This will be the first of hopefully many posts describing photoshoots. Completed as I complete the shoots themselves, these posts are not meant to be taken as tutorials, nor as me simply showcasing images taken. Instead, my hope is that other photographers reading these types of post will dissect the images as I do, and that all can learn valuable lessons in technique and photographic applications. Being that this is not a diary, but more a scientific journal, I will try to be fairly rigorous in approaching how I describe each photo.

The subject: The name of my model for this shoot was Karen. A fifth year here at UC Davis, Karen is also a regular contributor to YouTube. Her videos focus on fashion for the "cheeky gal," and she was a wonderful client to shoot for. Indeed, you may be seeing many posts in the future of future photoshoots with Karen. I had a wonderful time, and I hope her need for images was served well. 

The setup: In the spirit of honesty, very little setup went into this one. Karen and I spoke during the week, and set up a photoshoot for that weekend. I didn't put any special effort into scouting locations, in part because I wanted to see how Karen and I would work together under somewhat pressing conditions. If this became a weekly event, I wanted to make sure there was a good amount of creative cohesion. 

The gear:


  • Canon 6D


  • Canon 17-40mm f/4L
  • Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS


  • YN565EXII
  • YN560EX
  • CBS Wireless Transmitters


  • Fotodiox 32" Softbox 
  • Fotodiox 8" Softbox
  • 32" Shoot through umbrella

The goal: Karen wanted photos of a couple different outfits for use on her blog. I wanted to work on my flash technique while trying to get more creative with my portraiture. Photographing people, unlike insects, is very difficult for me. It typically just doesn't flow in the same way as I would imagine. I hoped that by shooting more portraiture, this might be alleviated.

Photo 1: The Brick Wall

If you follow my Flickr Photostream, you have no doubt seen this wall before. It is located at the back of a local cafe, and is probably the tightest quarters I have ever had to photograph someone in. I don't have the exact measurements, but essentially the wall you see in the photo is something like 5 feet wide. On the left it corners towards a cluttered alleyway, and on the right (about an inch out of the frame) is a hideous black gate. About 7 inches above the model is an equally unappealing drainage pipe. There is a small concrete pad, about 4' square on which Karen is standing, and then a small border of plants before you hit the adjacent establishment.

1/160, f/4.5, ISO100 @ 40mm

Limited space aside, the brick wall is phenomenal in it's color. Vibrant red, with clean grey lines that really stand out when hit by a flash. My past efforts here largely being a bust, I wanted to focus on minimizing the distracting elements in the photo, while still utilizing the great elements of the background. 

To do this, I placed a single softbox directly parallel with the wall, but slightly off center and to the left. I didn't want the entire wall lit up, just enough to provide some color contrast to Karen's white clothing. I wanted a dark background, so I chose as fast a shutter speed as my flash sync would allow, 1/160. That said, I also wanted her to be vibrant against the background, so I opened up my Canon 17-40mm f/4 to f/4.5, the widest I have found it to be consistently sharp. Lastly, I shot the image at ISO100. 

No post cropping was done. I liked the frame just as it was. That said, in processing a decision had to be made between trying to bring out more contrast in her dress, or trying to ensure that the white clothing maintained its brightness and therein a certain contrast to the background. A small clump of vines was cloned out in the top right corner, and the jury is still out on whether or not the vines in the bottom right will be found guilty of distracting viewers. 

1/160, f/4.5, ISO100 @ 78mm

Photos two and three: The Sponsored Item

Probably one of the most interesting facets of this photoshoot was the presence of a bag Karen brought along. Upon first bringing it up, she mentioned that it was a "sponsored item," and that it would need to be featured in at least one of the photographs. As someone who doesn't do much portraiture, let alone fashion photography, this was a new concept to me. I've never photographed someone with a bag, and I hadn't expected needing to balance an image between two subjects. 

This stairwell lies just past our brick wall, and I have been eyeing it for some time trying to think of how I might incorporate the gentle grey tones, and weathered white lines into an image. Today was the day. The greys paired nicely with her white outfit, and the white lines act to lead a viewer's eyes towards our subject.  

I approached the first photograph with the idea of placing the subject in the center, while balancing the right half of the frame with our item. I wanted to show it off, but not have it be too overbearing. Setting up the 32" softbox camera left, I fired the flash down and to the right. A second flash was held by an assistant and fired right, bouncing off a concrete wall in order to help fill shadows and light the bag. It was critical to me that this second flash not create shadows, only fill in existing ones. I find myself shooting waist up, so being able to get a solid full body shot was also very important. 

