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Concept vs. Execution: A Fashion Portfolio Shoot

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I'm helping a model friend put together a portfolio with a look towards editorial fashion. If successful, I can potentially use it to push towards a commercial fashion portfolio targeted at local boutiques and the like. As usual, I'm trying not to rest on my previous achievements, and in this shoot walkthrough will be looking at how I'm pushing myself outside of my comfort zone again in order to continue developing my toolset as a photographer. This inevitably involves missteps and failures, but since these teach us a lot they're not a bad thing.

1. Theme, Concept, Wardrobe

My wife dug some fun lace flares and a wool poncho out of her closet, both white. While technically a few years out of fashion at this point, for modeling portfolio purposes that's less relevant. I liked the wintery look of them, so I thought some supporting environment would work, like white stonework, bare trees, etc. Some kind of hint of the last warm days of the year before the season really turns.

Fun! Easy to match shoes to as well.Fun! Easy to match shoes to as well.Fun! Easy to match shoes to as well.
Fun! Easy to match shoes to as well.

I want to keep it soft and feminine to suit the clothing, but with a hint of adventure about it and a sort of ethereality, like a memory, as a nod towards the vintage nature of the wardrobe. The makeup has a bit of sixties about it with the dark look with lighter lids.

Overall, I'm looking for a sort of environmental, editorial type thing with a reasonable amount of negative space. So far, fairly straightforward, but there are some challenges involved in the way that I'm shooting this. Let's look at those.

2. Going Manual

Now, this isn't some phony attempt at purism by ditching modern conveniences. I'm using older, manual primes for their optical qualities rather then the experience of using them. I think their older aesthetic complements this style of shoot more than a modern mid-range lens' crispness, like my Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8. However, along with the aesthetic does come the inconvenience of manual focus and iris rings.

Controlling the aperture this way isn't such a big deal, since most of the time I'm shooting wide open to soften up the background, and I usually shoot in aperture priority mode anyway, so it's just a minor tweak.

Very difficult to use!Very difficult to use!Very difficult to use!
Very difficult to use!

The focus, on the other hand, is much harder. I'm using a YUS 135mm f/2.8, a Canon FD 50mm f/1.8 and a Kiron 24mm f/2. The former has a C/Y-EF adaptor with a focus chip, but it's also the one I'm using the least, just for a couple shots at the end. The 50mm and the 24mm are both FD, and my FD-EF adaptor doesn't have a focus chip, so it's difficult to nail focus through the viewfinder.

I'm mainly zooming in Live View to get critical focus, but unfortunately this leads to quite a few missed moments. This is where peaking in an EVF would come in handy. With Canon DSLRs like mine, I could even be using a video loupe on the LCD and Magic Lantern to get peaking lines.

3. No Lights

Secondly, I'm limiting myself by shooting natural light only. Obviously as an ex-nature shooter, this isn't really all that much of a limitation for me technically, but for this shoot it certainly is logistically. I had about two hours before sunset, and while the weather stayed on our side, drive times and finding parking took up a fairly substantial amount of it.

Although here, I wasn't dealing with a moving subject...Although here, I wasn't dealing with a moving subject...Although here, I wasn't dealing with a moving subject...
Recent shot from hiking. Although here, I wasn't dealing with a moving subject...

With no artificial light for fill, not only is shooting time limited, but I have to be more aware of shutter speed and camera stabilisation than usual. Particularly with the manual focus lenses, a stable camera may be the difference between a shot you can use, and an unusable shot with a combination of focal and motion blur.

While imperfections like these aren't necessarily the game-ender that they might be in other genres, it's probably still better to be on the safe side and aim to shoot perfectly. These days, the imperfections can always be recreated digitally if it adds to a shot's overall aesthetic or theme.

4. Logistics

Finally, because of our conflicting schedule, I had to try to reach all the locations in the limited time we had after she finished work, but before it got dark. Originally I had four planned, but with the sun sinking rapidly as we drove back from the second location, we had to skip the third, and move straight on to the fourth.

Planning makes everything smoother.Planning makes everything smoother.Planning makes everything smoother.
Planning makes everything smoother.

To get all three in with drive time in between, shooting time was down to around ten to fifteen minutes per location. That's a tight squeeze, and certainly tested my directorial skills as well as putting pressure on to ensure proper metering and exposure every shot.

