14 Steps on How to Improve Your Photography

If you have been shooting for a while, whether as a professional photographer or a hobbyist, how do you improve? This is one of the questions I am often asked when a photographer writes to me. With the last two articles, I covered commercial and personal photoshoot productions. For this one I want to turn things inward a little, and talk about how to improve ourselves and better our photography.

So, without further ado, here are my 14 steps to improve your photography! 

1. Never Be Satisfied

Read More

Profoto Blog Series: Personal Project Walkthrough, from Idea to Realization

My second article for Profoto~

Motherland Chronicles #50 – Eurydice

Having covered the process for a commercial assignment in my last article, this time round I’ll be talking about my approach to producing a personal shoot in a similar fashion, but starting earlier in the workflow, from conceptualization instead of simply receiving a brief, as one would a commercial job.

Before I begin, I’d just like to say that I see commercial and editorial work as a resume of a photographer’s skills and personal work as the mark of his or her identity. With this in mind, I think a photographer’s approach towards commercial and personal work should be separated as much as possible.

Of course, things like style and aesthetics will naturally bleed into one another, which is fine, but concept wise, a commercial work should always be done with a client’s products or services in mind, whereas personal work should be something a person wants to express or share with the world, thus making it personal.

In this post I’ll be covering the approach and considerations I put towards a typical production for one of my personal shoots. Unlike commercial projects, there are no set rules and requirements for how you do it. We may all work differently and this is my take. I hope you enjoy the read.

Motherland Chronicles #43 – Dreaming

1. Before You Begin

In most cases, we don’t have endless budgets to do whatever we want to do or an avenue of publication for personal work before it begins. Because of this, a lot of doing personal work boils down to challenges in getting people to work with you and finding time outside your main job to make it happen. Here are some key factors to consider in setting up the foundation of your series:

    1.    Theme and Concept
    2.    Your Team
    3.    Model Release
    4.    Model Search
    5.    Lighting and Style
    6.    Timeline
    7.    Budget
    8.    Image Terms

1.1 Theme and Concept

This is the starting point, whether it’s a broad theme or specific idea, it expresses what you want to say. It’s the reason you’re doing the project. Having decided on this, it will determine how you’ll approach your entire series in terms of style and affect how your production will be done and what will be involved.

Here are some of the images that inspired me for Motherland Chronicles:

Top: Antoon van Welie, Suemi Jun; Bottom: George Frederic Watts, Yoshitaka Amano

1.2 Your Team

Makeup, hair, and styling styles change from person to person. Finding the right people who can work with you on a regular basis is extremely important, as their work will play a key factor in how your images will look. A dream team requires failures and time to put together. Be patient, work with people you like and who like you.

If all fails, there’s always a little DIY that can be done by either you or the model. If you don’t have time to learn makeup, models should be able to do their own makeup in most situations, so you can go from there as a starting point before you have a full team.

1.3 Model Release

This is very important and non-negotiable. Without a model release you’re going to run into a lot of problems when you want to publish your work. Get it out of the way upfront, make sure the model has no problem with your release and get it signed after the shoot is done. I usually use a full release, but sometimes with model agencies it will be limited to specific art-related usage like photobook, exhibition, prints, etc.

1.4 Model Search

Finding the right models can be an arduous task. But just like finding a dream team, you have to be tenacious about it. Personally, I go through a few hundred pages of models on ModelMayhem, scout on the streets, ask friends and people I know, and sometimes even ask assistants to model for me or do self portraits.

Model agency is an option too, but rates can get complex and some may not be willing to sign an all-rights release. Keep that in mind when negotiating. And don’t forget, whether you find a person online or in person, always do a casting.

1.5 Lighting and Style

This is a decision you have to make early on. Lighting and post processing are going to be the unifying factors in tying the series together. Even if your theme and concept is consistent, if the style and lighting don’t flow as a series, the images will look like they don’t belong in the same body of work.

I had a number of different influences of art for my series, so I focused on keeping the lighting very soft to create a painterly effect:

Motherland Chronicles #47 – Womb, #49 – Umbral

1.6 Timeline

It’s easy to procrastinate or leave images in backlogs when you’re the only one supervising the final work. Make a deadline for yourself and commit to it — there is no quality without quantity — push yourself to meet each deadline and move on. You can come back and polish up the images at a later date when the project has concluded.

1.7 Budget

There can be a lot of expenses involved in a production, draw up an estimate to get an idea of the big picture. It can be very simple, such as the basic things you know you’ll need each time, for example: lighting rentals, transports, meals, maybe $50-100 for props or set production once in a while. It’s good to know how much you’ll need to complete the series so you can ration expenses accordingly.

1.8 Image Terms

Similar to the model release, you want to mention this upfront with everyone you’re working with. Clarify whether you’ll be publishing images whenever each shot is completed and send them to the team, or if you plan on saving it all for when you’ve completed the project and will be publishing it in book form.

Motherland Chronicles #4 - The Waiting

2. Photoshoot Key Points

The above are what should be established at the beginning of your series to be kept consistent throughout the project. Below, I will address some shoot-specific points, covering my thoughts and work process leading up to each one:

    1.    Inspiration and Research
    2.    Conceptualization
    3.    Mood Board
    4.    Composition Sketch
    5.    Mood and Lighting

2.1 Inspiration and Research

Based on the theme you have decided for your series, research and find things that click with you. It could be ideas, words or images, save them all and create an inspiration stockpile.

From there, you can pick out specific inspirations or ideas, either make a list of images you have in mind to accomplish upfront, or if you’re like me, go off the list based on what you feel like for each new shoot.

