Models, Actresses, Photographers, and Directors

A few thoughts on human photographic subjects to consider. My personal preference is to photograph people that to one degree or another are good actors or actresses. Not in any type of formal way. Simply, people that can put themselves into a scene, a mood, or a miniature storyline in a believable way. There's a lot of factors that go along with that. Nothing over the top or melodramatic – in fact too much can be a bad thing unless you are going for kitschy, in which case kitschy would be the mood rather direction rather than some other thing that turns out kitschy.

On the other end of the camera, you as a photographer, to one degree or another are like a director. Your job is to make that mini storyline work. There's a million factors to that but I consider interaction, communication, and dynamic with the subject to rank at the top of the list. Other things like location, set choice, framing, perspective, lighting, wardrobe, on-and-on, all contribute but they must support the subject. Even further down the list are technical minutiae. Yes, yes, yes, some or all of those techno things can help with the story, mood, dynamic, etc but they too only support the main point. All irrelevant if the subject is not on the mark.

Your part must be a decent idea of what storyline or feel you want before you start. If you don't know, how the heck will your subject? Sharing that with your subject can help a lot and is part of the collaboration. Other times getting a read of the subject then provoking a gesture or expression in other ways is better. It's okay to let it evolve and mutate, also part of the collaboration.

If you're observant you'll probably pickup on various simple things that provoke a certain body language, gesture, or expression fairly quickly with any given subject. As a session progresses, you learn a lot in ten minutes, a lot more in a half hour but only if you try different things paying a lot of attention to how your subject reacts. If your too busy worrying about the details of the trees you'll fail to see the forest – sorry for torturing that but I wanted to make a point. I tend to ask for some sort of action. Nothing crazy in most cases. Pretty simple stuff that varies wildly depending on what I want, the subject in front of me, and circumstance. Nothing complicated, something as simple as "lean against that railing and look over at the elevator" for the shot at the top.

In many cases that kind of direction is all it takes if you've already observed what kind of body language, expression, and gesture things like that provoke. I tend to hit the shutter button in the midst of that simple action. I had already discussed the general feel with Mary as we were picking out bits and pieces of wardrobe that might work. All that was required to provoke the body language I was going for was as simple as the direction above. The slight forward position of Mary's upper body, the tension in the neck muscles, the forward weight distribution that feels a bit aggressive, and the gesture of her hands. Simple. I shot it before she was done achieving the simple sequence of requests. I happen to like the slight dynamic it adds as well as what I feel is a more natural body language for most people. You may like something else.

I offer this to consider when posing subjects rather than something that is more along the lines of a game of twister. This kind of thing works even better on people that are not used to being in front of a camera constantly. No matter what human subject is in-front of your camera your job as a director is to create the circumstances and conditions to support whatever the storyline is supposed to be. It can be the same throughout a session or you can change it shot to shot. I'm sorry if I cannot offer a one-size-fits kind of prescription but I can tell you that mindset of creating circumstance and conditions as a director is a good starting point. Ask yourself that very question – what can I do to create these circumstances – in a very open ended way. Try whatever comes to mind. Change that to the next thing, refine it, play with it.

As the director your job is in the supporting details as well. I thought the long, flow-y, hair thing wasn't exactly what I wanted for these. Something a bit more severe was called for so I changed it. Not for every shot as I was more exploring how I might use the space more than I was doing anything else. It was also freezing cold down there and Mary had a very long day by this point.

All of this is wonderful and great in terms of approach and thought process but I'll let you in on a little secret. Ready? Dynamic between model/actress and photographer/director is variable. You can move it one way or another but at the end of it different people will have a differing dynamic. Not good/bad although that happens – that's a bad day. Differing photographer-subject match-ups will make different pictures even when going for the exact same storyline or feel. Any particular combo maybe fantastic at one thing but only so-so or disastrous for another. Not just from what you particularly like or want on any given day. Something to think about depending on what you are trying to make. Don't chalk up a failure due to dynamics when trying to make one particular thing with a subject. Take a step back and come at it from the reverse – what kind of thing can you make that would work well with the dynamic you happen to have with a particular subject.

This was supposed to be a short post, something it would seem I'm incapable of actually accomplishing. I'll make it even longer with the mini-storyline for the few shots I've included along with the idiotically simple "action" I used as direction – hey, gimmie a break it was a crazy long day for me too.

  • Already talked about the shot at the top. Storyline was kinda surreal loading dock supervisor. Testing out how well the light spilling from the background area worked as an edge light to separate Mary from the dark door. Next time I'll definitely crawl down below and shoot up rather than from the platform.
  • Second shot. More of a slick fashion-y candid kind of thing in a contrasting gritty industrial context. Direction was something along the lines of check out your boots to make sure you didn't get them messed up. What I really wanted in this scene was a guy wearing some sort of maintenance man shirt with the little oval name patch working on those pipes on the left of the frame. Too bad there was nobody to chuck in there that fit the bill. That's how I'll build this up when I use it.
  • Third shot. Same as above but now that I've put the imaginary maintenance guy on the pipes. I told Mary to look at that imaginary guy. Yea, yea, I'm missing some casting and a variety of props, and I faked the wardrobe with what was laying around but you can bet I would shoot this from a bunch of angles. I did add the swing your right arm like you just turned in that direction, nope, farther away from your body. Note I am shooting below Mary's waist but still not low enough. Yep, messed my pants up big time in that grime. I really needed to be laying on the floor for this shot but thought I would look goofy with a big black patch of crap on my shirt. Note to self - need tarp when shooting down there.
  • Last shot. Something I noticed on the way back upstairs wrapping this up. Just repeated it again. Storyline – sorta the lone girl in a bad neighborhood. Direction – walk down there again and turn to see if there's anyone following. It kind of works, would definitely work if developed a bit but we were done for the day.


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