My goal with these “behind the shoot” posts is to give some insight into specific photoshoots, from theme ideation through logistics planning to editing and final presentation, as well as to deconstruct the entire shoot into a logical step-by-step process that is, hopefully, far less intimidating than the final result appears to be on its own. You’ll find them to be a mix of simple storytelling and practical teaching. Best read on desktop!
~10-15 minute read
In case you didn’t already know, BodyHype is an incredibly talented student-run dance company at Princeton. They put on two main shows (in addition to a smattering of other smaller performance) each school year and they never fail to awe me with their abilities. As is the case with other student groups on campus, BodyHype does a photoshoot before each main show to help with publicity and marketing, and I’ve had the wonderful fortune to work with them for both from this past school year, 25 in the Fall and Elements in the Spring. 25 was a publicity dream come true in its own right (you can view the photos from the shoot here), but Elements holds a special place in my heart for reasons that will soon become very clear.
Before I dive into the weeds, know that there are two different ways to contextualize the rest of the post. The first is to look at the final results before reading (like how you’d see the images when they were first released), and the second is to wait until the end (similar to how I see the images as they’re created). It’s a subtle difference, but I hope you’ll understand how it’s important. The former surprises more at the start, the latter towards the end.
If you’d like to see them now, click here. If not, read on.
About three weeks before any large scale photoshoot, I like to simply sit down with people for an hour or two and brainstorm. Publicity photography is very client-focused; my job is to deliver not only on my own vision but that of the group's too, and in this situation ideation is best done as a group. Many ideas for themes don’t translate easily into practical photos, and many ideas for photos can’t find a compelling theme; discussing those things together speeds up the process quite a bit.
Elements was this concept taken to the extreme. While BodyHype had decided on the theme long before we met up, how that idea would translate into an actual photo was totally undecided. The original idea was what you probably thought of first too: Earth, Air, Fire and Water; Elements. But while the idea was simple and direct, the execution was far less so.
Four sub-themes meant four locations, four different times, and four different sets of people to be at those locations at those times. In principle, it’s possible; in practice, not as much. People are busy, and finding blocks of time where everyone was available was damn near impossible without going insane. That’s not to even mention the logistics of how the actual photos would be taken. Coordinating real fire (as we originally wanted to), real water, and earth/air in interesting ways would mean buying props, costumes, and more. While I didn’t shoot down the idea immediately (if someone in BodyHype really wanted to coordinate everything and all I had to do was show up to take the photos, by all means, I was fine with it) but I made quick work of making everyone aware of just what four sub-themes would entail.
An aside: Group photoshoots
As you can imagine, photographing one person in the span of an hour is a vastly different experience from photographing 40+ over three or more hours. While the end goal is the same (a handful of really great photos that everyone is happy with) the amount of time available to accomplish that goes from 60 minutes to less than 10. Individual shoots allow for exploration of locations, techniques, and compositions, while groups require a formulaic approach that more rigorously fixes all three of those. Neither is better than the other; they're just very different. To put this more tangibly, here are a few examples of photos taken for a single person versus photos taken for a group. Each set took the same time to shoot. The individual shoot brings more location + lighting + posing variety, but the group brings more emotional variety because of all of the unique personalities involved.
Photos from an individual shoot on the left (Ebo), and group on the right (Princeton Chamber Orchestra)
By the middle of the meeting we’d decided to narrow things down to Fire and Water, and by the end (after literally looking up “long burn torches” and realizing no one wanted to ask administration “Hey, where and when is it ok for me to light a torch on fire and spin and throw it around on campus? Also could I do that for a few hours??”) we’d narrowed it down to just Water. The concept (an actual underwater shoot, not something photoshopped) was really unique that would hopefully ~*make a splash*~ on Facebook, and with just one location and one theme to concentrate on, logistics became a lot easier. To keep the Elements theme, we decided to use multi-colored scarves in the water.
Not the best rated, but the only one within our budget that'd actually fit my camera too
All of this was, of course, only an idea in our minds until we actually tried it. When I looked up underwater photos online, most were clearly photoshopped, and the few that weren’t looked like they were shot in extremely clear lake water near the surface, something we definitely didn’t have access to. The pool was our only option, and a test photoshoot was the only way we could see if this crazy idea would work.
When working with huge groups of people, a test photoshoot isn’t just a courtesy; it’s a must. Not only does a test photoshoot decrease the number of unpleasant surprises come the real shoot, it offers a chance to develop a formula for the photos and to discover what works well and what doesn’t. It also gives time to fully edit a few photos and give everyone a better sense of what the final result will look like, and a chance to change things around before it’s too late. While there have been a few times where I couldn’t do a test due to scheduling reasons, I avoid it as much as I can. Without my own dedicated studio, or total familiarity with a location, there are just too many things that could go wrong without a test shoot.