Usually one element is enough to serve as inspiration for a shot — it could be a color, an item, a time period, a location. For cataloging, if it’s just an image-based inspiration, making a folder and saving pictures to it is more than enough. If it’s something that requires purchase, rental or scouting, Pinterest is a good idea for bookmarking the things you find. It’s easy to see everything at one go and also keeps the direct links and descriptions for when you need them. (You can also make secret boards so your research is kept private.)

Use Pinterest to keep track of information and links to costumes and props.

One thing to remember for research — stay focused and stick to your original theme — it’s easy to get distracted by new things you discover as you browse and go through links, but not everything that you come across will sit or mesh well with what you’re creating.

2.2 Conceptualization

Based on the inspiration you’re working with, build upon that element to come up with the concept for how the image will look like in your mind.

For example, if you are using a medieval dress, think about the kind of character who will don that, the sort of look she will have and the sort of persona she will carry. Based on her story, think about the type of hair, makeup, accessories and setting that she will be in.

Pull references for each element so you can remind yourself or show your collaborators when those are needed. Images will always convey more easily than words. When it’s all done, tune it realistically to what is achievable and suitable to your lighting and style for the series.

Below is an example from the series inspired by candlelight from Georges de la Tour’s paintings (sourcing for the chamberstick prop can be seen in the Pinterest screencap above):

Motherland Chronicles #46 – The Seer
Georges de la Tour

2.3 Mood Board

Create a folder or presentation with references for the style of hair, makeup and styling for your team. I usually narrow down the references I have from the conceptualization step, just 2-3 images for each person is enough.

It will be a good idea to include some mood references for lighting and composition as well, so your team can have an idea of how you will be shooting the photo.

This is a good time for the team to feedback and make suggestions to you or tell you if something cannot be done, so you can work together on an alternative. Clear communications are extremely important in these, make sure everyone knows what they’re doing.

2.4 Composition Sketch

Composition to me is one of the most important elements in photography. It’s a combination of the model’s pose, your framing, and lighting.

You don’t need mad skills in drawing, and personally I’m only capable of stick-figure sketches, but they serve just as well. It may be a simple scribble, but most of how the image will look takes on a more concrete shape in my head here.

When you’re done, use it as a point of reference for shooting and layout, and your team will also be able to present the best side of the model for that framing. Of course, you don’t have to stick with it 100%. But with these determined beforehand, you will be able to shoot more efficiently and smoothly.

For the triptych “The Three Graces”, I had three incredible Venetian masks from the maker Casin dei Nobili in Venice. Concerned about composition, such as how the images will go well and flow together, sketching out the set was especially important here:

Motherland Chronicles #26, 27, 28 – The Three Graces

2.5 Mood and Lighting 

As I’ve mentioned above, for a series, besides the stylistic direction of the model and clothing, lighting is one thing that should be kept consistent to lock the series together.

If at any time you think you may need to light something differently for any reason, be sure to test it prior to the actual shoot. For my series, I stuck with large light sources for a painterly look in the studio, and often used a large Profoto Deep White Umbrella XL and diffuser, with a mix of black and textured backdrops from Savage Universal for an added painterly touch.

Profoto D1 Air 500 with Deep White Umbrella XL

3. The Photoshoot

With all the pre-production well-prepared, be confident going into the shoot. My advice on set is the same as what I’ve talked about in the previous commercial photoshoot walkthrough post, there are just three things I’d like to add on:

3.1 Details

Personal work is the best place to be a perfectionist. Make sure you have every single element down pat and that they work well together with one another. I personally do 2 looks for each shoot at the very max, and for more complicated setups, one look can easily take 5-7 hours.

Motherland Chronicles #34 – In the Secret Garden

3.2 Take Your Time

If you’re uncertain about something, take your time and work it out. This took me time to learn but I’ve come to realize that I rather not regret not trying something. That’s why working with a team you’re entirely comfortable with and can be understanding is so important. You don’t want to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or rushed if you need a few moments to think about your next step or decision. You don’t want to be done with a shoot and think, ‘I wish I had taken the time to try that different backdrop just now’.

3.3 Model Release

Remember to get model release signed!

4. Post-Shoot

Send images to your team once you’ve finished them. Prepare both high resolution images as well as web-res for social media posting.

Make sure you file away the full credits of your team, as well as documents such as model releases or any agreements and contracts. Good documentation and filing is very important and you will appreciate the time you took to do them when you need it one day.

5. Publicity

The most amount of work you have to do post-shoot is probably publicity. Since it’s personal work, you’re the one responsible for getting it seen and published for your team.

There are many avenues online — such as portfolio galleries like Behance, deviantART, and Flickr, and social media websites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. But you should also prepare a press kit to send to blogs and news sites that feature works with similar themes to what you have done that you like.

If you get featured, share the news with your team! They’d love to know that their efforts are acknowledged and that people love the work you have done together. If the images are featured in print publications, don’t be shy about asking the editor for a hi-res PDF. It will definitely look better than the version you can get with your scanner, and will probably be something good to keep in your portfolio and resume for the future.

And that’s it! I hope you will have a good time shooting some personal work, if not, consider doing so! It’s so especially fulfilling and can be highly enjoyable, as well as being a great learning experience. Once again, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask. And if you’re interested in the personal series I’ve been working on, please check out the images below, the Motherland Chronicles website, and also behind the scenes on my blog!


Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography.

More: photography articles, gear list

Some of the product links in this post will bring you to Adorama and Amazon, where I'll get a small referral fee should you decide to make a purchase. This helps with the time spent on articles for this blog, so please consider supporting the website. Thank you! 

