This summer I learned that Olympus were sponsoring the Scottish Fashion Awards to be held at the Corinthia Hotel in London. I immediately suggested it could be a great opportunity to make some decent ‘winners’ portraits’ and Olympus gave me the go ahead. I discussed what the organiser was looking for and we both had in mind the same kind of thing. We had both seen this year’s elegant Vanity Fair Oscars Portraits by Mark Seliger and wanted to do something like that. As I pointed out to the organiser, “he had a team of 20 people, an artisan, hand built closed set, beautiful antique props and probably an unlimited budget - but I’d do my best!”
I had intended to use my Westcott continuous lighting rig which I’ve been using here in my home studio for a couple of years. But when I realised the shooting location was to be in a large but well lit room in the hotel, shared with the journalists covering the event, I realised this could only be done using flash lighting. The continuous rig really wasn’t strong enough to overpower the ambient light which would be present. I researched the options and hired a 6 foot wide Elinchrom Octabox, an Elinchrom ELC Pro HD 1000 flash, and a 6 foot Sunbounce reflector. The room decor was nice but modern and busy and not really dark enough for the look I was after so I also hired a 3 meter wide charcoal grey backdrop.
I couldn’t be sure exactly what Seliger used on his set, but it was big and it was soft! The Elinchrom Octa had a great reputation for giving a beautiful soft light, especially when used with the translucent deflector dish and the inner diffuser. This was in fact my first experience with a proper studio flash and the kit arrived at my house only 2 days before the shoot so there was a lot of frantic testing in my living room!
On the day of the shoot I arrived at the hotel around 2.30pm and set up the rig. I had noticed how Seliger had used beautiful antiques for his subjects to sit on or lean against and they added a classy and refined air to the pictures. The Corinthia is a beautiful hotel but somewhat modern, so there were no period pieces to be found. I scoured the hotel for an decent alternative and using as much charm as I could muster, appropriated a nice wood and leather swivel chair from the restaurant.
The red carpet was rolled out and the fleet of Masseratti’s started to bring in the VIP guests from the world of fashion and music. The ceremony started in the main hall and as winners were awarded they were ushered through to my makeshift studio in the media room. I was very aware that I would only have as long as it took to dish out an award to make my portraits, before the next winner would be brought in. If I took too long with each portrait, I’d have a bottleneck on my hands in no time at all.
My setup was planned to give me the softest light possible (for a flash) with a reasonably dark background and, working completely on my own, a minimum need for individual shot adjustments, regardless of the groups size. The octabox was subsequently raised and feathered, using the sun bounce reflector for a slight fill. This setup left me to concentrate purely on the subjects who, having just left the stage, being praised in front of hundreds of guests, were all very ‘switched on’ when they reached my set. With each subject I introduced myself in a calm and low key manner and congratulated them on their award. I invited them to choose whether they wished to stand, sit or lean against my solitary ‘prop’ and got straight into the portraits. I filmed much of the shoot too, just to see what was going on from a remote perspective. Apart from realising that my hair is thinning out, I was surprised to see that most of the subjects were in and out within 60 seconds.
I used the Olympus OMD EM1 to make my portraits, with the Olympus 12-40mm 2.8 PRO lens. Keen to keep distortion to a dignified minimum, I used the lens mostly at around the 20-30mm range (40-60mm eqv) and shot everything at f4 which in micro four thirds world meant that I really didn’t need to worry too much about depth of field, even with the larger groups, they were all perfectly in focus. The EM1 worked flawlessly and the flash recycled almost instantly allowing me to shoot pictures in quick succession.
So all I had to think about in making these portraits was capturing the winners at their best and as per the brief, making sure their awards were visible! After all the angst and research, the planning and testing, making the actual portraits was the easy bit. My subjects were not only very willing and excited to be there, they were a confident and attractive bunch who were, (as you’d expect at a fashion awards ceremony), beautifully dressed. I soon realised that my role, was just to capture them in that floating bubble of excitement with as little fuss as possible. Interaction-wise, I made some small (but sincere:-) talk complimenting their appearance, sharing light hearted observations and giving occasional directions. The Seliger portraits were all very refined and ‘quiet’ looking, but some of these subjects were pretty animated so when I encountered one, I would encourage their high spirits and try to capture it. Even without the presence of any music in the room, one subject spontaneously broke into a dance routine!
After the main winners were all shot a number of the guests, judges, organisers and helpers came by and regardless of whether their intention had been not to be photographed, I certainly made sure they were dragged onto the set. That’s when things really started to loosen up and get interesting for me. With the ‘winners holding their awards’, in the bag, I could just enjoy making portraits and having a bit of fun with the subjects.
A highlight was working with Tallia Storm, a rising star and talented young soul/pop singer who provided the main entertainment on the stage. I cajoled her younger brother to bring her into my studio after her set on stage had finished and then her band joined in making for some great shots.
It was also a great privilege to shoot and spend some time talking with David Eustace, a great photographer and someone who’s work I have followed for many years. He was quite rightly being inducted into the awards’ Hall of Fame
The editing process took several days to complete with each shot taking between 20-60 minutes to get just right. I used Adobe’s Lightroom, PSCC and Nik’s Colour Effex Pro to add the finishing touches. All in all, it was a great experience for which I have Olympus and Tessa Hartmann from the Scottish Fashion Awards to thank. The lighting equipment impressed me so much I have upgraded my own speedlights to an Elinchrom Quadra ELB400 kit with a slightly more portable 5 foot octabox. Still an avid believer in natural light where possible, I am now a convert to the attractions of a well modified, high speed flash unit. For events like this or when you need to give your subject a really polished, ‘magazine’ look, you can’t beat a good flash! Here are a few more pictures from the night, click on any to see them larger