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Questions for Photographer Frank Doorhof, author of "Mastering the Model Shoot"

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International fashion and glamor photographer Frank Doorhof shares stories about sneaking onto rooftops, the weirdest prop he's ever used, and the most common mistake photographers make when lighting a model.
From the author of

Peachpit: Why did you decide to write your book, Mastering the Model Shoot? What do you want people to get out of it?

Frank Doorhof: I’ve been teaching workshops for quite some years, and it always struck me that even photographers with a photographic education just missed a lot of the information that is not only basic but also very important to make a photo shoot successful.

For example, think about all the voodoo and nonsense that is written about the use of a light meter and color management, but I felt that this was not enough, of course.

A successful photo shoot is not just knowing your gear and light; it’s all about creating your and your team’s vision. It actually already starts by finding the right model, creating moodboards that can easily be shared, first contact with the model, finding the location, getting the right contracts, the shoot itself, the selection process, the retouching and of course the social media sharing.

On all those subjects there is hardly any attention in books and education; it’s all about light and gear. Now don’t get me wrong—the book is filled with lighting tips, diagrams, setups, gear talk, etc., but it’s also filling in all the blanks that are normally left out. I really tried to go literally from A-Z.

Peachpit: How did you get involved with fashion photography?

Frank: I was brought up in a family with a passion for both the still and moving image. Later in life after a successful career in IT (my own business) I just didn’t feel that “this is it.” I still loved photography and although at that time I did a lot of the “tourist” stuff, birds, sports etc., I always had a passion for photographing people, so I tried a model/portrait shoot and immediately felt in love with it. The interaction between the model and the photographer, the power of creating something out of nothing, had an enormous draw on me.

Before I knew it I fell into the market of fashion, celebrities started asking me for my photos, and I loved every minute of it. For 7 years Annewiek had been running the computer store while I was doing the sessions, and she joined me whenever she could (abroad we always travel together). In January 2013 we made the big step to sell the computer company and let Annewiek join the studio full time.

Peachpit: Tell us about a particularly challenging shoot you encountered: what were the challenges and how did you, as the photographer, overcome them?

Frank: I think the most challenging shoots are the ones with celebrities on location. There is often the pressure of performing, and often the time frame is just a bit too short. However, I think that (when you read my book) the light setups and working with the locations will not be the main issue. In my book I give a lot of attention to, for example, locations that look terrible but can be transformed into something awesome. What is left is the “stress” of pulling out that character on film, that feeling that the client wants, and of course choosing the light setup/feel that really fits the vision of my client.

I overcome these issues by talking to my client before the shoot, getting to know them and always planning plenty of time. Even with celebrities I’m not the photographer that will do a 10 minute shoot. If you want to work with me it’s at least 1 hour; otherwise I will decline the assignment. The reason for this is very simple: if a “Problem” should arise it’s very stressful to change a whole idea within a 10 minute time frame, and trust me….a lot of clients will say this and on set want something completely different.

This is also why I travel with way too much gear if possible. I’ve had plenty of shoots where the client demanded natural light shots and I was very happy I brought some strobes.

I strongly believe that being prepared and understanding what you’re doing is 90% of the hard work. When that falls away you can really focus on getting on film what the client/model wants. This is also why there are a lot of chapters in the book that will help you see the options in many locations and also great one-light setups that simply rock in almost any situation. (There are also a lot of more complicated light setups of course, but I think the one-light setups can really save your day.)

Peachpit: Can you share the story of one of your favorite shoots, and why it was so satisfying?

Frank: Oh my, that’s next to impossible. You know we really shoot a lot of sessions and I always try to challenge myself to do better every shoot…..but if I really had to choose one….hmmm let me think…..I think it’s one where I shot a model in a circus museum. One of my rules is that if I think I got the shot, I will also try one version that is almost the opposite. Most of the time I like the first one best, but in this case it was really the other way around. We went for a really sad look, and the model really nailed the expression spot on. At the end of the session I asked her to do something really outrageous, pull up her dress and laugh. When I pressed the shutter I really got that tingling sensation though my spine and knew “we got it.”

Always when I look at that shot I think back to what I tell my students: “Never ever think you’re done if you only tried one solution to the session.”

Peachpit: I’m betting you have some very interesting “on-location” stories.  What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you while you were shooting on location?

Frank: Oh yeah, we have a lot of those, but I think the most bizarre was shooting on top of an office building in Boston. I thought that there would be no problem and everything was arranged: “Yeah we have shot there many times, no problem.” So my surprise was big when we really had to sneak in, get into the elevator, get off on a certain floor, crawl over the floor under some windows, take two extra stairs and end up on the roof. Now imagine that being done with a lot of gear, 6 people of my team, 2 models, a makeup artist and a stylist. I literally almost felt like I was in Mission Impossible (queue music).

