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Cameras

Bluff it as a fashion photographer

The idiot

So, this is you, a clueless fool with a basic digital camera. You don't look like much in your silly hat, do you? Who's going to let you shoot the next Kate Moss extravaganza? We need to shape you up. In this feature we'll show you straightforward techniques to shoot photographs that could be used on the cover of Cosmo or GQ.

We'll teach you how to use a basic light meter to correctly expose your photos, how to direct a model, and how to turn a good photograph into an exceptional one using the latest post-production tools like Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop and Apple Aperture.

You don't need an expensive SLR to shoot fashion. A quick browse through i-D magazine proves that a point-and-shoot camera with a crude flash can sometimes be enough to capture a compelling image.

If you do have a digital SLR, such as the Nikon D80 or Sony Alpha DSLR-A100, you'll be able to take advantage of a range of interesting effects that these cameras can produce. You'll also be in a much better position to shoot a style of photography that's suitable for high-fashion magazines. This is the type of photography we'll be concentrating on here.

Photography has become astonishingly accessible, and a very capable digital SLR is more affordable than ever -- certainly under £1,000. If you're serious about photography, we suggest you get your hands on one. If you don't have a digital SLR, you can still follow our tutorial, but you'll need to be more inventive with your technique.

Using Flash

Photography is often described as painting with light. Although some of the mystery has been removed now that dark laboratories full of strange chemicals are no longer needed, a lot of the traditional tools are still useful. Today's digital SLRs feature a range of light-metering options, but getting a proper, external light meter will still help you correctly expose a model when using external flash-heads.

There are two approaches here: the first is the standard method using professional full-sized flash units we describe below. The second is to simply buy a load of cheap flash heads off eBay and mess around. Because digital photography is so immediate, you won't waste film and you can check results instantly.

Even if you're going to experiment, it's worth reading this section to understand the principles behind using flash in a studio.

The meter in our example is a fairly sophisticated model, but you'll get by fine with a basic one. A light meter lets you set an ISO (film sensitivity) and shutter speed (length of exposure), and will then tell you what f-stop (amount of light) to let into the camera to correctly expose the area you've metered.

Don't freak out yet! This might sound like a fairly complex operation to the newcomer, but there are some basic rules to follow with flash photography in the world of fashion. A simple way to deal with this is to set your SLR to the lowest possible ISO. With the Nikon D70 we're using, this is ISO 200. If it's possible with your camera, use ISO 160 or 100.

By setting the ISO low, you're getting the best signal-to-noise ratio. Your photos will be as crisp and clean as your camera is capable of. However, these low ISOs need plenty of light to expose properly.

Next, set your shutter speed to 1/60th of a second. Now that your ISO and shutter speed are fixed, you can control the style of the photograph using the strength of the flash and measuring the required f-stop with your light meter. There are infinite ways to set up flashes around the model. Traditionally a three-point lighting system is used, but we've had good results with two, or nine.

Set your light meter to match your ISO (in our case 200) and shutter speed (in our case 1/60 second), then attach the light meter cable to your flash units. Now when you trigger the flash, your meter will tell you the correct f-stop for that exposure. You can then increase or decrease the intensity of your flashes to match the depth of field you want. Less light will give you a lower f-stop, and more light, a higher one.

Decide how much of the model you want to be in focus -- for portraits it's often appealing to drop focus off quite early, so that the model's face is tightly focused on the eyes, then loses focus as the face retreats. This would mean an f-stop of something around f/2. If you're shooting full-length shots, you'll want to increase this to something around f/5.6 or 8. 

Stay relaxed

You could be the best photographer in the world, but if your model is uptight, nervous or downright scared, then you'll end up with a memory card full of dud photos.

A professional model is paid for his or her ability to relax into a shoot and inhabit a character, rather like an actor. But even professional models can require coaxing, expecially if they're used to a different style of shoot.

Regardless of whether you're going for a moody, dark tone to your photos -- like a shoot for Dazed -- or a happy, carefree look -- for a mag such as Cosmo -- you need the model to be relaxed.

Paradoxically, a happy model will usually be able to pull off an angry, moody look better than a unhappy one. You'll also find that a model is more inventive when he or she is uninhibited and may come up with ideas to improve the shoot.

To lift the spirits of the model in our shoot, the photographer told amusing anecdotes and imitated a yak. You won't always have to go this far, but remember to keep things upbeat.

