Model Maryna Linchuk from The Lions Model Management, New York, 2017
Sarah Silver’s love of photography began in her grandfather’s darkroom. This love has never waned, but she has explored dramatically different genres of the visual medium throughout her career.
The New York City-based photographer/director began her career as a photojournalist covering the Middle East, which perhaps isn’t surprising when you consider that she was born in Tokyo and globe-trotted with her parents on her father’s overseas stints for the United Nations.
But it was in the Big Apple that her love of dance and photography came together and refocused her visual direction into the world of motion, fashion and beauty.
Named a Hasselblad Master, Sarah Silver has a commercial client list ranging from Aveda and L’Oréal to Proenza Schouler and Swarovski and editorial work from Allure and The New York Times to Vanity Fair and Vogue. She has also appeared in front of the lens on the reality series “America’s Next Top Model,” “Project Runway” and “LA Ink.”
Digital Photo Pro: One of the many interesting things about your fashion and beauty photography is how you work with color in often unexpected ways.
Sarah Silver: When I’m making a decision about color, I think it’s important for me to take a step back and think about the big picture—no pun intended. I’m not thinking about pieces and parts as individual elements. I think about a photograph or a story or a day in the studio as one well-crafted meal from start to finish. You’ve got your aperitif, amuse-bouche, appetizers, all the way to your dessert and after-dinner drinks and everything in between—however you course out your meal.
When I think about a shoot, I’m previsualizing the entire experience, and the color of the background, for instance, is a very important part, but only one part of the whole picture. The color choice only becomes clear when I think about the image as a whole…unless, of course, someone says, “We MUST have blue.”
I draw a lot of inspiration from color. And while I can previsualize as much as I want before the shoot, the seasoned photographer in me knows that I’m also allowed to throw all my plans out the window once I’m on set and to try something new. Sometimes, the previsualized, well-thought-out choice just isn’t working.
How are you lighting your backgrounds as well as the rest of the set?
There are so many ways to light the background these days that allow me to be fluid with my choices.
I’ve been using a lot of continuous lighting, such as the ARRI SkyPanels for many solid and gradated color-wash backgrounds. We connect the lights to an app that lets me pick and choose colors and intensity like a smart home, everything from hue, color saturation, shifting and fading.
I can say, “This is working but let’s make it more pink or red” and stick my finger on a color wheel on the iPad and it’s done. I get to play “Master of the Color Universe” and pick colors to mimic what we used to do with gels. I’ll also make these presets on set or in advance, and then the client will say, “We’d love it a little more green,” and I hit a button and, then, Prest-o Change-o, we’ve got it.
Sometimes I’ll combine the lights with a color or neutral gray seamless. Sometimes it’s on a white background. We have a setting for a very vibrant color wash on the iPad, but when we’re not shooting, we can switch over to a neutral work light setting for the makeup artist.
Doesn’t the use of continuous lights for the background force you to keep the power for strobes pretty low when you combine the two?
There’s always a fine balance you have to maintain between the background and the keylights, figuring out what’s your acceptable f-stop and shutter speed.
But I enjoy the limitations and embrace them as stylistic choices. For instance, I’m obsessed with my ability to achieve some killer edge blur or what I call “wudgies”—it’s not a real word, I love them.
After this is published, it might become a real word! It’s what results from a freeze and a shutter drag. How did this approach come about?
I came from the world of super-crisp dance-and-motion photography, and I love taking what I know and flipping it 180 degrees.
I’m using a slower shutter speed. It could be at a 1/20th of a second or even as slow as 1/8th of a second. I play a game called “Let’s try it until we break it,” and I’ll go slower and slower until the photo doesn’t look good anymore. When the girl’s face is multiplied on itself and looks like a big white blob, I’ve probably gone too far.
You’d be surprised how many different ways I can get a wudgie effect. Sometimes I’ll move the camera. Sometimes I’m static and the model is moving. Sometimes I’ll sit in a chair and someone will actually shake me.
I crave spontaneity, and I love surprising myself in a photo shoot. So all the little things that I do to harness unexpected motion also get people super jazzed on set, which shows itself in the photos.
Do you have a fairly good idea of what you’re going to get when you decide to capture a wudgie on set?
I’ve created them so many times that I know what happens when I move the camera left to right or up and down or in a circle while pressing the shutter. Also, whatever’s shiny on the subject is going to have an impact on the amount of wudgie, as well, and there are always a lot of surprises.
For instance, if someone is in a silver bodysuit, I’m going to have a much more pronounced wudgie effect than if they’re in a black matte bodysuit. This reflectivity is an X factor, and no two wudgies are ever the same. They’re another way for me to embrace the unexpected.
Are you tethered to a computer so you’re seeing the results immediately?
The tether aspect of the shooting helps me to collaborate with both myself and the other people on the set. I like to think that my creative self on set consists of two parts—the previsualizer and the shooter.
Those two have to communicate when we’re shooting, and I’m always happy to admit, “Oh, that was not working. How about we try this?” Also, collaboration with the team—especially with movement and dance—is an integral component of what I do, and it makes me a better creator.
