Everything Models + Actors Need to Know to Nail a Virtual Photoshoot

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Photo Source: Stephanie Diani

Backstage readers have long been familiar with the work of Stephanie Diani. Since 2014, out of her Manhattan studio, she’s photographed the biggest stars of stage and screen for their Backstage cover stories. From Robert Pattinson to Issa Rae, Laurie Metcalf, and Patricia Arquette, the photographer had done it all—well, almost. In March of 2020, like everyone, Diani had to figure out new ways to work, which is how she ended up doing virtual photoshoots for the first time in her career.  

Prior to the pandemic, had you ever done virtual shoots?
I sure hadn’t, nope! And when I first read about them I was like, “That’s dumb, that’s not nearly the same thing, there’s no way it’s gonna work. People are just trying to make work for themselves.” It was a completely new experience.

How did you figure out, logistically, how to actually do a virtual shoot? 
It’s a bit of a mind-fuck! I started reading about it on photo blogs. There was this one dude in Italy, he was doing them with these stunning models all over the world; that’s sort of a different beast from doing a virtual shoot with [non-models]. But it was cool and someone interviewed him, and he was doing screengrabs. There’s all different ways you can do it—you can do a Zoom call, you can do a fullscreen capture, lo-res. You can do FaceTime photos if someone has an iPhone…. But you can only res it up to a certain point. The resolution is necessarily pretty low, which is kind of like what a virtual shoot is. It’s a social-media friendly, sort of off-the-cuff, lighter, looser photoshoot. 

I did some googling, and thought, OK, but seriously, how do we do it? Am I using the computer camera or the phone camera? And then how do I get it to me? Can I control someone else’s computer virtually, like a tech support person can do? If I can do that, can I ship them a camera, tether it, and then control the camera from my computer, so I’m taking a photo, but it’s tethered to a camera on the other end? And the files are going to their computer, and then they would have to send me the files? My assistant and studio manager Monica Volpacchio and I were testing these various options. She lives in Astoria and I’m on the Upper West Side, so we were virtual shooting back and forth, researching tether cables and simple packages, how much it costs to ship a camera from one place to another, guesstimating time. All of this was so that I would be prepared if this went on long-term, where we couldn’t do actual work and people started requesting more virtual shoots. 

What were some of your first virtual shoots like? 
Narrative PR called and said, “Hey, we have someone in London, a young talent, she would love to do [a session], can you do a virtual shoot with her?” It was the first time someone actually asked, and I was like, “Yeah! You bet!” And then I did my research and it went OK. It was a FaceTime shoot, and her sister held the phone and was basically the camera operator. And then her mom—the family was super supportive—the mom had a reflector on the other end and some video lights, and I was able to kind of direct her where to put those things. We shot in the house, out in their backyard, and then in a park, locally, not too far from them. And it was kind of super fun. That being the first one, I thought, Oh, this is like a video game! But it’s like telling someone how to play a video game. Or it’s like telling someone how to drive from the backseat of a car. It’s sort of fun, if everybody is game to follow instructions and play a little bit. It just necessarily has to be pretty casual. 

“When I first read about [virtual photoshoots] I was like, ‘That’s dumb, that’s not nearly the same thing, there’s no way it’s gonna work. People are just trying to make work for themselves.’”

How do you go about establishing rapport and energy with your subject when you’re not in the same physical space?
It’s not that different from doing it when you are in the same physical space, for me anyway. Monica and I wrote basically a menu of different options: There’s the FaceTime shoot, there’s the option where we send a camera. And for each one, it was pretty much: You need one more person to be there… I try to have a quick conversation before we do the actual shoot, just so we can kind of get a feeling for each other. And then usually if I’m giving direction on a FaceTime call, it’s being relayed to the person holding the phone. They can still generally hear what I’m saying, and I tend to, I think, make people laugh at something, even if it’s just at me, and that translates over the phone, too. It’s possible to make the connection. When I shot Riz Ahmed for [the cover of Backstage], that was a little more complicated, because he was in the middle of a press junket. But luckily his groomer and he had a good relationship and that helped me, because in essence, she was directing him. And she was super willing to help me, as well. It would be tough if it was an unwilling participant, that would be a different story. But if someone is going to the trouble to be a part of a virtual shoot, usually, they need the photos for something or they’re motivated enough to make it not a struggle for anybody.

What are some of the things a subject can do to make your job easier on a virtual shoot? 
For me, it is super helpful to do a walk-through of where they are prior to the shoot. It’s nice if it’s the day before, so I can take a couple of screen-grabs. I like to see the space that’s available, what the light looks like; I like to get a sense of what direction the sun moves in relation to wherever they are so I can suggest an appropriate time of day. It’s also helpful in that that gives both of us a way to connect before there’s any pressure attached, because at that point we’re just chatting. It would also be helpful if they do have another person holding the phone for them, if that’s someone they trust and feel super comfortable around. I recently did a headshot shoot for a talent manager and she had her fiancé hold the camera, and that was helpful because she was super comfortable with him, and he obviously is a fan of hers. So when I said, “Move the camera a little bit this way, tilt up, you see how that makes the angle look a little bit better? See how amazing she looks there?” Then he was like, “Oh, yeah,” and got on board and that is contagious. Also having a reflector—it’s a fairly inexpensive piece of equipment, and it makes a huge difference. It elevates the picture and can make OK light look a lot better. Also, talk about clothing with the photographer ahead of time, what they would like to see you wear. 