Now that film is effectively free, there's no excuse not to be spontaneous with your approach to fashion photography. Sometimes the best way to get a good photograph is to get the model to act as if he or she is being filmed, assuming multiple poses in rapid succession.

You can fire off a massive run of shots in the space of a few seconds and pick the best ones later. This will give your pictures a much more dynamic feel, as well as increasing the likelyhood of a 'happy accident' -- the essence of many great photographs.

Be creative

You can use flash in all kinds of exotic ways. But what if you're a lone photographer taking photographs on the street? You have two big problems. Firstly, you're not going to be able to carry massive flash units with you, and secondly, there don't tend to be plug sockets on the street that you can just borrow electricity from.

One cheap but effective technique is to buy a load of camera-mounted flash units off eBay and then string them together to create elaborate flash rigs. You can pick these old flash units up for around the price of a DVD and they're powered by standard AA batteries (use rechargables).

Here you can see we've used a standard camera-mounted flash taped to a camera tripod, fired into a white umbrella. This is an extremely portable unit that can be folded up and carried in a backpack. You could use several of these to create fairly advanced lighting set-ups.

Pick and choose

Once you've shot your photographs, you'll want to look through them to decide which ones you want to keep. Here we're using Apple's Aperture software to compare various similar shots. The technique we describe is relevant to all photo software, including iPhoto, Bridge and Adobe Lightroom (which we cover in the next tip).

Start by importing all your shots into your photo software and picking the photographs you like. The shots you choose will obviously depend on the brief from your client. In our case, we're shooting for an imaginary magazine called Fashion. It's looking for a quirky, unusual shot for the front cover.

Here we're comparing a series of similar shots, and we're also checking the detail on a shot we like. For most shots, a crisp focus on the eyes is absolutely essential, so you should check this first.

Arrange your photographs on the screen and compare shots side by side. You can now make adjustments to the colour balance of your shots and remove digital artefacts such as moire and colour fringing.

Most photo software works best if you've shot your material in raw format. This preserves as much basic pixel data from the original shot as possible. Only digital SLRs (and some high-end superzooms such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50) use this format -- compact cameras use the basic, compressed JPEG format.

Tweak the image

The best alternative to Aperture is Adobe Lightroom. It's available for PC and Mac, and best of all it's a free download (for the moment). Although the software is still technically in beta, it's completely stable on our G5 Mac, and we've been using it for a lot of our photography over the last few months.

The Lightroom interface is similar to the one in Aperture. We prefer Adobe's implementation of the loupé tool, and Aperture's ability to organise photos. Since Lightroom is currently free, we're going to use it to pick our final photo and tweak it into a trendy minimalist feast for the front cover of Fashion magazine.

There's a huge number of changes you can make to photographs in Lightroom. In the top photo here we're checking the model's dress to make sure that the detail is sharp and there is no colour distortion. You can see that Lightroom offers a range of effect presets down the left-hand side of the screen.

These presets let you give the image a bunch of different looks for different situations -- you can add your own to this list. The built-in presets provide most of the common techniques used in a traditional darkroom. One of our favourites is 'Direct Positive', which gives photographs an extremely vivid, surreal colour reminiscent of the hot California days in Coca-Cola adverts.

The built-in greyscale conversion is also a very good way of transforming colour photographs into black and white. You'll often get better results from using this method than the conventional greyscale conversion in Photoshop. 

You can switch between presets, or create your own look using the sliders in the second photo here. These control elements such as colour temperature (used to correct for different lighting environments) and exposure.

The easiest way to get to grips with what you can do here is to play about with the sliders. We want a strong, punchy look to our photo with the highlights slightly blown out to emphasise the geometry of our model.

To achieve this, we're going to up the exposure, increase the blacks (crush black tones of a specific latitude into a single dense black) and reduce vibrance and saturation slightly to give the image a colder tone.

You can achieve some impressive effects here, and in some cases correct a photograph that has been badly exposed. Ideally you want to start with a properly exposed photograph that looks as neutral as possible in-camera, and then use Lightroom to add special effects.

There are lots of other controls to tweak here. If you scroll down the right-hand panel you'll find that you can alter how sharp the image appears -- another invaluable tool. Be careful how sharp you make the picture. You'll find that for printing on the average photoprinter it helps to slightly oversharpen the image, but for the Web you'll want to ease off a little or you'll see pixellation and other nasties.

