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Digital Photography Interview (Low-Key Artistic Nude Photography)

I was recently contacted by Digital Photography Magazine who wanted to feature my work alongside an interview on low-key nudes in their magazine. Here is the full text:

Ich war neulich kontaktiert von Digital Photography Magazine. Das Magazin wolltet ein Artikel mit meine Fotografie. Hier ist das ganze Text:

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1) What lighting set-ups do you use for creating these images? What are the potential pitfalls and how do you avoid them? How do you get the light right?
For these types of images, I mostly use gridded strip-light softboxes set to the sides and slightly behind the model.
I find these illuminate the model evenly from head to toe and avoid the hotspots around the center of the model that spots would give.
They also give more definition to the body than a wider softbox would, giving better contrast and deeper shadows, while still slightly softening any imperfections in the model’s skin.
However, for shots where the model has droplets of water on their skin, I find that standard spots give better definition to the droplets and I will even the exposure as needed in postprocessing.
If the model has a good shape, I will typically use two lights from either side. If the model is a little larger or extremely thin, then I find lighting her from only one side is usually more flattering.

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I find the biggest issue with this style of lighting is with getting a nice light on the face. The side lighting creates deep unflattering shadows and I will often add an extra light if I want to show the face in the photos.
Having two lights shining directly from the sides can also create a dark line along the center of the photo which can look very unnatural. This is easily solved by either turning the model to one side or ensuring that the lights are far enough behind the model.
There can also be issues with the model’s collarbone and neck as, in some poses, especially when the model is looking up, these can merge into one, resulting in an alien-like neck. The same can happen with fingers where one finger can hide the others in its shadow.
Without a background, the photo can often look dull and uninteresting with far too many shadows. To give some midtones to the photos and bring them to life, I find illuminating the background with a gridded spot or adding smoke around the model work very well.

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To get the light how I want it, I will typically ask the model to turn to the side and find an angle where she looks her best.
I will then normally set both lights to equal exposure about 1 meter either side of the model and then move them back and forwards until I am happy with the amount of light falling on her skin (having an assistant really helps here).
Most of the time, I try to set the lights so the light just starts to fall across the model’s stomach. If the light is too far behind the model, it can result in an outline (which is sometimes good). If the light is too far forwards, the definition of the body is lost.

If I am using spots, I will also often move the lights up and down to vary the exposure along the body and change the vertical shadows. With the front of the body, I find having the spot vertically aligned with either the stomach or the breasts makes the best photos.
With the back of the body, I will normally adjust the height of the spot until the curve of the backside looks most flattering.

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With these types of photos, I find that most of the body should be in focus, so I am typically shooting at f/8 or higher. I will set my camera to f/8, and adjust the flash power until the highlights are overexposed and then dial them down a stop.
This results in photos with plenty of detail in the highlights and this gives a lot of flexibility when it comes to editing the photos.

2) Why does a black and white presentation work well for these sorts of images?
For me, shooting in this style creates photos which are a collection of simple shapes separated by shadows. The photos become a large jumble of positive and negative space and the viewer has to really concentrate to fully understand what is going on.
The mysteries hiding in the shadows are contrasted with the highlighted curves and lines and this creates a feast for the eyes. As the brain processes the shapes and gradually comprehends what it is seeing, the eye is drawn to the shadows and left wanting for more.
The high-contrast side-lighting also flatters and enhances the form of the model’s body, tricking the eye into believing breasts are larger, stomachs are rippling with muscle, hips are curvier, and legs are thinner.
Fingers can become almost skeletal in the light and I find they make a lovely contrast against the curves of the model’s body.

Black and white is the perfect medium to enhance this effect. By removing all colour hints from the photo, the eye is left even more confused. Instead of seeing skin tones and subconsciously associating them with a nude body, we see only shades of light and dark.
The models are no longer seen as nude women, they lose their sexuality, and the photos become beautiful abstract works of art.

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Using black and white also allows us to push the processing further than what would be acceptable in colour.
Even without processing, as we rarely see people in such artificial light, the dark reds and yellows created by the strong lighting feel unnatural and increasing the contrast only serves to enhance this uneasy feeling.
However, in black and white, those ugly colours are lost and we are left with only beautiful shape and form.

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3) What advice would you give aspiring photographers who want to attempt this sort of photography?
For every photographer, I would give the following advice:

  • Take photos of things you find beautiful or that interest you. Photos that you are passionate about will show that passion and will simply be better photos.
  • Talk to your models, get to know them, make them feel relaxed and comfortable before you even get the camera out. I can guarantee you that in almost all cases, a photo where the model feels good will be much much better than one where she doesn’t. Being a good photographer is 90% psychology and 10% photography. This is especially important for nude photography.
  • Learn how to use your equipment. If you are always checking the manual or figuring out the settings on your camera, your model is getting bored and you are wasting precious studio time. By being prepared and acting like a professional, you can concentrate on taking beautiful photos and your model will feel at ease.
  • Look at photos from other photographers. Find photos that inspire you and think about why they are special. Look at the poses and lighting. Try to recreate them and think about how you can do it better.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Don’t stop, don’t give up, keep taking photos. Try to learn something new every day. Read photography books and magazines, watch tutorial videos, talk with photographers. Constantly push the boundaries and try new styles and techniques.
  • Figure out a good workflow. If you find yourself taking long breaks because your memory card is full or waiting for photos to download to your computer – buy a second card and download photos from one card while you are shooting with the other. Take regular breaks – you and the model will appreciate it. Don’t shoot for long periods. After 4 hours of shooting, I get exhausted and my creativity drops, the same happens with most models, and probably will happen with you.
  • Have fun. Photoshoots can be hard work for both the photographer and the model, so put some music on, relax, and enjoy being creative.

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When it comes to low-key nudes such as these, the most important thing in the photo is the model. The harsh lighting accentuates the curves of the body so try to ensure that you work with models with curves in the right places.
Cold models tire very quickly so keep them warm. I find 22 degrees is a good temperature for nude work.
Spend some time looking at how the light falls on the model from different directions. Every model is different and to get the best photos, you need to get the light and pose right for her. Learning to see the light will really help when it comes to this.
One great thing about low-key lighting is you can hide the model’s ‘imperfections’ in the shadows. If a model has a bad stomach, then ensure no light falls on it. If the model is larger, or has a unshapely behind, then only light her front side – she will look thinner and she will thank you for it.
Naturally, these photos are easier to take in the studio with professional flashes. However, a dark room, a bright light, and a subject are all that are needed to start. Take the shade off a table lamp and play around with lighting and poses.

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Quick tips:

  • Having the model breathe in and hold her stomach in often gives a great posture for photos. Wearing high-heels also can give a nice shape to the model’s hips.
  • If a model has bad skin or unsightly tattoos, using oil on the model’s skin will help reduce the colour of the skin. Adding drops of water (or milk) on to oiled skin will help to hide any pimples.
  • Water and glycerine mixed together and sprayed onto the model with a diffuser, gives a look very similar to drops of sweat
  • For using a smoke machine, try placing it behind the model pointing at her legs and add a briefcase sized barrier behind her feet. You will find the smoke rises up around the model and not in front of her. This looks very pretty without reducing the contrast too much. If too much smoke appears in front of the model, the photo will be a white haze. If the smoke is too far behind the model, it will not be lit well by the lights on the model
  • Try wearing sunglasses during shoots. It may sound crazy but you will often see a reduced dynamic range similar to what your camera detects.

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