Shooting a model for the first time
By Andrew Paquette
For my summer vacation this year I decided that I wanted to shoot at least one fun sporting event and to set up my first ever model shoot. As of about eight hours ago, both are accomplished. The sporting event, a basketball championship in Amsterdam, was a lot of hard work as far as the shooting was concerned, but was a breeze administratively. I was invited (and paid) to be there, so I didn’t have to worry about getting permission for anything, getting press credentials, setting up the location (or finding it) or anything like that. In contrast, shooting a model for the first time meant I had to do everything myself. What was that like? After deciding that I wanted to shoot a model, preferably a professional from an agency, I had to have a concept, a budget, and some idea where I intended to do this and what kind of permits I might need. In the end, almost everything went differently than expected.
My first goal was a non-goal—if I was going to pay for all the things that went into the shoot, I did not want to get something that looked like, as my wife described it, “somebody’s girlfriend in the forest”. This doesn’t mean there aren’t excellent photos of somebody’s girlfriend in a forest—I saw quite a few while poring over photographer websites—but they all had something extra to make them interesting. As an illustrator, I had made many compositions over the years that could be readily translated into interesting photographs, but most would require the construction of extensive sets—something I did not want to do because of the associated costs. Instead, I wanted something simple, with maybe one or two models at the most, and preferably something that could be shot in an accessible (and free) public location or an inexpensive day rental of a photo studio, probably in Amsterdam.
To help give me ideas, I looked through my catalogue of street photos in Amsterdam. I found two that looked good enough as ideas, though not as finished photos, to serve as inspiration for a shoot. Both could be shot on the street in Amsterdam in large public spaces. I didn’t think there would be a problem with this because it isn’t much different from the street shots I already took, but just to be sure, I checked the city of Amsterdam’s website (http://www.iamsterdam.com/en-GB/business/Film-office/Filmprotocol) to see if a permit would be needed. The short answer is that no permit would be required. The only caveat was that I would need a permit if I introduced helicopters, hundreds of extras, food carts, or car crashes into the shoot. I wasn’t planning on doing any of those things, so I was in the clear. They do ask that photographers notify them of pending shoots so that area businesses have an opportunity to complain or stipulate things like a fee for use of their washroom, no trash dumped in their bins, etc.
Next, I had to find a couple of models. The first concept required a female model and an athletic male model capable of Rollerblade or skateboard stunts. I wanted to shoot them at the skateboard park in Amsterdam, where the female model reacted to the male model doing stunts (or, if I found a female model who could do them, the reverse). The second concept required two female and two male models, something that I doubted would be affordable, but I thought I might as well check. I should point out here that I have hired models twice before, but not for this purpose. The first was hired from an agency in Portland Maine, to pose as a generic female character to be used as reference for my work as a comic book artist. Hiring her was not difficult. I just called the agency, told the owner what I was looking for, and $500 later, had the shoot wrapped and a couple of books full of excellent reference shots that happened to be not very good photographs.
The second occasion was in 1999 or so when I hired a female model from an LA-based agency to have her head scanned for use in a video game. Again, this was not a difficult thing to arrange. I called the agency, they sent over some head shots, I picked one, and then she went to the scanning facility and did the job. Not a problem. This time, it would be different. Why? Because this time, I was a photographer working on a portfolio instead of an artist with a client.
I went first to a site that listed about two dozen agencies in the Netherlands: (http://www.kmodels.com/Netherlands-modeling-agencies-links2.htm).
I started calling and emailing to inquire about rates and how a shoot could be organized. None answered my emails. I spoke with one agency rep at A Models Amsterdam (http://www.amodelsamsterdam.com/) who seemed to think I was asking for a free model because it was for a portfolio. I explained that wasn’t the case, but it didn’t matter—without a client (preferably a major company) their models weren’t available, even for paid work. So here I got stuck. No model means no shoot. What could I do? I found a site that sets up photographers with models, hairstylist, and make-up artists (http://www.modelmayhem.com/) but to get in I had to have a portfolio with photos of four different shoots with four different models. I didn’t have that, but did have some decent shots of more than four different people in situations that looked like different shoots, so I decided to upload those and hope that my industry credits as an artist and art director were enough to deal with any problems in their review process. Unfortunately, my holiday was almost over, so their approval had to come fast or I would have missed my window of opportunity. But then, I got lucky.
While I was shooting the basketball game in Amsterdam, my wife and daughter attended a figure drawing class. My wife thought their model would work for the photo shoot I wanted to do, so she approached her about it. The model was fine with the idea, so now I had a model. However, I only had one model. The concepts I had for the shoot wouldn’t work. I booked her anyway, then sat down to think about what I could do with one model. In the end I took inspiration from a street photo I’d taken in Amsterdam of a girl smoking a cigarette in front of a dark stone wall. Her features and pale skin contrasted against the dark stone reminded me of old Proto-Renaissance portrait paintings. This would be the theme. With that decided, I had to figure out how far I wanted to go with it. I didn’t own any Medieval artifacts to use as props, and doubted any museum would let me use theirs (I also didn’t want to go through asking for permission, a process that would likely take a long time and then be rejected anyway.)
Location was easier to deal with. There are a lot of Gothic cathedrals in the Netherlands and I had photographed quite a few of them so I knew what they looked like. One of the oldest was in the south of Holland and they gave permission to shoot there. Now I had a model and a location, but needed a way to somehow connect the model to the location. This could be done with a medieval costume. People in the Netherlands love costumes, so at first I thought it would be easy to find one. It wasn’t, but after a lot of looking, I found a costume shop in Den Haag with a great selection of good quality medieval costumes for rent (http://www.dewitkostuums.nl)
I don’t read Nederlands very well, so I missed the part on their website that said they were open for appointment only, so I went without an appointment. Luckily they were very nice about my lack of knowledge about their policies, and invited me up to look at their costumes. While I was there, I decided to get two so that more variety could be eked out of the shoot. This turned out to be a very important decision, so I’m glad I did it. At the time I was worried because the costumes I rented were among the most expensive they had. My wife was looking at me like she was thinking “are you sure about this?”
So then I had two costumes, a model, and a location. I had the general idea that these Proto-Renaissance portraits were my inspiration, but how to translate that into photos? What ended up happening is I asked the model to do an impromptu extra shoot when she came in for the fitting. We went out to a local community garden where she was photographed in the more brilliantly colored costume of the two. The idea was that this day she is wearing friendly, upbeat colors and would be shot in a pleasant, green, lush, fresh-looking location. On the next day, she wore an outfit that had much less color and was photographed against stone and black iron. The effect created a contrast between a shire-like garden on the first day with the stately aloofness of a stone cathedral on the second. One is playful, the other austere.
For cameras, I used a Nikon D800 and a Sony A7r. On the “green” day, the A7r was mounted by a Zeiss ZA 135mm 1.8 lens, and the D800 had the Zeiss 55mm Otus mounted on it. On the “white” day, the A7r had a 35mm 1.4/ASPH Summilux. The D800 had either the 55mm Otus or a Zeiss 15mm Distagon. I also used a Nikon NB-910 speedlight on the D800 and a Zacuto viewfinder for both cameras (I love my Zacuto viewfinder!). I won’t compare the quality of the lenses because each is pretty much the best you can find in their focal length and performed as such. All lens choice decisions were dictated by focal length—what was needed to frame a shot or get a certain effect.