Profoto Blog Series:
- Commercial Photoshoot Walkthrough, from Request to Post-Production / 中文翻译
- Personal Project Walkthrough, from Idea to Realization / 中文翻译
- 14 Steps to Improve Your Photography / 中文翻译
- 15 Tips on How to Break into Fashion Photography
- Top 10 Photography Lighting Tools 
- 14 Tips for Photographers Who Want to Go Pro


Zhang Jingna:

Article first posted on the Profoto Blog, 26th May 2014.

Motherland Chronicles #21 – Her Resting Place

Motherland Chronicles #44 – Germaine

Motherland Chronicles #49 – Umbral

Motherland Chronicles #12 – Winter Rose

Motherland Chronicles #23 – Dive

Motherland Chronicles #38 – A Prayer

Motherland Chronicles #32 – Ea

Motherland Chronicles #41 – From the Ashes

Profoto Blog Series: How to Produce a Commercial Photoshoot, from Request to Post-Production

A while ago, I began writing a series of articles for the Profoto Blog. And because they're super duper nice people, I got permission to repost it on my own page. :D

Here is the first post in case you missed it, I would love to hear what you guys think. Or if you have any questions or a topic you would like to see me cover, do let me know! Thank you for reading~

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is how a commercial photo shoot is done. In this post I’ll be doing a little walk-through of the steps involved in one of my typical productions, from pre-shoot to final product. Whether you’re an upcoming photographer or just a hobbyist, I hope it sheds some light on the behind-the-scenes and you will find it an interesting read.

Before I start, I should also mention that typically for major clients, there is usually a large team of people working on a campaign. In those instances an executive producer will handle everything related to preparing the shoot, and thus often, all that’s needed of the photographer is to prepare his treatment (more on that in a bit), show up, and shoot.

However, for many other jobs, it’s becoming increasingly popular these days for the photographer to quote and execute the full-scale production of the photoshoot themselves. This post will cover a project’s process on this scale.

1. How It Begins – Quotation Request

It begins with a quotation request from the client or advertising agency, for the sake of consistency I’m going to use the agency as contact point in this post. The typical email will include details such as the following:

  • Date of shoot
  • Date of ad launch/deadline
  • Number of images
  • Usage terms (for how long, which medias)
  • Visual reference/layout for how the ad will look like.
  • What they’d like you to include for quotation. (Is it just photography and usage? Or also studio, stylist, hair, makeup, models?)

From here, I’ll use the above as reference to create a checklist after confirming my availability. It’s important that I can commit to the days I’ll estimate to need for production, as well as to be completely available on the date of shoot itself.

Following that, it’s time to request for rates from my team and vendors, the usual costs may include:

  • Studio/equipment/catering
  • Retouching
  • Stylist
  • Wardrobe (the stylist will usually give you an estimate)
  • Hair stylist
  • Makeup artist
  • Model

There may be other things as well of course, depending on the scale and complexity of a shoot. Sometimes you may need a location scout, casting director, or a producer who will assist you in finding the props, things, and people you need, but other times you can probably accomplish those on your own. So while at this, remember to charge a production fee for the days you’re spending on production as well (if you can). After these costs have been added up with your photography rates, you wait to hear back from the agency.

2. The Next Step – Photographer’s Treatment

This happens two ways, sometimes it’s requested during the job bid, sometimes it’s part of pre-production after you’ve been confirmed. (I highly recommend billing 50% upon confirmation.)

For those unfamiliar, the photographer’s treatment is a presentation of your mood boards detailing all the photographic aspects of the shoot, such as:

  • Lighting and mood
  • Color treatment
  • Makeup and hair styles
  • Model’s poses/expressions
  • Camera angles/framing

These will end up being a part of the pre-production deck for client during pre-production meetings, which will also include photos of models, wardrobe, location, call sheet, layouts, etc.

It may sound a little weird to those who’ve never done it before, that the photographer would have to go into detail with the shots in this manner. Hasn’t the client already agreed to what’s in the visual reference anyway?

Well, sometimes it feels like it has been, but sometimes the agency/client just need to make sure you get it too. And sometimes, because we’re good at our jobs, we know exactly what and how that drawing or composite photo mashup will look in our end product (and it’s not going to be exactly like the drawing or photo mashup), so this is to help us express what we’ll be doing before we can provide the finished work for the ad.

The treatment will help avoid misunderstandings and mismatched expectations (I’ll always mention the things I’ll try to achieve, but also highlight the word ‘try’ for more challenging elements. You can’t control 100% of outcome all the time. So do expectation management now.)

3. Casting

When the model agencies send you quotations for the job, they would often have attached packages of their available models already. From there you can shortlist the faces you like and arrange for a casting, don’t be afraid to request for more options if you don’t see anyone that fits the look and feel you’re going for.

I want to emphasize here that casting is an extremely important part of production. In finding the perfect model and face (and attitude!), your job will be a lot easier on set and you’ll achieve great pictures with so much more efficiency. It also ensures you that you’re up to date on exactly how the model looks like and no surprises will happen (imagine if they can’t fit into the clothes)!

4. Your Team

This one is relatively straightforward. You should already have a few regulars you love working with, whether from doing editorials or test shoots. Unless the client requests specific names for the job, there is no reason to try getting someone ‘bigger’ or ‘better’ — your team has stuck with you for editorials and test shoots, you have a good rapport and know exactly how each other work, you want to thank them for their time and ensure you have a supporting team behind yourself. Hire them.

5. Risks and Backups

Almost every shoot will have a small chance of something going wrong, be it camera failure, last minute cancellations, models falling sick, or the studio becoming unavailable. Always make sure you have a backup, a second and third option on hand for someone you can call.

