In the middle of March 2020, at the start of the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown, things were looking bleak. I’d just finished a contract for one of my social media clients, and all my DJ and photography work for the foreseeable future had been wiped out. I packed away all my camera bodies and lenses and had no idea when I’d be able to go out into the world and start shooting again. But as it turned out, being locked down at home would give me the opportunity to shoot in more places than ever before, via the medium of remote photography.
Via Skype, Zoom or WhatsApp I’ve been able to do virtual portrait shoots with creatives across the globe during quarantine in places I’ve always wanted to visit or revisit including Tokyo, Sydney, New York, Las Vegas, Helsinki and Copenhagen. Waking up at sunrise in London to do a sunset Zoom photoshoot in Sydney was a real thrill and one of my favourite moments ever in my photography career.
Some things I’ve learned about shooting virtual portraits if you’re looking to give it a try:
1. They’re super efficient! Most shoots have been wrapped up in around 20-30 minutes, simply because you’re in one location, or a few different spots that are very close together. Plus my back and shoulders don’t hurt from lugging around bags of heavy camera kit for hours on end!
2. The lower resolution of streamed video has one advantage for portraits; it smoothes people’s skin beautifully.
3. The further away someone is from their router, the weaker the wifi signal and the worse the image quality will be, so bear this in mind if you’re looking to shoot with someone in their garden for example.
4. Be sure to send your model a moodboard before so they can get an idea of the type of backgrounds and lighting you’re interested in and pick out some suitable locations in their home. Before you start shooting, get them to give you a quick virtual tour of the space so you can see if there are any other good backgrounds to work with.
5. Make sure you work out the time difference correctly if shooting with someone in a different country! Check the local weather and think about the best time of day to shoot. Golden hour around sunset always looks fantastic on camera.
6. Consider what device your model will be using. Is it a laptop? The webcam quality might be slightly lower but they easily position it, whereas a phone will give better quality but will have to be lent on something or held to get the right composition.
7. Remind your model to look into their device’s camera, not the screen!
8. If shooting a screen with a camera, using a softer vintage lens (the Russian Helios-44 is a particular favourite of mine) smooths out the digital noise and gives a beautiful dreamy look.
9. Try doing some movement shots, hair or clothes swishes or similar. You can get some really interesting and abstract digital glitches and double-exposure style shots if you time it just right.
10. Experiment with different ways of remote shooting. The most straightforward is to use FaceTime or WhatsApp and take screenshots, but you can also shoot your phone or laptop screen with your camera. Dress up the background and make that a feature, use crystals or mirrors in front of the lens to create interesting reflections or compositions and play with exposure to create different looks.
Is remote shooting here to stay? Perhaps. At the time of writing (May 2020) we’re still on lockdown in the UK; all large public events for the year have been cancelled and social distancing looks set to be a way of life for some time, so it looks like returning to in-person shoots is some way off. Therefore I predict that remote virtual photoshoots are definitely going to be a medium that will be here for some time and it’ll be interesting to see how it grows and develops into a medium in its own right rather than just as a temporary substitute for ‘proper’ photography.
What started as a simple experiment out of curiosity for me has become a really enjoyable way to shoot and an incredible way of connecting and collaborating with people from all over the world so I hope you enjoy my examples taken during quarantine and I look forward to creating many more.