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On Assignment: How to Use a Portrait Photography Self-Assignment to Spark Creativity

Photographer Vanessa Joy walks us through a recent self-assignment project while sharing tips
Vanessa Joy On Assignment Hero image

Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered how your favorite photographers capture the images they take? Starting this month, Digital Photo Pro will be launching a new monthly column called “On Assignment” where Canon Explorers of Light, past and present, will share a backstage look at one of their favorite assignments and how they delivered the goods. This month we go On Assignment with wedding and portrait photographer Vanessa Joy.

The Challenge

As a professional photographer, most of my shoots are for other people. Whether it’s weddings or commissioned portraits, it is rare that I have time to explore my own creative ideas.

I’m sure you’ve conceptualized an idea in your head to create a cool photograph and say, “I have to remember to try that when I have time,” but some other event or obligation always seems to get in the way of actually bringing that idea to life. Well, thanks to COVID, time was about the only thing I did have so when I was asked to share a photo for this On Assignment column – from concept to final image – I thought the self-assignment I finally had time to create, would be perfect to share.

Self-assignments are such an important part of our creative thought process. For me, it helps rejuvenate my creative thinking and gets me out of the ruts and mundane repetition professionals in any field sometimes feel. It allows me to have fun and explore new ideas without the pressure of having to “get it right,” and in the end, the creative release of a self-assignment benefits all my clients.

Shoot Preparation / Planning
Vanessa Joy BTS image 1

So, back to that idea I had in my head. I know it sounds weird, but I have this really deep red lipstick that I absolutely love and always wanted to create a photograph that truly represents what that lipstick means to me (I told you it was weird). To me, the lipstick represents mystery, elegance, and even sensuality so I thought a dramatic-looking image would portray this best.

To help with the “mysteriousness,” I wanted my background to be the same color as the deep red lipstick and to further the affect, I wanted my model Nikki to wear all black. I have this interesting black hat which has large, decorative holes and thought this could work into the photograph rather nicely. Placing the hat in such a way that revealed an eye through one of the holes was what I envisioned but knew that careful lighting and precise focus would ultimately determine the success (or failure) of my assignment.

Once I had created the look I wanted with Nikki – deep red lipstick, dressed in black, and a black hat to partially cover her face for added mystery – it was time to bring my vision to life with proper lighting.

Lighting / Setup
Vanessa Joy BTS image 2

I positioned a single light with a Zoom reflector to the red backdrop I set up. A dedicated light for the background allowed me to adjust the light to create a tone that matched the deep red lipstick on Nikki’s lips. Another light was directed almost exclusively on her face, which is where I wanted the viewer to focus – and specifically her eyes – while reducing light elsewhere to maintain the dramatic look I was trying to achieve.

Now I was ready to have some fun. Nikki was ready to go and my lights were positioned where I needed them to be to bring my idea to life. I mentioned earlier that self-assignments can rejuvenate creative thinking, and for me, this assignment did just that. As I repositioned Nikki and moved around my lights, I discovered interesting options for my final shot. This is something I often encounter on client jobs and it excites me every time. Planning and preparing for an assignment only to discover even greater creative opportunities is what keeps me motivated.

Critical Focus and Working the Angles

The real test came when I started attempting to position my model’s eye behind the gridded rim of the hat. My focusing mode was set to eye-detection and AI Servo so it would move as I did, or as the model did, even slightly. To be honest, I tried manual focus first, thinking it would be easier to maintain focus on her eye and avoid the camera’s AF struggle between locking focus on her eye and the decorative hole in the hat it peeped through. But after a few shots I went back to autofocus, and that magical little eye focus box hit Nikki right on her iris and did a way better job than I could have in the manual focus mode.

Camera and Settings

Canon EOS R5

Canon RF 85mm 1.2L

ISO: 50

Aperture: f/4

Shutter: 1/160th / sec


Following the shoot, I decided to do something I almost never do; have the images professionally retouched. Since I’m not an expert in retouching, I invited my friend Kristi Sherk ( to work her magic. I just wanted her to retouch the images for artistic reasons – essentially do once-over with a critical eye – to ultimately end up with a super polished image.

In addition to smoothing out skin and brightening Nikki’s eyes, the main thing I wanted to do with retouching was extend her neck. My favorite photo (expression and lighting) was shot at a slightly higher angle, which merged her shoulder and jawline and eliminated her gorgeous long neckline seen in almost every other photo. I asked Kristi to adjust that in Photoshop, essentially changing the angle of the photograph.

Before and After retouching images
Before (l.) and After (r.) retouching

Make the Time for Personal Projects

I was very pleased with the results from this shoot and Nikki was the perfect model for this assignment – patient, fun, and inquisitive. It was great to have an opportunity to create and execute a personal shoot from start to finish, pulling from a little imagination and using tools that help me achieve this kind of result. I hope my words and behind-the-scenes photos help you in some way further develop your own creative thought process moving forward.

Now that inoculations for the coronavirus continue to increase, it won’t be long before the free time I have for assignments like this dissipates. However, I think it is important to give yourself a personal assignment from time-to-time and approach it in a way that makes you the client. Create guidelines, a budget, and above all, have a deadline when the assignment needs to be completed. This will give you the creative freedom and flexibility we all need from time-to-time and allocate the time needed to explore your own projects, even after we get back to some form of normalcy.


About Vanessa Joy

Vanessa Joy is a Canon Explorer of Light that has been an influential speaker in the community for over a decade. Starting her photographic journey in 1998, she has since branched into public speaking, earned 5 college degrees, received a PPA Photographic Craftsman degree, been named a WeddingWire Education Expert, sponsored by Canon, Profoto and Animoto to name a few. Vanessa has spoken at almost every major convention and platform in the event industry such as CreativeLIVE, The Wedding School, Clickin’ Moms, WPPI, ShutterFest, Imaging USA, Wedding MBA, WeddingWire World, MobileBeat, in addition to hosting personal workshops and numerous small business and photography conventions around the globe. Recognized for her talent and more so her business sense, her clients love working with her and industry peers love to learn from her tangible, informative and open-book style of teaching. Find her at and

Vanessa’s Social Links:






Vanessa’s Book: The Off Camera Flash Handbook:

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