When I first proposed to Kevin Raber that I do a LuLa article on my recent artistic nudes workshop he replied “well, it is a different kind of landscape!” With that understatement let’s proceed.
I enjoy all types of photography. Like many readers, I have done lots of landscape. I have also done high end residential homes, food, people, travel, boats, planes and models. When I lived in California, I was recruited into a very fun meetup group that brought together photographers and aspiring models. We visited interesting locations and had great times together. I found I very much enjoyed the interaction with the models, the challenge of creating something in real time. And I found that unlike most genres where I have put in quite a bit of time to become proficient, I seemed to have a knack for creating nice images with models.
So when friend Karen Messick announced a fall “The Nude As Art Workshop,” partnering with Vermont photographer Kiqe Bosch , my interest meter jumped. (His first name is pronounced “key-kay.”) It was to be held on the Rudyard Kipling Estate in Southern Vermont. How could I resist?
And that’s how I found myself in that venue on a September Thursday afternoon, in a room with 5 other rookie nude shooters. Er, clothed shooters of nude people, I should say.
Let me set the stage briefly for you. I already mentioned the venue, a historic home originally built by Rudyard Kipling. It’s a wonderfully preserved building, what was certainly a mansion in his day. Also the location where he wrote many of his famous works.
Other than the first night where we would shoot in a nearby studio, all shooting took place at the estate. We had the run of the house and also the grounds which had many excellent scenes and props for our subject matter.
All meals were provided, prepared by a professional chef. (Prior to the workshop we received a questionnaire to detail any food issues, a nice touch.) Karen provided a printed agenda which laid out each day including meals, shooting, free time for processing, processing tips, and critiques. I have to say this was the most highly organized of any workshop I have yet attended.
Working with nude models
Most importantly we were given a brief on working with nude models. Obviously protocol here is going to be different than working with any other subject matter. Kiqe shared what has worked for him and what he expected of us. He also told us he selected these models specifically because they have experience posing themselves, a big help to us.
We had four models. Two are circus performers; aerialists and contortionists. Another is a yoga instructor and serious athlete. And one is a dancer. Beyond being the subject matter, I believe these four wonderful young women made our images by “bringing it.”
In your mind, conjure up a model/photographer session you have seen in a movie or TV show. “Oh yes Sidney, a little more eyes… now, give me that pout.. work it.. Yes, love what you are doing with your legs now… okay, throw your head back, give me WONDER WOMAN!”
Yeah, suffice to say none of us are naturally given to this dynamic.
Despite encouragement to do so, providing direction and feedback would be one of the more challenging aspects of the workshop, for me at least.
This being a photography website, a mention of equipment is a requirement, right? We had the normal mix of Nikon/Canon SLR’s. One fascinating gentleman calmly did all his shooting with an Olympus M4/3 and a single short zoom.
I actually did something I have never done before on any photography trip; I brought a single camera and lens. My Leica SL and 24-90 zoom. Why? This is a big year photographically for me. Major trips include Iceland, this nudes workshop, and a LuLa Antarctica trip in November. These amazing locations is one of the reasons I bought the SL. In Iceland, I shot with my Olympus M4/3 kit and the Leica with two M lenses.
My intention for Iceland and Antarctica is to shoot the Leica for all my wide/normal opportunities. In Iceland, the camera was new to me and I realized that I had not mastered the Leica’s user interface. Unlike most cameras, the SL’s buttons are all completely unlabeled, requiring memorization. I hadn’t done this and found myself going to a generic menu to change settings, which was time-consuming.
At the nudes workshop, besides being able to take the time to memorize the UI and get lots of practice, I felt not having the option of switching bodies/lenses would enable me to more “be in the moment” of the model shooting experience (turned out to be true).
I actually didn’t even have a camera bag. This trip was partially a business trip, as well as the workshop and an additional 10 days of vacation touring in Maine and Vermont. So I used a daypack that carries my laptop, a few other electronics, and also had room for the Leica SL.
Day One – Studio Shoot
Thursday, after dinner, we carpooled to a local dance studio venue. This was our one location which would include artificial lighting. Kiqe described the shooting opportunities which would include standing poses, reclining poses on a divan, and dancing. We were divided into two groups of three each.
Our dancer and model was Cyndal, one very flexible lady who is also warm, charming and has an inviting round face with expressive eyes.
With all my photographic work, I’m hoping to bring a different thought process, and hopefully achieve some images that no one else would think of. This first session was not the only one in which I would be challenged to “find my groove” and get fully comfortable. We each had numerous opportunities to direct her ourselves.
In my previous work with models, I found the most interesting aspect was incorporating their hands into my compositions. This was one of my first images with Cyndal, using a harsh “home depot” reflector and bare bulb. I don’t think too highly of this image, but I want to show a progression in my images from the first day to the last.