As the productions get larger, there will be more and more external factors to consider. Understand that certain things are simply out of your control, such as weather challenges, location limitations, travel difficulties, etc. Evaluate the risks, discuss your concerns with the ad agency and formulate plans for what to do case things don’t go as planned.

Whatever happens, stay calm and work it out in an orderly fashion. In the absolute, absolute worst case scenario, it will be a lesson learnt so you can prepare and handle it better should a similar situation arise in the future. We all start somewhere and will have to make some mistakes, so long as you learn something from it, it’s not the end. Stay positive!

6. Pre-production Meetings (PPM)

You have finished your treatment presentation, cast and shortlisted the models, confirmed your call time, studio, hair and makeup team, and your stylist has prepared a list of options for wardrobe. You sit down at the meeting with the creative team and client to go over details for your ideas and shooting schedules. These meetings will make sure that everyone is on the same page, so if you have any questions and concerns, address them!

7. Equipment Rentals & Final Checks

When everything has been confirmed, I usually have three checklists I check off from:

  • The crew: pretty much everyone that receives the call sheet, to confirm they know their call times and the shooting schedule (and that the date hasn’t been changed.)
  • The vendors: deliveries, locations, etc. Whether it’s catering, additional equipment/props, or locations we’re renting by the hour, confirm all the bookings.
  • Equipment: a pack list of my own things to bring, as well the rental list for equipment I’ll be using.

Double and triple check you’ve got everything!

8. Pre-light

Once all that is set, the last thing is light test. You may not need to do one if the visuals for lighting and mood are something you do on a regular basis, as you’ll already know all the nuances to those setups quite well. Personally, I like to play around with lighting for both editorials and personal work, so when I know there’s something very specific that I have to get exactly right for for a campaign, I always spend a couple hours at the studio testing the setup. It’s best to be completely prepared for the shoot, you’ll feel better too.

What equipment I use will depend heavily on the approved visuals. There’s a lot that can be done with the same gear just by varying up the set up, ratio, distance, and processing. For me, the quality of light itself depends on just a few quintessential lightshapers I always like to use:

At this point, you’re probably thinking that this list is so because this is a Profoto blog post, which hey, it is. But truth is I’ve been renting Profotos since I started shooting 8 years ago, and after trying a number of different brands, I realized I love the product design and durability of Profotos the best. They are intuitive and easy to set up, and just feel (and are) so much more sturdy and rugged for taking a little abuse on busy sets. The most important factor though, is probably its consistency and reliability. You have no idea how frustrating it is shooting with strobes that skip on flashes during movement shots. It’s bad to happen on an editorial shoot, but devastating on a commercial set, I like keep to quality here at all costs.

And so, usually from the above list, I’ll pick out my key light, find a suitable backdrop, and set up the light test. After some tweaking, changing of backdrops, and sometimes adding and removing lights, I’ll arrive at what is the perfect combination for what I need. I then mark down the positions of light, model, backdrop, and write down my settings. After that, I do a colour processing test on the spot and save the settings to my shooting computer.

It sounds like a lot to do, but my motto is to over-prepare than under. This gives me more confidence and a peace of mind for the actual shoot, and I’ll save time in setting up as well.

9. Shoot Day

It’s your big day! Arrive early, have some coffee, buy some donuts and bites for everyone, we all love some yummy food to start the day. :D

This is where you just do your thing — be confident, you’re thoroughly prepared and ready.

Hang around to check on hair and makeup every now and then just to make sure it’s exactly what you and the client want. Don’t be afraid to pull the model away for light tests. Foundation and products will affect the model’s skin and hair colour and textures in pictures, allowing yourself moments for these tweaks will ensure that there would be minimal downtime when the model’s fully prepped and ready to shoot.

That aside, just remember that your art and creative directors and stylist are your best friends on set. You’ll have each other’s backs should there be any hiccups or problems, stay calm and polite. If you really get upset about something, talk to people privately, sort it out. Tension and bad atmosphere is contagious just as a happy mood is, you don’t want everyone uncomfortable and unable to do their job. Also don’t forget to have assistants time-check to stay on schedule.

At the end of the day (or as you shoot), the art director may have already picked out a selection of shortlisted images. Go over the pictures with them and vote your favourites too, it’s a team project, but it’s your work after all.

10. Post Production

Naturally, how much work there is to be done here depends on the complexity of the visual. Just let your retoucher do their thing (or your thing, if you’re retouching it!), make sure markups and notes for retouching are detailed and clear, and any hours and rounds of revisions that exceed your original quote are billed for. From there on after the final image delivery, the rest is up to the ad agency. (Bill for remaining 50% here.)

11. The Final Things

One last checklist:

  • Get high resolution artwork from ad agency
  • Send files to your team
  • Request for invoices from your team and vendors for those you haven’t paid, pay them

When the campaign is launched, remember to get the high resolution artwork from the ad agency. You may not be a big fan of the ad, it wasn’t shot in your style and you won’t include it in your portfolio, so why bother? Well, you never know when you’ll need something for a pitch or presentation one day. It’s also just good habit to keep an archive of all your work and to stay organized. When I was applying for my O-1 visa two years ago, my commercial portfolio was one of the most important things in the application.

And since we’re on the topic of organization, file all the documents from the shoot as well! I like to keep all the casting details, lighting setups, crew and vendor information saved and organized. Once again, you never know when you’ll need a contact or reference back to an old project one day.

Last but not least, don’t forget to have your team invoice you so you can pay them! Freelancers can get lazy about paperwork, if you let it lapse, it’s only going to become a bigger pain later on. Do it right now!

