How to Shoot Swimwear Like Victoria’s Secret’s Russell James – (Part 3: The Results)

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we explored how Victoria Secret and Russell James pretty much defined modern day bikini/swimwear photography. After six beach shoots spanning from Malibu, California all the way up to Vancouver, Canada, we got a nice tan, almost dropped a flash into the Pacific ocean, and left with a greater appreciation for Russell’s art and craft.

russell james behind the scenes06

To reiterate, the core of Russell’s genius is his artistic vision and playful vibe when working with the models. His style is sexy, healthy, and wholesome. His style is an inspiration to us at iLHP and though no one can replicate Russell besides Russell himself, we do hope to share our own interpretation.

A Shallow Depth of Field

Yaroslava Kharchenko basking in the sun on a Malibu beach. Processed in Lightroom with the “VS Style Strong Matte +1EV” preset, available below.

Russell’s style is defined by a shallow depth-of-field so shoot wide-open with you 50mm or 85mm portrait lens. A 135mm will work great also but we found that we were a bit too far from the model and a lot more shouting was involved.

Yaroslava Kharchenko and Candice Swanepoel. The stunning Yaroslava wearing TeenyB Bikinis at Malibu, California. Processed in Lightroom with the “California Sky +1EV” preset, available below.

Bring along a set of ND filters so you can keep your shutter speeds at reasonable speeds. I used very dark ND8 filters in front of my lenses so if I needed to use flash, my shutter would not exceed my non-TTL flash’s maximum sync speed of 1/160. If you use high-speed sync, you can make due with lighter ND filters.

Back Lighting and Spot Metering

The stunning Heather Noelle frolicking on the beach. Processed in Lightroom with the “California Sky” preset, available below.

Russell’s images are most often backlit so I shot with my camera on spot metering mode. I metered for the model’s face, locked exposure with the AE-Lock button, and then recomposed accordingly.

Madison R. is a new model based out of Vancouver, Canada. Processed in Lightroom with the “California Sky” preset, available below.

Sometimes, the backlighting can be overwhelming to the point that your model becomes washed out. To make your model pop and her skin glow, some sort of key light is absolutely necessary. I found reflectors to be much more useful than strobes when the back light is strong enough.

Colors and Tones

Madison R. and Candice Swanepoel. Processed in Lightroom with the “VS Style Overcast” preset, available below.

Like the color grading of the many Hollywood movies, Russell’s shots stereotypically balance blue and orange. The blue of the water serve as a backdrop against the golden orange tan of the model.

Processed in Lightroom with the “California Sky +1EV” preset, available below.

Since not all beaches are blessed with crystal clear warm waters and not all models will have sun-kissed bronze skin, it is important to work around your limitations through post-processing and some photographic trickery like slightly underexposing the subject.

Keeping your Models Comfortable

Processed in Lightroom with the “Strong Matte” preset, available below.

As I’ve said time and time again, your model determines 75% of your end images. We’d like to take much of the credit, but the truth is, the model is doing most of the work. So keeping your model comfortable and looking after her well-being, allows her to perform at her best.

Our perpetual sunny weather let's us shoot basically any time of the year. Here, we shot Amy Victoria in early May on a particularly cold afternoon. She was so professional despite the conditions.
Our perpetual sunny weather let’s us shoot basically any time of the year. Here, we shot Amy Victoria in early May on a particularly cold afternoon. She was so professional despite the conditions. Processed in Lightroom with the “California Sky” preset, available below.

Bring warm and comfy blankets for your model. California has gorgeous beaches but our sea is cold. Anytime your model is in the shade or in the water, her body temp will drop. So do short takes, and have plenty of short breaks to warm up.

Pamela Kate in front of the North Shore mountains in Vancouver, Canada. Processed in Lightroom with the “Strong Matte +1EV” preset, available below.

Keeping hydrated is also crucial because heat-stroke and dehydration can creep up on you and your model. One of Russell’s key ingredients is his working relationship with his models, so developing your own routine and style is the first step to creating great images.

Working Within the Elements

The beautiful Hannah Linderman, model from Michigan, based out of Vancouver, and soon to be New York. Processed in Lightroom with the “California Sky +1EV” preset, available below.

This goes hand in hand with the former. Despite its vacation-worthiness, beaches are some of the most hostile places to do photo shoots. You’ve got the fine powdered sand that will get absolutely everywhere, some of which I still have from Thailand lodged in my camera bag. You’ve got the sea mist, which is atomized salt water in the atmosphere, ready to corrode raw metals. Then you’ve got the tide which will topple you and your model over with no warning whatsoever.

Processed in Lightroom with the “California Sky +1EV” preset, available below.

So my advice to you is, protect your gear, work slowly but deliberately, and watch for changing conditions. One of the major elements you’d have to battle is the wind. Strong wind will not only determine which way your model’s hair blows, but it’ll turn your reflector into a giant kite with your assistant being its passenger.

All in the Post Processing


We’ve found that for these swimwear portraits and more so than our other other tutorials, mixing and fine tuning the color channels made the most difference in achieving the Victoria’s Secret style look. Instead of having you guess and figure out how each of my photos were processed, I’m simply going to share the presets I’ve created and used for my VS style shoots.

  • “California Sky” – This is the default Victoria’s Secret style look, bringing out golden tanned skin against the blues of the water. Much of the magic happens in the custom color channel mixers.
  • “Strong Matte” – This preset is based off of the California Sky preset but with an adjusted tone curve to give it a slightly edgier feel. It remains clean and without grain.
  • “Overcast” – We’re particularly proud of this one. When the sun is hiding behind clouds, this preset will cut through the dullness and put a lot of pop back into the beach portraits. It is also very slightly matte.
  • “Monochrome” – This B&W preset completely remixes the color channels to bring out porcelain skin while keeping the sand and background dark for ultimate contrast and detail.


The VS Style preset package includes 10 presets. Each of the three presets described also comes with a +1EV version and +2EV version for photographers purposely underexposing their portraits for post processing and they work great with ND filters. The presets are designed for RAW files, your experience may vary when processing JPGs. A slight -1EV underexposure in-camera is recommended for these presets. These presets work in Lightroom 4/5/6+. Earlier versions of Lightroom are not supported unfortunately.

For this three part series, I’ve estimated my out of pocket costs to be about $850, which includes travel and logistics of getting to location. Your purchase of the $10 preset package is greatly appreciated. The Buy Now button takes you to Paypal, after which you should automatically receive an email with instructions to download the 10 presets in a zip file. If you have any questions about the presets, please feel free to email I will personally return your email as soon as I can.


The iLHP Guarantee: We want you to be very satisfied with your purchase. We realize sensor profiles can differ between camera brands. So in some rare situation, if you can’t quite achieve the same results as we have illustrated above, send in (1) RAW file with your typical camera settings and full metadata to and we will help you customize the presets to your camera sensor within 24 hours. Please buy with confidence. 

Final Thoughts

This wraps up our final part of our Victoria’s Secret’s Russell James series. A huge thank you goes out to all of the models who braved the elements while looking beautiful. Here is a slideshow showcasing other photos taken during this series.

Models in this Article: Amy Victoria, Yaroslava Kharchenko, Heather Noelle, Hannah Linderman, Pamela Kate, Madison R

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