Zenfolio | Simon Carter | The Photoshoot as Private Performance

The Photoshoot as Private Performance

January 17, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

I’ve been thinking about the nature of photoshoots for a while now, particularly with regard to how both subject and photographer experience them and feel about them. I’m slowly developing an insight into my process; it seems common to many photographers and models.

The Rehearsal IThe Rehearsal I

Photoshoots come with challenges for both subject and photographer. If you’re a subject it’s perfectly normal to feel nervous or apprehensive, to worry about how you look and whether you’ll be able to relax in front of the camera. Photoshoots are a strangely solitary business unless you have a team of assistants and hair & makeup artists: typically just 2 people locked in a darkened room with strange lights and other equipment.

For the photographer there’s the challenge of getting all the technical stuff right – camera operation & lighting – while developing a rapport with the subject. Only then can we start to create and record those special moments. That’s the case whether the photoshoot is a technical aerial acrobatics shoot or a superficially simple headshot session.

The photographer is essentially directing and choreographing a private show, somewhat like a dress rehearsal. Eliciting responses, suggesting shapes & positions, improvising ways to create those shapes and extract those emotions. A professional model or performer will usually get straight in with making their own suggestions and require less in the way of direction – but it’s the photographers job to turn any subject into a performer, to give them the confidence to let go and give of themselves. Different photographers do it in different ways but they all contribute to the creative process and energy in the room. The ‘40s Hollywood glamour photographer George Hurrell was known for making a complete clown of himself, dashing about, singing, doing pratfalls – whatever it would take. Child portraitists tend to be highly skilled at this, providing huge amounts of energy for their subjects to draw on. Some folk can be a bit more measured; I tend to alternate between quiet technical stuff and bouncing up and down ladders like there’s no tomorrow.

The Rehearsal IIThe Rehearsal II

Positivity and enthusiasm is infectious. If the photographer is enthusing about what they’re seeing through the lens then the subject will be much happier and more confident – and more likely to give more.

Self-consciousness and lack of confidence is similarly infectious. If the photographer is going ‘Hmm, no, not working’ and going very quiet between light and camera twiddling sessions then any model is likely to feel neglected. All models are beautiful; that beauty comes from within, from a willingness and the confidence to play and perform. Photographers need to give models room to build that confidence.

I feel a particular responsibility when shooting nudes. Most folk will feel extremely vulnerable when unclothed. It’s my job to make sure that they feel safe and just as willing to express themselves and tell the story we’re creating as if they were fully clothed. Other than that the subject’s state of undress is entirely irrelevant to me; I’ve got enough to be thinking about.

Shoots tend to have a rhythm; photographers break that rhythm at their peril. I keep taking shots even if it isn’t working, knowing that I am working towards something – hopefully – special. It’s one of the ways I contribute my energy to the process. My shoots tend to start slowly, building the lights, finding the angles and the mood – and then we’re off! There’ll be a few minutes of intense activity where both actors forget themselves and just get on with being creative – before starting to chill out, reflect briefly on the last few minutes, and beginning again.


When a photoshoot goes well both contributors share a real buzz in the creative endeavour. That buzz is quite unlike anything most folk will encounter in everyday life; it’s very much like the post-show high I used to get from my performing days.

If you'd like to be part of that endeavour then please do get in touch.


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