One thing that I try to do to keep my photography fresh is to try out different lighting techniques. To find these different lighting approaches, I often consult fashion magazines such as Vogue (especially Vogue Italia and Vogue Paris), W, I-D, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vanity Fair.
As I’ve looked through the pages of these fashion magazines and searched online to find examples of different lighting techniques, I’ve come across a style of shooting that has come to be known as the “snapshot aesthetic”.
The “snapshot aesthetic” embodies more than just a lighting technique. It involves an overall look and feel to the images that is accomplished by composition and styling as well as lighting. But before we get into the technical aspects of lighting for the “snapshot aesthetic,” let’s examine the history of this technique and why glamour photographers might want to incorporate this into their bag or tricks.
History I: Compositional Street Photography
The “snapshot aesthetic” was first conceived by fine art photographers and street photographers, whose seeming unorganized compositions made their work resemble spontaneous, run of the mill, photos taken by amateurs. In reality, their images were often carefully crafted compositions, designed to make it look like a participant in the event just casually took a “snapshot” to document the event that they were involved in for posterity. The work of photographers Robert Frank , Gary Winogrand , Diane Arbus , and Wolfgang Tillmans, among others, were identified with this concept.
History II: Fashion Photography From A Marketing Trick To Cult Look
By the 1990s, the fashion industry perceived that the “snapshot aesthetics” could be a powerful marketing tool. The concept was for the ads to appear as if they were the product of regular people documenting a night on the town, rather than an actual advertisement. In other words, through the use of the “snapshot aesthetics”, images in ad campaigns appeared to be real and genuine, rather than a product of a slick marketing.
Early practitioners of this style in the fashion industry included Terry Richardson and Juergen Teller and Corinne Day. But as this style gained hold, many other photographers started to adopt the look and style of Richardson and Teller.
Today, photographers like Tony Kelly , Miko Lim , Ellen von Unwerth , Jake Rosenberg, Jared Thomas Kocka and Ka Xiaoxi of China are just a few of the many fashion photographers who regularly employ this style. Even photographers renowned for their beautifully lit and composed images, such as Mario Testino, Mert and Marcus, and Stephen Meisel, have incorporated the “snapshot aesthetic” style into some of their work.
Today, you can look through issues of all the major fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair, and find editorials shot using the “snapshot aesthetic.” Major brands such as Yves St Laurent, Marc Jacobs, Jimmy Choo, Burberrys, Sisley, Diesel and American Apparel have all employed the “snapshot style” in ad campaigns.
The Look: HARD, Direct Lighting
Besides the posing and composition that was designed to suggest a casual snapshot, the lighting of the image also contributes to this aesthetic. For example, when Terry Richardson first came on to the fashion scene, he was famous for using a Yashica T4 , a “point and shoot camera.” His photos were lit by the built in flash of his point and shoot. Juergen Teller used, and still uses, a Contax G2 rangefinder film camera , with a flash mounted on the hotshoe.
Wait a minute, you might ask. Are we really talking about lighting fashion images with on camera flash? Hard, direct light? The very kind of lighting that novice photographers are told to avoid? Yes indeed. Sort of. But not quite. Let me explain.
It is important to note that with both Richardson’s point and shoot camera and Teller’s Contax rangefinder, the design of the camera and the flash unit put the flash significantly closer to the axis of the lens than a flash mounted to the hotshoe of a DSLR. Because the flash on these cameras is closer to the axis of the lens, it results in a lighting pattern that closely resembles (though is not identical to) the look of a ringflash when it is used as a key light. A key characteristic of the lighting pattern is a sharp, thin shadow line on the opposite the side of the subject to where the flash is positioned.
Today, Richardson has moved on to using a Nikon D3X , but he uses a special bracket that positions his speed light as close to the lens as he can possibly get it. Other photographers, like Tony Kelly, have an assistant hold the speed light, attached to the camera by an off camera TTL flash cord, directly over the lens.
However, some photographers today, most notably Tony Kelly (personal website) , but also including the likes of Ellen von Unwerth as well as Playboy photographers Josh Ryan and Sasha Eisenman, are replicating the look of on camera flash using studio strobes. This is accomplished by having an assistant hold the strobe directly above the photographer’s lens, or above and slightly to the side. The strobe head is usually modified with a simple reflector. Often it is gelled to warm the skin tones of the model. In other cases, the light may be on a stand, but the photographer is careful to place the camera lens as close as possible to the underside and slightly to one side of the strobe. When it is used on a stand, a beauty dish may be used rather than a standard reflector. Arthur St John often does this. The key thing that makes this technique “work” is the close proximity of the light to the axis of the lens. In the hands of some fashion photographers, this “on axis” lighting is so slick, it has lost much of the other qualities that made up the original “snapshot aesthetic.”