Peachpit: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to prospective fashion photographers?

Frank: Don’t shoot to be successful. I know we all have dreams of making it big and driving Ferraris all day long and shooting Lady Gaga and Rihanna on a daily basis, but that’s not going to happen. If you’re lucky you can get a decent income from photography, but you will have to work incredibly hard and be lucky.

I’ve seen many photographers burn out on their passion because they can’t quit their day job and become full-time photographers; that’s just a shame. Just shoot because you have the passion for it—that fire inside, keep that burning. Don’t hunt for fame and fortune. Don’t force yourself to quit your day job in a month or two. If it happens it happens, but shoot for yourself, and again if opportunity strikes take it with both hands and run with it, but never ever lose the passion because you want to make it “big” so bad. Just keep shooting and you will keep the fun, and having fun and passion is the most important thing in a job like photography. We work insane hours and if you are just in it for the money or the “fame” you will burn out without any doubt. I always tell people that I work twice as hard for the same amount of money that I would probably earn in a normal day job, but I love every minute of it and would never ever want to change jobs. If you don’t have that passion just keep it as a hobby.

Peachpit: You have a chapter with some great advice on using props and where you can get them inexpensively.  What’s the oddest prop you’ve ever used in a shoot, and what’s the story behind it?

Frank: LOL.

Once during a photo shoot we were playing around with clothing, and I decided it would be fun to let the model wear one of her stockings over her head. In the end the images turned out really well, and I got a lot of mails asking where I got that amazing “clothing piece” the model had over her head. So we told people it was a real designer’s piece that would be released very soon. Yeah, I know it’s incredibly cheesy, but it was really proving you can make a shot work with almost anything.

The images are now in my workshop where (as I joke) I tell people what they can do if a model has really bad skin and cut down on Photoshop work. When I show them the image it’s always a hilarious moment for the group, after which we discuss the real techniques (which you can also find in the book by the way—there is a tip in there for models with REALLY bad skin and how to bring detail back to skin that had to be processed to the Barbie look).

Peachpit: Why are feet very important in a pose?

Frank: It’s the part we stand on. If you don’t position them right they will look weird. Also the model will look out of balance if they are placed wrong. But also, and a lot of people forget this, it’s the part of our body that makes contact with the floor, so it’s the part where we can start playing with shadows and making the model “stick” in the real world. Take for example all the shots you see from white backgrounds where the models just seem to “float.” It’s because everything is burned out and the feet don’t touch the ground. We have some Plexiglas on the floor which creates a really nice “shadow/reflection” and literally places the model on the ground. This has a HUGE impact on the shot and the believability of the shot.

Peachpit: Do you still play the guitar? Who is your favorite guitarist?  Do you see similarities between musicianship and photography?

Frank: Wow, you are well informed.

Yeah, I still play. But I have to be honest: I haven’t really played in years. I just sometimes grab the guitar, power up the Marshall and blast some riffs. It’s an awesome feeling.

My favorite guitar player is Brian May. He is not only a very smart/educated person but also very well rounded; he can do things with the “red special/his guitar” that I never heard before. Further I love Steve Vai and Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen.

There is a HUGE similarity I think. Working with light in the studio and location and combining it with models and styling is like composing a symphony. You start out with a simple very static blues when you learn, just running the scale as it’s supposed to be with the standard timing. As soon as you get more confident you will start adding the blues notes (those little in between notes), start using the tremolo, harmonics and finally you start playing around with the timing. And before you know it you start adding stuff that really makes you stand out and that’s where people start to notice you.

But there is another similarity.

You can be the greatest guitar player in the world but without a band you are very quickly boring. So you can try to play all the instruments yourself but you will probably be stuck in the standard stuff. Now you can add some standard musicians and it’s already great, now add some better musicians and the band is getting there, now ALLOW all the team members to start playing around, having fun, finding their passion and you ROCK.

It’s the same thing in photography. There are no egos on my sets; it’s a team effort. Even during workshops, everyone has input and together we create something that swings, baby. ☺

Peachpit: What’s the most common mistake photographers make with regard to lighting a model?

Frank: Over-lighting it, being afraid of shadows, trusting the histogram…do I need to go on? ☺

I always tell people, “Put a model in front of the camera in jeans and a tank top and you have to be a lighting wizard because there is nothing else going on,” and this is something I really stand by. Start experimenting with styling, story telling, locations, etc. Now add the right light and just start with one light and you will see that everything will come alive.

When I start my light setups I always start out with the vision I have and will try to solve it with one light. Only if I need more I will add more. In my book there are MANY examples of light setups with just one light, but also where I use several lights; however you will see that all those lights are there for a reason.

