Stephanie; London

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Following the first shoot in April with Stephanie, we met again for a further photo session in June. This time I was visiting her in London, staying in her house whilst working in an archive. We took some time during the week to pursue a number of different styles of photograph.

Stephanie, icon of the silver screen

Stephanie, icon of the silver screen

These first few images are based in part on images of Louise Brooks and similar stars (e.g. here). Brooks starred in a number of silent films, most famously the stunning Pandora’s Box, and was something of an early modern sex symbol. Stephanie wanted to try and recreate something of this, and these images are the result. The first is one of my favourite photographs of Stephanie and it’s also one of her favourites (she even has it on some of her business cards!). This photograph was shot in natural light, but with a relatively high ISO (800) – we were near a window, but the light was diffused, giving no hard shadows. At my request, Stephanie had removed her bra a few hours beforehand and had just been wearing a very light, loose top to avoid any straps or seams leaving marks on her skin, and for this (and the next photograph) she was just wearing a slip. She had tied her hair back to make it look as if it could be 1920s bangs that had fallen back when she lay down (that has to be a woman thing: I have no idea how she did this given how long and rich her hair is in the photographs below, and I can remember commenting at the time that I thought this was something akin to a miracle!). She lay on a bench with her head on a pillow, both covered with a large piece of black fabric that I had bought relatively cheaply in a department store. In this next image I never quite completed the processing in Photoshop that would have removed the folds in the fabric:

Stephanie then changed into a fabulous tight 1920s-style sequinned black dress that looked absolutely stunning on her: the sequins emphasised her curvaceous figure even more than the fabric alone could do. Of these images, the first has been carefully processed, the next three could still do with a bit of tidying up.

We then sought to try and create another typical image from the golden age of glamour. Using light from a window as well as fill flash, Stephanie posed against a white wall. Her long earrings are intended to be a particular focus here, and the ‘scarf’ across her bare shoulders is actually an upside-down skirt that she is holding to make it look as if it’s a scarf (underneath that she is again wearing nothing except the slip) .  The skirt/scarf is quite colourful, which didn’t matter since this was obviously going to be a monochrome-toned image. Again, miraculously, she has managed to hide all her hair somewhere! This image was not completely easy to get right, since I wanted to avoid shadows on the wall behind her and the Nikon D40 that I was using at that time couldn’t trigger a flash remotely – this shot would be much easier with the D90 that I bought towards the end of that year. But with the judicious use of a reflector held by her flatmate, we managed to produce this photograph, which I’m very happy with: it conveys elegance and beauty, yet with a certain aloofness, which is just what we were after.

Stephanie then changed again, this time into much more contemporary clothing – a gorgeous full-length low-cut summer dress that fell beautifully from her bust, with thin shoulder straps. At first she posed indoors, with rich warm light coming through a window being diffused by a net curtain, as the first of the next images shows. For the subsequent two images, captured immediately after one another, I tried out different Adobe Lightroom presets (in fact, these two images involve minimal Photoshop processing). This first one worked really well, I think, highlighting Stephanie’s smooth skin and even offering a kind of balance between the blown out highlights on the right side of her face/breasts/left shoulder, and her dark hair/lips/shadow detail on her left arm, splitting the image into right and left halves along a bottom right-top left diagonal that makes for comfortable eye movement. I did help this by ‘adding lipgloss’ – just a little! – in Photoshop. All the preset really did was (a) desaturate the image a bit (look closely at the coloured patterns on the dress, particularly the red and blue patterns over her left breast), (b) tint the image with golden tones, and (c) produce a fairly heavy vignette that goes into a brown in the corners. It’s not perfect, but I think it is very nice.
In the second image, the preset has done much the same: (a) desaturated the main colours (again, look closely at the red and blue patterns on the dress), (b) tinted the image (this time with a grey/brown tone), and (c) applied an even heavier vignette that in the far corners moves into a rich, lively black. I like this photograph and the treatment too, but it’s not quite right, I think: perhaps the preset has overdone the effects a bit and I should undo some of the darkness. Given that aside from her eyes being shut, Stephanie’s pose is virtually identical, as is the light (the images were taken literally just one second apart!), it seems to me that the balance that emerges in the ‘golden’ image building on the blown-out highlights on the right side of Stephanie’s face/her breasts/her left shoulder contrasting with her hair/lips/left arm is lost. Why? Perhaps because the tinting and vignette is too strong: the brightness in the lower part of the frame is gone and so there is insufficient light on her breasts and left shoulder to recreate that left-right balance. Nonetheless, both images benefit from the soft light coming through the window, and neither preset would make these work as well had they been taken in harsher light (I know, I’ve tried them on other images!).

A few further images that use this gentle light to good effect, I think:

These next two images: I love the last photograph from the indoors session because as the sun is setting on this side of the house the light has become very rich, and that has a great effect on the image: the way the exposure has darkened the wall in the background whilst almost (but not quite) turning the right side of Stephanie’s face white, the richness of her hair colour in the differently lit parts of the image and the sensual (apparently casual) way her hair falls over her bare skin, the light patterns across her arm that just touch her breast, the different ways in which the dress is toned depending on the light reaching it, the shadow detail on her cleavage, and, of course, Stephanie’s regal pose, her head slightly turned, with just the hint of a somewhat enigmatic smile – it all makes for a good image. Here is a beautiful, self-assured woman, and I’m very pleased that this composition worked as well as it did. By way of contrast, the first, lighter image here was taken shortly beforehand with an almost identical pose, but much lower ISO (250 instead of 800; exposure settings stayed the same), which changes the ambient light that is being captured. I very much like this one too, but the first image has a little more richness, I feel, and coupled with Stephanie’s slightly more enigmatic expression, it’s the one I prefer of the two.

Outside, some fun poses were developed. For most of these images, Stephanie was barefoot, standing on a garden table – the camera was therefore at roughly her thigh-level. This explains some of the framing in these next images:

For some of the next images, she was sitting on the table, and therefore at camera level again. And then, in an idle moment she began to wrap the bracelet she had been wearing round her neck (by coincidence, one we had bought together in Edinburgh with the blue dress). This had to be a photograph, especially with a fabulous pout and look like that…!

These last three daylight images from the garden include two of the most sensual photographs I have taken of Stephanie, as she combs or plays with her hair. There is a monochrome version of the first image here, and there is a discussion that includes ways of interpreting the second image here; I’d particularly encourage the reading of the second piece. The last of these three images is a portrait that I really like, with Stephanie looking relaxed and happy – this was taken near the end of our shoot, with just the images in darkness to come.

Finally, as darkness began to fall, we took a few last shots. Stephanie stood on the garden table, and to her left is a flash (with a diffuser) mounted on a tripod and connected with a cable to my camera. The flash is pointing upwards directly at Stephanie’s face, as the (mostly) even shadows on her décolleté show in these images. The rich blue background – getting darker by the minute – is the cloudless summer sky! She is leaning slightly forward, and her hair is falling down towards the camera – making it look as if she has quite short hair. In the last few photographs, Stephanie is wearing jewellery by the very talented Rachel Purnell of Indigo Twist.

-> go to: next shoot with Stephanie; previous shoot with Stephanie