How I Art Good

I was asked this evening “how do you constantly take pretty pictures that don’t look forced or awkward? HOW DO YOU ART SO GOOD?!?!”

Before I say anything else, I would like to commend the asker on her use of “art” as a verb. Because, really, it is. It’s an action, a process. The finished product is where it becomes a noun, but first you have to get there. You run a run. You jump a jump. And you art your art.

As to how I art so good, there are a lot of answers to that.  I hardly consider myself the be-all and end-all of models, but I am asked often enough for advice on the subject that I feel qualified to give some.  So here it is, with the hope that you, my dearly appreciated readers, will glean something useful from it.

1) WHAT YOU SEE VS. WHAT THERE IS

An average photo shoot will usually gross between 200 and 300 images.  Of those images, a maximum of 15 to 20 will usually see the light of Internet or publication day.  Yes.  Those are the numbers.  Less than 10% of the photos taken will be used.  Granted, a large number of unused images are permutations of the same shot, and maybe not bad in and of themselves, but a large number of those images very often are just bad, for whatever reason.  So keep in mind that, when you see a photo set posted by anyone, you are seeing only the absolute cream of the crop, not the entire body of the work.

2) YES, THEY ARE EDITED

Every photo you see is edited.  Sometimes a little.  Sometimes a lot.  At the very least, they are cropped to best flatter the subject and minor edits are done to correct color and lighting.  At the most, well, sometimes the light hit your face wrong and you suddenly had dark circles where a minute before you had perfect makeup.  Sometimes you had a lock of hair fall where you didn’t want it.  Sometimes your bra strap was twisted, or you had a lipstick smudge on your tooth or a piece of white thread on your black skirt.  Things happen, things are not always caught during the shoot, and these things are fixed later.

3) THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A “NATURAL” POSE

The essence of good photography is rendering three-dimensional objects in a two-dimensional medium in such a way that the objects still appear three-dimensional.  In order for the end result to not look completely flat, the three-dimensional objects need to be exaggerated in some way.  In the case of still life photography, this is usually done with lighting.  In the case of models, it is done with a combination of lighting and posing.  A shot where the model looks like she’s just sitting daintily back on her heels with one hand on her knee?  You’re actually working your ass off.  Your butt is barely even touching your heels, your back is arched to what feels like a ridiculous degree, your shoulders are angled out in a way they never would be if you were just sitting around, and your hand feels like its auditioning to drink tea with Elizabeth II.  Oh, all the while holding your stomach in, pushing your boobs out, and remembering to smile.  And pointing your toes, don’t forget to point your toes.

If you were counting, that’s eight things to be aware of in that one single seemingly simple pose.  Which ties directly back to the “200-300 shots taken vs. 15-20 shots used” bit, because missing any one of those eight things can net you an unusable shot.  And how do you avoid missing them?

4) THE SAME WAY YOU GET TO CARNEGIE HALL

Practice, practice, practice.  And when you’re done practicing, practice some more.  Learn the basics, and accept that once you’ve learned them, you’re not done.  I’ve been doing this on and off for almost 25 years, and I still practice poses and expressions when I’m not shooting.  That practice falls into two categories, planned and spontaneous.  Planned practice is usually right before a shoot, when wardrobe, hair, and makeup are taken into account for the specific needs of the day; twisting in front of the mirror to see how I can get the best angles for my body based on what I’m wearing, trying out my usual expressions and adjusting them according to how natural or extreme my makeup is, figuring out how to hold and not hold my head based on my hair, etc.  Spontaneous happens when it happens.  If I’m doing laundry, and I walk by a mirror and see an angle I like, I’ll back up and recreate it, analyze it, create a physical memory of what my head and arms and hips were doing at that moment, so I can put it in front of the camera when I need it.  If I’m brushing my teeth and notice the light hitting my face in a particularly flattering way, I’ll memorize that.  This isn’t narcissism.  This isn’t you stopping dead in front of every reflective surface you pass to gaze in awe and wonder at your own magnificence.  This is just being aware of yourself as a physical presence, and is part of the work that goes into looking like you’re not working when you’re in front of a camera.

5) LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES

There are some things that just do not work for some people.  There are some things that only work for some people to a certain degree, and no further.  I can not wink in a photo to save my soul.  I think I have one semi-decent winking shot in my entire portfolio, and even that I’m not crazy about, I just take other peoples’ words that it looks okay.  I can’t wear purple lipstick.  My shoulders and jaw are broad enough that being shot from too far below just makes me look like I should be wearing pinstriped suits and breaking kneecaps.  My eyes are light enough that if I go too far with the wide-eyed cutesy thing, the resulting image would make you think I’d just been bitten on the ass by a rabid parakeet.  And when you consider how difficult it is for avian species to contract rabies, you know just how bad those pictures are.

So, much as it may make you cringe, look closely at the pictures you hate, and figure out why you hate them, and what you can do differently next time.  And make sure there are as many next times as possible, even if it’s just you and a friend and a phone with a semi-decent camera built in, even if no one but the two of you ever see the results.  It’s like any other skill; the more you use it, the better you’ll get.

Art your art often to art your art good.