Steve Jacob assists Benjamin Kanarek on a Fashion Shoot

Chucky’s In Love © Benjamin Kanarek

I thought I would publish this article by Steve Jacob, who assisted Benjamin on one of his shoots and decided to write an article about it…

By: Steve Jacob

What’s it like to assist a fashion photographer? – Steve Jacob’s assisted fashion photographer Benjamin Kanarek on a  fashion editorial. Here’s his diary of the day.

7.00 am: My mobile is ringing! I’m momentarily disorientated, partly because I was having a nice dream and partly because I am in a strange room in pitch darkness. I groggily remember that in on a sofa bed in my friend’s apartment in Magny les Hongres, near Paris and I’m supposed to be meeting Ben in central Paris for a photo shoot at 9am. I fumble around for my mobile to turn off the wakeup call and stumble into the bathroom.

8:30 am: The place turns out to be easy to find, but the street is blocked off and packed with fire-engines attending a blaze in a nearby block of flats. Luckily the address I’m looking for is further down the road and accessible on foot, but it provides an interesting photo-opportunity. I find a café at the end of the street and settle down with my first coffee of the day.

9 am: I get a text from Ben who is running late so I head to the apartment. Number 6 is in fact a long, irregular shaped courtyard. Down the left side is a small private theatre. Some of the buildings look like small warehouses and workshops with apartments above. I’m looking for doorway F which I find eventually. Missing the light switch I climb up the rickety stairs to the second floor in near darkness. We are definitely in Paris!

The doorbell is answered by the apartment’s owner and fashion stylist for the shoot, Sebastien Goepfert. Most of the crew is already there having coffee. Christophe Durand is one of Paris’ top makeup artists and Tomoko Ohama is a leading hair stylist (or should that be sculptress?). Juliette Pechoux is assisting Sebastien with the wardrobe. It’s quite a high-powered crew I’m working with so I’m more than a little nervous and everyone is chatting in French. I can understand the gist of the conversation and the coffee is good so I start to relax a little.

9.30 am: The model arrives. Felicity Gilbert turns out to be a London girl from Maida Vale so I have someone to talk to. Slim and willowy as you’d expect, she looks impossibly young and innocent out of makeup. She’s actually 22 and has been in Paris working as a top rank model for 2 years. Her fresh, almost teenage face is hard to reconcile with her portfolio. In makeup and with the right clothes (or no clothes at all) she looks incredibly chic. It proves the point that the pretty girl you see on the street would not necessarily make it as a model. If she looks even slightly curvy she is probably 4 dress sizes too big, if she has a cute face she would look distinctly chubby on camera and if she has strong features she, and not the clothes, would dominate the shot. Being a blank canvas is not as glamorous as it sounds and much harder work than you’d think.

10 am: Ben and his girlfriend Frederique (Freddy) arrive. I’m surprised by the light load: A laptop, a camera bag with 2 bodies and 2 lenses, a carrier bag with some reflectors and a kit bag with two Multiblitz 600J heads, stands, honeycombs and snoots. Some guys I know would come to a shoot with at least 3 times that. The lenses Ben is using for the shoot are the DA* 16-50 F2.8 and the DA 12-24 F4. He contemplated bringing the DA 16-45 F4 which he likes, but he wanted to try out the DA* lens as he’d just got it from Pentax. That Ben uses mainly wide-angle lenses may come as a surprise but in a small space with shots that are usually full or near full length it’s unusual to use much over 24mm.

Felicity and Christophe have already got started on make-up, so Ben and I start on the lighting set up while Freddy plugs in the inevitable Macbook. Freddy is also Ben’s business partner and does all the post production work.

