Some personal insights and tips on shooting conceptual or themed portraits, location shoots and collaborating with models.
What is a conceptual or themed portrait?
Conceptual portraits and themed shoots usually involve subjects role-playing in a supposed narrative which may be contemporary or historic in nature, set in the real world or a fantasy version.
Sometimes it is less about role-playing and more about having fun with a subject’s professional role, such as with performing artists.
What is your aim?
One key motivation or aim may be to produce original work for publication, wall prints or eye-catching images for promotional use by a model, performing artist and yourself.
Then there is the social portrait for home display and sharing on social media. Commissioned themed shoots of children and adults can make a unique alternative to the lifestyle or traditional studio shoot in social portrait photography.
Backgrounds & Props
Themed portrait backgrounds may be real at the time of shooting or previously shot and added in Photoshop. Props and other elements like a certain model of car perhaps could be introduced if they are central to or enhance the impact of your theme.
Swords or other weaponry may need to be sourced for historic or some fantasy themes. Costumes can be borrowed, bought or hired from fancy dress or theatrical suppliers. Anything that falls a little short in authenticity can sometimes work with some retouching later.
Maybe you know someone who has a great car, bike, yacht or horse. Put out the word you are looking for a particular item, location or costume for a shoot and people generally want to be constructive and help out. And don’t forget who helped out.
Model: Ruben Halse / Location: West Runton, Norfolk
Lifestyle or Fantasy Themes
An Aston Martin was a central element for one of my shoots initally based around a 007 or hitman concept. Some of the shots crossed over into more conventional concepts like business, wealth and success which broadens possible uses.
Some conventional concepts like business, leisure, crime and social issues, health, success, family and relationships are all popular ‘lifestyle’ themes and are still the mainstay of many stock libraries.
Private lifestyle portraits are not generally ‘themed’ or theatrical though there may be some staging of situation. It seems lifestyle has become such a loosely used phrase in family portraiture that any portrait with a white background now qualifies!
The conceptual approach can work extremely well for performing artists too. With a little help from Photoshop to place the artist in an otherwise unattainable location, background can dramatically heighten a subject’s presence.
Musician: Rachel King / Background image: Chris Brignola, source www.pexels.com/
Any creative collaboration can be rewarding and productive for all parties, including models, stylists, make-up artists, fashion outlets, businesses, car or boat owners etc, etc. Everyone gets pictures, including high-res files or prints if their contribution is otherwise unpaid.
When commercial premises are used the associated business might get free images for their own PR. And social media can guarantee publicity for businesses and everyone else involved.
Models once commonly paid for photographers to provide portfolio starters or for updates for their book and web promotion. Specific ‘looks’ or concepts might be requested, their own idea or prompts from an agency.
Models now rarely need to pay for shoots with so many photographers eager to collaborate with them to improve their own online presence or kickstart their own portfolios. Working on a time-for-prints (or digital files) arrangemnet with photographers is now a common choice for new and existing models. Studios specialising in make-over photography may be the exception.
Make-up artists (MUAs) and stylists need portfolios too of course. It is unlikely MUA’s will pay for a portfolio shoot but working for pictures may be the quickest way of getting a portfolio started.
MUAs and stylists, however, are likely to be in more demand than models, even early on in their careers. They will have plenty of paid jobs on the go they can draw from. Unless a collaborative TFP shoot offers them pictures which really ups their game, paying MUAs and stylists may be unavoidable for many photographers.
I’ve been lucky mostly to work with cleints who paid for their own MUA / stylist or who were proficient at doing their own make-up.
Model: Ruben Halse / Background image: Viktor Jakovlev, source www.unsplash.com
Model: Ruben Halse / Location: Central London
Working with Models
Some models and even actors may want to push a particular ‘image’ perhaps to keep their portfolio topical with current or forthcoming movie, pop or fashion trends. Themed shoots can vitalise both portfolios and showreels.
For me themed or conceptual shoots can be the most rewarding commissions, rare as they are. Whether or not a model is paying for portfolio updates, is being paid or working to a TFP deal, it’s always great working with people who share your creative enthusiasm.
Any collaboration with a model or actor, should ideally include a signed release. Photographers sometimes also provide a photo consent so the model may run off copies from prints or distribute digital images, although this aim is generally a given.
Released pictures get more exposure on some photo libraries. Where images are only for editorial uses, in newspapers, magazines and books, releases are not usually required, in the UK at least. They are mandatory if you want images to be available for commercial use and in advertising. In all cases, releases protect photographers into the future if submitting images for publication.