And that’s it! I hope this was helpful and offers some insights to what goes on behind the scenes from my end. Leave a comment below if you guys have any more questions!


Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography.

More: photography articles, gear list

Some of the product links in this post will bring you to Amazon, where I'll get a small referral fee should you choose make a purchase. This helps with the time spent on articles and the running of this blog, so please consider supporting the website. Thank you!

Profoto Blog Series:
- Commercial Photoshoot Walkthrough, from Request to Post-Production / 中文翻译
- Personal Project Walkthrough, from Idea to Realization / 中文翻译
- 14 Steps to Improve Your Photography / 中文翻译
- 15 Tips on How to Break into Fashion Photography
- Top 10 Photography Lighting Tools 
- 14 Tips for Photographers Who Want to Go Pro

Zhang Jingna:

Article first posted on the Profoto Blog, 3rd April 2014.

Savage Seamless Paper and Muslin Backdrops

Those of you who follow me probably know that I got sponsored by Savage Universal a while ago. I've been using their backdrops for a few years now, and I figure now is a good time as any to give a little review/recap on the on this commonly overlooked element in studio photography. 

Fair warning though, not being too much of a technical person, this is going to be more of a how I use the backdrops than how smooth the paper gradients are in response to my light and stuff. :D

1. The Basics

The first backdrops I bought after moving to New York were black, white and gray. 

Regardless of brand, I think those are the best shades to have for a start as they are so versatile -- you can easily do the whole range of commercial, fashion, and moody. Adjusting the toning and lighting in post is also a lot easier with neutral shades than something that has color. 

Some examples with black and grays: 

Factice Magazine #19 cover, on Savage Fashion Gray Seamless Paper
ELLE Vietnam editorial, on Savage Black Seamless Paper
Sarah Dobson, on Savage Thunder Gray Seamless Paper

2. Monsoon Savage Collapsible Backdrop

The first great addition from to my inventory was the Savage Collapsible Backdrops.

I adore shooting portraits and beauty, and with the collapsible backdrops, I can easily accomplish the background set-ups by myself since they fold and unfold like a giant reflector. 

Savage Collapsibles, canvas backdrops, seamless and paper clips

Considering how often I do self portraits, small shoots and travel, this has made my life significantly easier. The backdrops are all sized at 5x6' and can be easily clipped onto their accompanying 8' stands.

My most frequently used are the Black/White, Light/Dark Gray, and Monsoon

The Black/White and Dark/Light Gray are great for portraits and castings, and as for Monsoon, I've been using it for Motherland Chronicles quite frequently. The shade and design on it is incredibly beautiful to photograph, and adds a painterly touch to a simple image:

MLC #21 - Her Resting Place
MLC #25 - The Raven Girl
MLC #12 - Winterland Fairytales II

3. Black/White Savage Collapsible Backdrop

I probably use the Black/White Collapsible way too much, but I love shooting on black so much and this makes my life so easy. 

The black is especially handy for when I want a completely dark background that has no light reflection.

Here's a direct comparison between the collapsible backdrop and regular seamless paper:

Black seamless paper vs fabric backdrop.

You can see the collapsible is almost completely black as it absorbs light from the strobe, whereas the seamless paper behind it catches and reflects a bit of light. Of course, with distance the light reflection won't be an issue (and you can even use gray or white to drop it to black) but for my little home studio this helps immensely.

MLC #31 - Book of Roses

4. Savage Paper Clip

The Savage Paper Clip is probably my favorite thing ever. It's a storage item that keeps your seamless rolls organized against your wall. 

For a while when I first started buying more backdrops I had difficulties storing everything behind my couch, but thanks to this, I can now keep everything in the little recess right next to my door, making it easy to access while saving space at the same time. 

Plus, I feel so neat every time I walk pass this wall in my room. :D

Seamless rolls clipped onto Savage Paper Clip

Each paper clip comes with an adhesive strip for you to stick the clip to the wall, and has slots for 6 rolls. I cut off one on the side to fit it into my a little corner so there's only 5 rolls here. 

But seriously, my favorite thing in my studio inventory.

5. Verona Hand-painted Muslin Backdrop

I also finally ventured into textured backdrops!

Muslin Backdrops: Verona and Dark Gray

After my experience with the Monsoon collapsible I'd been dying to get my hands on some full-length textured backdrops to shoot. Savage was very kind to send me the Verona and Dark Gray muslins.

Here's the Savage Verona Hand-painted Muslin used in "Ea":

MLC #33 - Ea
This is the first time I've worked with a colored backdrop in a long time too. Check out behind the scenes for the shoot here where I talk about my thought process from inspiration to final.

6. Savage Dark Gray Muslin Backdrop

Once started, it's really hard to not want textures in my backdrops for some reason. They so instantly make my pictures poetic :D 

Phuong My Fall/Winter 2013

This was shot with the Savage Dark Gray Washed Muslin Backdrop. Very subtle and adds a different type of dimension from my usual full-black backgrounds. 

I always find it incredible how a little texture goes a long way in images, whether on clothes, backdrops, image as a whole (done in post), etc... So I'm incredibly happy that I finally got to experiment with these. Thank you Savage for giving me to chance to test these out! ❤

And that's it for now, I hope this post has been helpful to who were wondering about the basics I started shooting with, as well as what I use and how these days. Pleas share if you've enjoyed it! Thank you for reading. :D

Check out more of my photography articles here, and my gear list here.

Some of the product links in this post will bring you to Amazon or my favorite camera retailer Adorama, where I'll receive a small referral fee should you decide to make a purchase. This helps with the time spent on articles and the running of this blog, so please consider supporting the website. Thank you!

