Walkthrough: A Glamour Shoot

Shooting glamour nudes is not rocket science - it's just a matter of lighting, composition, and post-processing. In this walkthrough I'll lead you through some of the setup, thinking, and workflow that I use for creating a photograph. My hope is that by sharing some of how I do it, you may find some ideas that help or inspire you!

What's most important to remember about the photographic arts is that there is only one rule: there are no rules. When you approach making an image, you are the only person who is final judge of what works for you. One of the most frustrating things, to me, when I was studying photography, was all the dogmatic "rules of thumb" that many photo instructors tried to treat as if they had been handed down on stone tablets from on high. If I were to guess, I'd say that 90% of the useful stuff I've learned, I learned by ignoring the rules and asking myself 2 questions:

Lesson One: The best way to get a great photograph is to first shoot a thousand bad ones.

In the course of this walkthrough I will (with some embarrassment) show you what I mean.

Setting the stage

If you're trying to create a specific effect in advance, you need to understand your stage setting and lighting beforehand. In this example, I was constrained by 2 factors: 1) the place I had available to shoot and 2) the model I was shooting. You need to be realistic and make sure that your location and your model have a "look" that's going to work together. My general approach is that I go abstract (or "fine art") if I don't see something that jumps right out at me. In this case, the model, Jessica, is a curvaceous 18-year-old and it was freezing cold (-5 degrees F) on the day of the shoot which meant outdoors was not an option. My location for shooting was limited to an old house under renovation, with plank and stud walls, wooden floors, and lots of dust. So I decided to go with a fairly simple theme: a nude girl - setting her curvy figure against strongly straight and vertical elements of the old building.

Lesson Two: It doesn't take a tremendous amount of thought to come up with a good "theme" and concept for a glamour photo but even a little bit of forethought will be repaid a thousandfold.

When I first started shooting the nude and glamour I think I was just so thrilled that I had found a girl who'd pose nude for me that I turned my brain off and started cranking film without thinking for even a second about what I was trying to accomplish. I learned that it's OK to just take a few seconds and think before you start shooting. Usually, I just spend a few minutes chatting with the model and enjoying the view. I usually make a point of asking the model if she's more comfortable being told exactly what to do, or whether she's more comfortable being given a lighted space in which to work, and some ideas, and just moving through a couple of poses. I've had some models that move beautifully and pretty much all you have to do is stand back and shoot. Others (usually less experienced) need to be told pretty much exactly what you want. I've found that poses look much more natural if they are part of an interrupted flowing movement, which is why I am a big fan of using studio strobes. Often I'll let the model move, then when I see something that looks really interesting I'll interrupt them and fine-tune the pose, then shoot it again.

Stage layout and lighting

Lighting is very much a matter of taste! There are no rules. I know one photographer who does gorgeous work using nothing fancier than a single 100-watt lightbulb in a socket with a wire hanging off the bottom. My taste runs to smooth exposure ranges and a soft "glow" - which means either using natural light reflected off of a large surface (like a white wall) or studio strobes in soft boxes. I shoot on location fairly often with just a single portable mono-light and small softbox, so I've also let myself get fond of very directional light. It's my opinion that glamour works well with directional lighting rather than very flat lighting, but that's because I think the lighting can show off a woman's curves better if it's directional. Lighting is totally a matter of taste.

One book that was incredibly helpful to me is a book on cinematographic lighting by Ross Lowell entitled "Matters of Light and Depth" - it's well-written, thought provoking, and applies well to still photography as well as cinematic lighting.

(Click on any images to see a full-size version)

This is the layout of the space in which the photos were shot. Since I was shooting near my home and was able to just throw all my gear in my truck, I brought my full-size studio light kit instead of my location light kit. Thus, I was able to bring more light to bear on my topic. For a sample image of shooting with a single mono-head on location see my article on my photo of Rosaleen.

Here you can see the two softboxes and how they are positioned slightly apart, angled toward the target corner of the room. This combination of soft but powerful lights will completely drown out the ambient lighting and give a look that's quite different than the scene will appear to the eye. That's one huge advantage of using a digital camera - you can see if the lighting looks OK without having to pay for and wait for developing film. Back when I was shooting 100% film in my old studio, I set the studio up in a basement where no light leaked in. That way I could completely control the light in the room and there was no ambient light to interfere with visualizing the scene. I don't recall exactly, but I think that was a trick I learned from "Matters of Light and Depth" - movies are usually shot under carefully controlled light conditions because the cost of making a lighting mistake is monstrous.