Makeup and hair takes the best part of 2 hours. By this time Ben and I have been gassing for at least an hour about the new Pentax cameras and other stuff and have demolished a couple more pots of coffee. He’s genuinely bullish about Pentax’s prospects under Hoya. It’s also interesting to understand how Pentax are using feedback from Ben (and the rest of us) about the performance of their cameras. Ben is very happy shooting Pentax and is getting great results, but he will get the head of Pentax France on the phone and give him a hard time if something is not right (do you wish you could do that? Its simple, become a pro and get Pentax to sponsor you!) A spate of DA 21 mm lenses that didn’t focus was a case in point. Pentax are not getting an easy ride but they are listening and taking the feedback very seriously indeed. Luckily the new lens seems to work OK.

11.30 am: Finally we start on some test shots. Set 1 is in the lounge on the chaise long. The sunlight is causing Ben some issues. Although the flashes are much stronger than the daylight (check the difference between my diary photos and the end result) Ben can’t use the modelling lights to see where the light and shadows are falling, so has to resort to multiple flash meter readings and endless test shots. To make it worse the sun keeps coming out from behind the clouds at the worst possible moment. You can see from my pictures that the light coming through the skylights was intense. In the end, Freddy and I end up holding a blanket over the window! Despite some gentle swearing, Ben’s soldiers on and we get the shot.

1.30 pm: Sent out for Pizza.

2 pm: Felicity has had a change of clothes and is having her hair and makeup retouched while Ben and I set up the next shot in the dentist’s chair. The amount of space seems ridiculously small, but Ben lights everything indirectly so it’s possible to place the lights out of the way and get some very tight angles. However I end up holding a reflector because there is no room for another stand.

2.30 pm: Ben does joke around a lot but he’s dead serious now. Attention to detail is incredible. The background, face, Chucky doll, clothes and hair – all have to be perfect before he’ll start shooting for real. We do some tests. The shoes are not right. I get another reflector to hold. Now we’re away. Ben reels off about 50 shots and checks. They look fine, but he’s not happy yet. He changes the angle and the lighting again. Happier now he shoots another 50 or 60 shots then we try another angle. Ben lies on the floor shooting upwards. After about 130 frames it’s a wrap and Ben heads for the laptop with the SD card while the rest of us take a breather. It’s been a long haul.

4.30 pm: The team is in top gear and Ben’s on a roll. We’re ready for the next shoot in the hallway. Ben explains how to use talcum powder (!!!) and how a journalist for a photography magazine famously misunderstood how he used it as a diffuser. The lighting proves really tricky once again and poor Felicity is holding positions for ten minutes at a time but it comes off (see photo with the locket). I’ve never worked with models of Felicity’s quality and I am beginning to understand what it means to be a top level professional. Ben hardly needs to give more than a hint of direction and she looks consistently good in every shot. Not a trace of strain or boredom after repetitive shooting (if you think it’s easy, you should give it go yourself sometime).

Chucky’s In Love © Benjamin Kanarek

6.30 pm: We move into the kitchen. The space is now so minute I have no idea how Ben is going to light it, but somehow he manages it. It was not until Ben took the first shot that I really understood what he was trying to do and how it would work. Again the attention to detail is amazing. This time Ben uses a reading lamp and the fridge light to add some ambient light. This requires a slow shutter speed of 1/8 but using a 12-24 and shake reduction there is no need for a tripod. He’s shooting almost directly down at the model from above as she holds the door open. After we wrap, Ben is over the moon and I have to agree it’s the shot of the day.

8.30 pm: Another quick break, makeup and clothes and now we are shooting on the stairs. Ben is literally shooting round corners to get the shot. Chucky is now in silhouette with a knife but after we wrap and check the shots on the Mac, Freddy thinks it looks a bit “suggestive” because of the position of the knife.

10 pm: I have to run to catch the last train home. I say my goodbyes and run for it, leaving everyone else working away. I gather they carried on till 1 am to re-shoot the stairwell set, and the bedroom with the open window. This photography business is hard work!

So did I learn anything? Yes, I did learn a lot but not quite what I was expecting.

Firstly, I am always interested in how other people light a set. I know a couple of filmmakers as well as other photographers. There is quite a bit of commonality but some differences too. Generally speaking though, in a photography studio most people stick to well tried formulae using up to four lights and standard backdrops and modifiers.

