Black Mask Shoot

She had blue skin, And so did he.
He kept it hid, And so did she.
They searched for blue, Their whole life through,
Then passed right by – And never knew.

Model: Jemima Crawley
Makeup: Jayshri Butler
Additional Photography: Poppy Crawley

I’ve been thinking about doing a shoot that involved some kind of black mask or eye makeup for some time. I remembered I liked some of the poster images of Natalie Portman in Black Swan, and I’ve always loved the Odette/Odile story too. For ages, I didn’t really have much of an idea to go on other than I wanted the images to be a bit edgy and arresting if possible.  However, I knew from the start that success or failure would depend on the eyes of the model, and that eye contact, expression and sharpness would be key.

I also knew that I wanted Jemima to model for me. She has quite pale skin and I wanted as much contrast as possible between the black makeup and skin tone. (When we were practising applying the makeup, we actually tried it out on Jayshri’s South Asian skin, and it looked pretty awful – like she’d been in a fight or something!). Jemima also has beautiful green eyes. I didn’t really want to do the shoot in a studio as I liked the idea of shooting against (or even in) some kind of foliage – leaves or blossom, something like that. The only other thing I had in mind was to use hands to frame the face in some way.

Despite a late night the previous evening, we had to start early as Jemima needed to be finished by 11:00am. Jayshri started off applying the makeup by drawing a rough outline around the area for the mask with an eyeliner pencil…

Once the basic outline had been completed, Jay began filling in the mask with the black mask makeup we found on amazon (a bit cheeper that the Max stuff we found)…

Once filled in, the edges of the mask were smudged using a brush and fingers…

I didn’t want the pink of the eyes’ water-line to show, so we used a white eyeliner pencil to create some contrast…

From a technical perspective, I used my main camera, a Nikon D810 with a Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 lens. The images were taken at f/2.0-f/2.8 as the depth of field at f/1.4 is so narrow on the 85mm, it scares me. The ISO was set to the base for the D810, i.e. 64, which gave a shutter speed in Aperture Priority mode of around 1/100th of a second.

It was an overcast grey morning, but I took a couple of test shots with the ambient light to see what they’d look like. Predictably, they looked pretty flat and boring, so we set up a Nikon SB-910 Speedlight fired through a 54cm Lastolite McNally Ezybox. This light was positioned camera-right at 45 degrees and slightly above Jemima. The flash was triggered using PocketWizards set to Manual. I guessed at around 1/8th power, but that looked a little ‘hot’ to me, so I dialled it down to 1/16th which is where is stayed for the whole shoot.

One of the occupational hazards of shooting in the paddock is avoiding being butted by the sheep…

It’s really important to keep a good dialogue going with your model. Tell them they look great and if you take a good shot, show them!..

Using hands to ‘frame’ the face…

Jay adjusts Jemima’s hair. By then, we seemed to have attracted a couple of spectators…

Post processing was completed using a combination of Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop and Alien Skin’s Exposure 7. I usually start by making some basic adjustments in Lightroom, paying particular attention to Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks (everything in the ‘Tone’ section of the Development tools), before transferring over to Photoshop for image retouching. For images such as these, I use a ‘frequency separation’ method for the skin, which allows me to adjust texture and tonality separately and avoid the dreaded plastic look you get with some ‘quick and easy’ skin softening techniques and filters. I also used the tone layer to touch up the makeup in a couple of places where it had become patchy from Jemima blinking. As already mentioned, the eyes are really important in these images and quite a bit of time was spent making sure they looked how I wanted them (about five different steps in total).

Recently, I’ve become very fond of Alien Skin’s Exposure 7 software, and at this stage, I quite often transfer over to it to apply one my favourite colour filters. In particular, I really like the ‘Colour Fading’ and ‘Polaroid’ sections. Both the second and third images above have had some colour effects processing in Exposure 7. However, the dark colouration of the first (landscape) image above was obtained really by happy accident. I was trying to use the HSL tab of the Photoshop Camera Raw filter to remove an aqua/blue colour stain left by Jemima’s last application of nail varnish. By completely reducing the Saturation of most of the colour sliders except Reds and Oranges (which are reduced only a little so there is still some skin tone), I ended up with this rather cool effect. Sometimes finding the right solution is all about experimenting. Usually, the last thing I do is apply some global sharpening to an image.

I’m really proud of these images. Hope it’s okay to say that. It’s partly because they represent the realisation of an idea taken from inspiration to final product, but also because I can see in them two and a half years of me dreaming about photography and working hard in the hope that I might actually get good one day. I’ve had to apply what I’ve learnt about art, composition, cameras, lenses, lighting and editing to produce them. They’re not perfect, but I’m happy that they represent another small step towards my goal.

Steve x

Posted bySteve Butler

"Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

2 thoughts on “Black Mask Shoot”

  1. Absolutely stunning! Your photography is constantly evolving and getting better and better with an amazingly natural skill – remember us when you are an internationally renown photographer!!

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