When shooting as a group we realized some cameras were illuminating AF assist lamps, including my Leica, casting a weird red light on our model and screwing up each other’s shots. I had memorized the button for switching to MF (no switch on the lens BTW) but was then surprised that no “zoomed in” portion appeared in my viewfinder as I turned the focus ring on the lens. In the dim light focusing accurately without it was a challenge. I spent some time poking through the menus trying to find it, but eventually gave up, preferring to shoot and do the best I could. (Later that night I looked it up in the manual and found out is the BL – bottom left – button when MF is selected.)
An intriguing lighting technique shown to us is to hand the model an inexpensive flashlight and ask her to light herself. This was great fun, and the first image I was happy with.
At the end of the evening, Cyndal donned a belly dancing outfit and we each attempted to capture the moment. I’m always interested in slow shutter work. Pretty happy with this one.
This is my favorite image of the evening. I laid down on the floor, on purpose including the stage lighting illuminating her. I waited quite a while for her to be in an artful position, and was rewarded. But as we shall see, we photographers were just getting warmed up!
Day Two – Studio Shoot Image Review
After a yummy breakfast, we assembled to review our images from the previous night. We had each brought five images – three we felt were winners and two losers, without identifying them. Karen provided a high-quality projector for viewing.
Critiques were provided by Kiqe and Karen, and some of us attendees chimed in too. Kiqe in particular, drew our attention to photographic elements to details that many of us weren’t seeing. Things like lines and shapes (triangles specifically) formed by the model and the surroundings that made the compositions work.
Interestingly one of my “loser images” (above) was chosen as a “bravo!” I felt the image was pretty cliché, and that the hand was a bit overemphasized, but it was highly appreciated. So there you are.
I appreciated many of the images made by my cohorts. In particular, one had done a masterful job isolating Cyndal’s torso and creating my own version of that dynamic became a primary goal for me.
Kiqe also showed some of his own images from previous shoots. With one he said “this one is for you Bob, look at her hands.” It was an interesting and different pose for sure. I tucked this away in memory for later.
With lots of constructive feedback, we prepared for the next shoot. Wait, first let’s have lunch.
Day Two – Outdoor Shoot
With charged camera batteries, we photogs were ready to go. We met our yoga instructor/athlete and performer models, Iolani and Kaeti. Most of us had scouted the property’s grounds and we all had ideas in mind.
The first images I’m proud of came from the second location, which had amazing rock walls and some other landscape elements we could incorporate.
At each setting I hoped to capture elegant poses of body parts, as well as the models in their entirety. At this location we began directing our models in earnest. Basically we were divided into two groups of three photographers, each working with one model.
When my turn came I had two poses in mind for Kaeti. I wanted to create a juxtaposition between the hard rock wall and the grass, having her body create a bridge between the two. I shot about a dozen frames before realizing her arms were not symmetrical. I had her correct this and was able to fire one frame before my time was up. I would have to wait to try the other pose I had in mind.
There is nothing I like better than having a camera and being in a dynamic situation. While everyone was shooting the models individually I saw an opportunity to get both models in one image. (Can you tell which one is the yoga instructor?)
After working individually, the models were asked to work together in a couple of nearby locations. As you can see this turned out well.
Here I isolated parts of the models as well as the background. Quite happy with this one.
We moved to a short distance to a fourth location and once again turned the setting into props for our generous models.
All of us were getting more comfortable at this point, with our models, and our instructors. In this scene we asked her to try to become part of the beautiful tree roots. Certainly one of my favorites.
Remember I mentioned Kiqe singled me out for a special hand pose example? Here’s my version.
As it was getting later in the day, thus chilly, we moved indoors and took a break. This time, each of us would have 10 minutes to shoot both models, without any other photographers present. And we would do this twice. Several rooms were chosen.
For my first go, I completely drew a blank. I had no idea how I could pose the models with the regular home furniture and achieve anything. All the energy left the room. Models and photographers need a connection, and my end was not functioning. I gave up my time to other photographers and contemplated poses in another room. It was certainly a deflating feeling for me.
My next attempt was in a completely different room and I conjured up two scenes. The first would involve one model stationary and the other moving around her, sort of like dance moves. I would use a slow shutter speed to blur the moving model. Upon review, I wasn’t impressed with any of my images, but then someone pointed out that this one had an interesting effect with the portrait in the background being included. Sort of like “life’s transitions.” Serendipity is always welcome.
I’m not going to mention my other scene, nothing worthwhile came of it. I continued to be challenged indoors.
