Everything began with a simple idea: “let’s make something together!”
That’s how my collaboration with Lu began. We have already shot together a few times before, but it was always cosplay photography. This time our mutual passion for the fashion world led us to work in a more serious and more thought project.
What I didn’t know yet was that Lu already had a collection. Not in her mind. Not just sketched. Ready. It was the collection that she prepared for her thesis, when she graduated in Fashion. She showed me the collection’s sketches and they were in a style and genre that I adored.
The collection was named Grimilde, by the Italian name of Snow White’s Evil Queen. I really liked it, so we immediately inaugurated the project code name GRIMILDE.
The first thing that had to be decided was a mood for the photos. In the beginning we weren’t really sure of what we were be going to do. Moreover, between our previous commitments and the fact that we live quite far from each other, it wasn’t possible to meet and discuss the shooting in person. We had to think about many things well in advance.
Collaborations are a good opportunity to grow artistically and create something that we wouldn’t be able to do alone; but communicating remotely is not easy, especially when you have to exchange ideas. That’s why even if some aspects of the shooting could be decided beforehand; for others like make-up or posing we exchanged some ideas before, but in the end we ended deciding on the spot.
That doesn’t mean that you have to take me as an example: pre-production is a very important phase and shouldn’t be overlooked. Having a clear goal is far more efficient and safer than going ahead blindly. Creating a mood allows you to have a common vision that can be transmitted to the whole team.
Another important thing is the choice of the model, and Lu already had someone in mind: Roberta. A choice that turned out to be perfect: not only her features are just right for the look of the collection, but her great experience was crucial.
When you are shooting against the time, with the light that drops more and more, to have someone in front of you that not only follows your instructions perfectly but often anticipates you is priceless!
Shooting | Day 1
The main body of the shots had to be in a wild setting, so we decided for Villa Ada’s garden (which with its 180 acres, is more like a woodland than a simple garden).
Being so large, we lost some time before finding a point that offered the possibility to achieve a few different shots. That’s why we found ourselves short of time: we had to realise three different looks in three hours, but we ended up doing them in two.
Consequently the location and the lack of time, my choice of focal fell on the XF 35 mm, which is equivalent to a 50mm Full Frame. This means that I could easily switch from a wide framing to a narrow one simply by taking a few steps forwards or backwards, while also keeping a good control of the depth of field.
Talking about lighting, the setup was quite easy: with ambient light underexposed by a stop, the main light consisted in a speedlight diffused by a white umbrella.
However simple, this setting had to be corrected constantly anyway: the sun was quickly setting (under the trees the light falls even faster) and the flash had to be moved constantly… in a sloping terrain. With low branches. With tall brushes just outside the framing.
But in these situations the best thing to do is to take advantage of the problems: it might be more difficult to keep the stand and the open umbrella outside of the frame, but if the light of the speedlight has to pass through the branches and is partly blocked by the leaves, when it falls it will also look more realistic. The only real difficulty was to keep the interaction between the ambient and the flash balanced, but I’m really satisfied with the results!
Shooting | Day 2
The second part of the day was my “fault”. I always wanted to do something with water, and this looked like the perfect occasion!
It might seem obvious, but working with liquids involves a considerable quantity of problems. First of all, you need a big enough tank. You also have to cover of mask the bottom of the tank in order to adapt it to your needs, and obviously you have to use hot water and heat the room in order to not freeze the model. But above all… you have to fill the tank. And empty it. All that water… my muscles hurt just by thinking about it.
Regarding the tank, my solution was to use an inflatable pool. It can’t substitute a real pool, but it’s a lot more accessible: once you’re done you can just deflate it and bring with you. It’s not a beauty, but as long as you don’t frame the edges, it’s a good solution.
For the water I wanted to get an effect that was really unusual. I searched and tried with various colorants, but none gave me the effect I was looking for. After a while I found the perfect solution: starch! It gave this slightly heavenly effect, as if it was liquid fog and not just the usual colored water. Furthermore it isn’t expensive, it’s easily available, and above all it doesn’t stain fabrics.
We were indoors, so I just needed to close the aperture and increase the shutter speed to completely nullify the environmental light and control the light.
The main light was a flash diffused by an umbrella positioned on a side of the pool, slightly above the edge. In this way the light wouldn’t be reflected on the surface of the water but it would have stayed directional while diffusing the light.
For the fill light I had to deal with the same problems, but from a different point: I had to diffuse the fill as much as possible without making anything reflect on the water. The ceiling wasn’t perfectly flat, so the first thing I did was to point the flash towards a lateral wall. In this way the lateral light would reflect and diffuse enough to create an effective fill even without causing reflections.
After deciding the lights, it was just a matter of studying various poses and framings.
Lately there has been a lot of talk about the importance of color, especially in video. In movies, color has always been used as an additional way to convey emotions and moods. Although it may seem obvious, the colors we find in front of us really condition how we perceive things. At some level, all fields exploit this thing: cinematography, advertising, graphics… in the same way, in photography it’s very important to use color not only to make a picture “beautiful” aesthetically, but also to help you communicate something.
One of the basic rules in any field that has to deal with the color is to never use pure white or pure black. That’s why often the more extreme highlights and shadows in my pictures "veer" towards one color or another, but never become monochromatic.
Being this a a very dark shooting, I had to pay a lot of attention to the shadows. I explored a few different options: in the beginning I pointed towards a purplish palette, then I experimented with blue and finally I settled with green.
Another choice I did was to almost completely desaturate the green leaves: as there was a mix of evergreen and seasonal plants, the vegetation in the background too often was a distraction than anything.
Simultaneously, I dialed down the luminosity of the less important elements and dialed it up on the most important parts, but always making sure that the lighting does’t become unbelievable. One of the worst things that can happen is to have the viewer distracted by an unrealistic lighting instead of watching your photo.
Lastly, one of the most important things that needs your attention, especially in heavily graded photos like these, is consistency. In the same way every scene in a movie works perfectly side by side and follows the same theme, a set of photos has to work well as a whole.
Following the cut of the shooting, also the retouching techniques are drawn from the world of fashion.
The step on which I spent more time is definitely the Frequency Separation. I always begin with the low frequencies in order to eliminate the non-uniformity problems first and then work on the high frequencies to fix the skin texture problems.
Another technique I use a lot is the Dodge & Burn, which can be used in a lot of different ways. Personally I often use it coupled with Frequency Separation and sometimes to brighten and darken specific areas.
Anyway, having done most of the grading work first (especially with good makeup and a good model) the retouching step is not technically complicated. The problem is that it requires a large amount of time and attention anyway: even if the changes are very small and are not easily identifiable most of the times, as a whole they contribute to make a picture more harmonious.
As for color grading, it is much better to try not to overdo it: that way the post-production doesn’t become a potential distraction, but instead can be that little bit of extra spark that makes a photo special.
I hope you enjoyed this Behind the Scenes! I received a lot of questions regarding this shooting, and since I wanted to write something about the experience anyway, I took the opportunity to combine the two. If you have questions don’t hesitate to ask me!
I again thank Lu and Roberta, without their help it would have been absolutely impossible to pull off something so beautiful!
If you happen to be in Rome and you need a model or a stylist… you know who to call!
Photography: You Chen
Model: Roberta Dalloway
Stylist: Lucy Tran Van