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For the first time in my photography career, I walked into a collaborative photo shoot completely clueless. No tearsheets, no mood board, no pre-lighting, just a strong team and a small studio.

Fashion photography requires a lot of pre-production; wardrobe, hair, makeup, concept, lighting and composition. Sometime ago, I was approached by a close friend and model, Casey Neel, whom had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl. She had spent a few weeks in the gym to get back in the game and wanted to schedule a test shoot. I had been buried in commercial client work, but I jumped at the opportunity to collaborate. With that said, I contacted my friend and Project Runway alumni, Gunnar Deatherage, who was also itching to create. I also reached out to Casey Ritchie, a fantastic Mid-West makeup artist to round out the team. Collectively, we came up with a few ideas, but nothing seemed to click. I was frustrated and felt a hint of anxiety as I showed up to shoot. I didn’t know what I was going to do, nor did I know what the end result would look like.

While the model was being primped in hair and makeup, I was breaking a sweat, racking my brain back and forth for nearly 2 hours, switching backgrounds and swapping lighting scenarios. I felt dead in the water; I didn’t have a clue how I was going to light the set and didn’t have any solid direction. I was on my own. Soon enough, hair and makeup was complete and Casey changed into her clothing that Gunnar had so graciously prepared. It was a combination of high fashion sportswear and a lose-fitting ethnic garb. I loved it, but now all eyes were on me. I felt like a souped-up car that just needed some gas and an address.

Chroma Kinetics

I had settled on a blank, dramatic Studio Gray seamless in the hopes of potentially going black and white. I broke out of my normal setup and eventually settled for a Profoto Softlight Beauty Dish, something I rarely pull out of the closet. First shot was an absolute dud and I knew it wasn’t right. So, I pulled the plug.

Just when you thought a sinking ship couldn’t get any more dredged with water, buried in the stack of seamless paper backgrounds I happen to notice a bright blue color that was gleaming through the pile like a piece of shining silver. Miraculously, it perfectly matched the color of the headband and purse that the model was wearing. I had only used the Blue Jay seamless once, but it just seemed fitting. I asked Casey to take a quick breather and I changed the background. Burning up a second sweat, I then positioned the beauty dish accordingly and took a quick test shot… right out of the gate; we had our image. I didn’t know exactly which direction this was heading, but I liked it and I dug deeper. I worked with Casey on jumping, lunges and a slew of motions that could bring out the flare in the color and clothing. We worked, worked and worked some more. Nearly 30 minutes later we had the shot and moved onto the second look. Along with the motion shots, we captured some experimental products shots. I played with a new toy I had built several days prior; a 3-way mirrored prism. I thought it might be a great companion to the regular shots and add a more “advertising” finesse to everything.

Chroma Kinetics

I took down the blue seamless paper backdrop and by default rigged my hand-painted Oliphant canvas. It was the easy and comfortable move, I knew what the results would look like and I knew I could pull off a good image. But truthfully, I really didn’t know what to do next. Once our model Casey was ready to go in her second look I snapped a few shots and once again had that feeling of disappointment. This shoot needed to have the feel of an editorial. So took a step away and re-collected, then once again looked to the growing pile of seamless paper and grabbed the Deep Yellow roll. A few minutes later we were back at it and I was seeing smiles from all across the board. Everything felt right and it was the perfect accompaniment to the previous look. Once I had the shot there was no reason to continue; it was a wrap. I took a deep breath and scanned through the day’s images with a giant smile on my face. No planning, no preparation and somehow we came up with a shining set of imagery, all due to the bright colored Savage seamless paper. That was the piece of the puzzle that made it a picture.

Chroma Kinetics

The lesson here is that you can’t be afraid to step outside the box and experiment. When something doesn’t feel right, change it. When a lighting scenario just isn’t working, change it. When the backdrop isn’t right, change it. It took me nearly 6 seamless backgrounds and a dozen lighting setups to find the right course of action. Set yourself up for failure and you just never know what result might come of it.

Clay Cook

Clay Cook began his creative career in the music industry, and after 10 years, his passion had leaned towards photography, cinematography and graphic design. Constantly collaborating with designers, national models, filmmakers and other photographers, Clay has built a reputable name as an award-winning internationally published photographer and filmmaker, specializing in fashion editorial and advertising photography. Clay’s work is featured frequently on world-wide photography blogs including Fstoppers, B&H Photo & Video, PetaPixel, SLRLounge, ISO1200 and BorrowLenses among others. Clay has been published in USA Today, First For Women, ProSales Magazine, Modern Salon, American Salon Magazine, Louisville Magazine, The Voice of Louisville, NFocus Magazine, STORY Magazine and Dark Beauty Magazine. Check out his website here.
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