Choose the style

There, that looks a bit more dramatic. We've added a sepia tint to the photo, blown out the highlights a touch and crushed the black range a fair bit using the 'Blacks' slider tool. Choosing a monochrome style has emphasised the model's shape.

It's unusual to have a front cover where the model is not looking directly into the camera -- some people believe that you're more likely to buy a magazine if it's 'looking' at you -- but we're not here to appease these people, we're here to break aesthetic boundaries. Fashion magazine is going to love this cover.

Again, it's conventional to white out the background for front covers, but we've decided against this because the light shadowing behind the model gives the shot character. It also hints at a kind of spontaneous approach to the shot which makes it seem more alive.

If you did want to white out the background you have two options. The first would have been to flood the backdrop with sufficient light when you took the shot in the studio. As long as your white background is exposed by around two stops more than your model (use your light meter) it will appear white in your photographs. Alternatively, you can use Photoshop to cut around the model.

The sepia effect gives the model's dress a classical look, but there's an almost infinite range of alternative possibilities. Some of them involve reshooting, others can be tested inside Lightroom by manipulating sliders. Fashion magazine probably wants a bolder look than we've achieved here. Although the model looks very elegant, this sepia tone isn't very attention-grabbing or fresh.

In this second picture we've tried a different approach. We've used a 'Direct Positive' preset to give the photograph some added punch. However, the flesh tone looks a bit strange: the model looks too pink. Some of this could be filtered out using colour controls, but it seems as though any colour whatsoever is going to distract from the simple geometry of the figure.

Instead of Sepia or Direct Positive, we decide to opt for a clean, powerful black and white with heavily crushed blacks.

Use Photoshop

There's still plenty of room for Photoshop in a modern fashion photographer's workflow. Although much of the stuff that Photoshop used to do has been taken over by tools such as Aperture and Lightroom, nothing beats Photoshop for down-and-dirty retouching work.

Here we've exported our photograph from Lightroom into Photoshop and cleaned up the image by removing small artefacts. We've then sharpened the image and boosted the contrast.

The next thing to do is add the other elements of the front cover to the graphic. We've used the text tool to create the magazine title and the words that describe the main features in this month's issue.

Conventionally, you'll supply a Photoshop file in CMYK colour to the magazine you're working for and they'll import this into whatever they use to layout the pages (usually InDesign or QuarkXPress). You won't add the magazine logo or text yourself. In our example, however, we'll add the titles ourselves and print the file straight from Photoshop.

Print it

Home photo printers may seem extremely appealing, and for professional photographers they are an invaluable tool -- it's a bit like having a small film lab on your desk. Maintaining and calibrating a photo printer, however, especially a large-format printer, can be a nightmare.

If you're serious about fashion photography, it's still best to get your prints proofed by a professional chemist. There are several great online stores that you can upload photos to and have them delivered, printed, the next day. Their machines are carefully calibrated and will tend to give better results than a home printer.

It's also much more expensive to print photographs at home. The expense of cartridges and paper soon adds up. If you do want a large-format photo printer, be aware that you'll spend some of your time tinkering with it like a car mechanic. Many of us would prefer to just get on with driving.

You can see that the front cover here looks punchy and legible. The photograph is certainly quirky and there's enough space around the edge for the designer to lay down copy around the figure.

You're a pro!

Congratulations, you're a fashion photography pro. You can attend gallery openings in Shoreditch and ogle members of the opposite sex with professional impunity. You're second only to a rock star in the style stakes -- unless, of course, you turn paparazzo, in which case you're second only to a cockroach. But still, it's good money either way.

While you're chasing the dragon in the Hoxton Grill, don't forget that even the great can fall. Keep improvising and inventing, and don't fall into the trap of assuming that one method is the best method for all situations.

With the advent of digital SLRs the world of photography has completely changed. Not only are there more people than ever taking photographs, but the bar to entry is lower than ever. It's no longer enough to have a massive camera and a few grands' worth of flash equipment: you need to capture great images.

While the pretenders quake in fear at you young upstarts invading the scene, there's never been a more exciting time to get into fashion photography and make a name for yourself. Keep your head high and your wits about you. Go little photographer, go, run into the wilds of the world and document all you see. To the stars!