Kelsey Fain: Conceptual Fashion Photography with the Leica S-System

Kelsey Fain grew up in East Greenville, Pennsylvania and received a Bachelor of Science degree in photography from Drexel University’s College of Media Arts and Design in Philadelphia. Kelsey who has worked as the Manager of the S-System for Leica Camera USA since 2012, is based in New York City. Previously, she managed a fine art photographer and gallery in SoHo and worked as an assistant to fashion, commercial and event photographers. Previously, we have featured Kelsey’s work with the Leica M-System from her travels in India and Machu Picchu. Below, Kelsey talks with us about using the S-System for her fashion work.

Q: All of these images were shot on the S-System I believe. Did you use the S or the S2? What are some of the specific characteristics of these cameras that you found especially conducive to your kind of work?

A: I shot the majority of these images on the Leica S but a few were shot with a Leica S2-P. Both the S2-P and S have outstanding image quality. That said, the improvements made to the Leica S make it easy to prefer shooting given the option. The image processing board was doubled to 2 GB so I can now shoot about 32 frames before filling the buffer. With the S2/S2-P you were limited to 11 frames. The other big difference that I like is that the autofocus is more accurate when shooting moving subjects. Both of these features are ideal in the realm of fashion. While generally speaking speed isn’t that much of a factor for me because I really like to take time composing each image and getting it right in camera, that isn’t always an option.

Q: Besides your obvious bias as the Manager of the S-System, what, in your opinion, makes it an ideal camera to shoot your fashion work with?

A: As you pointed out, no matter what I say will sound biased! But the truth is it’s an unbelievable camera to work with. The handling of the S is unlike any other medium-format system. It’s comfortable to hand-hold and so simple that I can really focus on my subject matter. The weather seals and 1000 shots per charged battery make it extremely easy to work with on location, which is one of my favorite ways to shoot. Additionally, the dynamic range and how accurately it renders skin-tones and colors makes post production work very clean.

Q: What lens(es) did you shoot the images in this portfolio with and why did you choose them?

A: The majority of work is shot on either the 70 mm or 120 mm S-lenses. I am head-over-heels for the 120 mm lens, which is also a macro. I don’t know how better to describe it than magic. It’s not the easiest lens of the line-up to operate (at least not in a world where everyone wants instant gratification) and it can be a bit sensitive in situations with little contrast. That said, it is absolutely worth spending the time to get to know it and figuring out how to make it work best for your shooting scenario. It’s no secret that Leica optics are outstanding and the S lens line-up truly lives up to the brand.

Q: What appeals to you about fashion photography?

A: What I like most about fashion photography is how conceptual it can become. I love playing with different lighting set-ups both in studio and on location and having enough control over the environment to manipulate my settings. I think there are so many different and fascinating ways to approach fashion photography and each photographer has their own take. The other aspect that I enjoy is developing a concept in my head and then working with a team to see it actualized. It’s exciting to see ideas morph throughout the shoot. I find that most shoots take on their own character and while the end result may be different than the original vision, in most cases it’s far better than imagined.

Q: How does your approach differ when doing travel photography versus fashion photography?

A: Travel photography is far less calculated and more dependent on my surroundings. While I give myself credit for choosing when to fire the shutter, it’s much more about emotion and the present, albeit fleeting, moment. While this isn’t entirely untrue of fashion photography, this genre is more rhythmic and articulate.

Q: Can you say something about how the elements of rhythm and articulation interact when you’re on a fashion shoot, and how you know when they’re working synergistically?

A: When shooting fashion you have an entire team involved. There is the hairstylist, the make-up artist, the wardrobe stylist and the model. Creatives all have their own view but it’s important to find a team that understands your vision and can help you to actualize it while adding value with their own creative input. I also find music to be a key element when shooting. The vibe of the music will come through in the model so the energy level should coincide with the mood you are constructing in the images.

Q: Some of these images were taken in the studio and others it appears were done on location. Do you prefer to be in the studio or on location? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each?

A: I love shooting on location. It brings out that youthful version of myself and I get excited to play in new surroundings. I also feel creative and adventurous when outdoors and that really helps when shooting. I do also enjoy shooting in studio. Of course the advantages to shooting in studio is having a fully controlled environment and a (hopefully) clean bathroom.

Q: What sort of lighting did you use to shoot these images?

A: All of these shots were taken with strobe lighting. I generally have a two to three light set-up with a mixture of a beauty dish, umbrella, parabolic and/or softbox.

