We've had one hell of a cold, long winter this year here in North America. On top of that, I live in Houston, Texas, so this business of freezing rain in March can go die in a fire already. I enjoyed shooting moody styles outside during this extended drabness in recent months, if I'm honest. However, sunny days are coming and I couldn't happier it because summer means outdoor swimwear projects begin, which is one of my favorite styles to shoot. However, having been so bleak for so long this winter, have you gotten yourself prepped for this most popular of fashion and glamour photography seasons?
I'll preface all of this with acknowledging that there is nothing more stereotypical than a poorly shot photo of a model in a bikini. The bottom line is, that is something you see way too much in our industry, often so frequently that you end up getting a bad taste in your mouth for bikini photos in general. But, it doesn't have to be this way - you really can make your swimwear photos stand out above the crowd if you take the time and effort to plan and pre-envision what you want to do.
While it's not quite warm enough, even here in south Texas, to start taking on outdoor swim projects, I reasoned this is the perfect time to go through my checklist of things to do to prepare for the season.
Right off the bat, you need to know where your favorite locations are to shoot commercial swimwear work, be it in your city or town or anywhere in the world you travel to with any regularity. When the client calls on you, it's always best to have a handful of locations already in mind that you can recommend. And since you'll be shooting swimwear, your locations should ideally make sense with the world of bikinis and swimwear fashion pieces in general. Naturally, there are no hard and fast rules about locations for swimwear photography, necessarily, but having a varied set of options, up front, is always ideal since you sometimes don't have tons of time to take advantage of that perfect summer weekend weather when it happens.
To me, outdoor portraiture of any kind comes down to lenses. Specifically, primes. I admit it openly, I'm a prime snob, and make no apologies for being so. But the benefits of prime lenses for outdoor portrait work are so immense, I simply won't choose zooms when shooting outdoor swimwear.
But why? Well, for one, prime lenses are far more along in their evolution than their zoom brethren. Some long-time photography veterans, such as my father (who started shooting professionally in 1972) will confidently pit their 1980's era primes against any prime from today, claiming that prime lens technology hasn't really changed much since then. In reality, this is, of course, not the case. But, all you need to do is spy a few medium format enlargements from 30 years ago, shot with top grade primes, and you will see intense sharpness, clarity, color and contrast that easily compares to today's primes in every way that matters.
Not to mention, if you are setting up your shot, in full detail, why bother with a zoom? Select the focal lengths you want (say, 50, 85 and 135) and run with it. There will be a delightful consistency to your work, and you won't get lazy on set. When you have to work to get the shot set up so you can use your 85mm or 135mm, you generally think it through in far more detail AND you benefit from the flattering shots you'll get. Why? Suffice to say, there is a reason 85mm and 135mm lenses exist - they just work so damn well in any type of portraiture.
Example: If you are in a cramped set up, but you really want to try to make it work somehow, you will end up thinking on your feet and coming up with creative ways to capture what you're envisioning with that 135mm instead of simply opening up to 49mm because you were slinging your 24-70 2.8 at the time. The option to zoom in and out makes me, at least, lazy on set, and uninspired. In fact, a lot of times, the efforts and acrobatics I go through to make a prime focal length work for the shot I want often yield me images that make people say "How in the world did you shoot this??!", which I love to hear. When I have a zoom on board, I tend to stand still and fiddle with the zoom ring, which is decidedly not hyper-creativity in the making.
Primes are sharper, more often, and at wider apertures than basically any zoom. And with primes, you can almost always open up more than ƒ2.8 (most portrait primes are ƒ1.2 to ƒ2.0), thus giving you far more flexibility with light control and depth of field options. And that is never, ever a bad thing.
In recent months, when I shoot outdoors, I have been prioritizing natural light over mixed lighting as often as I can. I drag along various scrims and reflectors and explore positions, poses and locations that best suit a natural light shot whenever possible. I love large, thick scrims because of the softness they afford me, but I just have to consider the stop or two loss they cause when setting up sets. I also prefer white reflectors over silver ones most of the time, for the same reasons of softness.
Last summer I also shot part of a calendar and poster project for model Aneta Kowal while in Florida, and I worked hard to see how much I could do with natural light. I ended up strobing more than I planned on, but I simply had to improvise each set, each day, and craft the best shot I could envision based on location and conditions.
Additional lighting gear comes along on every outdoor shoot - just in case. For the most part, if I do use a strobe, I use only one and work with it and the sun for various two light setups. And when headed outdoors for swimwear work, I never leave without these modifiers:
- White dish (18" to 22" or so), usually with the diffusion sock for it.
- Small softbox, with grids.
- 7" reflectors, with various grids, and sometimes diffusion socks for them as well.
That's not to say that other modifiers never make an appearance. I've been known to bring a 86" parabolic umbrella, with diffuser, to a backyard pool (just needed some sure footed assistants to keep it in check outside.) This behind the scenes video, shot by my friend of Pramik Photography, of me working with model Caitlin Hixx late last year shows exactly that and some some other outdoor pool setups I was working with (along with some indoor, non-swimwear stuff):
Many will say that the staple lighting set up for countless outdoor swimwear shoots is, of course, a dish with a strobe. Diffused or not, this is about as common as it gets for outdoor swim shoots, and for good reason: It works. And works well. Not to mention, dishes tend to be a tad more wind resistant, which is always a good thing. I use my dish tons for swim shoots, and always make sure it's in my kit before heading out. I've recently been impressed by Paul C. Buff's new 18" Omni Reflector and triple baffled diffuser, and am about to purchase one for this year's summer sessions.
Selling The Shot
First and foremost, when it comes to selling the shot, don't discount the little things. If you go through the trouble of procuring an amazing location, be sure to showcase it, at least somewhat, in your images. After all, why work to get permission to use a resort's private beach if you're just going to shoot your subjects on a concrete wall or against a flat blue sky? You could accomplish the same thing almost anywhere. You've got to incorporate your location to sell the idea of where the heck your subject is, and why it all makes sense in the context of a swimwear shoot.
And don't forget accessory details. If you are charged with the task of styling the shoot, don't just assume "bikini" and be done with it. Nothing enhances swimwear shots quite like accessories on the models. Usually, for client work, this is considered up front and often a stylist is part of the shoot personnel. Or perhaps you have a stylist for these types of things already. Regardless, some of my favorite swimwear images are properly accessorized beyond just the swimsuit.
Hit The Road
If you travel frequently, and ideally to amazing locations, you are almost required to shoot on as many gorgeous beaches as you can. I know I have my bucket list of beach locations to shoot, and look forward to working for the second time in Puerto Rico next month, at a little 5 day seminar I happen to be hosting. Apart from giving the biggest photography class of my career while there, I also am thrilled to be working on some fantastic projects during my visit.
And in the realm of shameless plugs, if you want to have an experience like no other, I will add there are a couple of photographer spots still available for the seminar still.