It is for the individual photographer to decide on the importance of having that access to broader usage opportunities.
Creative fulfilment alone wont pay the bills. There needs to be future earning potential with at least a few of the images you take. It is no less an artistic endeavour.
It is important all parties know from the outset your possible intentions. Likewise photographers need to agree how their images can be used by models, artists and other collaborators.
Dungeons & Dragons
My introduction to shooting themed or theatrical portraits happened twenty years ago and drew from the card gaming craze of Dungeons & Dragons, a world in which a friend at the time was immersed in.
When I was studying City & Guilds Photography everything I did was experimental. Dramatic or theatrical concepts really appealed to me, perhaps a throwback to early acting ambitions! Ironically, documentary photography (the study of the real world) was also a passion but my more creative and playful side steered towards narratives at that time, particularly fantasy themes.
I didn’t re-visit narrative themed shoots, however, until many years on when I started working with models and performing artists. Of course, most portfolio or publicity pictures I was asked to shoot were not thematic.
Some Dungeons & Dragons players would take to making their own models and figurines, even designing costumes and props inspired by D&D characters. This gaming culture (which still continues online) never captured my interest but as an aspiring photographer the theme and associated props and costumes were too inviting.
Model: Lorna / Costume: Costume World
Conventional multiple print using lith masking and existing images. Model: Lorna
Surrealist at Heart
One of the themes back then was inspired by All About Eve songs (loosely), particularly from their second album Scarlet & Other Stories. This was the folk-rock band best known for the beautiful and melancholic late 80s hit Martha’s Harbour.
I was initially thinking of a fisherman’s widow or ‘Cathy’ like figure and lost love and using multiple images of symbolic items, including supposed possessions, in a surrealistic montage.
A more simple and generic metaphor resulted with a sinking fishing boat representing my character’s life submerging, skyward a positivity which still harbours hope. I clearly thought about this one way too much!
I hired a costume and my model was a guest from a party I was hired to shoot. The pictures, as with the D&D portraits, were shot on black & white 35mm film in the college studio with one light.
I never quite developed many of the resulting pictures as I wanted due to lack of time and only mediocre darkroom skills. Perhaps just as well!
These were the years before digital photography as we know it. Everything was film-based, from capture through to processing and printing which I did in either the college or my home (bedroom) darkroom.
Any creative effects were limited to cross-processing, multiple black & white printing, in-camera multiple exposures, slide ‘sandwiching’ and lith masking. Models were mostly other students or their friends.
I didn’t think years on I might be revisiting themed shoots professionally and working with accomplished models like Ruben. Ruben, formely listed with both Sandra Reynolds and Ugly/Rage model agenices, is currently not modelling or acting but when I was shooting for his portfolio he was already achieving reasonable success as a model.
I should clarify not all our shoots were themed. Our early shoots together were fashion or lifestyle in nature, plain backdropped studio shoots or on location in local gyms.
Cover Model to Big Screen
Ruben would appear on covers of Cosmopolitan and Men’s Fitness and various other magazines and in TV ads for Play Station, Smackdown Live, appearances on So Graham Norton (Channel 4) and other TV modelling gigs plus various PR shoots.
His most exciting assignments though were to be working on movies like Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins and Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera and in the Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty. The point being, however small the roles, Ruben’s portfolio (which included tearsheets of published work and giveaways by other photographers) played a vital part in getting recognised and ultimately selected.
Big Screen Themes
Himself a big fantasy and action movie fan, a few of our shoots were inevitably dramatically themed in nature often instigated by Ruben sourcing his own props and costumes. Finding locations was usually a collaborative effort though only Ruben had the tenacity to approach a cathedral for a barbarian shoot!
The background narrative involved a barbarian character first trekking through a wood then compromising a supposed hostile castle or otherwise temple or palace like building. So first you see him in a wild environment then a solid walled more civilised space. The barbarian intruder could be a metaphor for a threat to the status quo, though perhaps a bit high concept for our aims.
Shooting in historic locations
The original idea for the barbarian shoot was to use Norwich Castle and permission had originally been granted. We even got access to recee parts not visited by the public. However, it turned out the permission came from the wrong person and an alternative setting had to be found.
