My shoot with Ashley Michaels, Okinawa photographer (and now model)

My shoot with Ashley Michaels, Okinawa photographer (and now model)

It’s not every day I get to shoot portraits of another photographer, so when Ashley Michaels asked me to take some pics for her newly upgraded website, I was thrilled. When she said she wanted to shoot at Zanpa, I agreed without hesitation, since that location offers so many opportunities for beautiful pictures you just can’t miss. But my goal was not merely to avoid a “miss.” In keeping with my usual standards (not to brag), I wanted to knock it out of the park. As I was soon to find out, Ashley’s intuitive and technical understanding of posing would make this super easy for me. 

Before we began, I have to admit I was a bit concerned about whether we could bring our creative visions in sync. Even a brief glance at our respective portfolios would inform the viewer that our styles are very different. Ashley’s images tend to be a bit more subtle, with lower contrast and understated colors, while mine tend to be more bright, bold and saturated. But I wasn’t too worried. Unless the photographer is paying the model, every shoot is a negotiation between the sometimes competing visions of the people on either end of the camera, so I was sure we would work out our differences. 

And we did have differences (not so much on location, but with respect to processing). While we both loved the images I shot, our ideas regarding what the finished photos should look like were not the same.  Basically, Ashley wanted the photos to be consistent with the look and feel of her online presence and I wanted them to complement the other images in my growing portfolio.  That is, subtle and understated vs bold and saturated. It was easy to resolve these differences. I simply gave her the raw images to edit any way she wanted, then edited my own versions for release on my own channels. This worked out great because she loved my choices and I loved hers. 

Once on location, the session started like any other. I wanted to come home with six or so amazing images in raw format, across several different setups. Ideally, I’d have a wide shot with Ashley in the middle and lots of beautiful scenery. Next would be a three-quarter shot (knees up), then waist up, then head and shoulders and finally an extreme close up, ideally with some funky (but still natural looking)  lighting. That’s five. I had no real plan for the sixth. Maybe it would be a variation of one of the above, or possibly a whole new setup. 

The first shot I wanted to nail was the big Hero Shot, the “Grand Prize” as I called it, namely a super-powerful mega-confident pose against a bright blue sunny sky, overpowering the sun with flash. The photo at the top of this page is the one we came up with. What really made this shot work was a model who truly understood the pose I was looking for and delivered it with gusto. Proud as I am of my work, my contribution to this shot was fairly routine. The “overpower the sun” type shot is one of my specialties and I pretty well know how to nail it every time, even with equipment that no working pro in 2020 would take seriously. 

Of course, we didn’t stop there. Next were the series of three-quarter shots, waist up shots and closeups I mentioned earlier. This is not routine work by any stretch. Different models have different physical characteristics and it’s important to capture the model you’re working with in the most confident pose from the most complimentary angle in the most beautiful light possible. To accomplish this, we worked the shot, nailing take after take until we captured images we both loved, like this head-and-shoulder shot. 

It was tough to choose which one to process (and this choice should be made before the processing because quality retouching takes considerable time). The decision took into account several factors, including which images were in perfect focus. Most were acceptable, but when shooting at close range with an 85mm prime lens at f/2.8the difference between perfection and an image too out of focus to be usable is as little as a 1/4 inch gap between the focal plane and the iris of the closest eye. After selecting for best focus, next was the model’s expression. Honestly, she nailed every shot in that regard and the difference revolved around differing levels of awesome. After collecting all the shots with perfect focus and amazing expressions, the field of contenders was narrowed considerably. Ultimately I chose this one because of the way the light from the sun highlighted her hair on camera left. Every time I look at the finished photo I’m sure I made the right choice. 

When we were satisfied we’d exhausted the potential of the first setup, it was time to change locations. We didn’t have to go far. We found a big rock amid lots of green plants on a plain overlooking the ocean where the sun was starting to set. Hoping to nail some shots amid the greenery with a glowing sun in the background, we set up the frame and Ashley struck awesome pose after awesome pose. We got so many good shots it was hard for me to choose a favorite, but I managed to narrow it down to a few. 

One I really like is this wide shot. It’s just an image in which everything came together. On the old Canon 5D Mk2, nailing a shot like this is not as easy as it is with some of the newer cameras which have come out in the last 12 years since it’s release (yes, it’s been that long). One of the problems it has is focusing in low light. The camera needs a certain basic level for autofocus to function properly and with the lens stopped down to a level suitable for shooting a sunset, the focusing system just doesn’t have much to work with. I try to focus on something bright, but remember it is the eyes of the model which have to be sharp and her eyes were a silhouette. Modern cameras (especially high-end models like Aslhely’s a7Riv)  would latch on to her closest eye and nail perfect focus shot after shot. But not my geriatric Mk2, and because of this, a whole series was out of focus (I was cursing myself back at the computer). But not to worry. We shot so many “safety shots,” refocusing frequently, that I had enough to work with.

I should note that I almost didn’t, though. When importing the footage, I noticed that several shots failed to record. These were few and far between and fortunately I knew from the sequence that they were just some of the chimping shots I took while tweaking my exposure settings and positioning the flash. But that was just luck. There is no doubt that when I upgrade, which will be soon, I need a camera with dual card slots. 

With all that said and done, luckily, it worked out beautifully and I was able to capture some great images, like the one below. The pose is perfect, the framing is bang on, the focal plane was right on the eyes and the direction of the model’s face relative to the flash made for a perfect “butterfly” shadow under her nose. When all the elements I just mentioned come together, the results are incredible, assuming exposure is correct. 

Achieving a correct exposure under backlit conditions is not always easy because the raw image you need to produce to get the tones right between the subject and the background will cause it to look underexposed to the untrained eye. The trick is to underexpose the entire image by about a full stop and light the model so that she is about half a stop underexposed. This will provide for the best results and the greatest flexibility in post processing. It is important to err on the side of underexposure with respect to the sky or the details will be lost and the sun will look blown out. Yes, it is possible to recover the highlights by taking highlights down selectively in Lightroom and this sometimes works, but it can wreak havoc with skin tones and colors. And it can make the sky look unnatural while introducing considerable noise. While modern cameras are much more forgiving, the dynamic range in this shot was just barely within the capabilities of the 2009 edition CR2 files my old camera puts out, but only just.  Not to worry, though.  When it all comes together right, it looks like this. 

I’m very happy with what we accomplished in this shoot. But that won’t stop me from doing a post-mortem, analyzing all my photos for their flaws (there are always flaws in some of what every photographer shoots) and thinking hard about how I can improve. But that’s the subject of another post. 

Paul Sean Grieve

I am a professional designer, photographer and author living and working in Okinawa, Japan.

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