This February I was invited to join the fast-paced and inspirational conference called Seniors Ignite. The conference, this year hosted outside of Las Vegas, focused specifically on senior portrait photography and all elements involved– lighting, posing, business, inspiration and more! The event helps elevate senior portrait photography through lecture by those leading the industry and also a great deal of hands-on shooting through their senior model program.
High school seniors around the country can apply to be part of the program through their host studio, and a limited number are selected to come to the event and be photographed in fashion-editorial style shoots at the annual conference.
While I was at the conference I gave a few lectures and hands-on seminars sponsored by Sigma, one of the main sponsors for the conference. One of the highlights of the event was photographing the winner of the high school senior’s model competition. The Senior Ignite coordinators had held a competition where one lucky senior was selected to win a photo shoot by me! The girl that won, McKinley, was beautiful, energetic, elegant and inspiring herself! She had an incredible life story about overcoming adversity, as well as an incredible smile.
During a 3 hour time period, I led a small group of photographers around the hotel grounds as we photographed McKinley in different locations and different beautiful dresses I had provided through Facebook.com/dreamshootrentals. I would grab a shot to illustrate to photographers what vision I had for the lighting, pose or wardrobe, and then everyone had a chance to photograph and get creative!
We began by going for an ethereal and feminine look with playful colors. Whenever I do female portraits I always start with something that helps you connect with the eyes and the soul of the subject. I sit the subject on the ground and have them look up at me. Using the Sigma 85mm 1.4, I shoot a very wide aperture and focus on their eyes. Because their eyes are closest to the camera, they look large and full. This gives me an opportunity to play with emotion and really connect with the subject through the camera. Here I had McKinley lit by a large bank of open windows. The camera angle and lighting combined really makes her eyes glow. By shooting at f/2.2 the background is merely a suggestion of color instead of a distraction.
I loved how the high angle both emphasized her eyes and her dress, so I decided to take it to a further extreme. I pulled over a large table and stood upon it, shooting straight down above our high school senior model. We sprawled the dress out around her, creating a beautiful background of color and texture. I decided in this reclined position to go for something quiet and elegant. Instead of having her pose looking up at me, I decided to make her look as though she were in an angelic sleep. I’ve been shooting a lot with Sigma’s new 24-105mm because of how much flexibility it gives me. It was perfect for this shot because once I stood up on the table I wanted to have all the focal lengths I needed already in my hands!
This dress, however, was made to move! It has yard upon yards of richly colored fabric made out of a parachute. I commissioned the dress as part of my new business, Dream Shoot Rentals. This company creates and acquires avant grade dresses, headpieces and more for photographers to rent. Our goal is to help photographers’ dream shoots a reality by offering a key element to their shoots that they may not have had access to before… wardrobe!
Because this dress truly screamed to be photographed in motion, next we went outside where we could allow the dress to catch in the wind and create some drama. I continued with my theme of dramatic angles, and this time laid on the ground on my stomach, shooting up at McKinley. This enabled me to simplify the background to only a richly colored sky, which also helped emphasize the color and movement of the dress. I placed the sun directly over her shoulder to continue with that dream-like angelic feel. I had an assistant use a large white reflector just out of frame to help pop a bit more light into her eyes and give that creamy smooth appearance to her skin. I often challenge my students to shoot at wide angles than they think they ‘should’ because of the impact it can make in an image. Here the Sigma 24-105mm at 24mm really helped add to the impact by allowing me to get unusual perspectives.
Part of the fun of this event, particularly for the high school seniors, is playing dress up. They get to feel like they have their very own fashion editorials. In fact, this is exactly the approach I’d taken with my own high school seniors when I ran a portrait studio. This is their special day, a special time in their lives, a time to be themselves, to feel confident and beautiful! For this reason I brought along an assortment of avant garde dresses and exciting pieces.
For our next image, in my Dream Shoot Rentals “Lilac Fields” dress, I wanted to find a way to create drama and really emphasize this unusual dress while not letting it overshadow the subject. I decided to get at a low angle and use a wide lens (Sigma 24-105mm at 24mm). This would emphasize the fullness of the dress and invite it to really fill up a substantial portion of the frame. Also, the low angle helped our senior model to tower in the frame. The sun was just beginning to set behind the building, and this low angle allowed me to catch the sun in the frame and purposefully include lens flare. In fact, I often try to find ways to include lens flare in my frame because it helps create mood in my images. Whenever I want something to feel soft, romantic, or dream-like, a bit of lens flare can really help communicate this mood. In this image, I had a large silver reflector held to the right of the frame to illuminate her face. It caught the light from the sun, and helped to add contrast and direction of light to her face that made her really pop from the background.
As the sun set, we decided to jump back inside for a more dramatic look and to utilize some studio lighting. I utilized a Dream Shoot Rentals “Raven Shrug” to give us a dark queen feel. In the first image here, I used one of my favorite lighting setups– “3 point lighting”. In this example we had a beauty dish in the front, silver reflector beneath her chest, and rim lights from the back 45 degree angle on either side. The beauty dish (slightly off to the right of her face) allowed me to create drama and shape her face while still really flattering her skin and eyes. The silver reflector helped to soften the shadows and give her that second catchlight in her eyes, giving them that extra ‘twinkle’. The two back rim lights helped define the outer shape of the feathers, separating them from the background. The two back rim lights are absolutely essential in this image for interest and separation! When doing beauty shots I almost always reach for my Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 or Sigma 150mm F2.8 Macro. I love the compression for both of these lenses. The 150mm is insanely sharp and allows me to focus as close as I want, and the 70-200mm gives me flexibility in compression and focal lengths. For this beauty shot, a bit wider and with the feathers included, the 70-200 was the ideal selection.
I loved the drama of McKinley’s make up and clothing, so I decided we needed to take that drama up a notch! By introducing more shadows and short light, I could really make a painterly image. Short light is when the shadow side of the face is toward the camera, often with the main light is from a back angle. In this instance, I turned the subject to her side, and brought the beauty dish to a side angle back behind the subject. I also left one of the back rim lights where it had been in order to really emphasize her profile. This light allowed the feathers to pop and helped give beautiful separation to her elegant profile. In Photoshop I decided to enhance the blue tones in the image to give a bit more visual interest. Again the 70-200 with a little tighter composition helped give this the strongest compression and impact.
Last but certainly not least, we decided to get dirty! Even better, I had come prepared to make a mess! I brought a swim cap, garbage bags, and a selection of Holi Powder. Holi Powder, available online, is used in the Indian Holi Festival of color and you may have seen it utilized in misc fundraisers and “color runs”. I had brought along some pink and purple in this case to give me rich and feminine colors that really grabbed the viewers eyes. We covered the floor in garbage bags, and then I covered her! In this instance I used two lights. The first light was beauty dish to the right of the frame to illuminate her face, and the second was a light from the back 45 degree angle (on the left) to give her that highlight on her jaw and separate her from the background. For this shot I used my 70-200mm all the way at 200mm. This is as close as I could get with this lens, and if I had wanted a tighter macro shot I could have switched over to the Sigma 150mm macro.
All of these images were created in a matter of hours and everyone had an incredible time. I loved seeing the excited expressions as the photographers checked the backs of their cameras. Even better was to see the thrilled expression on McKinley’s face when they shared the images with her! Everyone was able to share passion for the images and also for the image-making process! The event was great for portfolio building, and even more importantly… for building confidence and inspiration!