This is another view of the setup under ambient light. You can see the closest softbox at the right of the picture which should give you an idea of the angle of the lights and their distance from the model. The softbox you can't see will cast a light across the front of the model, while the other will highlight her flank. Just to get a rough idea of the layout, Jessica is standing in the scene so I can watch the light as it falls on her.

Once I've got the lighting about where I want it, I shoot a test shot with the digital camera to see approximately how the light falls on the model. There are a couple of interesting things that we learn from this image:

To get the exposure for the scene, I use an incident flashmeter held near the model's face, pointing in the direction from which I will be shooting. This is an important detail because it ensures that no matter what (in theory, anyhow) the model's face won't be under or over exposed. My experience is that pictures in which the subject's face is blown out or too dark are very hard to repair. Here, I'm happy that the light on her face is bright where there's nothing shading it, but there's detail in the shadow cast by her hair. This is "close enough to Photoshop" exposure.

Exposure for this scene was 1/60 second at f/11. If you're working with studio strobes that have a recycle/recharge time on the flash, remember that if you start taking pictures fast, you may have as much as 1 stop of exposure difference if the flash-pack is not fully recycled when you shoot the next picture. When I am shooting film I make a point of always counting to 5 between exposures. If I am shooting digital I just let it rip because you can "pull" a digital image 1 stop quite easily in Photoshop.

Lesson Three: Standardize your exposure and film speed if you can.

I shoot with my camera set to 1/60 sec to sync the flash with the shutter speed on my old Pentax K1000 and I set the ISO speed on the digital camera to 100ASA. That matches the speed settings and ISO setting I use on the Pentax with Kodak HIE infrared, and I can shoot Tmax100 at the same exposure. This is very useful because if I get a frame I am really excited about, I can hook up a film camera and start shooting without having to change any settings or re-meter.

Posing the model

Posing models may be a topic for another tutorial. I think it's probably too much to cover in this one. But, in this case, what I did was have Jessica move back and forth until she was in a spot of the light that I really liked. Once she was there, I simply asked her to mark that spot on the floor and make sure stayed close to it. Then, well, not to put too fine a point on it, I asked her to get naked. Depending on the model's attitude and how you want to project your attitude for the shoot, you might want to let her change someplace else, or whatever works. Remember that if your model was wearing tight clothes, she'll have marks in her skin for at least an hour after taking her clothes off.

In this case, I'd worked with Jessica before and knew what she was comfortable with. So she just disrobed on the spot, and I snapped a few pictures as she was doing it, to do further tests and make sure autofocus was tracking correctly. She's pretty limber and likes to move and pose on her own so I just let her do a few different poses while I grabbed pictures as I saw fit. Some models might be uncomfortable about doing what amounts to stripping in front of you; you need to be sensitive about these kind of things. Know your model. If you don't know your model and it's your first shoot, ask "How would you like to handle..." i.e.: "Would you like a private place to change, or would you like to just change here?"

When I am actually shooting, I try to get the model comfortable and to act natually. That way I get poses that are better and look more realistic. At times, I'll find myself dealing with a model that's not very imaginative. In that case I will suggest poses. To break the ice, I'll sometimes show her the pose that I want. Nothing breaks the ice like watching a 40+ year-old photographer trying to pose like a sexy girl! When I shoot I often move around but I ask the model to stay about in the same place to keep the light the way I wanted it. Often I'll ask the model to do something vaguely thematic - i.e.: "Imagine you're rubbing suntan lotion into your skin" - or "you just dropped something; please bend down and pick it up." If the model falls into a pose that I really like I can then tell her to "freeze!" and tweak things from there. For some poses that entail movement, I will work the model into a pose, then tell her to relax, and go back into the pose.