Snapshot Style For Sexy Glam Industry?
Now, this is all fine and good, but what does the practice of fashion photographers have to do with shooting glamour/sexy women photography?
Well, it turns out that Playboy Magazine, for a number of years, has paid attention to lighting trends in the fashion industry. This is not surprising, since many of the photographers who have shot for Playboy have also done work in the fashion industry. As a consequence, this “snapshot aesthetic” has made its way onto the pages of Playboy and into the glamour photography scene in general.
Playboy: In 2013, the August and September Playboy Playmate of the Month shoots used this on axis lighting technique for parts of the shoot, as well as for the shoot of celebrity Tamara Ecclestone . In 2014, the February, April and July Playmate of the Month shoots used the technique for all or part of the shoot. In addition to shooting a few of the Playmates in “snapshot style,” Tony Kelly has contributed several other pictorials using the technique, including a couple for French Playboy .
In 2015, the entire shoot of the June Playmate of the Month was shot this way, and Terry Richardson shot an entire issue of a Playboy Special Edition using his trademark style . Richardson’s “California Dreamin” issue was released in February, 2015.
Ellen Von Unwerth, besides shooting some erotically charged editorials for fashion magazines, has also contributed a couple of celebrity pictorials to Playboy using the snapshot style, including one of Pamela Anderson in the last nude edition of the U. S. Playboy. And lastly, from 2012 to 2016, Playboy Plus, the online Playboy presence, published about 30 shoots that used this technique.
Pirelli: Outside of Playboy, Richardson shot the 2010 Pirelli Calendar, which is famous for its beautiful nudes. Below is a video of the making of the 2010 Pirelli Calendar shot by Terry Richardson.
Richardson also contributed to a 2007 issue of Penthouse Magazine and parts of the 2001 issue of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. He has also shot a number of celebrities, such as Rihanna for Rolling Stone Magazine as well as Beyonce and Emily Ratajkowski for GQ Magazine.
Arthur St. John , an L. A. based fashion/glamour photographer, uses a highly polished form of this technique. His work can be found in a number of magazines, including Maxim and FHM.
Tony Kelly shot a smoking hot pictorial and cover featuring Emily Ratajkowski for GQ Turkey using the snapshot style. Kelly has also used the technique for layouts in Complex and Treats magazines. The point of mentioning all the times that this technique has been used is to illustrate that it has, in fact, become an accepted technique for sexy women shooters outside of specific applications in the fashion industry.
Pros & Cons Shooting Snapshot Style
Like all techniques in photography, there are disadvantages as well as advantages to using this style.
Cons: One disadvantage of any “on axis” technique is that you don’t achieve much plasticity, and so the images can appear a bit two dimensional. This is why fledgling photographers are taught to get the flash off the camera. Another problem with this technique is that placing the light on axis also risks redeye, though in the digital age that is something easily correctable in Photoshop. And, as the light is rather harsh, you risk highlighting the imperfections of your model’s skin.
Pros: Set Up and Shooting Space. Nevertheless, the “snapshot style” is particularly useful as a technique that can be set up quickly if time is of the essence. We’ve all run into that problem from time to time where you have some time left at the end of a shoot, but not enough time to set up a complicated lighting set up – the perfect time to give this technique a try. (See Dan’s tutorial with Melisa using a beauty dish and colorful bikini: “Fast Glam with Beauty Dish: 1-Light Setup.” It illustrates a variation of the snapshot technique. While Dan was not specifically trying to keep his lens adjacent to the beauty dish for every shot, it is kept close, and the look he achieves is similar.)
It is also a technique that doesn’t require a lot of space, and space constraints are always a concern on location, and sometimes in the studio as well. Moreover, you don’t need to lug a lot of gear around to shoot this style, and that can be an important consideration if you are on location.
Not just for white walls. While Terry Richardson has famously used this technique shooting against a white wall, it can be employed in other situations. Both Richardson and Tony Kelly have shot outdoors using this technique, as well as indoors on location. If you understand the limitations and how to use it, it can be one more arrow in your quiver as a glamour photographer.
