Model Portfolio: “Ms. N”


I met this model a few months ago when I headed down to the Art Institute of Hollywood‘s quarterly Portfolio Show, where student fashion designers, fashion stylists and other fashion-related students had booths and spoke to prospective employers about their work. My intention was to expand from simply working with models and stylists, and get some up-and-coming designers into the mix as well. Turns out she’s not only is a fashion stylist (i.e. she selects and coordinates wardrobe and other elements of a fashion shoot to work harmoniously), but a model too! My lucky day, because I like multitaskers.

So we scheduled a simple shoot on the beach. It was at Santa Monica pier in fact, since it was close to where the model lived. We had scheduled a weekday evening though, and there was no way I could find an assistant, so I was on my own. Which is just fine, if I’m planning on drowning my strobes!

[click “continue reading” below for more…]

If I’m shooting family portraits on the beach, I don’t need an assistant. Usually the main images are posed shots, away from the water, and very controlled (from a technical standpoint…I’m not talking about small children running around!). And when I move down to the water with the family, it’s usually with a handheld strobe and not much else. When I’m shooting models however, the lights get near the water. It just has to happen, because we’re moving around a lot. So it’s nice to have an assistant to blame when things go wrong hold the lights so nothing goes wrong. (Steve, you remember when we both dropped my strobes on the rocks within 30 seconds of each other?!!)

So the model and I started out doing some bikini images, using my Norman 200B for light. My camera was my trusty Fujifilm S5 Pro, which is great for extreme contrast conditions like the beach. It was a little too windy for a lighting umbrella, so I went with hard light using the standard 5″ reflector. The shot below uses the Norman (camera left), with an SB-28 filling from camera right and low-ish to the ground. So even though it was hard light, the ratios are pretty small and the contrast is manageable. Note the edge of sunlight down her left side. Yeah I planned that!


The power pack for the Norman was perched on its tupperware carrying case, to keep it up high in the event of a wave coming too close. We were above the surf, but I was just being safe.And that’s a great idea to keep the battery pack up high…if it stays on the case! But it slipped off. I saw it slip off, I went to grab it, and here comes an errant wave. Aw crap! Seawater in my battery pack! I quickly turned it off, tipped out a little seawater (it wasn’t drenched, but there was definitely some in there), and decided to go to plan B.

The sun was getting lower anyway, so I grabbed an SB-28, set it to full power and put it in a Lumiquest SoftBox III (remember, it’s still a little windy for an umbrella). You can tell right away that I’ve got less strobe power to work with in the subsequent images. To compensate for the lower output of the SB-28 in a Lumi, I’ve had to open up my aperture. But I’m stuck at my max sync speed of 1/250 s, so I can’t dial down the ambient any more. Result: blown out sky, compared to the first one. But I knew this was going to happen, so I made it a feature; I fired right into the sun to give that flared-out warm summer look. I love the texture of the waves in the background, and the surfer heading out into the waves is cool too.


The model told me later that she was nervous about doing a swimsuit shoot for the first time. It certainly didn’t come through in the photographs!

So it’s time for a wardrobe change. We head over to a shuttered lifeguard hut, and the model puts on a cute dress and hat. The lead image shows her walking on a gangway or some other walkway that was lying next to the lifeguard hut. We turned it into a beach ‘catwalk’! I had her walk forward a number of times and then fired the shutter when she was on her mark for the lights. We got a nice sway to the dress, and a wonderful expression on her face too. Lighting for this was by then all SB-28s, since I’d given my Norman a bath and wisely shut it down. Camera left is the SB-28 with a 1/2 CTO in the SoftBox III, as close as I can get it. Camera right is an SB-28 dialed way down for fill. I can’t recall if I geled it or not. (Still talking about the image at the top of the post, by the way.)

Now for the two images below, my memory of the lighting set up is a bit fuzzy. When I zoom in on the specular highlights of her eyes (which you obviously can’t do yourself in this blog post), the highlights are round. Did I set up my shoot-through umbrella finally, after the wind died down? I’m not sure. I do know that I put the model in the long shadow of the lifeguard hut, and then used my strobes to light her from the same direction the sun would have been coming from. Especially for the three-quarter shot at the bottom, the ‘sunlight’ on her face makes sense with the long shadows on the ground. But by putting her in the shadows, she’s not going to be squinting from the bright (setting) sun. And I can soften the light if I want to.


It occurs to me that I may have been filling from the same side as the key light on these shots. That would account for the dark shadows on the camera-left side, and yet a light that doesn’t seem to harsh (and doesn’t drop off too badly down her body). Yeah, that’s it! 🙂 That’s what I must have been doing!


So did the Norman survive? Well…I think so. I let it dry, wiped it out, and then tested it and it seemed to work fine. The next two shoots I ended up going strictly SB-28s, and didn’t need it. Then for a giant group portrait for the Search Dog Foundation, the light wouldn’t work. I had to attempt fill-flash with a single SB-28 on short notice (hah! With forty people and as many dogs?). But when I got the Norman home again, it was working. Bad connection? Intermittent and unreliable operation caused by partial submersion in seawater? I better get it out and test some more.

If you know the story of how I drowned my iPhone recently, you know that I’m having a little trouble with electronics and liquids lately.

But enough about gear. I’ve got to say that working with “Ms. N” was such a wonderful experience! I got soooo many great shots. I had to go through several edits just to get a manageable set of favorites, and then there was no way I was going to finish and retouch all of them! Going into the shoot, I was concerned it might be a challenge: a rather dull beach (visually speaking), no assistant, no hair or makeup stylist, and a model I hadn’t worked with before. But instead it was a relaxed, amazing shoot.

One thought on “Model Portfolio: “Ms. N”

  1. Great shots Matt. Have you or ever considered mounting your photos to bamboo, acrylic or aluminum? We get quite a few requests from artists and photographers who are presenting their work in a gallery or art show. Keep up the great work

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