Working with Jessica, I asked her to do some basic stretches using the vertical wooden stud as a support. So she was changing position frequently and I would just keep snapping as long as I saw something that looked interesting. Sometimes, when I got an idea, I'd suggest a change, i.e.: "How about if you put your backside against the wood and your hands over your head?" There's no formal process I use and it depends, I think, on how comfortable I am with the model, how experienced the model is, and how I am feeling on that particular day!

The Decisive Moment

As the wiseguys say, the real decisive moment in Cartier-Bresson's work was when he picked the negative out off a light table. There's something to that view, I think. Remember - when Robert Frank shot "The Americans" he shot 600+ rolls of film, from which he selected his monograph. If I am shooting digital, I don't bother conserving "film" because disk space is cheap. In my shoot of Jessica, the decisive moment comes when I bring up the images in Photoshop's file browser and start looking for treasure.

One of the wonderful things about Photoshop's file browser (and it's just better in Photoshop CS) is that you can get thumbnails to examine composition, and a slightly larger thumbnail to use for making sure an image doesn't have obvious flaws.

I use the small thumbnails in the file browser to look solely for compositional elements. I find that a lot of glamour photographers ignore composition (who cares if an image is well composed, as long as she's got nice breasts, right?) - but a well-composed image of a pretty model will somehow always appeal more than a photo of a merely pretty model. So I look for the shape of the image at this stage. In order to illustrate some of the compositional decisions (see above) I highlighted what I liked in the thumbnails for part of my shoot of Jessica. Once I saw one image that appeared to have a good composition, I clicked on it once, to bring up a larger preview in the left preview pane. It looked pretty good there, too, so I bring up the full-size image.

I also use the file browser/thumbnail view as a way of weeding images that I know stink. Click and hit delete and your mistake is buried.

Post-Work: Lining Up The Shot

Bringing up the image, we do a quick pass to make sure it looks worthwhile. Now's when to look for fine focus problems, eyes closed, weird expressions, or other subtle flaws in the image. There's nothing worse than pulling up an image that looks really good and finding out that the model was in the middle of blinking or speaking. If the image has problems, go back to looking for good compositions.

The image looks like a keeper but the verticals are off! OOPS! In darkroom processes, you'd fix this by re-aligning the easel on the enlarger baseboard. In photoshop we can do exactly the same thing using the image edit / rotate operation.

In Photoshop there are many ways to accomplish most things. In this case my favorite approach is to select the entire image area (Select -> Select all) or "Ctrl-A" and then to use the Edit -> Transform -> Rotate operation. This lets you see how the image will be rotated and to make sure it lines up right. Move your cursor to one of the corners of the image and it'll turn into a little drag-to-rotate icon. Go wild! If you're unhappy with the rotation you can hit the Cancel button up top, or you can effect the rotation by double-clicking in the image or hitting the check-button on the top menu.

Sometimes you just have to get a vertical perfectly lined up. Here's a cheap trick for it: squish the sides of the window in until you can scroll the window over and use the edge of the window as a vertical guideline. Another alternative is to turn on grids or guides in the image.

Rotating the image has changed the position of the corners and now forces us to reexamine our cropping. Deselect the image area (Control-D) select the cropping tool, and mark off your cropping area.

Now the crop and the composition look pretty good. I'm fairly happy with the image, but since my photographic roots are black and white, I want to see what the image would look like in grey-scales.

The simple way to get black and white is to use the Image -> Adjustments -> Desaturate menu option. Other approaches are to use the channel mixer or something like Fred Miranda's digital black and white filters. I've tried them all and now I usually just desaturate and then fix the image using Levels.

As you can see from the histogram, the image now appears to be "under exposed" - in Zone System language, we've exposed for our shadows, and now we need to process for the highlights.

Pulling the levels really makes the image "pop" - whether you like it or not is a matter of taste. This is where you can have a lot of fun with the image and perform whatever other manipulations you might like.

The image might benefit from application of "digital enlarger diffusion" (see my tutorial on the topic)

Then again, it might not. It depends on your taste!! The final image is the result of a complicated sequence of decisions that I made. Most of them, I made without thinking about them much at the time, but the total image depends on every step along the way! Isn't photography wonderful?

...and here's another image from the same lighting setup. Which do you like better?

Lesson Four: Let your personal tastes rule every stage of this process.

mjr. (2004)