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Getting Out of Your Photography Comfort Zone: A Nature Photographer Wanders into a Studio

I made it a goal this year to learn something way outside of my photography comfort zone of the great outdoors.  After my first plan for a project exploring “underwater fine art nude food photography” fell through (apparently, Thanksgiving dinner was not the place to jump-start this idea), I decided to take a workshop on studio model photography.  Yes, that is correct.  Me. Indoors. In a studio. With models. Gasp… Let’s face it, I am a lot more comfortable waist deep in a swamp filled with ‘gators than in a studio!

Fortunately, a few weeks ago fellow Photofocus author Vanelli hosted a studio workshop, “Posing and Lighting”.  So I took the plunge and dove into the great indoors. Whether you are new to the studio and want to try it yourself, or want to see this world from a different perspective, this is a primer and collection of “lessons learned” from my first studio adventure.

Creating and Capturing Through Adding and Subtracting

In the studio, the photographer (and model) usually create the moment.  With nature we usually capture a moment. Think of studio photography as being more like painting, where you start with a blank canvas, adding different elements to build the scene.  With nature, it’s already there. We make choices to select just a small slice of the big, beautiful, world, subtracting elements from the scene to create a composition.  Both are hard work, require technical and artistic skills, and are a lot of fun!

Learn to Speak the Language

Every type of photography shares a common language, but each has its own dialect.  You have to learn the language that goes along with the specialty. The only way to do this is to ask questions, no matter how basic.

Don’t “Double-Tap”

With wildlife photography I always take two shots, it’s often the difference between getting an eye open or closed, an alert or calm posture, or a subtly better wing position.  The “double-tap” of wildlife photography doesn’t work in the studio because recharge times on the strobes often can’t keep up with your camera’s frame rate.


Except sometimes it does, like a Bob Ross “happy mistake”. Personally, I like the back-lit shot of Jacqueline just as much as the one on the left.

You Need a Lot of Gaffer Tape  

Georgia and I talked throughout the shoot, her experience and coaching about working with a model were invaluable!

If nothing else, when you enter the studio world you have to know about, and have a large supply of, gaffer tape. Think the universal utility of duct tape, but made of black fabric that doesn’t reflect light or leave any residue. I believe most studios are constructed of roughly 90% gaffer tape, these folks use it for everything!  Need to mark positions on the floor, gaffer tape.  Fix a light, gaffer tape.  Quick leg waxing, gaffer tape. World peace, gaffer tape.  Bring gaffer tape, you will right fit in.

The Actual Shooting is a Small Fraction of the Time  

The moments you spend behind the camera are a very small part of your overall time as a photographer, regardless of the specialty.  Preparation, conceptualizing, setting up and taking down lights, and creating sets all take a great amount of time.  Similarly, in nature photography, I spend much more time reading, scouting, and storyboarding in pursuit of my images.

You are Always Moving “Stuff”

I’m used to just moving myself and my camera around, whether it’s down trails, across rivers, or up mountains.  My studio experience involved constantly moving equipment.  Lights, modifiers, backdrops, models, everything was constantly being tweaked and rearranged.

Respect

Model skill, like photographer skill, varies widely.  It is just as much an art as photography, improved through practice, and their skills deserve as much respect as the photographer’s.  Each model has a unique style, specialties, personality, and level of creativity.  Understanding and valuing these traits ultimately produces better images.

Communication

The photographer must communicate their vision to the model, but also must be receptive to the models needs, comfort, and input.  I found I much preferred the more candid looks, and my favorite shots and moments emerged from us talking through the shots together.  For me that just worked, and is reminiscent of the way I approach nature and wildlife photography (yes, I do talk to the animals, don’t judge me!).

It’s All About the Little Details  

While shooting, I didn’t notice the white tag that had popped out through the laces in Anna’s top. While it was not a complicated fix in Photoshop, it’s something that I could have caught on set, saving time later.

One missed detail will result in more time spent processing, or having to scrap a shoot. By immediately reviewing a shot, we were able to catch any missed details, adjust, and shoot again.  Nature is also all about the details, but you are less likely to have a second chance at a missed shot!

Light is Light is Light  

Photons don’t care if they came from the sun or a light bulb, they are still photons.  I often hear nature photographers proudly boast about only using natural light.  While I love working with sun light, don’t let “natural light” be a code phrase for “I am not comfortable with how to use flashes and/or strobes“.  A cornerstone for every photographer is to understand light’s essential qualities; color, direction, and intensity.  The source of the light just gives you different combinations of these qualities, along with differing levels of control over them.  Limiting your light sources limits your creative possibilities.

Studios are Weird

Studios are strangely lacking in mud, alligators, seascapes, tides, migratory waterfowl, clouds, etc.  At no point was I hiking for miles in wet boots, or wondering if my bug repellent was still working.  I found that quite disconcerting.

It All Goes Back to Fundamentals

Joking aside, when it comes to comparing studio photography to nature photography, they are just different, one is not more valid or important than the other.  Each has its own challenges, techniques, equipment, and learning curve.  But they all rely on the fundamentals of photography; composition, technical choices and settings, and field-craft.

I may still be more comfortable in my forests and swamps, but I believe it’s when you jump out of your creative comfort zone that you truly push yourself to learn, grow, and produce your best images!

Credits and Kudos

All the images in this article were created during the Vanelli and Friends “Posing and Lighting Workshop”.  A huge thanks to the incomparable Vanelli for his instruction, and to the wonderful models that took part; Georgia Annable, Jacqueline Joffe, and Anna Reed!

Each image was initially imported through Lightroom, and developed using Perfectly Clear from Athentech.  For the black and white images, I developed my own preset in Perfectly Clear.  They were all shot with a Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC  / Canon EOS 5D Mark III

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