By Kenneth Kao and Marlo Fisken
One thing I frequently hear from fans of my photography (Pole Ninja Photography) is that I'm lucky to work so frequently with a model like Marlo. "Your images are incredible! Of course, your model is Marlo," is the typical phrase. It sounds like an excuse for poor photography, though I know (hope) no one means that -- but the fact is they are right: a model can make or break an image.
Working with her from the beginning of my career has definitively taught me about posing and angles and lighting, and I thought I'd ask her in an interview-style blog exactly what makes her modeling so on-point.
KEN: How do you come up with your costumes for a photo shoot?
MARLO: Costume is a very important part of creating a character. You cannot look like a mythical forest-dweller if you're wearing a sports bra. So, if I'm simply wearing a sports bra, I make a pose that suits -- I focus on the "shape." But, if I want to create character, the first thing I think about is location. I research and visualize it. I ask, what clothing suits the landscape? Am I from a particular era? That being said, a huge number of my "dresses" are pieces of fabric safety-pinned to my body. When in a natural setting, the strongest choice is often an airy, solid-colored fabric.
From my experience, skin is also an important part of costuming. Thus, what should be exposed? How does my particular skin-tone look and how will it contrast with the landscape? When costuming, both contrast (such as being flowy in a harsh place) and blending (such as wearing green in a green place) can work--but the wrong outfit can be confusing or off-putting to the viewer. I think about what textural contrast my outfit has and if the materials will pick up light. If I have no idea where I'm shooting, my outfit has to be so strong that it is a place of its own, like a fashion editorial, or so minimal/basic that it will just show me as I am, such as a black or nude leotard.
KEN: When you're on location, how do you make the location more than just a backdrop?
MARLO: The first thing I look at is the environment. When I enter a place, I'm either a creature (even if human) in its natural habitat, or I'm a stranger discovering it. To create a striking image, it's important to touch the environment: I play with the ground, seek things to lean on, hang from, or gaze at. By being photographed, I am demonstrating a relationship with the environment. I use the opportunity to show how I feel about the place.
Interaction also provides "proof" I was there. The wind in my hair, dirt on the bottom of my dress, the goosebumps of wet skin. This creates engagement because people can see it's real. After all, if there's no interaction with the environment, why shoot on-location? I always try to feature the most unique elements of the environment I'm in, which sometimes does means suffering more.
KEN: Do you come prepared with specific poses?
MARLO: I don't think about a specific pose, because it makes the image exactly that, "posed." In most cases -- even if it's subtle --motion photographs better than posed (though some locations ask for statuesque shapes). Muscles do engage differently in movement. Unnecessary or unnatural tension can be seen in the image when things are held rather than moved through.
I also move a little slower than usual, even when "not posing", because Ken might see something and whip up the camera at any second. It is also usually best to "cheat" the face toward the camera, just a little. In this sense, the tiniest shifts in the head and chest can make all the difference.
KEN: What's in frame is very important to me as a photographer. How do you utilize space as a model?
MARLO: First, I look at a test picture (or several), for angles alone, and I decide how to fill the space. It's not "filling" as in covering the image, but I look for where the "blank spaces" are and how I can position my body within those blank spaces while not obstructing important features. What lines don't I want to interfere with? For example, if a shot has the bottom 2/3rds in shadow, and the upper in light, it's probably better to stay within the dark portion so the impact of my body and outfit creates a stronger contrast.
Knowing what spaces I'm filling gives me ideas for body orientations. I try to maintain negative space to "see through" and define me. For example, I maintain the space between my chin and the top of my shoulder, or my arm and the side body. I put space between my fingers or toes. And my base--whatever part of me is in contact with the ground--is really important. If I'm in a lunge, and my heel comes off the ground, I lift it as high as possible. In-betweens (so to speak) don't work when talking about the contact points with the ground. If there's a possibility of creating negative space, I apply it.
A photo is a two dimensional image, but generally I want to create three dimensionality. This is another type of negative space: the space in front of me (toward the camera) and behind me (further from the camera). I have to think about my shape and energy projecting toward (or intentionally away) from the camera.
Much of this is also up to the photographer. I work with the photographer by staying aware of lines and space, but while negative space comes in the form of my body lines, there is a global negative space that's just as important and up to them. I try to give the photographer time to move around to find the best framing for the environment, body, and lighting.
KEN: How do choose where to put energy in your body during a photo shoot?
MARLO: I think about how much tension is appropriate for each character. Does softness or hardness make more sense? Is it just one part of the body that's strong while the others are supple? Tension makes a statement. Sometimes positions I'm holding require a great deal of muscular energy, but most images need me to display ease in my face, neck, and hands (you can't really Photoshop away strain). In other situations, I need to energize parts of my body. This is called "projection" in the movement world. If I'm too soft, it doesn't carry energy into the spaces around me.
The truth is that most often, the simplest of poses look best. If I can't control the tension of a pose, then the chances of getting a usable photo are much less.
KEN: Do you have any tips for working with lighting?
MARLO: Striking pictures are often striking because of contrast between light and shadow. As the model, I use the light as something to interact with. In a natural setting, much depends on available light (which rapidly changes), so adaptability is important. I pretend the light sources are second cameras. If I angle my face towards the light, it can eliminate (often unflattering) shadows. If I turn away, more shadows hide my face. I may not know all the precise ways the light affects the image, but playing with it rather than blocking the light is most important.
Hair placement is also important. Hair often blocks light and creates shadows across the face. There are rare times where hair and its shadows on my face enhance the image, but usually not. This is difficult to manage in windy conditions. I'm constantly battling with hair and costume on location, but it's worth it because if important parts of my body are blocked, the image loses impact.
KEN: Lastly, where did you learn all this?
MARLO: I didn't really have training in modeling, but I think that as a lifetime dancer, these are the same questions you confront when creating movement and choreography. In a sense, being a self-directed model is like choreographing a photo. Even in my professional modeling experiences, there was an art director on set, but they left it to me to make the shapes.
Thanks for reading, and I hope to shoot with you soon!
-- Pole Ninja Photography