Wanna Try Out “Snapshot Aesthetic”? A Few Tips
If your interest is peaked, and you think that you’d like to give this technique a try, here are a few tips or observations, based on my review of work shot using this technique, as well as my own efforts in trying this technique.
All you need to try out this technique is one speed light and a method to trigger the light.
TTL cords. While wireless triggers work well, old fashioned TTL cords are an excellent option for this technique. TTL here works great, because if you move closer or further away from your model, you are also moving the light. If you change the distance of the light to your model, you also change the exposure. Without TTL, you’d have to recalculate exposure every time you change your position relative to the model.
Holding the flash. If you are skilled at shooting one handed, you can simply hold the speed light directly above the lens with one hand while operating the camera with the other. If you find that too cumbersome, either find someone to assist, and hold the speed light above the lens, or put the speed light on a stand, and position the stand so that you can place your camera lens as close as possible to the light.
Using a bracket. Another alternative is to get a flash bracket, similar to the one Terry Richardson uses, that will position the flash close to the lens. The bracket I used is the same one Richardson uses, a Custom Brackets CB-Mini RC bracket . They are available at B&H Photo, Adorama, and through Amazon. If you use the bracket, be careful with your lens selection. You should probably avoid using any lens that would extend significantly beyond the flash, or you are likely to have the lens cast a shadow on the subject.
Resist the temptation to just attach the speed light to the hotshoe and fire away. You won’t get the same look. A DSLR, with its prism hump, plus the height of the speed light itself, moves the flash head a considerable distance from the axis of the camera lens and thus won’t produce the same thin shadow line that placing the light on axis does.
Studio Strobes. You can also use the technique using a studio strobe. I shot some of the example images you see here using a strobe on a boom stand. And, while that worked, I now know why photographers had assistants holding the strobe head in numerous BTS videos, rather than having it mounted on a stand. If you decide to raise or lower your camera position relative to the model, you have to lower or raise the stand. If you don’t, the shadow line no longer hugs the model and you lose the look.
When shooting indoors, it is helpful to keep your model close to the background. This, together with keeping the light “on axis,” helps to decrease the thickness of the shadow line. If you are shooting with a flash bracket, make sure that when you turn the camera in a portrait orientation that you keep the flash above the lens. This helps to keep the shadow below and to the side, rather than above the model. Pay attention to which way your model faces when you are shooting. This is just my personal opinion, but I don’t find it particularly appealing to have the shadow line in front of the nose and mouth of the model when her face is in profile. Either have the model reverse her pose, or turn her face towards the camera so that she is no longer in profile.
I also think that this technique works well, in a glamour setting at least, when you are using bright colors, have a strong color contrast, or when black and white are the main colors in the image.
I don’t think it works as well when the principle color palette of your image are earth tones or very muted colors. Bright colors are bold and brash, just like the lighting. Blacks and whites (as opposed to black and white images) present a high contrast, and so to me seem to work well with technique. Again, this is just my opinion from having looked at hundreds of pictures while researching this technique. Your mileage may vary.
Hard Light. Good Skin…
Remember, you are using a hard light source when employing this technique. It may not be too flattering to models who do not have good skin. Having a good makeup artist is very helpful to reduce skin issues. Further, a slight overexposure of the skin is also advisable. Overexposure, by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop, helps to smooth skin and eliminate flaws in the skin.
Not Yet Convinced? Use it to Supplement Your Arsenal of Ideas
Is this a technique that should make up all, or a majority of your work? Only you can answer that question. In my opinion using the “snapshot style,” just like using a ring-flash as a key light, is a technique that is best used sparingly. But ultimately lighting is about creating mood, and this technique works well to convey a lighthearted, upbeat, playful mood in the images. As such, it is a valuable technique to know.
If you still have doubts about using this technique at all, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, or other major fashion publications and thumb through the ads. You’d be hard pressed not to find examples of the “snapshot aesthetic” in the magazine.
Watch one more video here and/or research “Terry Richardson” and “Juergen Teller” on YouTube for more.
As photographers, we should always want to expand the range of our abilities and the looks we can achieve with our photography. This “snapshot style” gives you another look to vary and expand your bag of tricks and thus expand your portfolio.
Thanks for reading!