But here we were in a small, crowded apartment with mixed light sources. For that reason I was interested to see Ben using more typical filmmaking techniques for small spaces with indirect lighting. He uses a very simple set of gear (two lights, simple reflectors, black paper and talcum powder) but in the course of the day he used this bare-bones rig in completely different ways for each shot.

So rather than relying on a trusted formula, Ben relies more on his creativity and experience and simple but versatile equipment. Each shot basically starts from scratch in a totally new space but because he knows in his head how the light will work, he can set the whole thing up on the fly and create a unique feel every single time, hiding in darkness what he doesn’t want seen, highlighting what he does and using a mixture of ambient and flash to great effect.

Have a very good look at the shot of the fridge. Yes there is some expert retouching but not as much as you’d think. Look how the fridge door, lamp, background and hair are all part of the shot, brought out by the slow shutter. Look at how the dolls face and the knife are emphasised, and how at the end of the day the clothes are still on show. I was not surprised to hear that Ben has done quite a bit of creative directing in films as well, so I guess he’s adapted some of the techniques. It may have been a fashion shoot but it was more like being on a set with Hitchcock.

So, at the end of the day I managed to add a few things to my list of valuable facts about photography:

1. Don’t get discouraged by adversity. Just stay cool and work around it. If the light’s bad or the space is tight, don’t panic – just think it through. There is always a way but you are more likely to come up with one if you keep a cool head and trust your instincts.

2. Even a top pro can take a while to get things right. The trick is knowing WHEN it’s right and not allowing the time pressure or the people around you to compromise your standards.

3. Having other professionals to work with really does help. Of course, doing everything yourself in the fashion business would be impossible, but most portrait photographers work alone or maybe with one partner. However I am considering hiring a professional model to help me experiment with technique and build a portfolio. They will not be in Felicity’s league but they will know what to do, what to wear and can probably do their own makeup. Hopefully this will allow me to concentrate on the photography.

4. Having lots of expensive lighting equipment is more of a hindrance than anything else. From this experience I am totally convinced that you could take professional looking shots with second hand flashguns and home made reflectors and modifiers. You don’t need a big studio either, or backdrops, if you know how to light something selectively. It’s understanding that counts, not the equipment. The entry cost is low so there’s nothing to stop you getting out there and having fun. Yes, the Strobist was right all along!

5. Seeing how a particular shot is completed and what equipment is used is educational but does not mean you can immediately use that knowledge and apply it to a different shot. Whereas I understood each shot in hindsight, that’s not much use when confronted with a new situation. But then, buying a Leica M2 and walking around Paris snapping people in cafes would not make me Cartier Bresson. Watching may give you a head start and some ideas, but the only way to really understand is experience. Besides, without practice, how would anyone develop their own style?

So to wrap up this short report, I’ll end with a big thanks to Ben for the chance to help out and get a glimpse of leading edge fashion photography. If I was useless he was far too polite to let on, but at least I didn’t drop a camera or knock anything over and I do know a honeycomb from a snoot so I don’t think I was too much of an obstacle.

And yes Ben can be a tyrant when the heat’s on (!!) but he’s never rude, never puts anyone down, and can take a lot of stick as well as dish it out. His enthusiasm is driving everything and he gets really excited when a set comes together. It’s good to see someone get such a buzz from it after so many years in the business.

He is also very open to opinions and ideas. He’s surrounded by creative people and he uses that energy, building up a concept from other people’s suggestions and needs, and then turning it into something concrete. He’s always in charge but you feel you are part of the process and he provides a running commentary as he works so everyone understands what he’s thinking and what he’s about to do.

Ben is one of a kind alright: More intuitive than technical, he clowns around, gets frustrated one minute and ecstatic the next, but he is a real pro and knows exactly what he’s doing. He also knows how to pick a great team and looking at the end result, I can see that Freddy really knows what she is doing as well. What you see is a real team effort, but there is no mistaking the photographer.
Now, when do we do it again, Ben?
This article is Copyright (c) Steve Jacob and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission.

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