I was then surprised to hear Ruben, who lived in Norwich at the time, had managed to get the Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist in return for a donation. The idea of a barbarian roaming a cathedral started sounding less high-concept and more surreal social statement. Our aim, however, was to avoid identifying the location as even a religious building.
The shoot would be staged on a suitable quiet and uneventful day in the religious calendar, though still at the height of the tourist season. It was agreed where we could and could not roam so come the day we were mostly left to it for a few hours.
Body paint touch-ups were needed throughout so our make-up artist also kindly doubled as an assistant holding a single off-camera flash. This MUA wasn’t available for the outdoor shoot, months later, so Ruben hired the services of two City College students.
Weapons in a Public Place
The forest scenes were shot in Mousehold Heath wood in the middle of Norwich. Carrying prop weapons, however innocent and harmless, can potentially land you in trouble. So given we were using a prop sword and long bow in an open air public space I thought it best to seek some advice from the local police well ahead of the shoot. Luckily a friend knew a copper.
We were advised so long as our weaponry was covered (preferably bagged) on route to and from the shoot location there should be no problem. It must be clear what we are doing to any passing members of the public. It was Autumn now so luckily not too many onlookers.
Burlesque and in particular belly dancing, with suitable costume, exudes far eastern exoticism and mystical desert lands. A local beach was the best I could do! Not that I was trying to recreate a desert scene. Shooting on the beach meant space was ample and the background neutral in the sense it could be any beach anywhere.
The dance shots were great though I think more down to the dancer Akasha’s enthusiasm and athleticism. I got multiple dance moves and poses, Akasha even thought to bring along large red and yellow fans with long flowing trails.
The performing arts are one example where the subject’s actual identity, as a dancer in the case of Akasha, could be turned to a theme.
As already suggested what could be a simple publicity shoot can also be conceptual. Add a few choice poses to the shoot and a few pictures might work to an otherwise unrelated concept but for Aksha’s costume and one crucial prop.
Akasha and the Genie
A themed addition to the dance shoot was a little decorative Egyptian teapot which, once again, Akasha managed to conjour up. We needed a little bit of dramatic expression of course, in reaction to the pot supposedly spurting it’s genie manisfestation. I would just then have to find the genie to add in Photoshop to complete the fantasy concept.
I sat on this for ages, only recently revisiting the images and frankly is still work in progress. Currently looks a bit flat.
I had originally intended on keeping the location as was (sitting on a log on Winterton beach) but decided in for a penny … and went looking for a suitable stock image on Pexels and Pixabay to drop in. The genie is one of my own images, a portrait of a Korean martial artist I shot many years ago.
Following the dance shoot with Akasha I saw she was ideal for a ‘gypsy-themed’ shoot and revisiting that 18th century period.
This was a collaborative shoot – a time-for-pictures arrangement. Akasha also contributed the entire outfit, her own clothes.
The girlfriend of a photographer acquaintance owned a wonderful black & white horse and she had permission for us to use a local stables and paddock for the shoot.
We also shot an Indian Squaw theme the same afternoon but the Ebay sourced costume was not really up to the task.
Akasha and the horse really looked good together but as themes go perhaps this one has become a little clichéd.
Any digital art stage should (ideally) not supersede the work on the shoot. I prefer real backgrounds, props and correct lighting from the outset. That said some of my older photos are now getting a revisit with fresh eyes and an updated digital skillset. And I see no reason being snobbish about post enhancment when this has been part of photography from the beginning – from dodging and burning to multiple printing techniques.
The thrill of creating something unique which evokes a sense of the dramatic or surreal is only part of the attraction. Every shoot can bring cognitive rewards too, through exercising your creative centre and learning how to overcome the various practicalities of bringing a concept to fruition. Then there is the satisfaction of simply working with others to achieve a shared goal.
Pursuing themed shoots as creative projects for arts sake or possible publication is mostly a spare-time endeavour. Speculative projects have always been part of professional photography, whether themed portraits or documentary work.
As any artist in any field, you cannot always afford to wait to be paid to create something original or to exercise your skills.
To anyone wishing to try themed shoots and wanting further inspiration take a look at some of the work on the creative stock library Trevillion, this PinInterest page for ideas and for locations in your area try ShotHotSpot.
Anyone wishing to collaborate with me on future themes, including Steam Punk and other SciFi concepts, 1940s through to 1970s period themes and spy or crime characters please get in touch. I am also always interested to hear from models with their own ideas!
© 2017 Adrian Buck. All rights reserved.