Can an Amateur Learn To Take Beautiful Fashion Photographs?

Passions and the people who pursue them.
June 20 2012 6:45 AM

Fashion Photography

Once you’ve shot beautiful models using fancy equipment, there’s no going back to snapshots of friends.

(Continued from Page 1)

Startups are not about perfection, and so Nesh’s website launched with our first two sets of pics. But the site looked a little strange with the same person modeling every outfit. We needed more models, leading me to a singularly fascinating website, Model Mayhem. The site, subtitled “where professional models meet model photographers” is basically a giant bazaar for attractive human beings.

I knew there were lots of people who are models, or want to be, but I had no idea quite how many—there are nearly 675,000 listings on the website. While I had thought the fashion world a catty place, everyone on Model Mayhem seems to spend their time praising one another, friending one another, and making lists of favorite photos. Its like Facebook with skimpy outfits, or, for some models, no outfits at all.

Our Nesh “casting call” promised modest pay for a few hours of shooting, but it generated hundreds of replies. It quickly became clear, however, that the term “professional model” is somewhat loosely defined. We had, for example, an earnest application from a 16-year-old high-school student in rural New Jersey, posing in a red-and-green Christmas outfit and holding balloons.

Bad model 568
Nope, this photo isn't going to sell any clothes. Wu struggled to make the shoot work with this model.

Tim Wu.

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After much debate we hired two models. The first came in and it was clear almost immediately that we’d made a mistake. Despite a striking online portfolio, she seemed to have aged and gained some weight, and to be honest didn’t fit so well into the clothing. Yes, by normal standards she was an attractive person. But by this point I had already lost touch with normal standards. Moreover, during our session she was stiff and seemed to want a lot more direction that I knew how to give. Telling someone how to stand is challenging, because none of the words seem right (“stand like this”). And the truth was, I didn’t really know how I wanted her to pose—I wanted her to know. It was like dancing when no one can decide who is leading. The shots were bad and we had wasted our time and money.

Our next model was a petite blonde named Germaine. I became worried when she arrived, because she looked like a normal person, and for some reason I expect models to look unusual. She was shorter than I’d imagined (though she’d been honest about her height). Unlike Arianna, Germaine was somewhat shy, making me wonder how she’d express herself in front of the camera.

My fears were unfounded. In front of the camera, Germaine transformed into a creature of startling beauty. It is the power of the eyes that makes a model, and she had an absolutely compelling “off-camera” gaze: She made it seem that whatever she was looking at must be the most important thing in the world. And her real trick was a quiet calm that permeates all of the shots. I had misunderstood her shyness—she had, rather, that sort of inner peace that infants have. She also seemed to intuitively guess what poses would work well, and took my suggestions and made them her own. As the shoot went on it was as if Aphrodite had appeared in our midst and we were all under her spell. And I finally got a butt shot that I considered decent.

Germaine 568
Germaine, Wu's new muse.

Tim Wu.

By my eighth shooting with Germaine and a few other models I think I was beginning to get roughly the hang of things (you can judge for yourself), though I would still count myself as a beginner. The most important lesson I’ve learned is this: The photographer can only capture beauty, not create it. That makes the team as important as the photographer. Good shots depend on a professional for hair and makeup, someone else to pay constant attention to wardrobe, someone else to hold the reflector or secondary light.

It takes time, sometimes as long as half an hour, for a model to warm up and relax. Models like feedback, but not too much chatter, because they are concentrating hard. Finally, since verbal communication can be challenging, there needs to be a kind of telepathy for things to go well, a good intuitive rapport, like dancing the tango.

Moto Fashion
A nod to the Cult of the Vintage Honda.

Tim Wu.

More subtle still is a lesson that is true for any kind of photography: It’s of paramount importance to really see light and appreciate its qualities, the way a cook understands the difference between salt and cilantro. And shooting fashion has cured me of my addiction to lighting gear: For most shots the sun at the right time of day has advantages that will never be matched.

I also learned some discouraging lessons. For one thing, I had gone into this thinking that I wasn’t necessarily looking to shoot model “types,” that is, super skinny women with angular features. I reasoned that I didn’t consider such women particularly attractive, so why choose them? Alas, after just a few shoots, I found myself increasingly drawn to precisely that look. Sharp lines that divide a photograph look good, and a longer, more angular body does just that. But I didn’t really like the idea that even in a small way I was joining a culture that encourages eating disorders.

The other downside of my new hobby is that taking pictures of normal people without all the extras has lost its luster. It feels like playing mini-putt after hitting a big fat driver all day and watching the shots soar.

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