If I could sum up my dream photographic aesthetic in two words, I’d have to say Vanity Fair. Elegantly lit people, amazing dresses, sumptuous locations… ohhh, total heaven!
You don’t need to have the huge budgets of the big commercial photographers to be able to shoot in this style… here are a few tips to get you started.
First, let's understand perspective.
The biggest secret to the Vanity Fair look is actually a trick of perspective.
Let me explain, using an old painting as an example…
This is by Cornelis de Vos, a Flemish painter from the 17th Century. At first glance, the perspective seems normal, right?
Now try this.
Cover the whole image, and *just* look at the woman on the far right.
Notice how she’s still quite well-proportioned? You could crop out the rest of the figures, and she would still look totally balanced.
So far so good...
... but hold a second. We're not painters, we're photographers. And if we were photographing this scene, we'd have to use a pretty wide lens, right? Say, something between 24-50mm?
So... let's pull out a 24mm lens and photograph this scene.
See how stretched the people on the sides are now, while the ones in the middle stay more normal-looking? This is exaggerated quite a bit in Photoshop… but the point is the difference between how our minds and cameras interpret the same scene.
Our eyes automatically correct for perspective distortion, but cameras don't.
Are you with me still? xx
We're now going to look at a Vanity Fair editorial, and notice something similar going on.
This one is by the legendary Annie Leibovitz, who is famous for this technique. Pay close attention to the perspective:
None of these subjects is distorted either! By all rights, there should be massive distortion over at the sides… but it’s just not there.
Two artists, several hundred years apart, using the same perspective tricks. Cool, isn't it?
So how do we do it?
A bit more on this later, but the trick is basically to avoid perspective distortion.
That means we want the people on the edges to look as normal as the ones in the middle.
So, how do we do this?
Well, unfortunately the answer isn't super simple. In fact, the only way is to photograph each person individually and then stitch the frames together later.
More on that in a moment, but before we do, there's one more thing to look at:
Now let's examine the lighting...
Take another look at the family in the first painting.
This time, try to figure out where the light is coming from.
The shadows seem to suggest that the light is coming from a window on the left...
… but if that were the case, you’d expect that people would get darker, the further they are from the light. In fact, they actually seem to get brighter!
It’s clear that de Vos was making up his lighting.
Why? It simply made a better picture. No point in having half the figures in darkness.
Now look at the Annie Leibovitz image again. See how perfectly lit each face is?
They’ve made light fall into areas where it shouldn’t fall… and shadows disappear where they should be prominent.
This is what makes the images feel so painterly and ‘Vanity Fair’.
Now let's make an actual Vanity Fair-inspired image...
The image above is one I created for The Court Theatre several years ago to promote one of their shows.
This was stitched together from 11 different photos. 10 of the actors, and one of the background.
I wanted the Vanity Fair look, but we were in a really small room. To fit everyone into the shot would have required a 24mm lens.
But remember what I explained earlier about distortion?
A 24mm lens would have meant the people on the sides would look stretched out and weird.
The only way to prevent that was to photograph each person individually, front-on, and then stitch the photos together later.
Lighting the image.
Annie Leibovitz has huge lighting rigs, but you can still achieve a lot with a little. For the image above the same single beauty dish lit each person.
A small orange-gelled speedlight hidden in the lamp also gave a subtle backlight to each person.
The most painstaking part of creating images like these is the Photoshopping. There is no magic button that will seamlessly join them… just a lot of laborious masking, cloning and colour grading.
The image above took about 6 hours of Photoshopping to make the final effect seem seamless.
Grading was a really simple combination of gradient masks and the channel mixer in Photoshop.
Best of luck as you create your own images. x