On Shooting Naked People
I think I would be remiss not to add a brief commentary on what it is like to shoot naked human beings, especially specimens of this caliber. I’ll admit that when I have viewed similar images on websites I have thought “well, hmmm, THAT would certainly be a FUN assignment, wouldn’t it?” Yes, a little bit of that teenage boy stealing a look at a Playboy mentality. (Sorry, just being real.)
In reality, it couldn’t be more different. There is something quite uncanny about meeting someone for the first time and five minutes later she’s standing before you in her birthday suit. The feeling I had was one of wanting to honor their bodies as well as the fact that they were sharing them with us photographers. Although they are being paid, I regarded it then and now as “a gift.” Like any subject matter, the photographer in me kicked in and I wanted to create the most compelling images that I’m capable of. And that’s all.
Day Three – Image Critique of Day Two images
After another delicious breakfast (are you sensing a pattern here?), we returned to the game room for image critique. This time we did not bring “losers,” only those we felt good about or wanted critiqued.
First, Karen displayed all the images with no one saying a word, besides audible appreciative murmurs. Collectively we had produced a pretty nice set of images. Our leaders were suitably impressed and said so. Critiques of individual images commenced. To hear the thoughts of Kiqe and Karen, along each photographer’s own commentary was fascinating.
I believe I can speak for all six of us in saying we appreciated what each other brought to this shoot. Each image had merit, something creative, interesting, thought provoking. I was proud of my own, and would have been proud to have made any of them, really.
Day Three – Shooting in the Kipling Estate
The weather turned a bit cold on us. You don’t think about this too much as a landscape photographer, but shooting people with no clothes on it is another matter. So the plan became to shoot for two hours indoors, then go outside if possible. I was determined to not be blanked out again with the indoor scenes. I spent time getting a feel for some of the rooms and I developed several settings/poses in mind.
We again formed teams of three, this time with Karen and Kiqe each mentoring one team and model. The three of us had the option of working individually, or as a group. We chose a similar methodology to the previous day, with us taking turns as primary and sharing our poses. For a group that had never met just a few days ago, we collaborated well.
Sunlight even became a factor in our indoor shoot. The very first scene we wanted to shoot involved a railing, where the vertical parts would cast a pattern of interesting shadows on our prone model. But by the time we got there with model in tow, the shadows were gone due to sun movement. We had no artificial lighting.
Model Kaeti returned, along with a new model, Bethan (they all have interesting names, don’t they?). I cannot take claim for this pose but it is pleasing.
Karen mentored the team I was on, which turned out to be very helpful. At one point she told me “I spent at least 10 minutes in every room, sitting in numerous spots throughout. I imagined the model and where we would shoot from.” You often hear about “pre-visualization” in photography, but I have never had her level of patience. She contributed several excellent poses, as did each member of our team.
Some poses and settings were just serendipity. We were moving Kaeti to the landing on these stairs when we noticed the light pattern.
And other poses were “highly structured.”
Now our teams switched models, we began working with Bethan.
As we moved from one room to another, instructor Karen stopped and said “I think we should try this bathroom glass door!”
Bethan popped inside and started doing whatever came to her. I include this shot to show you what it’s like being there as a photographer.
In my scouting and really wanting to be more comfortable and successful this day, I was particularly enamored with the tile floor in one large bathroom.
On the first night, a fellow photographer had posed dancer Cyndal similar to this. I liked the pose and recreated it in my favorite indoor setting. The “pinky toe” was not on purpose but I love it.
During my scouting of this bathroom, my strongest instinct was to have a model laying on the floor and juxtapose her soft curves with the hard floor and its defined patterns. We were working other poses and then we were told it was time to leave. Looking down at the floor and then several of us noticed the window light making this pattern and we simply had to shoot her there. This image is among my favorites for the workshop.
As we met downstairs to prepare to go outside we found out the cold temp was going to put the kibosh on that plan. I was disappointed as I had worked out several outdoor scenes. But it turned out just fine. We now had much more time to work indoors, and I had a few more settings in mind.
One of the scenes I imagined was using this staircase. I believe my past work in residential photography caused it to grab my attention. Our willing and athletic model was all too eager to try it out and we had a great deal of fun with this scene.
As we were wrapping up this location a pose came into my head, perhaps something I had seen elsewhere, I’m not sure. I asked Bethan to move into this position.
My first instinct was to feature her hand, but I quickly realized it was the face that I needed in focus. There was a wall sconce behind her head and it was creating a distracting bright shape. I asked a fellow photographer to turn it off. When she did, I realized the light could actually help me, with a rim light effect. I had her turn it back on, then positioned myself and Bethan such that the light really did create a rim light, as opposed to an annoying orb behind her.
