Working with Models – Sharing Experience with Charlotte Johnson

Tell us about your photography journey - how has it evolved into your passion for creating amazing portraits and photographing people?


I first bought a DSLR, a second hand Sony a200, about 10 years ago when I was doing my masters in Dundee, Scotland. I remember the first image I took was of my kitchen sink, window behind, on full auto. But it didn’t look like my kitchen sink… it looked beautiful! The image was softly focused with natural light spilling into the room through the net curtains and over the taps. I was hooked. After a while, I thought it would be good to learn more about how to use the camera and about photography, so I joined an evening class. I did 2 more courses after that one, learning about film, darkroom processes, and black and white photography, but I didn’t shoot portraits. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrifying than asking someone to take their photo. It wasn’t until I started my current job as a photographer for the University of Auckland 3 years ago that I started shooting portraits – and only then because I had to for the job. I wasn’t very good at it but I needed to be (and fast) so I put up flyers asking for students to model for me in exchange for free photos. As I improved and became more confident, I started to realise that I really loved shooting portraiture. Eventually, it became obvious from the way I felt taking and editing portraits that this was my field of passion.


Anita by Charlotte Johnson

"Model, hair & makeup - Anita van der Mespel. Styling - Charlotte E. Johnson"



How do you find models to work with? What are the main criteria and what's the most challenging part in working together?


When I started out, I met models through fellow photographers or makeup artists, or I enquired through Facebook groups (there are several if you search for models). You can also meet local models by attending workshops or through Instagram. As I mostly do TFP sessions (Time in exchange for Photos), my main criteria is that the model shares my passion to create art just for the love of it. The most challenging part for me is meeting new people. I get social anxiety but I’ve been told I’m very good at hiding it. Unfortunately, this means my passion takes a lot of energy from me, but it’s worth it.


What are the main principles to follow when doing a photo session with people (code of conduct, any rules/principle etc)?


During the session, I will not touch a model without permission (this kind of goes without saying but I still see people doing it). Instead, I prefer to ask models to mirror me for poses but occasionally there is a stray hair or a part of the costume which needs adjusting. When working with someone new, it’s important that they understand the shoot is a free-flowing process with input from all sides. That includes being able to say “I don’t like the look of that, I think this would be better” or if something isn’t comfortable, etc. An important part for me is to maintain communication with all those involved in the photo shoot, before and after. This includes sending edited images for approval before they are published online.


Emma by Charlotte Johnson

"Model and styling - Emma Malone. Makeup - Sinead Dudley. Hair - Laura Macdonald."




How do you come up with creative ideas? A lot of your work seems to have an 'other-worldly' theme - it is a coincidence?


Does it?! I guess I’m drawn to less conventional looks. That’s probably due to growing up with the influences of my mother and grandfather, both artists, inspired by fantasy artwork and movies.


What about the legal side - how do you agree with models what is allowed and what not? E.g. can you sell images/prints? Can they use the photos?


This is all covered in my model release form which I usually send before the photo shoot so the model can agree to the terms prior.


Where do you get props for the photo sessions?


I am addicted to Ali Express. Otherwise, I will trawl op shops for dresses. The best props come from working with fellow creative artists and/or stylists. Also, some of the models I work with are amazing at making their own props and jewellery.


How long does it usually take from the idea stage to photo shoot day?


Planning a photo shoot can take a matter of hours through to weeks or even months. It often depends on the number of people involved and whether a prop or outfit needs to be made.


Any advice you can give to beginner photographers in this field?


Attend workshops and join your local photography club. When I first started out, workshops are where I learned the most, and joining a club gave me valuable feedback on my images. This is where I do a bit of self-promotion and tell you I offer a large range of workshops and training sessions, both in person and online.


What has been your favourite photo shoot so far? Why?


It’s very hard to choose but I’d say this year’s Halloween photo shoot. The models put in a crazy amount of effort with their outfits and props and we had a fantastic makeup artist. It was so much fun and I just love how the photos turned out.


You do photo sessions for charities too, can you tell us a bit about that?


I work with Lonely Miaow - a charity that rescues stray and abandoned cats and kittens. I have provided photos for advertising and will be covering some events, we’re also discussing making a calendar. It’s my pleasure to also help with fostering kittens. Check them out (https://www.lonelymiaow.co.nz/).


Brodie by Charlotte Johnson

"Model, hair, makeup and styling - Brodie Kay. Featuring a foster kitten from Lonely Miaow."




You are professional in Photoshop and editing software - what takes more time the photo session itself or the editing process? Which do you enjoy more?


Photo sessions typically take around 3 hours but they have often taken longer. Of course, that does not include any planning or preparation. A lot of time on the shoot is spent refining a pose or a lighting setup. My edits typically take anywhere between 1–3 hours per photo and I produce anywhere between 3 – 10 shots from a shoot. That may sound like a low number, but I much prefer to pick the best shots rather than provide more but similar images. The exception to this is when I shoot film as I try to make every frame count.


I find photo shoots hugely enjoyable despite being nervous, especially when I am with other passionate people. Unfortunately, this ‘high’ often comes with a ‘low’ afterward, as it takes so much of my energy. For this reason, I’d say I enjoy the editing process more because I can do this in my own time, wearing pyjamas if I want! The edit is where I can really be artistic and give the image the painterly look I enjoy so much. The best part has to be sending the finished image to the model and getting their reaction. You know you’ve done something right when they make it their social media profile photo!

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