What should a subject understand about angles for a virtual shoot? 
The thing with a FaceTime shoot is that it’s a wider-angle lens, so you want to be aware of where the camera’s going to be vertically in relation to you. If you put it super low, that makes whatever’s closest to the camera look biggest. It’s like a selfie, so you want to be aware of that. And it can be kind of cool, like the Riz shot where he’s reaching through the plants, I wanted to use the space towards the camera, because that’s kind of the advantage. But for a headshot, that’s not what you want. You want your plane to be parallel to the plane of the camera and phone, so that you’re not accentuating any one piece of yourself. 

Should a subject spend time before the shoot in the mirror, figuring out “their angles”? 
That’s sort of a double-edged sword for the photographer. It really depends. I’ve gotten in the habit now of saying, “Do you have a side that you prefer?” Because if they have a strong feeling about it and it’s going to impact what I set up, then I want to know about it upfront. But most of the time, even if someone’s like, “Hey, this is my good side,” it’s not always true. And sometimes if you get too much in your own head, working on posing and stuff, it can interfere with your ability to trust the process, trust the photographer. That being said, I have photographed people who have spent time in front of the mirror and it’s just different. There’s a certain aesthetic of social media photos where it feels to me hyper-sexualized or flirty, almost cartoonish. I prefer posing to be a little bit more subtle. So I would maybe even recommend that people not practice too much ahead of time, because then they’re potentially up in their head during the shoot. 

What advice do you have for someone who’s feeling nervous or stiff during a shoot—virtual or in-person—to loosen up? 
That happens for me with business people more so than with actors. How I tend to deal with it is I tell really stupid jokes, because I feel like it’s my responsibility to make the subject comfortable. It’s great if they can be self-aware enough to be like, “Oh, I’m super tense, I need to chill out,” but it’s a really awkward situation. You’re opening yourself up to someone else who is staring at you, and they’re gonna capture this moment where either you’re going to look awful or amazing or maybe somewhere in between. It’s a high-risk scenario, especially as an actor. So, it’s my job to make it not so awful. A lot of times, people are like, “Well, that wasn’t as painful as I thought it was gonna be!” And I’m like, “Great! I mean, you’re welcome?” The harder one for me to deal with is when people try too hard. I had someone in not long ago who was trying so hard to be sexy that it came off as over the top. And it was like, “This is not the TV show ‘Pose,’ you need to chill it out. Take it down a notch.” And that’s harder to say to somebody. 

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What I want to say is, “Hey! Fucking stop trying.” I can’t say that, so I usually let them get it out of their system, and then say, “OK, now take a minute and just think about your favorite end-of-the-day ritual.” And if they do something where their personality shows through, I’ll be like, “That! Just hold that right there!” Every photographer has their own way of getting someone to get out of their head and give you something authentic. And sometimes I come back from a shoot thinking, Oh, I got amazing stuff! And then I look at the pictures and I’m like, “Damn, they were being a character, and I didn’t catch it!” It might work for the photos, but it’s still irritating to me. I’m super critical of myself, and I think, I should have been able to break through that, and I couldn’t.

To put that in Backstage terms, are you saying that you sometimes find your subjects are “acting” rather than just “being”? 
Yes, and I get it, because that’s easier, especially, I would imagine, for an actor. And maybe there’s a real reason for it. Maybe they need to be in this character to promote the movie or TV show or whatever, and it can make sense. But I think what I’m personally interested in seeing is someone being authentically themselves. Like, just a moment of playfulness, seriousness, thoughtfulness, whatever, where they’re being themselves, and not their character. But it’s hard. 

With the end of the pandemic on the horizon, what do you hope is the future of virtual shoots? 
It came up, I don’t know if it’s going to continue. It feels like it’s already not around as much. After we prepped this whole package, we’d priced out rental cameras in big cities around the world just in case so we could advertise, “Hey, I can shoot someone in Paris if you want.” And then the demand kind of fell off and people started shooting again in real life. And I suspect that’s going to happen even more. But it is an interesting tool to have in the tool kit. I never would have thought I would be a proponent of it, but it’s a quirky kind of puzzle that’s fun to try to solve. But I’m delighted things are getting back to shooting in the studio and I moved into a new studio recently with my studio mate, and it’s beautiful and I’m super excited about it. We have COVID protocols in place, and all of that was new to us. And people are pivoting as they need to. I remember when I switched from film to digital and it was this huge mental shift. And this has been another huge mental shift. But I love what I do and I’ve got no backup plan. I could work in a tollbooth, maybe? This is it.

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