Day Four Wrap-up
After breakfast on our final day we again assembled in the game room for show time. I have to say our collective effort was incredibly impressive. We again viewed all the images without comment, then went through them one by one with commentary from the photographers as well as the instructors. Every photographer had multiple images to be proud of. There was a fantastic energy in the room, knowing that when we first came here just a few days ago we wouldn’t have been able to realize these images.
Final thoughts on the Leica SL / 24-90 lens
This is my second Leica, previously I owned an M9. I’m generally comfortable with manual focus. I could have brought some of my M series lenses. But one of the purposes of having the 24-90 was its autofocus capability. I really wanted to be able to focus on the models and the scene/posing, without thinking much about the camera.
Of course, I’m happy with the image files created, one would hope so given the cost of the camera/lens combination. And I can’t help but compare the Leica to my Canon and Olympus kits. I’m less than happy with the SL several areas:
Autofocus. In dim lighting, the camera often just could not achieve focus. I do appreciate the joystick which is easily maneuvered to set the focus point, all in real time. But often my camera just would not lock focus. Other shooters did not have this problem. Given the no compromises FF body and enormous lens, I expect better.
Manual focus challenges. Shooting models, we want the eyes in focus. This is a tiny part of the overall scene, so magnification is critical. Having to push another button, and one that is inconvenient while looking through the viewfinder is less than ideal. Much better is the option that when the focus ring is moved the magnification portion appears.
Unlabeled buttons. The button/dials of the SL are undeniably sexy. And perhaps if I used this camera every single day the function of each would become second nature. But it isn’t for me, it is a memorization chore. I should point out too that the four buttons on the back actually have two functions each – one with a single short press and another with a “long press.” I’m not blaming the camera nor designer in this case, I bought the camera knowing this after all. It’s just something to consider if you aren’t an everyday shooter.
Lack of ability to assign dials. Working with my Olympus gear, it’s almost too complicated in the ability to make any button do anything, dials work in any direction. But now I appreciate it more. With the SL, the small rear dial is dedicated to aperture. The large top dial to shutter speed. And so it is whether in A, S or M modes. Consistency is good but in my case, being an Aperture shooter 95% of the time, I’d much rather have the large dial on top be the one assigned to aperture. It’s at least 10 times easier to move this button with the index finger than the rear dial with the thumb. Little things mean a lot. Leica, if you are listening, please give us the ability to assign these dials as we see fit!
Card writing speeds. I never shot on continuous. But there were times when I shot about 1 FPS (only DNG by the way). I had two Lexar professional SD cards inserted.
Both cards were formatted in the camera on the first morning. And yes I realize the second slot in the camera is not compliant with the XC II cards (treats it as a vI). And yes I have the latest camera firmware. The writing speeds are just abysmal. I often filled the buffer. I would pull the camera away and impatiently look at the LED light indicating card writing. At least one time the camera just never stopped writing and I eventually turned it off.
I see some articles indicating Lexar cards may be problematic on the SL. I did some experimenting when I got home. Again, very inconsistent. I tried all kind of combinations like turning the camera off/on, formatting the cards, etc. But always shooting 10 frames one second apart, and just the single 64gb card in slot 1. Time to completion (as indicated by the flashing LED) ranged from 50 seconds to 20.
By comparison with my Olympus Pen-F, a $1,200 body, using the 256gb card, I can shoot at 1-2 fps and the buffer never fills. Whenever I stop (most I did was about 40 frames) the camera is done writing in 1 second. This is a 20mp sensor vs 24mp, but still?
I have some top of the line Sandisk cards on order, I hope they work better.
In summary, while making great images, the SL doesn’t just melt into my hands the way the M9 did. Perhaps some firmware fixes.
The Nude As Art Workshop Conclusion
What I learned and other thoughts:
* Lots of technique, especially with natural light, which is my preference.
* The importance of experienced models. Kiqe has a saying: “great models are not cheap, and cheap models are not great.”
* Spending more thoughtful time in each setting to dream up poses.
* Using clothes, hats, etc. as props. Although it was a nudes workshop, I found many of the images that interested me the most had articles of clothing.
* Have a written list of poses / locations rather than keep it in my head.
* As I had numerous settings/poses on my list that we couldn’t get to because of time or weather, perhaps buying some individual time with a model right after the workshop would be fruitful.
* The decision to use a single camera and lens was a good one.
* This is the dynamic and challenging kind of photography I very much enjoy.
This is my very favorite image from the workshop. It’s the kind of image that if I saw in a coffee table book, I would swoon over, and wish that I could someday create something like this. And I did.
We may sometimes have to work around our tools, the weather, and other aspects of any shoot. But we have to be able to come away with worthy images, and in this case I’m very pleased with mine. Karen and Kiqe will be doing this workshop again next fall and I highly recommend it. Lastly, a special thanks to the wonderful models and my fellow attendees!