1/160, f/4.5, ISO100 @ 100mm

Next, considering the importance of the sponsored item, I wanted to make sure we got an image which was more about the item than Karen. Nothing against our model, but that was just the type of composition I imagined this third party, the designer, might want. If I was going to do good by Karen, I needed to also impress the sponsor. 

The stairs were great for a full body shot, but I began to view them as slightly distracting in other compositions. I didn't want the gradients of light and dark in the background to clutter the image, so I moved back and used a longer focal length on my Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS. 100mm seemed about right. The purse was positioned so as to have a nice gradient of flash across its face, and Karen did a wonderful job of letting the item speak for itself. 

Overall, I was happy with the image, but I do wish that more had been done to separate Karen's hair from itself. Being very picky, the back of her head blends just a tad too much into her ponytail for my tastes. Our fill flash could have been applied to fix this, but wasn't, for whatever reason. 

1/160, f/4.5, ISO100 @ 93mm

Photo four: Staircase

One of my main goals for this shoot was to try and branch out into fashion photography. A trendy, difficult area of shooting.

Well, nothing says trendy more than bright colors and harsh shadows, right? 

Moving off towards a different area of downtown Davis, we stopped near a popular ice cream parlor. Being a national holiday (Labor Day), the shop was closed, and no ice cream was to be had. A shame if you ask me. 

Above the ice cream shop and its adjacent Hawaiian grill are several office spaces and apartment complexes. None of these are interesting, but the walls tracing their various stairwells were. Vibrant yellows and oranges played well against a muted red floor, and I knew this was the place to make some fantastic images. 

In this photo I wanted to take advantage of a stairwell. The problem was an obnoxious handrail running straight through the image. I'm not against cloning out small objects, but an entire rail? No way. So after a few attempts of trying to keep said railing out of the shot, I gave in and decided we should try to incorporate it. I sure am glad we did! 

The 32" softbox was moved off camera left. Very far left, and very high (about 10 feet up), I aimed the flash down, parallel to Karen's face. The colors were vibrant, but I wanted to lighting to be harsh, more in tune with what you see in modern fashion photography. I wanted to capture the contrast between the grungy, dirty nature of the stairwell, and the saturated happy wall, and I wanted her to tie the two together. The vignette created by having the flash so far and high, combined with being blocked by various walls, was gorgeous. Her expression complimented her grip on the railing, and what was once a distracting nuisance quickly became the most important aspect of the photo, providing both a connection point for our model, and also a sense of direction. 

1/160, f/5, ISO100 @ 40mm

Photo five: The Thinker

On the way up to our location for photo five, we noticed a wonderful, vibrant yellow wall. For photo five we returned to it. Breaking out the Canon 17-40mm f/4L I wanted to attempt a full body portrait, using the red of the floor, the yellow of the wall, and the sharp division between them in a play on the colors of Karen's outfit. Ultimately, I wanted her red skirt to match up with the border of the red flooring, setting off the soft contrast between our bright background and her muted grey (ridiculously comfortable looking) sweater.

Now I admit, bringing the wide-angle lens into a portrait setting, especially a full body portrait, was a dangerous game. If I set myself too high, her legs would be distorted to the proportion of a malnourished child. Too low, and next thing you know our model appears to be seven feet tall. If this was going to work, the camera needed to be at just the right height to maintain her proportions. All in all, it worked. 

Using a second flash and a shoot through umbrella just behind and to the right of our model (camera right), we brought out the beautiful yellows hiding in an otherwise shadowed wall. The flash also provided a nice gradient across the background, with the brightest point directly behind Karen, drawing attention towards her. Light from the umbrella was also used to lightly separate our model and background by having the flash turned just far enough left so as to spill over and gently feather her outline. 

Karen did a wonderful job of tying the photo together with a great expression. Her pose, both coy and intelligent, really helped tie the entire image together. Leg positioning and the contrast of her outfit helped to balance the negative space on the left. It is still empty space, but it is not detrimental to the image, at least in my opinion. I have toyed with cleaning up some of the imperfections in both the floor and wall, but ultimately have decided to keep them in the image. As I mentioned to a photographer friend who wondered on this, I feel it keeps the image "real," a kind of imperfection that separates it from some of the more hospital-clean, heavily processed fashion photography out there. 

End Result: 

Overall, I was very happy with the 1.5 hours Karen and I spent shooting. We covered several outfits (probably what concerned me most at the start) and we also got her the requisite "sponsored item" photo. All in all, I got to explore components of portraiture I really hadn't experienced before, and the shoot was a great learning experience. With any luck, we will be seeing many more images from similar photoshoots in the future. 

By all means, if you have comments or critiques, feel free to post them via comment below! Disagree with how a photo was done, have something you would change? Tell me!