How I Made It: The Story Behind Laretta Houston’s Swimsuit Shot of Winnie Harlow

Photo of Winnie Harlow

There’s something liberating about Laretta Houston‘s photo of Winnie Harlow at the top of this story. Shot for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, Houston captures Harlow in a moment of pure release, her back arched and head tilted towards the sun as the milky surf churns below her.

It’s no surprise that Houston’s photo quickly went viral when it was shared on social media. Partially it’s because Harlow is a celebrated fashion model and internationally recognized spokesperson on the skin condition vitiligo. But it’s also because Houston’s image is different from many swimwear shots you’ll see, showcasing both Harlow’s distinctive beauty and her defiant openness.

Houston was recently named to Canon’s Explorers of Light program, which is how we first came across the image. We wanted to learn more, so Houston agreed to answer a few questions about photo for the latest edition of “How I Made It.” You can see previous “How I Made It” behind-the-image stories here, here, and here.

Q: Can you give us a little background on you as a photographer?

Laretta Houston: My name is Laretta Houston. I am a beauty, fashion, commercial photographer based in Los Angeles, California. I have been a photographer for over 15 years shooting a number of campaigns, magazines, and celebrities. A few of my latest achievements were being the first black and female photographer to photograph the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit with Tyra Banks, shooting my first TV campaign for Dancing with the Stars, and being a Canon Explorer of Light.

Q: What’s the story behind this photo?

Laretta Houston: Winne Harlow is one of the models a lot of photographers would love to shoot. So, when I received the email from Sports Illustrated Swimsuit that I was shooting Winnie Harlow in Exuma, Bahamas, I was overwhelmed with excitement.

When the time came to photograph her, the team, production crew, and I had to load up before sunrise and be at the beach an hour before she arrived. After unloading the equipment from the vans, the team used beach carts to haul the gear to the location I picked out and set up camp for the creative team and the model when they arrived.

By the time we got to this swimwear look, I decided that she would need to sit or lay in the sand close to the water. As you know, it wouldn’t be a SI Swimsuit picture if a model wasn’t “one with the sand.” To my surprise, it was timed perfectly because when she posed, the water hit her legs just at the right time. I just knew this would be one of the pictures they would choose for the magazine.

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Q: This image went viral on social media. Why do you think that happened and does it surprise you?

Laretta Houston: Honestly, it didn’t surprise me when it went viral. One of the reasons might be because Winnie is an icon in her own right. She has a huge following of 8.8 million and along with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit of 2.2 million on Instagram it was bound to be everywhere on the Internet.

The other reason might be because it was shot from a different perspective. It was a pose rarely seen of models on the beach. It didn’t just give the audience “sexy”, but it gave an emotional feeling of being resilient at the same time.

Q: What was the biggest challenge with this photo?

Laretta Houston: Shooting for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit you never know what type of weather you will get on a given day or an hour because it’s constantly changing. So, one of my biggest challenges to getting this shot was to adjust the aperture frequently when the sun was blocked by the clouds and to get the timing right when the water hit her arms and legs.

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Q: Can you share some other technical details about how this image was shot including gear used, settings, etc.

Laretta Houston: I shot this right at sunrise with my Canon EOS 5DS R at an aperture of f/5.6 to get a bit of the landscape behind her, a shutter speed of 1/500 second, ISO of 100, and used the Canon EF 24-70mm with the focal point close to 57mm.

Q: What’s next for you?

Laretta Houston: Other than a couple of campaigns I will be shooting, I am looking to teach a workshop soon. This workshop will be different because it will challenge the way a photographer thinks about their work. I can’t wait to get all the details together and announce it to the industry.

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