Without a doubt, the current global state doesn’t make it easy to hone our craft for anyone photographing human subjects for a hobby or living. It is the year 2020 and we are self-isolating, quarantining, being hermits. Models haven’t taken a seat in front of our lenses for months. If you, like me, work in beauty photography, the luxury of a make-up artist is but a faraway dream.
“I don’t have a model, so I can’t progress in my art” was, however, never a valid excuse for procrastinating. Not before lockdown, definitely not now, and especially not after.
Being stuck indoors with no teams should make you more resourceful, more experimental. Now is the perfect time to tweak and perfect lighting setups and settings. With all this spare time on our hands, there are no excuses to not practise with what we have available in the comfort of our own homes.
Whether it’s your mum, roomie, or yourself, dust off your cameras and let’s get shooting!
Shooting with professional models on the daily can make you lazy. I said it. You get spoilt by professional poses and expressions, changing so fast you can barely keep up clicking.
We forget how to communicate on set, how to express our ideas. Starting out in photography 11 years ago was all about communication. I worked solely with non-models and beginners and we quite frankly figured it out together as we went.
Remembering those communication skills is essential when you want to achieve beautiful results with non-experienced subjects. Demonstrating effectively what sort of images you’d like to achieve is key. Of course, you can verbalise your visions. I often find that people struggle with just that, though. Working in an industry that is purely visual, showing examples of ideas comes a lot more naturally to most.
Particularly to non-models, a visual reference like an example image is the key to guiding them into natural, relaxed poses. Take away the fear of “I don’t know what I’m doing” by showing them useful references.
A visual reference can be more than an image, too! I often act out a pose or expression I have in mind myself. Emerging yourself in your industry and realising what it is you are striving to achieve will make it easier to communicate on the day of the shoot.
Recruiting Willing Subjects
Just as lockdown was in full effect here in the UK for less than 2 weeks I was slowly starting to lose my mind. Shooting models is what I love, after all. Framing faces is how I express myself creatively.
I had no choice, I asked my partner to sit for me.
Fast-forwarding past the protests of “I’m not a model, I can’t get my picture taken!”, “I will look silly’ and “My friends will laugh at me!” I had my own fears, too. I don’t usually shoot males. Which is not an excuse not to start right now.
Here’s where your people skills as a photographer come in handy! Reassure your subject about all their fears. They hated themselves in images in the past? Well, they were taken in a dimly lit nightclub on a phone. A professional setup will make them look amazing! Besides… “I will take so many images, don’t worry if you blink or frown or look a bit silly in some of them! There will be plenty of great ones too, so relax!”
“But my friends will take the Mickey out of me for this!” – “Don’t worry, you can decide after if these images will see the light of day.”
I asked my (not exactly) excited subject to pick clothing they feel great in for the shoot. The last thing you want is them feeling alien and dressed up like a doll. Ask them to groom themselves in a way that will make them feel good.
Light testing is your friend, as always. While you play with the lights, your model can relax. They get used to the environment and flashes and you can show them that you don't get it right in the first shot either. Explain what you’re doing and give reassurance at every stage.
Keep poses and expressions simple and find clear, figurative ways to communicate them. Instead of saying “Look away from me.” point out exactly what object in the room you’d like them to look at. Guide their gaze with your hands.
Instead of using general terms like “Look more happy!” guide them into everyday emotions they can identify with. “Imagine taking that first sip of coffee in the morning” or “Pretend you’re trying to focus on small text in the distance” are good starting points.
Chris had never had a professional image taken other than his school portraits and call me biased, I think he did amazing. None of his friends laughed at him either, by the way…
Self Portraits - Practise What You Preach
Having exhausted my partner’s gracious modelling services and lockdown still in full swing I needed other options.
Being a beauty photographer with a passion for creative, editorial make up I wanted to find ways to express myself without a model, using makeup as my medium.
I have always shied away from self-portraits for 2 reasons. I thought they are narcissistic and, “I don’t like my picture being taken.” Hypocrite.
Revelation number 1: Self-portraits serve so much more purpose than owning another image of your face. They give you room to experiment, to create, perfect your setups, explore lights and shadows and express yourself in a personal, intimate way.
Revelation number 2: You don’t like your own picture being taken? Don’t show it to anyone after. The practice is still valid.
I started out covering my whole face in paint and glitter, almost like a defence mechanism. And that’s perfectly fine. Make yourself feel comfortable, this is about experimenting more than anything.
After browsing through the images I had taken I felt an immense relief. I had found a new way to create for myself and I was buzzing to do it again! Having always been fascinated by isolated parts of the face acting as a canvas I focussed more on macro images of my lips.
Self portraits as artform is something I will take away once models are once again freely available. Being a one-man-show in terms of make-up/ model/ photographer and retoucher has opened up exciting new ways to express myself and there’s no reason not to keep doing it.
(hooray for pet models)
Taking on the challenge of shooting non-model subjects has given back the excitement I used to love, when you show someone a picture of themselves in the best light for the first time. Working with experienced models that have seen tens of thousands of pictures of themselves often takes away the pride and feeling of “I didn’t know I could look like this!”
Besides friends, family and yourself you can also do some useful light studies on mannequins and objects!
Not having a model available should never hold you back, not now, and not after lockdown.
I’d love to see what you created when no model was available to you! Feel free to share your thoughts with me on @tina_eisen.
Tina is a commercial and editorial beauty photographer based near London, UK.
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