I have had the opportunity to assist Bruce Smith on a number of fashion shoots. This blog is about the first time I worked with him. Bruce is one of the UK’s top fashion photographers, with an international reputation. He also writes books on the subject, (You can get them here) and runs a number of courses all over the world. I originally knew Bruce because I have been on a couple of his courses. I learnt more in a day from him than any of the other courses I’ve been on – and I do go on couple of courses every year as “continuing professional development”. Bruce had been hired to photograph wedding dresses. So you can imagine I was pretty keen to see the master at work, and to be Bruce’s “bitch” for the day. It also gave me a chance to give you a flavour of what actually happens at this kind of fashion shoot.
I arrived at the studio in North London. The location may not be glamorous, but the studio itself is great. It is well equipped, with all the Profoto lights you need, an iMac and an infinity curve – that’s a join between the floor and the back wall curved in such a way that you can’t see where the floor ends and the wall starts. I wish there was one like that in Northampton.
The first thing we had to do was unload some white, wooden panels that Bruce had organised, and bolt them together. As they were top heavy, we also had to make some struts and screw them to the side for stability. Fortunately there is a friendly carpenter in the same estate who could supply some bits of wood, screws, and an electric drill. If I ever help Bruce out again, I must remember to bring a socket set, drill and carpentry kit!
The two models arrived, together with a make-up artist and hairdresser. Soon, the girls were made up, coiffured, and we started to shoot. My duties were mainly to move lights around, make sure batteries were charged, swap cards and so on.
The set was all white, except for a couple of foamboard “gobos”, to go between lights and the camera to reduce flair. By adjusting the light, some bits of the set look white and others come out grey – giving depth and structure. The lighting set up was pretty classic – a beauty dish above the face looking down, a side light to bring out the texture, and a fill light to lighten the shadows. I often use a similar set up when photographing sculpture or taking portraits. There was a fourth light shone on the back to brighten it up.
There were no meter readings – Bruce used the back of the camera to check the exposure, adjusting the lights or aperture as necessary.
Bruce was in constant communication with the models – giving instructions or even growling where necessary! Moving the hip to make an “S” shape, positioning the arms, facial expressions and so on. It’s not just a case of taking a pretty picture of the model – it’s also necessary to make sure the detail in the dress is highlighted. The composition – the position of the body, face and hands – should lead your eye to the detail rather than away from it.
One thing that many photographers don’t really understand is that a photo not only records the scene in front of the camera, but also the reaction between the photographer and the subject. It was quite clear that Bruce and the girls liked each other and had a mutual respect. You could tell from the banter between them. Without this relationship, the photos would not have been nearly as good. Both girls were Russian and could talk to each other in their mother tongue, so it was almost like a family affair.
After each dress, the files were copied to the iMac and to an external hard drive, and the clients made an initial selection of the photos they liked. And, while batteries were charging and the girls were changing, we moved the white panels to change the shape of the set.
I’m not sure how many dresses we had to photograph. It must have been between 20 and 30 because, at about 3 o’clock we still had 15 to do, with about 12 minutes available for each. That’s more pressure than is comfortable, and where the experience of a top professional really shows.
There is no time to fit each of the dresses to the models. So what you don’t see in the photos are the occasional safety pin, a wooden box they may stand on to give them height, or Poundland sponges. They’re the big yellow ones that you might use to clean your car. For shots of the front, you stuff a sponge down the back of the dress. For shots of the back, they go down the front. Much quicker than trying to pin everywhere, and relatively comfortable for the models, especially when next to skin. Looks odd to see half a sponge spilling out of the top of a dress, but you don’t see that in the photos!
Shortly before we started, one of the girls came out in an allergic rash. Not clear what she was allergic to – might have been the make-up, hair spray, or something else entirely. But with puffy eyes and blotchy skin there was no way we could use her on the shoot. She was naturally very upset, and it left us with the task of finding a replacement. It’s at times like this when you really find out about the strength of the team.
The studio stepped up to the mark and contacted the agencies and their list of models. Wanted urgently for a shoot today, must be at least 5 foot eight and 34 C cup. We started to get replies within half an hour. We eventually found someone who Bruce had worked with before, and who could get to the studio for the afternoon.
What did I learn? Quite a lot, but mainly little bits here and there, rather than an eye-opening, Damascene moment. I’m comfortable with lighting, and with working under pressure to produce a guaranteed result, even posing models. But Bruce’s use of light to create shades of grey with white panels, his posing, communication and overall control of the shoot was a master class. If you ever get the chance to do the same, grab it with both hands.
P.S. Technical Note – My photos were shot with an iPhone. Bruce was using Nikon D600.