I recently went up to the James River, Virginia to do a location shoot with Ryan, one of the models I'm working with as I pursue my commercial vision. Since we're both looking to add more lifestyle to our arsenal, and I was looking for a location shoot anyway, it was a win-win. In this tutorial, I'm going to look at what lifestyle actually is, the preproduction that went into the shoot, and how I used the location on the day to get multiple looks, as well as the many decisions that require making on the fly on a shoot like this.
1. What is Lifestyle?
Lifestyle photography can seem like a nebulous genre. After all, it could mean literally anything, and to a certain extent it does. This umbrella term could seem like it's meaningless, if it means everything, and so I used to think. But over time I've come to think that when considered from the right angle, it does serve a purpose.
A "lifestyle" in this advertising scenario is a specific set of circumstances that someone is choosing to live within, or trying to achieve. Thus it's not simply "what people do," but "what people want to do." So commercial lifestyle photography is essentially defined as "depicting a commercial interest as a desirable activity".
Once we have this definition, it's easy to figure out what lifestyle is. The electronic devices people want to use, the grocery stores they want to shop at, the tourist destinations they want to visit. The ultimate purpose is to present a product, or a loose definition of "product," as a necessity in order to attain what the characters depicted within the image have. In other words, it's people-marketing.
2. Concept and Wardrobe
The concept for this shoot was a work in progress ever since its inception, and nothing really got locked down until the point of the shoot itself. The general idea going in was to do a relatively major outing, but double up on looks to make the travel time more worthwhile.
Since we had a rural location in mind, I wanted to do some kind of hiking/biking/birding outdoor pursuit look. Ryan liked the idea and said he could come up with something, so I left him to his own devices.
My other idea was sports. While Ryan wasn't initially interested in sport modeling, he's training to be a personal trainer and enjoys sports, so I thought it would be a good fit for his portfolio. I wasn't looking for much in the way of action here, maybe a little jogging. Since generally the point of sports lifestyle photography is selling sporting apparel, I asked if he could come up with a single-branded outfit, and he went off to see what he could do.
As it turned out on the day, he'd come up with an urban-jeans and modern-cut plaid shirt for the outdoor pursuit aspect of it. Not what I was expecting, but I really liked the juxtaposition of the urban twist on traditional outdoorwear against the actual rural outdoors. It would work just fine for a department store or urban clothing outlet's marketing materials.
The sports wardrobe turned out fantastically well. I don't know how much he spent preparing for this shoot versus how much he already owned, but Ryan knocked it out of the park with a grey jogging pants and hoodie combo, Rocky-style, a compression shirt, long shorts and running shoes. He was head to toe in Nike. I'd suggested either Nike, Adidas or Under Armour, whichever was cheaper and easier.
So, the concept was fairly simple and the wardrobe worked. But while Ryan was hunting down wardrobe, I needed to find a location.
3. Location Scouting
Enter Google Maps. With StreetView, 45 degree satellite view, embedded photos and the ability to instantly travel hundreds of miles, it's the perfect tool for preliminary scouting. It ended up being the only scouting for this shoot, as neither me nor Ryan had time to travel the hour or so out of the way to the location.
I spent a couple of days looking all around Roanoke and Lynchburg for interesting locations, both urban and rural. When Ryan mentioned he'd once been to the James River and thought it would be a good location, I looked into it. It's about 400 miles long, but I was looking specifically at the area in the mountains.
When I found that the Blue Ridge Parkway intersected the river, I felt like I'd found the place; I was pretty much guaranteed a shooting spot within a couple of miles. I couldn't see the exact location due to the limitations of StreeView car access, but I looked at it from a number of angles from various nearby roads, and explored the local area as much as possible. I was fairly convinced. The most promising aspect was seeing that the bridge runs east-west, giving me a strong backlight for shots on the bridge.
We did a quick scout upon arrival at the shoot up and down the road a little, and a quick walk around the little park near the bridge before Ryan's first change. We found several suitable areas, and figured out an order in which to shoot them.
First we'd do the fence near the water, because it was closest, then down near the little stream while we waited for the sun to drop some more, then on the bridge to use the low sun to our advantage, then on some steps because it didn't specifically need direct lighting.
4. First Look: Rural Casual
After returning to the car for Ryan to change into his first look, we headed for a nice rustic fence along some trees by the river.
I'd already decided to travel ultra-light for this shoot, and only had a speedlight, umbrella and stand. I didn't want to use it yet since I hadn't brought a CTO gel for it so it would clash horribly with the sun, ruining the warm autumnal glow effect I was looking for.
Since I had no reflector nor assistant to hold it with me, this one would be natural light all the way. I made sure my camera was metering in spot mode so I could get exact exposure information in the extreme lighting conditions, and shot a couple of basic head-and-shoulder portraits to ease into the session.