8 Tips for Underwater Model Photography

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to shoot underwater in L.A. recently. It was a very wonderful learning experience and so I wanted to share what I learnt! Keep in mind that these tips may only apply to first-timers like I was, but I hope it makes a good read either way. :D

I love water, if you follow my work you know I love putting models near and into water all the time rather frequently. Imagine how excited I was to finally get to shoot underwater for real~ 



Motherland Chronicles #7 - Self Portrait in Water

Having sort-of worked with water in some ways before, I went in to the shoot with some ideas of the type of pictures I wanted to make and planned my shoot based on those. 

If you're not sure about what you want to do, the first thing to do naturally is look up lots of underwater photos and check out the possibilities. Try to pin down a shot or two that you'd like to attempt, then plan your shoot from there.

I'll break the tips down by some of the things I did, difficulties I faced while underwater as well as the stuff Brenda (my wonderful guide/teacher/assistant) advised me on. A list of the equipment I used can be found at the end of this post. 

Tips for Underwater Model Photography

1.  Research & Plan

Before going in to the details, I want emphasize how important research and planning is. It should be a given, but maybe you're like me and sometimes enjoy just winging a shoot, but in this case, keep in mind that when the environment is completely different, it's not quite like simply testing a new light setup.

There will be discomforts, logistics complications, and unexpected difficulties just because it's not everyday that most of us spend a few hours underwater. So make sure to read up as much as you can. It will help you prepare both mentally and logistically, and make your underwater shooting experience a smooth-sailing and fun one.

2.  Rehearse

This is similar to when I do movement shots -- take a few tests and rehearse the movements with the model in the beginning. This will save time and energy as you're looking at the general picture and feel of the pose and framing. The model won't have to school her expressions or make sure her hair and clothes are perfectly in place, those things take 10 times longer to adjust in water than on land, and it gets cold and uncomfortable in water very quickly. You want to conserve her energy as much as possible.

3. Communication

After every couple of dives, give feedback and show the model pictures of what you like and don't. Point out what are great and what can be improved, so she will know to make note on how to better the pose for you. 

4. On Sinking & Floating

Most of the time you'll want to sink for flexibility in angles, but it's difficult and often you'll end up floating more.

Let go of all your breath before you hold it so there's less air in your lungs. Tying some weights to your waist will help staying down easier. And depending on the model's pose, sometimes a weight for her helps as well.

I had weights behind my back initially, but found that moving them to the front helps my dive so I shifted them later.

5. Staying Still/Moving for Shots Will Be Tricky

Some photographers like shooting with a tripod, I like moving around to change my angles and framing organically. This unfortunately doesn't translate well underwater.

It's both difficult to stay still and move in water because, well, it's hard to be still when you're floating, and hard to move/paddle when your hands are occupied with the camera.

The best way I've found for myself is to simply decide a course of movement, go for it, then press the shutter many many times. :D

6. Camera Focusing Issues and Loss of Colors on Model's Skin

This usually happens due to loss of light underwater and being far from the model. Brenda overcomes this by using a 10-17mm on a crop sensor camera so I could move in closer (very close!). 

The problem that arises from this is that every little movement distorts and changes the composition drastically. I use the 70-200mm 95% of the time for my work, so it definitely took some getting used to to shoot with a lens so much wider for a complete shoot. I still want to explore using a long lens underwater in the future, hope it's possible. :(

7. Have Extra Hands

Logistics of shooting underwater is painful. Every little adjustment takes a lot longer than it would on the ground. Depending on your light setup, just for clothes/fabrics alone I think you'll need at least 2 assistants underwater.

I only had Brenda so we had one side of the model covered. I ended up using my feet to adjust the fabrics while trying to stay in place for shots sometimes, it's definitely not ideal and more assistants would've helped the shoot move faster. 

I also attempted directing+paddling with my left hand, but all I managed was hurt my right pinkie finger for trying to balance the entire weight of the camera and a strobe on it. :( 

From our behind-the-scenes video.

8. Shoot Fast or Get Cold

It isn't too bad if the weather is warm and there's lots of sun. But if it's overcast or your pool's in the shade, the water's going to feel pretty cold for your model for long-session shooting.

Get some large towels and bathrobes and keep them by the pool. If you're going to take some time reviewing photos, let your model get out of the water to warm up a little. It's easier for the photographer here because we can keep some body heat in with a wet suit. But don't push yourself if you start getting cold too! Remember to take a break as well.

Most importantly remember to have fun! Shooting underwater can be a little frustrating at times, but it's definitely quite magical, not to mention addictive.

Last but not least, a mini-guide made with thanks to the awesome people on Facebook! -  
- Find water.
- Do not breathe the water. 
- Do not put camera into water unless it's waterproof or has a housing.
- Learn how to swim.

And that's it! I hope this gives a bit of insight to the shoot along with my behind-the-scenes. If you think of any other points or questions please feel free to ask! :D

Once again, special thanks to Jessica, Brenda and Brian for making this shoot happen. ♥

Equipment List:
Housing: Sea and Sea MDX300
Camera: Nikon D300
Lights: Sea and Sea YS-250 Underwater Strobe Flashes
Lens: Tokina 10-17mm
Cables: Custom made by Reef Photo in Florida


Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography.

More: photography articlesgear list

Some of the product links in this post will bring you to Amazon, where I'll get a small referral fee should you choose make a purchase. This helps with the time spent on articles and the running of this blog, so please consider supporting the website. Thank you!

8 Tips for Fashion Photography

Sometime late last year I was approached by PhotoYou Magazine to contribute an article for their winter issue and give some tips on fashion photography. It's been out for a while now so with permission from my lovely editor Valerie Wee here's a repost for those who can't get their hands on a copy. I hope some of you will find it useful!

