My wife, Adrian, recently completed her Ph.D. For her previous graduations, she never did any of the “normal” senior stuff like walking at graduation, getting senior photos, sending out graduation announcements or going on a trip. She decided, that since this will likely be her last graduation, she would do everything.
Of course, she tasked me to create her senior photos. Her requirements were that they be special but otherwise I had a free hand. Normally, we are constrained by the time and money the client is willing to devote to the shoot. This time, that wasn’t an issue so why not double down and go all in?
Without further adieu, here are select photos from this session:
In a lot of ways, coming up with a concept for my wife’s senior photos was the hardest part. Josh and I have done some over the top senior photos (riding a quarter horse in the rain, standing in front of the milky way, etc) but those all took place in the real world.
For this shoot, I wanted to create a fantasy world related to my wife’s research. She is a marine biologist and the last eight years of her life, and her Ph.D., have been devoted to Antarctica. Specifically, she is helping to design a marine protected area (MPA) in the Western Antarctic Peninsula region. She’s hoping to design an MPA that will offer meaningful protection for animals like penguin and seals, while contributing to the management of a sustainable krill fishery.
Inspiration in the Work of Others
We tossed around a lot of ideas, but Alexia Sinclair’s A Frozen Tail series and in particular “The Cabinets of Curiosity” caught both our eyes. I liked the concept the photo captured. Sinclair’s work (or at least that series) involved heavy compositing and Photoshop work. My goal was to create the images in the real world not composite them.
I wanted to shoot an Alexia Sinclair style image using Dan Winter‘s methods.
We settled on the concept. My wife would be a pseudo Victorian era scientist working in an Antarctic hut. Now it was time to form a project plan.
The Plan and Pre-production
The story of this shoot is as much about planning and logistics as it is about photography. Because I wanted to shoot on a real set instead of shooting elements and compositing the final images, I had to have everything present and ready when the shoot day arrived.
The first step after the concept was to decide on a general color pallet. I use Palletton to create color pallets. Here is the pallet I decided to try to stick to in the shoot.
My goal was to have everything in the shot either a blue, orange-red or yellow. Everything except for Adrian and her costume would be nearly desaturated.
Our first task was to pick out Adrian’s costume(s). We spent some time on Amazon (several hours over several days) and found a quinceañera dress that had the right skirt profile. A little more shopping added a hoop skirt to fill out the bottom of the dress. We added a red peplum jacket which was roughly reminiscent (at least in my mind) of a lab coat and a faux fur wrap.
It sounds simple enough, but we looked at a lot of options and even ordered a few. Eventually we settled.
With the costume sorted, we moved on to Adrian’s hair style. One of the things that we try to do is build a network of friends in different industries that like to work with us on fun projects. Adrian Hernandez (Revelry Beauty) is part of that network and my wife and I both consider her a friend. She jumped in to help with hair and makeup. Once we knew Adrian H would be handling hair and makeup, we brought her into the conversation to help create the look. After all, she is an expert (and my wife is convinced that she is a beauty magician). Why not use her skills?
My wife has long thick black hair. At the time of this shoot it hung below her waist. My original concept involved an up-do that piled her hair on top of her head and which we might augment with crystals or ice spikes. However, as time went on, both Adrians (my wife and Adrian H) pointed out that the likely effect would be either Bride of Frankenstein or Marge Simpson so I gave in.
I left Adrian H to design the hair with the constraint that it should be an up-do and elaborate.
The Set and Props
Unfortunately I don’t have access to an actual Antarctic hut. Not to mention they are all pretty grungy and you can’t modify these protected historic locations. Instead, we tried to build a set to look like it might be an Antarctic research outpost in some fantasy world from the early 1900s.
We started with the props. I wanted a large antique looking map on the wall. My wife had a pile of modern Antarctic maps. We antiqued one using a combination of coffee and a heat gun. Then I mounted it to a quick frame I made from some salvaged bead board that I had in the shop. The table and Antarctic crates were made from salvaged barn board. Once the crates were built, we spent some time stenciling them with information from my wife’s academic and professional Antarctic work. Most people won’t get it, but her Antarctic associates spotted it at once.
We continued to collect props during the months leading up to the shoot. Only about half of what we collected got used. A lot of the used props were small details that don’t stand out but add texture and depth. Some items we own (the antique radio and oil lamps) others we borrowed (the travelers trunk and the apple crates) and other still we made (the photo prints drying on the line).
When doing a shoot like this: beg, borrow, steal and build until you have what you need.
The final piece of the puzzle was the wall used in the shoot. I toyed with a lot of options. In the end I took the walls we use for wedding shows. I weathered and textured them with acrylic paint to make them look old and grungy. I spent about 6 hours flinging watered-down paint at them. Then I wiped it off with every cleaning method I could think of. The end result is walls that look like they are water stained and old.