I soon realised that aperture priority wasn't going to work. Moving the centre focusing dot away from the part of the face I wanted to expose correctly on made the camera wildly under or over expose, and hitting exposure lock first would mean I'd miss those critical moments in pose and expression I look for. So I got my reading from the lit part of his face and switched to manual for the rest of the shoot.
I was looking to use the line of the fence as a guide through the frame, with strong form and texture, with Ryan placed around the golden ratio to subconsciously create a positive, comfortable feeling in the viewer. The warm tones in the surrounding foliage would also contribute to this.
We moved down to the small stream nearby, wandering along the bank until we found a good spot to get to the water. The dappled light coming through the canopy here, the reflections in the water, and an interesting tree all added up to a good sequence of shots as I moved around looking for interesting angles within the environment.
Like the rest of this shoot, despite being pretty, it was still very difficult to capture due to the extreme dynamic range within the scene and busy surroundings.
For a few final shots, we moved onto the bridge itself. The road on top was busier than I had thought it would be in the middle of nowhere, but we got lucky and found that there's a footbridge suspended underneath. This gave me even better geometry to work with, since now I not only had the side railings to work with but also a "roof" above, all running in the same direction and adding to the perspective.
The sun was still high enough to be semi-direct and produce some side-flare into the lens at this point, so I used that to my advantage for this look. Once it started moving around, I called time on this look.
5. Second Look: Rocky
After a quick trip back to the car for Ryan to change into the sports gear and me to grab the lighting gear, we moved back to the bridge. There were people there when we got back, so we waited for the foot traffic to die down while I took some test shots to get my new exposure.
This ended up being fairly irrelevant with the even more extreme lighting conditions under the bridge. I was trying to simultaneously expose for the sky, the underside of the bridge and the model all at once, which proved to be a pretty much impossible task. It would require HDR, which I wasn't set up for and didn't really want to use for the particular shot I was after anyway.
Since the sky wasn't all that interesting anyway, I decided that I would just do a sky replacement in post, and concentrated on perfecting the lighting ratio between Ryan and the underside of the road bridge. The foot bridge was adequately lit by the setting sun anyway, so I didn't need to worry about that.
Once I'd figured out the exposure on the underside of the bridge, not too bright or the blown out sky would bleed everywhere. I also needed to retain the detail when pushed around in post. I could focus on Ryan's exposure. With a reasonable amount of sky lighting him, I could use the flash just to fill in shadows to retain detail. I didn't want to make it a strobist portrait, so his distance to the speedlight had to be carefully maintained.
Once some poses were done, we tried a little jogging, but my dragging the shutter for the shadows under the bridge meant that these always came out blurry, regardless of how much heavy lifting the flash was doing. Since I didn't really particularly need a running shot on the bridge, I decided to wrap it up there. So with that, we decided to move on to the next look.
6. Third Look: Endurance
Initially I tried some "warming up" stationary portraits, looking like preparation for the beginning of a trail run. However, there was a railing running through the back that I didn't like. The background wasn't doing anything for me, I was constrained between a cliff up and a cliff down, and the sparse foliage made for a noisy middle ground. I just wasn't feeling it.
So with this one, since the light was fading fast and we were close to wrapping for the day, I decided to just push it all out and go for a gritty action shot on the steps up the hillside. I switched from ISO200 to ISO800, opened the lens from f/4 to f/2.8 and hoped that it would be enough for me to grab at least one good shot from the sequence. It was pretty hard to see motion blur on the camera LCD on-site without stopping to chimp every single image.
From the top of the steps, I could set the umbrella to be an extra boost for the sky, and got a decent angle on the stairs twisting down that I couldn't from the bottom. I had Ryan jog up a couple of flights of steps, which turned out to be even harder than normal because they were irregular sizes. Since I needed a real look of pain and determination, I had him run it again and again, getting about two or three shots per run.
The first couple of runs I was still finalising my vantage point, determining the best spot on his run to hit the shutter and balancing the flash, so I wasn't paying attention to expression or anything. Six or seven runs in, things were improving, but still not quite there yet.
Maybe 16 or 17 runs later, I was pretty sure I had what I needed in the can, so I sent him down for two more runs! He was getting into the swing of it at this point though, and started laughing, so with the light pretty much dead, I called it for the day, and we headed back to the car.
7. Final Images
I've processed all of these except the one I'm going to demonstrate the post work on in Photoshop below.
9. Final Image
Going into this I wanted to see if I could make a composite-like sports image without shooting separate background and model plates, and I think I was reasonably successful here.
I hope you've enjoyed this look at some of the decisions behind the whole process of bringing an image to fruition. I had a lot of fun getting out of the studio!
Questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!