PhotoYou Winter 2010: Fashion Forward
Photos: Zhang Jingna
Words: Zhang Jingna and Valerie Wee

1. Look and Learn 

Look at images every day. Whether it's photographs or paintings—looking, learning and observing are the key to creating an eye for arresting images. This will form the foundations of your aesthetics and style, from colour palette, lighting, framing, clothing, makeup to model choices.

Always find opportunities to shoot. If you're starting with a single kit lens, learn how the wider and longer ends of the lens differ in terms of effects to your photographs before moving on for more expensive gear. Does it distort the model's proportions? Does it make the scenery look vast and wide? Learn what works best for you, it will help develop give you confidence when working in different situations and also your choice in what you'll need when you buy your next lenses.

2. Simple is Always Best 

Few people are blessed enough to start their photography career with a full team of fantastic stylists, hair and makeup artists. Fashion tests or your initial portfolio work often just need to be simple and classy. Keep the setting and look, such as makeup and styling, clean and light. Grasp the skill of taking really good simple shots before getting more experimental and elaborate in your set-up.

DIY Styling Tip: 

Male models can go topless to make the shot work. For girls, get them into body-con outfits which will accentuate their figures—scoop neck tank tops, tights, high heels no shorter than 5 inches are all great basic items that can get you very strong looks. Alternatively, you can also try a crop jacket and pair of hot pants on her to add variety. Keep the hair simple – worn razor straight or simply pulled back into a bun. You’ll be surprised how chic and sleek going simple can be. 

3. Light and Shadows 

Good lighting, like everything else, comes with experience. It doesn't have to be complicated, but play around with your settings and put together three to four different setups for different looks. To start, master just one light. This will help you go a long way. Always watch out for shadows when photographing. Our eyes catch on to highlights first, but unintended messy shadows can break a shot when reviewed later on. Train your eye to observe what you are shooting in its entirety.

4. Always Cast Your Models 

The purpose of a model portfolio is to help them get jobs, but it can also be misleading.

Professional models usually start modelling from as young as 12 or 13 years of age. Imagine how much their faces and bodies will have changed by the time you see their portfolio photos. You may see bleached blonde hair but she may be sporting raven black when she turns up at your studio; you may be shooting a super skinny '20s flappers look and she's just put on 8 kilograms from a holiday in the last three months. You never know.

So always do a casting or, at the very least, request up-to-date polaroids from the model agency. If you're engaging a freelance model, you can do the same, or make arrangements to meet up for a casual coffee to assess his or her current look.

5. Supervise Hair & Makeup 

Always be around when hair and makeup are being done. Knowing what the colour palettes are can help you determine how you set up your shot. Try to stay invisible and don’t get in the way of your beauty team. Step in when something is off from your expectations or direction. You will learn and eventually know what works best for your shoots after a few sessions. And when you work with new teams on jobs, you’ll be able to give direction, as well as learn new things at the same time.

6. Clothes Must Be Seen 

Fashion photography is about aesthetics and trends.

Fashion is about selling the latest season's clothes and accessories. It's about making people covet what the model is wearing. Are you shooting a picture that makes you want the clothes for yourself, for your best girlfriends or for your boyfriend?

As a general rule in fashion photography, make sure your lighting always accentuates the texture and beauty of the materials—the lustre of silk, the sheerness of chiffon, the sparkles in gems and precious stones. These details will heighten the beauty and quality of an image itself.

7. Keep a Journal

It doesn’t have to be a public blog, but you should have a place where you can jot down experiences from pre-productions, meetings and photoshoots.

You don’t have to do it diligently, but whenever there's a good or bad shoot, there's something you're bound to have learnt.

Write down all the stuff you thought was cool, things you felt ruined an important shot or even the whole project; approaches you felt were bad initially but turned out great, the positive and negative experiences, miscommunications, oversights, joy, etc.

From time to time, go back and read up on these reflections. Sometimes it will send you harsh reminders of mistakes not to be repeated, and sometimes it will help you see things in a fresh perspective.

The best part is that it will help you realize and appreciate the extent to which you have progressed. And because we are always changing, and that sometimes we forget the rawness, newness and passion of our earlier days, it's a great way to look back at those times and perhaps be re-inspired once again.

8. Be Confident, Be Humble

Take advice and suggestions from others, but be confident of your vision. Everyone in your team looks to you to achieve the final product—the photograph. You may have a client, an art director, or an editor to turn to for opinions, but you must know deep down inside that you're the creator of your work.

Collaborate with people whom you respect and who respect you in return. Believe that no matter the circumstance, you will shine in the photograph because everybody sees the world differently, and is what will set your images apart from someone else's.

Remember there is always room for reinvention and newness, and only with a humble attitude and belief for constant learning will you keep moving forward. Always stay true to yourself, always keep learning.


Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography.

More: photography articles, gear list

Last but not least here's a picture of me freezing in the Toronto cold. Photo by Conan Thai.

PS: If anyone's interested, I'll do a meetup this weekend?

PPS: Plugging for my SC2 clan, we're on NA server looking for good master players to practice with. Feel free to come to channel "iS" to hang out, see you there~ XD

Equipment and Where The Money Comes From

People discover my work everyday, and often times I hear assumptions about how my images must be accomplished a large boatload of money. It would be very nice if it were true, so for those who struggle and wonder, I hope to share a little of my background and story with you.

I bought my first camera when I was 18. It was a Canon 350D with kit lens that cost roughly 1000USD. I paid for it myself.

