Calgary Model Shoot - Dreamscapes

I recently had the opportunity to put some compositing concepts and visions to the test. With only a few weeks to acquire talent, scout locations and schedule the shoot I wasn't overly optimistic of its success. This was a shoot driven by several unknowns after all, including my ability to execute the compositing in post production.

With a dedicated crew at hand we headed towards Fish Creek Park to explore the possibilities. A lot of lessons were learned that day, and I'll share those with you now.

The Vision

I've always had a strong passion for cinema. In a lot of ways I'm more inspired by movies and all of the integrated parts than I am by photography. I think movies represent the combination of all my artistic interests rolled up into a single, engaging (and often emotional) experience. It's no surprise that I try to transfer this approach to my photography. When I envision a shoot it's almost always tied to a larger story. Translating that story into a single frame however is challenging to say the least.

Alright, I admit it, I over-engineered this production in my mind. What was initially meant to be a calculated and intimately staged environment quickly became a one light setup and a blanket on the grass. I wanted to shoot a connected series of images telling the story of a girl waking within a dream, surrounded by nature and magical entities. This journey was to be documented from her initial awakening through to her escape back to reality (by flying skyward).

It's funny how the vision shifted when I started factoring in all of the various props, wardrobe and compositing requirements. It simply wasn't achievable with the small crew and limited budget. Speaking of crew, let me introduce the players that made this shoot possible.

The Crew

When you haven't shot any material in this genre it's hard to attract people to your cause. I could have hired a model, yes, but I simply couldn't justify the expense on this experiment. What I needed were some dedicated professionals that shared my vision and wanted to take a risk to expand their portfolios. I'm extremely happy with how we all came together as it would have been a complete disaster without their support.

Bethany McNab, a local actress (and one hell of a talented, patient individual) volunteered her time to be my primary subject. She even carried the burden of managing wardrobe and brought a couple of her dresses to the set. In a lot of ways her wardrobe selections changed the course of the shoot. It shifted my vision and allowed for some additional scenes - all of which worked out beautifully. 

Nicole Saxton, a social media guru and MAC makeup artist was referred to me by a colleague. From the very beginning Nicole was interested in the format and was extremely supportive throughout the process. I expect that we'll be working together in the future and I'm more than happy to have her on the team.

Darren took the reins as my assistant for the day. He was responsible for lighting support and capturing most of the "behind the scenes (BTS)" shots that I'll share in this post. I suspect the ratio of solo model to BTS shots was about 500:1, but who can blame him.

On Location

Damn, I brought WAY too much gear. I imagine this was due in part to my aforementioned over-engineering, but it also pays to be prepared I suppose. I was smart enough (thanks to my wife's suggestion) to bring a collapsible wagon with me to the shoot. It allowed us to get down to the silt-y, flood ravaged areas of Fish Creek Park with minimal trips. Once we landed I didn't waste any time. I had planned all of the shots in advance and printed out a schedule the night before. I would definitely take this approach in the future, as it kept me focused and allowed for natural ad hoc shooting periods between setups.

We had started a bit later in the day than expected, so the sun was starting to take hold of the environment. This actually worked to my advantage in the end as the light was playing nicely with the trees, casting dark, narrows shadows across the scene. It seemed appropriate to keep the off-camera lighting simple, so I rolled with it.

Here's a collection of shots from the first set of scenes. These shots were core to the story but quickly became beautiful portraits in themselves. Post production was integral to a few of these compositions and I'm still working out logistics on a number of them - in particular the flying scenes.


With my dream sequence put to rest we moved closer to the river to shoot the wardrobe inspired "Bride Without" series. I didn't really want to shoot typical bride portraits, so instead we layered in some drama and forced a story into the shots. Bethany's acting abilities really shined here and it made my job incredibly easy. She nailed the expressions with limited insight (a paragraph of notes) on my desired outcome. In the future I'm likely to seek out actors for just this reason. They can tell a story with just their eyes, and this isn't something your average model can pull off.



As important as having a defined goal and vision is, it's equally important to adapt for the sake of progress. If I had delayed the shoot because the ingredients weren't in place I never would have captured some of these moments. I've realized that perfection, in a lot of ways, is a paralyzing objective. What's ultimately more valuable is working towards a common goal with like-minded individuals. Sometimes the journey truly is more important than the destination. 

Behind the scenes

 Bethany getting some finishing touches by Nicole. Tech nerd in the back.... lens cap on.

Bethany getting some finishing touches by Nicole. Tech nerd in the back.... lens cap on.

 My best attempt at blinding Darren with a paper lantern. This was the technique I used to light Bethany in the butterfly shot. Speed light w/ a full cut CTO.

My best attempt at blinding Darren with a paper lantern. This was the technique I used to light Bethany in the butterfly shot. Speed light w/ a full cut CTO.