I sometimes see images coming through on social media where I see lighting diagrams used where I think, “Yeah, you use 8 lights but it could have been done with only 3.” Now don’t get me wrong—I don’t mean this in a bad way, but imagine having to control 8 lights to do the work of 3… it makes life so much easier and cheaper. In my book I tried to really give attention to understanding what light does, and you can really make it do what you want.

And my motto is still, “If you think you need 2 lights try it with 1; if you think you need 3 lights try it with 1.” It’s often possible to really create effects with 1 light that look like you used at least 2.

So in short, never over-light a set, and most of all don’t be afraid of shadows. Shadows are the soul of a shot and create three dimensionality. Don’t ever take those away. Learn to control them and you are really creating something that will stand out.

Peachpit: You use retouching, but try to use it judiciously so your models don’t end up looking like Barbies. You have a great section in chapter 11 where you offer you ten best retouching tips.  Which tip is your favorite, and why?

Frank: I think the one in which I bring pores back into a heavily retouched skin. Sometimes models have perfect (or near perfect) skin, and this makes it so much easier to retouch. But a lot of times there are color differences, really bad skin etc., and you are almost forced to completely remove the skin and wash it so to say, but you end up with an ugly over-retouched almost glowing skin. With the technique in the book you learn how to bring back “artificial” pores within seconds and make the model come back to life again. It can be a real life saver.

Peachpit: You mention the importance of social media in growing your business, and that you post something almost daily, if not more frequently.  How do you find time for this on top of your busy schedule?

Frank: Well….. it’s very hard. I try to do everything myself and for me that means I always carry my iPhone or iPad with me to keep up. Where normal people read the paper I try to keep up with Facebook and Twitter. When normal people sleep I will often quickly check my emails. During workshops I try to post some backstage material, and when travelling it’s not uncommon that Annewiek is already asleep and I’m retouching some street or model shots to put on my blog.

Luckily there is a queue option so I can work ahead when I have time.

Peachpit: What photographer has been inspiring you lately and why?

Frank: I love the work of David LaChapelle, Erwin Olaf, Mario Testino, Richard Avedon, Gregory Heisler, Helmut Newton in fashion/model photography. For street photography the big names of course like Cartier-Bresson, Jay Maisel, Robert Doisneau etc.

I always try to find more and the list goes on and on, because what about for example Annie Leibovitz, Klinko and Indrani, Douglas Bizzaro: all great artists of our time. I think it’s almost impossible to point out one.

Most of all, however, I get my inspiration at places like Photoshop World. I feel incredibly blessed to sit at one table with some of the biggest names and “trade secrets” and get inspiration. It’s just such an awesome pool of inspiration.

And a list like this can’t be without the photographer that really inspired me in the way I teach. I never met him, which I really would have loved to: Dean Collins. He was able to teach people things about photography that no one taught, but most of all he made it clear why it worked the way he taught it. In a day and age with internet, books, videos etc. you would think that the “truth is out there,” but nothing is less true. If I read some blog posts, for example, about the use of light meters, it strikes me with horror that so many of the posts are just 100% wrong. Even in books and videos you sometimes see stuff about the meter that is not correct. And, as you can read in my book, the use of the meter is almost the easiest thing to learn. And when you “master it” it will speed up your workflow and accuracy immensely. And again it’s so easy that I really don’t understand why there would be any doubt or wrong information out there.

Now continue this towards the use of light, modifiers, gear, etc.—which can be tricky—and you know why I loved the way that Collins taught. He was down to earth and not just talking. He was the person that really “put your money where your mouth is.” He just showed it.

Today a lot of people rely on Photoshop. If they see something they can’t pull off they will often ask “what filter did you use,” “what retouching was used.” It’s a form of “denial-syndrome” I guess, or in other words “if I can’t pull it off it must be Photoshop or some sort of voodoo.” I strongly believe in my motto, “Why fake it when you can create it?” Do it on set and use Photoshop like the darkroom. Fix stuff you can’t do on set and create “the look.” That’s it. I think that after reading my book you will know what I mean. ☺

Peachpit: What do you love most about your job?

Frank: Inspiring people and seeing them progress. That’s also why I think this book is so different from anything else on the market. I will not hold back, everything is in there, every little secret, every little thing that normally is not shared by many. I just love seeing people progress and really become a better photographer after visiting my workshops, watching my videos or reading my book.

I do use one expression a lot during workshops about photography: There are only 3 choices in life: give in, give up, or give it all you’ve got.

I think for photography only the last one is valid. When I do something I will go all out, I will try to give my clients/students/models/whoever the best thing they can get out of me. So when I started writing this book I really wanted to work not only with the best material I could write down but also the best editing team I could get, and when you look at the finished product (I have one in front of me) I can only say… we did it, I think. We gave it all we’ve got and I’m sure the readers will absolutely love it.

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