Stacy and I moved all the furniture out of my living room and then setup the walls. We started staging the props in different ways, seeing what worked best. In the end we settled on a simple arrangement against the wall with fewer of the props than we expected.
About the time we finished, Adrian H arrived to start hair and makeup. Emily Yuen arrived to help Stacy and me set up lights. Things quickly went into high gear. Adrian H finished Adrian’s hair and makeup so it was time to start shooting.
We shot the fantasy look first and then switched to a more contemporary 30s style dress in front of the backdrop.
The lighting used throughout this shoot was somewhat complex. I balanced fire light from the lamps with speed lights and Einsteins.
Originally, I had planned to use a boomed umbrella as a key light. My living room has nearly 10′ ceilings which is not as tall as it seems when you are trying to keep lights out of frame.
Lighting, Version 2
I realized I needed a different setup so I turned my office into a giant 4’x7′ vertical soft box (light #1 in the picture below) by opening the doors and placed a translucent background over the opening. I set Einstein as far back in the room as it could be and pointed it towards the door. I added a “flag” (a spare door I had in the shed) to the opening to prevent the light from the room from hitting the set wall directly. I wanted it to hit only Adrian and nothing else. The result is a nice directional full body soft light.
Next, I added a 2×4 strip box high and to frame left (light #2 below). This acted as a back side fill and provided most of the illumination for the set and props themselves. A 3rd Einstein (#3) had a CTO gel on it. It was pointed from frame rear right towards light #2. This light was there primarily to light up the snow and atmosphere and give a feeling of light coming in from an out-of-frame window.
Tweaking the Lighting
Throughout the shoot I tweaked the lighting. For example, I ended up flagging light #3. I had to cover our curio cabinet with a black curtain to eliminate the various glares that it cast.
Most shots involved adding 1, 2 or 3 more lights. They served as a hair lights, to create glowing slots behind the lanterns or to highlight other specific details. At one point I had 6 lights involved, each serving specific purposes. I tweaked the light power and position for each shot starting from the basic 3 lights.
I wanted to create “real” fake snow during the shoot, but I hadn’t worked that process out before hand. A little googling found that if you bang toilet paper together get get dust from it. We tried; it wasn’t very effective. Luckily, I own power tools. A drill with a wire brush shreds a toilet paper roll into quite convincing snow while making an enormous mess. Add a fan and an assistant willing to grind away on the toilet paper and you have a “real” fake blizzard.
Job requirements: the applicant must be willing to grind on toilet paper.
We also used canned atmosphere to give the room a glowy feel in many of the photos.
For this shoot I used a Nikon D850 with a Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens. My lens choice was driven by how far from the background I could get. I would have rather used my 105mm, but my house just isn’t long enough. I couldn’t capture the full scene with a longer lenses. The 50mm was a compromise between compression and being wide enough to “get it all in”. With a lens as wide as the 50mm, my wife had to stay very near the background. Otherwise the relative sizes looked wrong due to the wide perspective.
I shot the full-set photos on a tripod prefocused on Adrian. The lens was stopped down to f/11. I shot tethered to Capture One. That way I could see the result on a large calibrated screen.
Some of the “roaming” portraits were shot with my D810 and the amazing Nikon 105mm f/1.4.
My goal was finished images as close to perfect images as I am capable of. Each of the images above received extensive retouching. My wife and I selected a small set of favorites, about 10 images total. I spent an average of 4 hours retouching each image. I’ll save the details of those retouches for a future post, but here is the short version.
Each photo received:
- Basic exposure/color correction, keystone correction and cropping (Capture One).
- I tweaked the shape of Adrian’s face/neck in some photos where the post/angle created unflattering effects (Affinity Photo).
- I retouched the skin on all photos fully (Affinity Photo).
- Any defects in the photo (such as “snow” in a bad spot on the floor) were fixed (Affinity Photo).
- The images received a detailed local dodge/burn to insure that the areas of the image had the right relative brightness (Affinity Photo).
3 Retouching Steps
Individual images had other specific things worked on. For example, there was a button that went missing on her penguin dress so I put it back in post. I plan on doing a sensor to screen walk through on at least one of the edits.
My Senior Photos Team
This shoot was the result of 5 people’s hard work, not just my own.
My wife, Adrian, spent valuable time she really couldn’t afford to help pick costumes, discuss concepts and work on props.
Stacy Wells was around during the weeks leading up to the shoot. She helped build props, painting the background walls, and digging up ready made props from her friends and family. She also shot BTS and just helps with anything I ask.
Emily Yuen loaned me her new D850, her extra lights, played lighting assistant and general grip throughout the shoot.
Adrian Hernandez created a beautiful coiffure, and picture perfect makeup, with only the vaguest of directions from me. She was also a master toilet paper shredder, fog blower and assistant.
Thank you all for your help!
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.