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How I Photographed a Model on My Family Vacation

by Staff

I have a love/hate relationship with family vacations. I enjoy going away for a few days with my wife and daughter, but it is not something I am super excited about and looking forward to each day in the months before the trip, the way most people do. Truth be told, I’m happier putting my money into buying a new lens rather than using it to book a plane ticket.

I know it is healthy to take a break from the hustle and grind of NYC, but I love my job, and I’m content to stay in NYC shooting pictures all year round. My true love is taking photographs, so whenever we book a family vacation, I make an effort to schedule a model shoot in whatever city we may be in.

Years ago, the process of scheduling a model shoot was surprisingly easy for me, despite people being less connected a decade ago than we are today. In the past, there was a higher demand for a skilled, professional photographer like myself who was willing to offer his services for free to an unknown model. Today, someone who wants to be photographed can easily find a friend to take pictures for them. While there are benefits to working with a professional photographer, the model is likely to produce high-quality images even if they are being photographed by a friend using a smartphone. 

I remember taking my first trip to Miami about 20 years ago and contacting a modeling agency in South Beach, asking for new models willing to test. “Test Shoot” is the term used by photographers and agencies when referring to an unpaid shoot with no guarantee of publication. I was invited to visit the agency, where the walls were filled with comp cards from which I could select with whom I wanted to work. We settled on a model named Yami, whom I photographed on a Miami Beach using a Mamiya 67 medium format film camera. The process is different today, and in this article, I will break down how I came to book a model named Mari on a recent family vacation to Paris.

I had become obsessed with Instagram Reels in the weeks preceding my trip. These are short-form vertical videos that cover any subject you can think of, including cooking tips, dancing tutorials, and huskies talking back to their owners. The platform is addictive, and I’ve spent hours watching the random videos that make their way onto my feed. If you watch or re-watch a video on a particular topic, the algorithm will include more videos on that topic as you continue to scroll, and your feed becomes even more addictive as you are fed videos that are less random and more likely to appeal to you.

Several videos discussing ways of using AI caught my attention and I became curious if I could incorporate ChatGPT, which is often used to assist in tasks that involve writing, into my next photo project. As a professional writer, I don’t need assistance in constructing an article or email, but with so much talk about this AI-based tool, I wanted to see how ChatGPT would create a pitch I could send to a model in Paris to take part in a test shoot. 

I regret not having saved the prompt I entered into ChatGPT, but this is the message that the platform created for me to send to potential models:

Hey there, NYC photographer here, heading to the City of Light from August 20th to 24th, 2023. I’m on the hunt for a stylish, adventurous fashion model to join me in capturing the magic of Paris through my lens. Let’s create stunning visuals together – your beauty and my skills will make for a dynamic collaboration. In exchange for your time, you’ll receive a collection of captivating images that’ll add flair to your portfolio. If you’re up for this exciting journey, reach out, and let’s make this Parisian shoot an unforgettable experience!

The pitch did not sound like me, and I was uncomfortable sending it. I’ve never even heard of Paris referred to as the City of Light. But I sent it as written to about 25 models who had used the hashtag #ParisModel in their posts to see how many would respond. Four models responded, including Mari. As explained in my message, the shoot would be a trade of her time and beauty for my time as skill as a photographer. In subsequent messages, I explained that she would receive one edited image from each look that we photographed, and I offered to give her the entire unedited shoot immediately after if she wanted to bring a laptop. I know giving the model access to everything captured on the shoot is not standard procedure for other photographers, but it is something I’ve done many times over the years, and I’ve had no issues doing so. I photograph all of my personal work on the Leica M system, and I knew I would pair a Leica M10 with my 35mm Summilux and 75mm Summarit. I view a test shoot as a collaboration between two (or more) creatives, so I asked Mari how she felt about me doing the shoot in black and white. She said she preferred that we shoot in color, so I brought the standard M10 rather than the M10 Monochrom with me on this vacation. I wanted Mari to feel comfortable about meeting a stranger for this session, so I asked her to suggest where the shoot would take place. I also felt that she, as a native, was better equipped to find a strong location than I was. She suggested a macaroon shop called Laurete that had a nice interior design, and we agreed to meet on a Thursday at 6:30 pm.

When we met at the location, the business was undergoing construction, so we did all of the shooting outside on the street. The day was overcast, and that worked in my favor since the light would be soft and shadowless and I had not brought any artificial lighting with me on this trip.

I looked for backgrounds unlike those I might find in my NYC hometown. I was drawn to the pastel-colored walls, ornate gates, and cobblestone roads on the side street of the macaroon shop. Because Mari is a professional model, she had an arsenal of poses that she could perform on cue. She was also good at following instructions, and I would often ask her to lower a shoulder, turn to the side, or raise her chin. Working with professional models who can pose themselves helps you create images that look different from the shots you take when you pose the model yourself. If you don’t have access to professional models, you will find many will accept a cash payment of USD 100 for a 2-hour test shoot if you have some decent images already in your portfolio to show.

We photographed on a clean white wall to simulate what I would have photographed had we done the shoot in a studio. My composition varied between close-ups and full-length for these images. All of the clean studio-style photos were taken with the 75mm lens.

I used the 35mm lens for any shots that would include background elements. The 35mm focal length is my favorite for environmental portraiture. The 35mm Summilux was designed to be used at f/1.4, and at that setting, there is a 3D quality to the photographs that is beautiful to my eyes and unlike the rendering of any other lens I have owned. An added benefit of shooting wide open is that the background is sharp enough to still be understandable by the viewer, but not so sharp that it takes attention away from the model.

For our final shot, I wanted to get a photograph of Mari enjoying a glass of wine in a classic Paris cafe. Everywhere we went in Paris, we passed by outdoor and open-window cafes, where people enjoyed alcohol or coffee with friends for hours on end. I wanted to represent this aspect of Parisian culture. I’ve seen photographers use locations without patronizing the business, but I feel this is tacky. We found a classic-looking café, and I ordered a glass of wine for Mari to pose with. After we completed those shots, I asked her to order herself lunch from the menu so I could treat her to a nice meal in return for doing such a good job on the shoot. Years ago, I photographed several models in a Brooklyn-based restaurant known as the Fashion Cafe. Because the shoot included some well-known (at the time) music video models, MTV had come to the shoot to document the session. I asked the crew to please patronize the business at lunchtime. They didn’t. Instead, they purchased food outside and brought that into the restaurant. I felt this was tacky, and I’ve always made a point of patronizing any business that has allowed me to photograph there.

Mari chose to not bring a laptop for immediate delivery of the images, so I posted a gallery for her on Photoshelter where she could download unedited images at her leisure. I retouched eight final images, and those were delivered to her about 10 days after I got back to NYC. 

For my next shoot, I won’t bother with using AI to write the prompt, as I don’t think it was better than what I would have written on my own. I would also take more time to prepare proper wardrobe styling with the model before the shoot. The clothing Mari brought was ok, but bland for a fashion shoot. Searching for a stylist to bring more interesting looks would have been a good use of my time. For me, this shoot was more about having the fun of working with a model from Paris than it was about creating final images, so I’m pleased with how the shoot turned out. But with a little more time spent in pre-production, I can produce a stronger shoot on my next family vacation. 

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