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How to Shoot Swimwear like Victoria’s Secret’s Russell James – (Part 2: The Setup)

In Part 1, we set out to study Russell James’s collaborations with Victoria’s Secret, which has defined modern swimwear/bikini photography. His beach portraits softly backlit, emphasizing a shallow depth of field, while bringing out a flirty yet classy feel. In this part, we will discuss his setup and the gear you can buy to achieve that look.

Russell’s Lighting Setup

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Russell’s assistant is holding a 6′ x 8′ California Sunbounce Reflector Panel. The aluminum support frame is necessary to combat the ever present wind from the sea. A large floppy would work in a pitch, but you’ll have to fight it like a kite.

The best way to learn from pros is to apprentice for them. And if we can’t do that, the next best thing is to look at the behind the scenes videos. As with any messy beach shoot where the elements like sand, wind, and sea water is working against your favor, Russell’s setup is straight forward and effective.

The basic sunny setup. A single white or silver reflector is set to camera right or camera left to fill in shadows from the sun.
The basic sunny setup. A single white or silver reflector is set to camera right or camera left to fill in shadows from the sun.

The basic setup on sunny days is to shoot the model against a backlight sky, while using a white or silver reflector next to the camera. The reflector is to fill shadows on the face and to give a bit more shine on the model’s oiled up skin.

Russell uses the ultra high end Briese parabolic light focusing reflectors.
Russell uses the ultra high end Briese parabolic light focusing reflectors.

On cloudy days or when the sun has set a little too much, a reflector isn’t going to do much good. In those circumstances, Russell uses a single portable light to really pop the model from the background.

The basic cloudy or low light setup. A single strobe, diffused by an octobox, set to camera right or camera left to fill in shadows from the sun.
The basic cloudy or low light setup. A single strobe, diffused by an octobox, set to camera right or camera left to fill in shadows from the sun.

An important aspect of either the sunny or cloudy setup is to watch where you place the sun, because obviously that’s going to be another important light source. Depending on which coast you are on and the time of day you are shooting, there is only so much you can control in terms of the sun.

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Russell prefers to shoot backlit portraits which lights up the hair and skin very nicely. This is also easier on the model’s eyes as she does not have to stare directly into a bright light.

One note on using a reflector. A silver reflector bouncing sunlight onto a model’s face can be incredibly bright. It’s almost as bad as staring into the sun itself, so if your model is straining to keep her eyes open, use the 1-2-Open trick. Have her eyes closed until you say open and then click the shutter. This will make her eyes much more comfortable throughout the day.

The Gear

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An assistant holding a California Sunbounce Reflector Panel. Notice the light frame, the hand holds, and most importantly, the gaps in the material for which the assistant can aim the light.

Russell’s main reflector is a California SunbounceThis is pretty much the industry standard in terms of outdoor reflectors. A lightweight aluminum frame supports a reflective fabric that an assistant can easily handle in windy conditions. It comes in a variety of sizes but unfortunately, most are quite pricey (from $400-800 depending on the size). Fortunately, there are alternatives.

5-in-1-oval-reflector

For our VS style shoots, we used a collapsible 40″x 60″ 5-in-1 Oval Reflector that only cost $33. However, there are definitely sacrifices. The collapsible reflector bends to the wind so this makes aiming it very difficult in windy conditions. There are no hand grips so just holding it can wear out the assistant.

Alternatively, Cowboy Studio has an Oval 5-in-1 Reflector with hand grips. However, they only come in 24″ x 36″ so they throw a smaller and harsher light than the bigger reflector. While I have no personal experience with these, I suspect they will work well for upper body shots while the larger reflectors would work better for full body shots.

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The high end Briese Parabolic Light Focusing Reflectors. 140 means 140CM which is about 55″.

As for the outdoor lighting, Russell uses the exotic Briese Parabolic Light Focusing Reflectors. I suspect most mortals will not mortgage a set of Briese reflectors anytime soon, rentals maybe, but purchases are probably out of the question. There are other high-end alternatives such as the Broncolor Para 133, but even those are almost $5000.

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A high-powered bare bulb strobe that works well in and outside of a studio. In bright setting such as the beach, your Canon 580EX II or Nikon SB-910 is pretty much going to be useless.

At around $400, a viable and affordable outdoor strobe would be the Godox AD360 bare bulb high-powered strobe with the external battery pack. These work great in bright sunlight where most regular camera flashes will simply not be powerful enough. Combined with the speedlight softbox that attaches directly onto the AD360 unit, these are an another industry workhorse that most photographers can easily afford.

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Last but not least, don’t forget the baby oil. Baby oil tones and slims the body while accentuating sexy curves. A $5 bottle can change a flat photo to something spectacular. Have the model apply a thin layer on curved surfaces like shoulders, collar bones, thighs, the cleavage, knees, and hips. Splash water on the skin after the baby oil and reapply between takes.

The Need for Lighting Assistants

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You’re pretty much have to ask a friend or hire a lighting assistant for a proper beach shoot. Somebody will need to hold and aim the reflector or light. Wrangling a reflector on a stand in the wind is not going to work. So bite the bullet, beg a friend or hire an assistant off of Craigslist, and do the shoot properly. Thank them afterwards, buy them beers, and credit them in your published photos.

Conclusion

How did this setup work out? In Part 3, I will discuss the several test shoots I’ve done with this setup, go in-depth with the flash settings, and show you guys the results I’ve obtained. Stay tuned.


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