Q: How much direction do you give to the models during the shoot?

A: This really depends on the model. Some models require a good deal of direction while others pick up on your vision quickly. I like to begin by creating a good rapport with my model. It’s important to me that she feels comfortable and happy. One of the first things I notice when looking at other fashion editorials is whether or not the model looks comfortable. In my opinion an uneasy model will ruin the shot. If a model seems shy then I like to ask her for her input or suggestions. A lot of them are artists in their own right and have great ideas. It makes the whole shoot far more collaborative.

Q: You imply that some of your most successful fashion images are essentially collaborations between you and the model. Can you give us a specific example of how that works using any of the images in this portfolio?

A: The center image in the sepia tone triptych is one of my favorites. The model understood how light and flowy the fabric was even though it was a jumper. She started playing around with her body movements and the fabric froze in this gorgeous way. Had she not started to move her body in interesting ways I may not have picked up on the capability of the fabric and would never have gotten this shot. I love when models feel comfortable enough to say “Hey, can we try this?” Even if I don’t think it’s a good idea I always fire a few frames and sometimes they prove me wrong!

Q: Several of the images in this portfolio are composite images or diptychs consisting of black-and-white image and images of the same model in different moods. What is the concept behind these pairs, and how do you generally decide whether to output images in black-and-white or in color?

A: For me the images decide if they should be in color or B&W. Some pictures are stronger in B&W while others lack zest unless they are in color. I always edit my images in color first and then play with B&W when it feels right. I find that pairing the images can help to portray a more complete story and mimics a magazine lay-out. If a viewer is only going to spend seconds on your website, why not show them as much as possible?

Q: This image is a striking example of the masterful use of lighting and separating the subject from the background using limited depth of field. Can you tell us how you lit this image and also provide some of the tech data?

A: I used a very simple lighting set-up here. One main light with an umbrella to illuminate her face and torso and then a lower fill light for the background. This image was actually shot using the Vario-Elmar 30-90 mm lens at f/5.5 and 1/125s.

Q: This image is a real stopper — with both black-and-white and color images within a single frame. It almost hard to believe it’s the same model in both images, and it seems to reveal different aspects of her complex personality. Do you agree, and what does it mean to you personally?

A: Yes, I do agree. The wardrobe stylist had great pulls for this shoot and she had created looks that would depict a transformation within the model. By pairing these two images together the viewer can start to piece together the story.

Q: Perhaps the most enigmatic pair of images in this portfolio is the one in which the model is lifting some translucent fabric from her costume in each section. The black-and-white half is especially mysterious since the model’s face is barely visible, but the color image conveys, to me, a more exuberant and joyful feeling. What exactly is going on here, and was it your intention to challenge the viewer?

A: I love these images as a pair because I think both feel classic in style and timeless but in different ways. In a way it was as if the B&W image was taken in the 1940s and the color image was a modern recreation.

Q: Can you tell us something about how you acquired your photographic skills, including the kind of fashion or other images that have inspired you or influenced your work? What are some of the things you feel you have learned by working with models and studying the work of outstanding photographers?

A: I love to study other photographers and am extremely fortunate that Leica has given me the ability to work with some of my idols. Listening to iconic photographers speak about their work and careers is always eye-opening and inspiring no matter what genre they work in. Practice is the only way to acquire a skill and it’s a lot of trial and error. At the end of the day, you’re style will never appeal to everyone and fellow photographers are the toughest critics of all! It’s important to be able to take criticism constructively and a lot of my refining lessons have come from hearing what I was doing wrong.

Q: You recently redesigned and updated your website. You feature just some of your most current fashion and travel work. How do you decide what work to feature?

A: My website and editing process is still a big work in progress. It’s important that photographers are constantly reviewing their work and updating their sites. It’s also good advice to have someone else help you with the editing process as it’s easy to become emotionally attached to your own images which can be a set-back. When I created my current site I really thought about what type of work I wanted to be recognized for. In the past I had more categories but I think it’s much more effective to take a clean, streamlined approach since the amount of time that a viewer will spend on your site is limited. I use a great service called Wix.com that makes it very easy to design your own custom website even if you do not have a web design background. This way I can add, remove, and re-design whenever I need to with out starting from scratch.

Thank you for your time, Kelsey!

- Leica Internet Team

If you’d like to see more of Kelsey’s work, visit her website www.kelseyfainphoto.com.