Growing up, my family wasn't very well off. My parents argued about money, and often. I remembered once when I was 4 or 5, I was so scared and angry in the next room when they were fighting, I swore to myself that day, that I'd become financially independent as soon as possible and then forever, so I'd never be a burden or need to rely on anyone again. Ever.

When I was 8, I started doing little arts and crafts things to sell to classmates at school—hand-carved eraser stamps, drawings, embroidered birthday cards. When I was 15, I made Singapore's national air rifle team. This allowed me to win prize money through winning international championships and games. I saved what I received from the Sports Council's yearly reviews, happy that I could pay for my own food now. And sometimes, I'd spend some on artbooks which I think were fundamental to my artistic development.

The savings grew and stayed mostly untouched. It was enough to know that I lightened the burdens my mother carried in bringing up my little sister and me on her own, even if just for a little bit.

And then when I turned 18—not that I buy into birthday significances too heavily or anything—I thought, hey, I've been saving for a while now and I'm kind of interested in trying out photography, and just maybe, it's ok to get something for myself this one time. So I bought the 350D as a gift for my birthday.

Fast forward a few years, these days, a second hand entry-level DSLR goes for less than US$500. Sets of older, but very usable models are even more affordable. For someone new to photography, the latest models of cameras aren't a necessity in my opinion, so I think this sum is rather manageable. (For example, if I saved the 50 cents of allowance I had each day from primary school, it would only take me about 3 years. And since it's not something pertinent to my survival, I think that's pretty okay.)

As for students, with the popularity of photography, I want to believe that most parents would be happy to purchase a new camera for their child in return for good grades and/or behavior. If they won't, a few weeks of part-time through summer break should do it too. Just don't splurge on parties, clothes, coffee, alcohol and all the stuff that suck cash away. At the end of the day, it really boils down to how much we want something and if we're willing to work for it.   

I also find it pretty cool to think about how I could work to get something I want for myself. The process of it is like a dedication and you'll treasure it so much more when you've bought it with your hard-earned money.

Here are some shots taken using the 350D + kit lens with natural/ambient light:

Shot at my school's garbage dump for easy clean-up post-shoot. Nothing to do with Twilight whatsoever.

Self Portrait - The moment after

Days of Our Lives

Headphones are Stylish.

The Kit Lens

I had some questions in the beginning, just like everyone else—whether an expensive lens would make my photos better, whether getting strobes would help, whether working in a studio would make a photo more awesome, whether any or all of the above were really absolutely necessary in taking good pictures.

Sure, all of these things definitely make a difference, but as a beginner with barely trained eyes, there was a lot to learn with just the kit lens. 18-55mm is a pretty good range, so after a friend's advice, it was what I stuck with for a long time.

My First Light

Something else that was interesting to explore was working with a single light source. I got myself a second hand 1kw Arri hotlight from a friend for US$500, and experimented with it plenty and learnt lighting that way. You'd be surprised at how much you can do with just one light alone. (When I had jobs, I rented Profotos, Bowens, and Elinchroms.)

Here are some shots done in my family's living room with one light. I always had to clear our sofa away, but it made just enough room for all of these:


This Side Up.

Newspapers are Good for You



Other Lights & Lenses

A cheap studio kit costs less than US$200 now. If you're not going for studio looks, a 50mm f/1.4 (US$350) could be a great investment for ambient/location shooting too. (I use an f/1.8

which is $120). There's a lovely depth of field when the aperture is wide open, and you'll get these really beautiful blurred out backgrounds and bokehs. (No examples with the 350D here, I didn't get a prime lens till much later.)

All in all, in the first year, I'd say it's mostly about learning framing and how to work with what light you have than anything else.


The technical aspect aside, wardrobe was pretty much just stuff from my closet. It helped that I was doing fashion design and had a bunch of things from sewing classes that were perfect for layering for photography. But if you don't sew, stores like H&M, Uniqlo and Zara offer a wide range of basics you can buy to work with.

I talked about it a little in my fashion photography tips post, feel free to check it out. :D If all fails, (like my super super early pictures) just do self portraits, use the model's own clothes, use no clothes. If you know how to make it work with basic things, imagine the wonders you can do with resources down the road!


Starting from the most basic, there's the usual photo-processing software that comes with the camera you purchase. I knew a professional photographer who used Canon's Digital Photo Professional to process his pictures, so don't scoff at the free stuff. But if you want to move on to Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, or other programs, you are definitely encouraged to try them out.

For me, I use Lightroom for cataloguing and colours because it's super user-friendly for organization and you can use it for processing easily. The student edition costs only US$79. (Lightroom 6 has also just been announced!)

And that's it! US$900 is pretty much all you need to start, and enough to last a while. It's not free, but it's nothing so astronomical that you can't work and save for if you want to make an effort. Like the saying goes, "If there is a will, there is a way."

I hope this post helps and clears up some of the mysteries! You are also totally allowed to judge my bad PS skills on these very ancient pictures. 18 feels like a lifetime ago now.

I'll do a part two if anyone's interested to see the rest of my equipment upgrade journey? Now back to packing~~


What Do I Use Now?

Seeing as how I haven't written a part two after four years, here's the quick breakdown on my upgrade journey (see my full gear list below):

After the 350D, I upgraded twice:

1. 5D one year after I got my 350D.
2. 1Ds Mark III one year after the 5D.

I still use the 1Ds Mark III today, 7 years later. 

Update 2: 

Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography, or subscribe to my Patreon, where I create exclusive new content on a monthly basis.

More: my photography articles, and gear list

Some of the product links in this post will bring you to Amazon, where I'll get a small referral fee should you choose make a purchase. This helps with the time spent on articles and the running of this blog, so please consider supporting the website. Thank you!