Themed photo shoots

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Themed photo shoots

Why do we take photographs? To keep hold of those special moments is usually the first answer to this question – “to capture every moment” as it says on my t-shirt from Photokina. But that’s not all. Capturing what is actually there forms just one aspect of photography but so much more is possible: Through photography we are capable of producing completely new images, moments and stories, transforming our imagination into reality and becoming more creative both in ourselves and in what we do.
Themed photo shoots where the model has the chance to slip into somebody else's shoes for a while is one good example. Who hasn't dreamed at some time or other of transforming themselves into Holly Golightly from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, an unscrupulous Mafia boss or a dangerous but beautiful vampire bride?
In contrast to traditional portrait shooting, themed photo shoots can offer you more possibilities to playfully influence the visual concept. However, there are also some things that need to be taken into account. This article aims to provide you with a few tips and ideas.

Selecting a theme

Professional photographers will naturally cater to the wishes of their customers. But if you want to carry out a themed photo shoot privately for yourself, there are an almost unlimited set of possibilities and you can end up being spoilt for choice. If you find yourself in this situation it may help to let your inner child come to the fore: Who have you always wanted to be, or with whom do you identify? Do you have a favourite superhero, film character or era? In my case – and yes I am already over 30 – it is the archer Katniss Everdeen from “The Hunger Games”. Here are a few other ideas to provide you with inspiration:

  • Epochs: roaring twenties, swinging sixties, the Middle Ages, ancient history
  • Films: Sin City, Kill Bill, Alice in Wonderland, Pulp Fiction, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Great Gatsby, Twilight, Batman, Moulin Rouge, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Star Wars
  • Fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood (yes, even these sorts of characters can be styled in a sexy and artistic way), Snow White, The Snow Queen
  • Fantasy: elves, fairies, vampires, zombies, magicians


Outfits and accessories

When it comes to whether anyone who looks at your photographs will recognise the theme at first glance, these so-called “props” are decisively important. Therefore, it is a good idea to research the theme carefully again in advance: Watch your favourite film again, carry out a Google image search or search for suitable key words on photographic platforms such as 500px or Pinterest. Alice in Wonderland will be easily recognisable, for example, by using playing cards, a tea set, a hair bow and a blue dress. In the case of my archer Katniss, I didn't orientate the shoot quite so closely towards the film because I also wanted to integrate a few elements from the Middle Ages. The result was a sort of hybrid between Katniss and a forest fairy – also a good theme.
Either way, procuring the accessories does not have to degenerate into a costly battle to obtain the right materials! Many of the items can already be found at home or easily crafted yourself. And if it is necessary to purchase something, online auction houses or fancy dress shops can be real treasure troves.

The environment

You can hold themed photo shoots at home in front of a studio background, especially when the photographs focus on the face and make-up or you want to add a background later. However, typical surroundings often make a great contribution to the atmosphere: It would be preferable to locate a Medieval warrior in a forest clearing, while an unkempt cop in the style of Sin City would be best staged in front of a shabby big city backdrop in the rain or snow – and later converted into a black and white image. A city park or a street light will often suffice if the image section is cleverly selected. When the environmental conditions then interfere with the model – wind in their hair, rain in their face – it's even better.

Equipment and lens

To achieve an atmospheric series of photos that tell a story, it is important to take both wide-angled shots of the whole scene as well as portrait and close-up photos. However, as you will want to be able to catch any beautiful moments, looks and poses quickly and without having to laboriously change the lens every time, a zoom lens will be ideal. My tip for a themed photo shoot is the 24-70mm f/2.8 from Tamron because it can deliver interesting wide-angled perspectives just as beautifully as it can portraits and close-ups with a creamy bokeh. Here are three example photos with focal lengths of 24mm, 50mm and 70mm:

The open aperture of f/2.8 enables you to not only play with the depth of field but also to photograph in a dimly lit autumnal forest or in front of a gloomy big city backdrop. Furthermore, if you are photographing people in motion, it is important to avoid the exposure time becoming too long. A special feature of this class of lens is that the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 can also fall back on its optical image stabiliser. Although this doesn't protect you against fidgety models, it can prove very helpful during outdoor shoots if your hands are trembling in the cold and there are poor lighting conditions. As a result, the operating range for this lens is generally increased.
If you want to use a stand, a monopod is recommended as it offers more flexibility. An additional memory card and reserve batteries or a battery grip are always a good idea for outdoor shoots.

Picture editing

Themes that are based on films often have a very characteristic look and a certain atmosphere about them that you can analyse and recreate. A classic example is the raw black and white look of the Sin City comics and films with individual splashes of colour. A shoot based in the 1920s will appear more authentic if the pictures have a lightly desaturated sepia tone, while using either a psychedelic, colourful editing style or a vintage filter will fit perfectly to Alice in Wonderland. It is of course okay to dig a little deeper into your box of filters if it will suit the theme.

However, the following remains true: Rules are there to be broken. The real fun only really starts when you begin to get creative, try new things and also go in unusual directions. Who is to say that Snow White can't also be portrayed sometimes as being a little wicked or that a vampire is not allowed to wear sunglasses?
I hope that this article has maybe persuaded one or two of you to carry out your own themed photo shoot! Have lots of fun experimenting…

(All photos in this article were taken using the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 – photos in which the lens itself can be seen were taken using a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro lens)

About the author: Vera Wohlleben

In her blog called "Nicest Things", Vera Wohlleben, who lives in Heidelberg, does not just blog about tasty recipes and attractive decor for your own home. She also regularly offers a glimpse behind the scenes and explains in detail how she creates her stunning photos. Suggested reading:

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