Dana at the Harbor (model portfolio shoot)


This was one of those shoots where you wonder and hope and pray that it’s all going to work out well! Fortunately, it worked out really well. But it was looking dire for awhile.

[click “continue reading” below for more…]

The model, the hair stylist and my assistant/makeup artist/model’s traveling companion all performed superbly. So what was the challenge? The weather and the location! But let me tell the story…

[As always, if you leave a non-spam comment to this post, I will donate a canned food item to FoodShare, the local food bank]

Dana, who is based in Virginia, found me through a mutual friend. She was traveling to LA, so we scheduled a shoot for her portfolio during her stay here. I arranged for a hair stylist (Lauren), who did a great job and also helped hold lights. Makeup was done by Dana’s friend (a recent Miss Virgina contestant…I’m definitely in good company on this shoot), who also helped me with lighting.

There was a problem nagging at me when planning this though. I didn’t have a clear idea on the location we’d use. Ventura is about 80 miles away from Redondo Beach, where we planned to shoot. Dana didn’t know the area, and while I knew Redondo a little, I’ve only shot there once before. So it was really hard to visualize the shoot beforehand. Unfortunately the budget was such that I couldn’t do a scouting trip beforehand. So I was going to have to just dive in and improvise. While I prefer to have the details nailed down, I like to think that I’m pretty good at turning a nondescript location into something cool.

But all my pre-visualization went out the window as I drove down to the Redondo Beach harbor. The coast was completely fogged in! And the harbor just isn’t as photogenic as I remembered it to be. Ok wait, I didn’t even remember it as being very nice, but somehow I’d constructed in my mind that it had pockets of visual interest here and there.

I was wrong. What a crappy place to shoot.

But hey, you work with what you’ve got. I’ve got a beautiful model counting on me to make the shoot work, so I make it work. We ‘warm up’ on the sidewalk overlooking the marina. One thing we have going for us is the very soft, flattering light. Not much of it though, and I started shooting at ISO 400 and it just got worse as the sun went down (funny how that happens). Right away though I could see that Dana had a very elegant, refined control over posing. She looks like a queen in the lead shot, and might order my head cut off if I didn’t make this shoot work (in reality Dana is charming, funny, and smiling all the time). Because the light was so bad, I didn’t bother breaking out the Metz, and instead shot exclusively with SB-28s. I think I just had a main light for the shot above, through a 43″ shoot-through umbrella, camera right, handheld.

Below we have Dana disobeying posted signs. No, a pink fog bank didn’t roll in. That was done in post. The sun had almost set by now, although it was impossible to be sure. The murky gray looked closer to murky black. But massive amounts of ISO boosting, plus some dual strobe usage gave me an interesting, grainy faux-daylight appearance. Main light is camera right, which you can see by the shadows on the face. But the fill, slightly camera left, is casting a significant shadow to camera right of her body. Confusing, yes, if you think about it. But it looks natural.

Oh and those clouds? Completely fake. Dropped them in during post.


We’re getting a few shots by this point in the afternoon (evening? someone have a watch? is it night time yet?), but we’re spending more time walking around with me going “hmm, nope” than we are actually shooting. I’m starting to get nervous. I see an interesting staircase—when staircases get you excited, you know you’re in a dull location—and try and figure out how to light the model. I want to shoot her using the angles of the stairs and railings from below, but it means my lighting assistants need to be about 20 feet tall. Or they’ll need to levitate. Not going to happen. Yikes.

So I punt and use the umbrella as a background (below). Meanwhile the fill light is turned  into the main light, which is camera left and modified with a Lumiquest Softbox III. Not for any reason other than it was stuck on the SB-28 already, because from the operating distance it wasn’t doing much to soften the light. But whatever, it’s dark, the ISO is high and I don’t mind that we’re eating up photons unnecessarily.

The result is something reminiscent of an old 40’s movie headshot, with the umbrella as background and the hard main light. The pose and the hair help bring it together too. Hey vintage-modern!


We head over to the parking lot, because it’s truly dark now. I wanted some background light or something. We head for the elevators to take us to another floor, because—and this might surprise you—parking garages aren’t as photogenic as one would think. Perhaps another, identical floor would be nicer? But then I think, hey elevator! It had a nice chrome finish on it. I put Dana in front of the closed doors, station her friend with the main light camera right, standing on a ledge, and put the fill light camera left. We shoot, get a few interesting shots, and then the door opens! People get out, we look embarrassed, and I realize that the elevator looks cooler open than it does closed.

We keep hitting the elevator button and shooting for a few seconds before the door closes again. But it’s kinda dark in there. Wait…I’ve got it! Put the hair stylist in the elevator, hide her off to the side, and have her aim the strobe so it’s an edge light. Perfect! So Lauren got into the elevator, and we fired away for a few seconds each time the door was open. Then the elevator would get called to another floor. We’d wait for Lauren to get back, hope she hadn’t taken on any passengers, and shoot again. As you can imagine, this had us rolling with laughter after awhile, and it really made the shoot a success for me. I directed Dana to start working some hard angles, and to gracefully pretend she was holding the elevator doors open (in reality it’s the wall but the idea is there). And so we landed this shot, which is one of my favorites in a long time.


I had to do quite a lot of retouching on the actual elevator though. The back wall was a dirty window, not brushed steel. The edge light, while hidden around the corner of the elevator, was very obviously reflected in the window too. That had to go. The cement and the bricks were all nasty and needed cleaning up. And then finally, I shortened the elevator! Dana is a tall woman, but posing anyone in front of an elevator door makes them look short. So I just shrunk the top part of the elevator so it didn’t dominate the top half of the frame. A lot of work in post, but it was worth it. The expression and the body language on this shot just scream high fashion to me.

So ultimately, this shoot was extremely successful. But it wasn’t until the last half hour where I could breathe a sigh of relief and know I’d nailed it. I am reminded that pre-planning is so important. And also I’m reminded that sometimes things are out of your control, and you just have to wing it and hope you can pull it off.

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6 thoughts on “Dana at the Harbor (model portfolio shoot)

  1. Thanks, Mom!

    (kidding. I don’t know Hanna. She’s not my mom. But I’ve donated another canned good to FoodShare in her honor.)

  2. Thanks Brenda! I’ll keep you in mind next time I need a ‘human light stand’. 🙂

    (another canned good donated)

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