So there's a peek under the surface of the shoot, now let's look at the shoot itself and how it went, location by location.

5. Location One: Wooded Mountain

This was the furthest location out, a good 20 minutes or so each way through traffic and along slow roads. I was looking for a fairly straight path with reasonably dense canopy around it to filter the sunlight. Since it's all fairly young woodland, I had to settle on thick stands on either side of the path instead. This didn't give me the large trees I wanted for a less busy environment, but it was a good uniform colour for the wardrobe to stand out strongly.

Not exactly what I was looking for, but not bad.Not exactly what I was looking for, but not bad.Not exactly what I was looking for, but not bad.
Not exactly what I was looking for, but not bad.

When testing, the 50mm was a little too long, so I went back to the 24mm. This is quite a soft lens, but I thought that may be to my advantage in reducing the busyness of the surroundings. This turned out to be correct, although I added some more defocusing in post.

Since we only had about ten minutes to shoot here, I tried to get the testing done quickly and aimed for just a couple of different poses to ensure enough time to work them into what I was seeing in my head.

The first was a head-turn, to provide a "wall of hair" to separate Brittani's face against the background. Since the head turn seems to be somewhat of a trope in adventure imagery, I felt this also worked with the theme. It took a few attempts to get one I was happy with.


The second pose was a simple standing pose with the poncho both partially and completely unbuttoned which demonstrated the overall shape of the poncho, which is slightly difficult to discern when it's closed due to the bright uniformity of the fabric. This would in theory accompany description text well.

Ponchos: hard to hold without sleeves, it turns out.Ponchos: hard to hold without sleeves, it turns out.Ponchos: hard to hold without sleeves, it turns out.
Ponchos are hard to hold without sleeves, it turns out.

6. Location Two: Market Square

Over an hour into the shoot, we got to the market square. For this I had a very specific image in my mind, and only wanted that single look. The idea was simply to get Brittani frozen amongst a blurred crowd of people, strong geometric lines of the surrounding buildings framing the scene. I had to use my normal 18-50mm for this, since my variable ND only fits that lens.

Yeah... Not so much.Yeah... Not so much.Yeah... Not so much.
Not so much.

However, it wasn't to be. As is altogether possible with location shoots, and the reason I had originally scheduled four locations, this one was a bust. There weren't enough people milling about despite the stalls and reasonable weather to get the level of surrounding blur I wanted, and the background was just too sharp to get good separation at the small aperture I had to use. Then, immediately after the test shot, a car that had originally parked much further down the square decided to pull in immediately behind Brittani and constantly move back and forth right next to us for no apparent reason. We packed up and left.

7. Location Three: Bridge

This is the location I was most looking forward to. A colonial-looking bridge of light stone, I love the way the magic hour sunlight falls across it and makes it look from another time. I like how the pale stonework complements the wool and lace of the wardrobe.

I like the picture, but that car is just too distracting.I like the picture, but that car is just too distracting.I like the picture, but that car is just too distracting.
I like the picture, but that car is just too distracting.

There was no particular plan for this one, other than to try to work the natural leading lines to my advantage and play with the pillars and stone textures. I shot more of a variety here, varying between wide, medium and close up as I worked the angles. I kept the 135mm on my second body and the FD adaptor on my first body so I could quickly switch focal lengths.

What about the images? Let's look at what I got.

8. Images


9. Post-processing

The processing for this shoot was really quite straightforward, unlike my usual heavier workflow. You can follow along with my process in this screencast.

10. Final Image


I learned a number of lessons on this shoot. One, don't shoot with manual lenses unless you're highly practiced and/or have a reliable focusing method. Two, locations will always turn something around on you. Be prepared to work with what's available or move on as necessary. Three, just because you have a perfect image in your head doesn't mean it'll come out like that, unless you can put a good amount of time into working with the model towards the goal or have a solid pre-production session beforehand. Run-and-gun doesn't really lend itself to perfectionism.

For me, as long as I got a single useable image out of this whole shoot, I was good. For Brittani, only one or two are required as well, so the whole thing worked out reasonably well. It's vital to get that one shot that really nails your vision for the shoot.

However, I certainly have some deeper thinking to do when it comes to this type of photography. While I thought I'd prepared and knew what I was doing, the uncontrolled nature of location shooting and the precision I feel is required for the artistry of fashion photography means that this perfectionist has some more things to learn.

Questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!

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