographer and the subject who can communicate and hopefully develop some connection and trust amidst a sea of onlookers.
Above all, you can never reassure the subject too much. “Great!” “Perfect!” “Just like that!” and “Don’t move!” are all part of my usual dialog that’s meant to keep the subject encouraged. The absolute worst thing you can say is, “Don’t do that,” or “That doesn’t look good.” Standing in front of a camera is a vulnerable experience—even for the most seasoned models or celebrities—and they need encouragement and reassurance like everyone else. When something looks bad, rather than saying something critical simply shoot a few frames of them in that pose and then suggest a different one. That way, they’ll never know the first one wasn’t what you were after and they’ll simply think you’re changing it up for variety. By the way, the second worst thing you can say is nothing. Silence from the photographer is terrifying to a subject.
Some people believe that loud, upbeat music sets the mood in a studio—and it really can sometimes—but if the subject can’t hear you, they have no idea whether their pose is awesome or a disaster. Music isn’t necessary to give a great performance in front of the camera. Stage and film actors prove that every day when they perform in front of a live audience or in front of a camera where dialog is being recorded. Still, music can be an effective way to change the energy. By all means, make music an integral part of every studio shoot but remember, it’s just a small part of the process and it’s the resulting photographs that will be remembered far longer than the music that was played.
Once the first frame is captured, every person at the shoot will want to look over your shoulder at the image on the screen—which is why it’s important to control what they see. I believe it’s best not to allow anything to be viewed until you feel it’s perfect. If you build trust with that very first image, everyone will leave you alone to make great pictures for the rest for the session. If you make the subject look bad in that first frame you can count on scrutiny for the rest of the day.
My strategy for a studio shoot is to have the stylists take all the time they need—usually close to two hours—to get the talent dressed, groomed, and looking flawless. Once they’re ready, I photograph them in the first lighting setup until we get all the images we need. Then, I shut down all of those power packs and fire up the alternate setup. We usually shoot in this second setup until we feel that we have all we need there and then often move to an exterior setup to make captures outside. Then the talent changes, the stylists do their thing, and we do it all over again. Working this way, I’m usually able to get through 4-6 wardrobe changes—each in three different types of light—and I’m able to capture between 1200 and 1400 frames in just a few hours.
Everything is captured RAW, edited in Photo Mechanic, toned in Adobe LightRoom or Phase One Capture One and then all of the finishing touches are done in Adobe Photoshop before the images are delivered as final files to the client. I usually deliver between 300 and 400 finished images and then archive everything for later use.
Five ideas to increase your success behind the camera at a studio shoot:
- Create multiple setups to get as many different looks as possible.
- Work as a team with hair, makeup, wardrobe, publicity and client representatives. Remember, everyone is after the same great images.
- Be genuinely encouraging and positive with the subject.
- Manage all the elements of the shoot from the volume of the music to the eye line of the subject to the crowd around the capture monitor. Your pictures will be better for it.
- Build trust from the very first frame.
Joey Terrill is a Los Angeles-based photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Red Bull, and Sports Illustrated. He teaches workshops and speaks at seminars including the Summit Series Workshops, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, World in Focus, and Nikon School.