You have a long association with dance, not only photographing it but practicing it as well.
I’ve studied almost every type of dance, except for tap, which I enjoy watching but wouldn’t even know how to try doing. My dance background allows me to be a collaborative partner to create unique choreography with not just dancers but with all of my models. Because, honestly, I was a horrible dancer, but making my models move on set is a way for me to keep my failed childhood dance dream alive! I love all things motion, and not only do I direct a lot of video, but one of the things I’m absolutely obsessed with these days is creating GIFs—a series of stills animated together. In other words, stop motion.
Digital display movie posters seemed to have been the first major benefactors of this type of work in the commercial photography world.
GIFs are an amazing way to marry stills and video, and I can make a quick transition on set to capture them without changing my lighting. I shoot my high-res stills with a Hasselblad medium-format camera with a Phase One digital back and then switch to a 35mm with a high frame-per-second setting for GIFs. I set my Broncolor flash packs at low output, which means they recycle super-fast, which is necessary for shooting GIFs.
If I’m GIFing with flash at nine frames per second, I don’t want to misfire or have any file transfer slowdown. I’m often directing a video as well, working with great DPs. Clients want the whole package: stills, GIFs and video.
Starburst is another effect you use effectively as well. Are you capturing that in camera?
Sometimes I use a good old-school star filter. In 2019, more is more, and more is good. Trends in beauty have really amped up, and glitter is part of that. It’s terrible for cleanup in the studio because it gets all over everything, but it’s great for an effect.
Glitter shape and iridescence has become so much more sophisticated. Think about the three-dimensionality of glitter and the reflectivity of that.
When you’re lighting that, are you using a lot of light-shaping tools?
I use a lot of light-shaping tools, but I also like to carve the light. After picking a light-modifying tool, I don’t stop there. It’s just the first step in creating a look. We use a lot of additive and subtractive light tools. A lot of bounce both positive and negative. We use a lot of foamcore. We have custom reflectors on set that we use from various angles. From a bird’s-eye view, our sets end up looking like a crazy house of cards.
For the video part, you have to shoot with continuous light…
There are three different ways to approach a shoot that has both stills and video: One is that I can have separate stills and video sets, and they mimic each other. Another approach is to shoot both stills and video on the same set using continuous light for both. The third way is to swing out the strobes after shooting the stills and bring in the continuous lights, but that’s a clunky switchover, and I find it’s not effective when you’re talking about time and efficiency.
Time really is money, and a lot of it on a big shoot with professional models and a professional crew. In addition to being a photographer and a director, another hat you wear is that of an educator.
I have an intense love of education, and inspiring young creative people is very important to me. After working as a photojournalist in the Middle East for a year, I came back and finished up my undergrad, then went to the School of Visual Arts for a three-year MFA. My thesis was on the history of dance photography.
I always try to teach students to trust their gut. When you’re a young photographer, your instinctual choices will inform who you’ll become as an artist later in life. You may not have the experience under your belt that gives you confidence that comes with years of experience, but it works to your advantage because you’re not yet stuck in your ways, and you’re open to making mistakes. In fact, a mistake can actually turn into a happy and fortuitous accident. Young photographers shouldn’t discount the instincts that make them unique.
You also know your photo history and can use that knowledge as a resource.
We did this shoot for Nike Pegasus running shoes where we needed to demonstrate all the phases of an active run all in one picture. I used Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies as a guide to help me find the right cadence in the movement. Oh, and we also used wudgies!
If photographers, regardless of their age, don’t know our shared past, they have to keep reinventing the wheel. Knowledge creates a solid foundation.
I was always taught, “If you want to break the rules, you first have to know what they are.” The other side of the argument is to carve your own path, and it doesn’t matter what’s come before you. While I subscribe to the former, I can’t discount the latter approach because there’s something to be said about relying on instinct and intuition. Everybody has their own process.
But people still have to know their tools as well as have a professional approach to have a sustained career in the photo big leagues.
One of the things I find very useful is creating what I call “brief boards.” I take digital briefs that clients give me, print them and cut them up with scissors. I got the idea from watching sleuthy TV shows—like the scene in the police precinct where they have pictures of all these suspects pinned to the wall, and they try to connect the dots of a situation.
I pin up the pieces from the brief onto a foam core V-flat and reorder them in a way that I can process and then memorize. It’s my shooting bible for the entire time we’re on set, and these “brief boards” turn into roadmaps for everybody on the shoot day. They’re especially important on a complicated shoot with many lighting setups and multiple wardrobe, makeup and background changes. I’ve done shoots with up to 25 setups in a day.
And trying to cover them with stills, GIFs and video…Would it be difficult for a fashion/beauty photographer starting out now to make it in the industry without wearing all those photographic hats?
Everybody has a choice of their preferred medium, but I personally think it would be limiting to not include video, directing and GIFing into one’s skill set.
I’m not a photographer. I’m not a director. I’m not even a visual maker. I’m a communicator. I’m expressing a point of view. Why limit yourself? Your expression is so much more robust and rewarding as a creative person when you have so many ways to tell a story.