Setting Up a Scene for a Photo Shoot

Nina Simone says freedom is a feeling. Billy Holiday says jazz is a feeling. I think the same sort of thing can be said about a scene. Few words can approach a fair description of the feeling that a scene gives, and often only poetry can try. This is qualia, the collective emergent aspects of the feeling of the experience. In a photo session, we want to capture that will skill and mastery. It doesn’t always have to be created, but sometimes simply recognized when it happens. Then it’s up to the crew or artist to capture it forever in an artistic medium. Let’s look at capturing a photo now.

As a young boy I got a Polaroid camera and a cartridge of film and went about photographing the neighborhood cats in trees. Now I photograph models in trees, but there’s very little difference. I didn’t worry then about my background, or my lighting. I was only concerned with the feeling I got from the scene and then took the shot. We lose that when we have to think about so many technical things having to do with pleasing a client, and operating artificial light or reflectors, and fixing hair and on and on. Ultimately the model’s face will be tired and empty and begin to reflect the weariness of the photo shoot instead of what initially might have been going on with the beautiful or interesting environment.

I like to do the shoot in a scene with a model in a way that makes the scene new to her and even to me if possible, and allow our reflexes to guide our actions. This is being in the moment instead of worrying about the next possible catastrophe or being dulled by repetition. The model or subject is often already running on caffeine or adrenaline or coming down from one of those peaks. Knowing the way the model or subject is feeling, and being intuitive to that emotion is important. The photographer is also a director sometimes and directly must relate to and communicate with the subject.

A photo can be so many things, and it can also appear to be something it is not intended to be. We don’t have total control over the feelings that it will evoke from the viewer. But we can tweak aspects of a photo to capture the right elements in the right way to balance the scene and make it inviting. It’s nice when a photo looks deliberate but not forced. This is a form of mastery. It’s like God speaking the scene into existence and man being there in the right moment, to experience it, just for him. The alternative is having a combination of elements that don’t dance together, and have no feeling and no magic.

Geometry, contrast, design, lines, color, etc are all potential areas of a great scene, and then we have to go beyond and feel the effect of them together in the scene. Then there is the element of grace, and chance and movement. This is freedom.

It’s good to give a model freedom. It can be defined. Give the model space to work in. You can stay within this cube and do whatever you want for the next 12 frames. This way, you might not get perfect light and focus but the emotion will be effective to the point that it will overpower the stale and clinical correctness of the execution of composition. Don’t ever forget freedom. Don’t make your model freeze. I think I read that from Patric Demarchelier. He said “never tell the model to freeze.” This sends a signal to stop the freedom.

Time is an element of freedom too. Being able to wait for the clouds and the light and shadows is valuable. Maybe make use of the time until then but save your best energy for then also.

As important as the scene is, don’t forget that we are human. Being human, in that scene is what makes it meaningful.