A few examples of images I used as reference
As expected, for the Elements test shoot, I discovered some things that would’ve been dreadful to deal with later.
First, the goggles I borrowed clouded extremely easily, making it virtually impossible for me to see through the camera’s viewfinder. I tried “shooting at the hip” and aligning the camera’s position and focusing as closely as I could before I went underwater, but that proved near impossible to get good images. The solution was just to buy a cheap set of anti-fogging goggles on Amazon. A quick fix for an otherwise photoshoot-ruining situation.
Second, we discovered that the scarf was a finicky thing that almost never behaved as desired. Here, the solution was to find a few ways of holding it that we found to be pretty reliable, and come the day of the shoot it meant we had way more nice photos in-camera and none we’d have to photoshop later on.
Third, it was logistically difficult just to set a scene, both for the dancers and myself. For the dancers, poses that looked cool (like stuff upside down or in crazy contortions) led directly to noses full of water and coughing fits afterwards, and for me it was surprisingly difficult to stay underwater for long enough to get a few photos in before the air in my underwater camera case started to drag me back up to the surface. In the end, the dancers just practiced a lot right before to get used to the water, and I used a weight as well as some physical help from another person to keep me underwater while I shot.
A few unedited photos from our test shoot (and these were just the good ones!)
Testing editing is also incredibly important for me to plan out how much time I'll need to set aside after the photoshoot to edit to the group's satisfaction (my shortest and longest thus far have taken 2 and 40 hours, respectively.) I have to give a lot of credit to BodyHype during this shoot for giving me full artistic control over the edits; sometimes the process is painfully long and involves way too many people’s opinions, but this time around it was quick and simple. We also got to send out the test photos to everyone else in the company to give them a mental image of what to expect and to start planning out their own poses, too.
Original photo on the left, Lightroom edits in the middle, and very preliminary and rough Photoshop on the right. The goal at this point was not to have a final product, but to get close enough to be confident in the process.
The big day! Or two days, to be exact; five hours total for 35 people, meaning I had about 9 minutes of time per person, and even less when you factor in group photos. There was very little room for error indeed, but that’s what makes photoshoots of this scale exciting; the unpredictability forces quick creativity and a level of hustle that just aren’t present in other portrait shoots.
"You look like a hippo" - Amanda. That thing I'm holding is my camera in its bulky underwater case
I loved this photoshoot so much because it forced me to re-learn everything I knew about the physical act of photographing. Even using my camera’s most basic functionality, like focusing and clicking the shutter, was, at first, a difficult feat underwater, yet soon enough it also provided a new freedom for myself and the dancers. No longer limited by pesky constructs like gravity or, you know, ~*the ground*~, the sheer possibilities for angles were incredible, and after a few minutes getting the hang of doing things underwater, instinct quickly took over.
Sample unedited videos and photos from the two days. (Compare these to the unedited photos from the test shoot, and you'll see the difference just a little preparation makes.)
By the end of the two days, I had around 1000 photos to work with. Most I’d take one look at and discard immediately, but for the few that made the cut, the next step was...
The photos straight out of camera are obviously far from presentable (they’re underexposed, colored strangely, and on the whole don’t stand out) but it doesn't take long to change that because each has the most important element: a unique and compelling subject.
Editing styles differ drastically from person to person, and I generally follow a few simple patterns, but I’ll post a detailed blog entry in the future about how I edit, so for now I’ll just show you the results.
With just a few adjustments the photo goes from looking pretty terrible to pretty cool, but only because we started with a compelling and properly composed subject in the first place. No amount of editing will make an awkward expression or pose look less awkward, so those are the things I actually worry about getting in camera during a photoshoot; much of the rest can be taken care of afterwards.
(I know this idea of not worrying about getting everything in-camera is photographic heresy to some, but when there are 20 things vying for your attention and too little time to redo something until it’s perfect, some things take priority over others. I’m all for getting as much as possible directly in-camera, but picking and choosing your battles is extremely important in a time and physically constrained situation.)
A little bit more photoshop (and when I say a little bit, I mean only about 10 minutes with very basic tools, not an hour with every conceivable feature of photoshop) removes the most of the signs of the pool from the photo and brings the spotlight, both figuratively and literally, to the subject.
Add text (shoutout to Linda Luo for the design) and that's it!
Original photos on the left, Lightroom edits in the middle, and final Photoshop + text design on the right
I'm incredibly fortunate that, in college, many of the people I meet during photoshoots become friends whom I often see afterwards around campus or get to work with again and again in the future. Maybe that's why I justify so many hours and late nights (and perhaps lost grades?) spent on photography, because, for me, it's less of a job than it is a medium of interaction, an excuse to hang out with friends old and new, to spend time with some of the most talented, most respected, and most humble and candid people I've ever met. This whole post has been about what I do, but let's not forget who the real stars, here, and in every other photoshoot, are.
A little bit of underwater fun after we'd finished getting everyone's photos