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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Informing Contexts – Work Evaluation – Cindy Sherman Shoot

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Figure 1: Sutherst 2017

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Figure 2: Sutherst 2017

Intent of shoot – When searching for new subjects to photograph, a long time friend contacted me about taking part as being photographed in a studio was on her bucket list.  Pre-shoot discussions covered potential ideas for the shoot.  The subject suggested that “as it’s the year of the rooster and I’m an aquarian we could do something a bit quirky”.  Both the subject and I then set our minds to work.

As a fan of Cindy Sherman’s 2016 Imitation of Life, I started to look for inspiration there.

What attracts me to this work of Sherman’s is that she portrays subjects that are styled with heavy makeup and that she explores an area that most photographers avoid – the glamour and beauty of more mature women.

My subject also produced a long list of ideas, including a water theme, ‘blue’ and birds, but was willing to have a go at any theme.

Figure 3: Cindy Sherman Untitled #574 2016

Aesthetic – The intended aesthetic was a high key image that is both punchy and bright, with an upbeat and humorous narrative.  The styling planned was to incorporate the themes of Cindy Sherman’s glamour, water, blue and birds.  Hardly the easiest of styling choices when all combined!  Working with a make up artist, Alley Stallard, a bold make up theme was chosen that included large feather false eyelashes (bird theme).  The subject was styled as a mermaid in a costume that required double sided tape to hold the heavy seashell encrusted top in place.

My brief to the subject was to have fun in front of the camera and play with facial expressions.  I asked her to look into the distance, play with different props that I had (crystal ball, doing, baseball bat etc), and at times I asked her to pull faces.  This helped to relax the subject.

As the subject had never been in the studio before, the first 20-30 minutes were spent getting her to relax in front of the camera and to understand where the light would be falling on her face.  I use humour as my main way to relax a subject.  Showing her the images on the back of the camera helped to reassure her that she was looking fabulous in from of the camera.

“People feel good in front of the camera only when you learn to help them feel comfortable being there! It is about infusing them with your passion and educating them about the how much they will enjoy the process.”

– David Beckstead

Beckstead’s words are certainly true in this case.   The subject really enjoyed the process, commenting afterwards that “I enjoyed the day and would love to do it again”.

Techniques – 

The lighting was set up as shown.


Figure 4: Sutherst 2017

A large octagonal softbox was used as the main light – this was adjusted to give a soft and even light across the front of the subject’s face.  I also set up 2 medium softboxes behind the subject which reduced shadows on the backdrop and added some depth to the subject.

I also added in a small fill light with honeycomb grid fitted to the front.  This was placed on the opposite side to the main octagonal light.  This light was set at half the power of the others and was used when the shadows on the subject’s face were too harsh or dark.  This has allowed me to fill in detail and allows more flexibility when moving the model around.

The images were shot in RAW on a Nikon d810 set at ISO64, 1/160 and f8. These settings allow me ultimate flexibility and allow more options for getting the most out of the images in Lightroom or Photoshop after the shoot. My intent was to get the shot in camera and not have to do too much post-processing to achieve the effect.

Personal evaluation of images – At the start of the shoot, the subject was self-conscious and needed direction and reassurance. However, as the shoot progressed her confidence grew.

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Figure 5: Sutherst 2017

The portrait head shots at the top of this post are very successful in that my subject became a confidence person in front of the lens.  The portraits of her are both a mirror and a masquerade.  She has undergone a metamorphism in front of the camera and this is portrayed in the photographs, where she looks happy and confident.

The images have a Sherman feel to them.  The fantasy female persona that my subject has become uses makeup and costume in a theatrical way to create an image that draws the viewer into the self-confident view.

The shots were taken in a studio with a plain white background.  The subject was more comfortable in a safe, enclosed environment. The intention for these images was to allow the viewer no distractions away from the subject so that their eye has nowhere else to go.  I wanted my subject to be saying to the viewer ‘focus entirely on me as there is nothing else to look at’.  The downside to this is that the image can appear cold and sterile, but this is counteracted somewhat by the bolder colours in the styling of the subject.

“The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told.”

– Cindy Sherman

The narrative is not clearly laid out.  Like Sherman, the viewer needs to get involved with my image and respond through viewing and re-viewing the image.  The images are obviously staged and considered.  This is obvious to the viewer through the use of the extreme makeup, styling and over-exaggerated poses.

The most successful shots of the session were the headshots (as shown at the top of this post).  The full length or sitting shots were less successful.  The extreme styling and bright, bold colours detract the eye of the viewer.  This is in stark contrast to my intent of the use of the plain background to draw the viewer’s focus to the subject. There is a lot going on with the costume.  However, the performance is bigger in the wider angled shots.

Figures 6 and 7: Sutherst 2017

I have experimented inserting a background to an image to see what difference that made.  This again is not a successful image.  The background does add a different feel to the image, but it is obvious that this is a composite image.  The styling is still dominating the image and again, as a viewer, I am not looking at the subject’s face.  The intent behind the image is not clear to a viewer. The scene is still confusing to the eye.  The lesson moving forwards for me is to simplify the styling down in shoots.


Figure 8: Sutherst 2017

Another issue that I faced through the shoot is that one of the seashells on the bra top cast a misleading shadow.  As shown in the detail image opposite, the shadow cast looks like a nipple.  This is very evident in the images where the subject is sat down.  At no point in the shoot were her nipples visible and this is an unfortunate result of the fill light.  As a result, I have around a dozen images that are not suitable for use.

Subject’s view – After the shoot, the subject contacted me to say that she really liked the photographs and was pleased with most of them.  She also commented that she cringed at some because she dodn’t feel very photogenic.  However, she enjoyed the experience and wanted to do it again.  She also wanted to organise for two other friends to go through the same experience.


Beckstead, D.  From ShootZilla. 2017. 100 inspirational photography quotes – ShootZilla. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 March 2017].

Sherman, C. From WAC: Andersen-Hopper: Cindy Sherman. 2017. WAC: Andersen-Hopper: Cindy Sherman. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 10 March 2017]

Figure 3: Sherman Image from. AnOther. 2017. Lessons We Can Learn From Cindy Sherman | AnOther. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 10 March 2017]

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