Shu Uemura

Campaign shoot for Shu Uemura (the art of hair) and UK Ambassador India Miller

Charlie, India and Jason Millers’ credentials read  like a Who’s Who on the British hair industry, dating back to 1965 when Charlie (Jason’s father)  started the business with his first salon in  Edinburgh. This has now grown to five salons,  employing 120 staff in some of the most beautiful  parts of the city. They have been Scottish  Hairdresser of the Year eight times and won  dozens of awards in the UK and across the rest of  the world. Recent credentials include creating the  looks for the MTV European music awards in  Berlin, along with commissions for L’Oreal and  British Vogue. The team has tended the tresses of such stars as Charlize Theron, Joely Richardson and Tilda Swinton.


I had first met the Millers a year ago in London  when covering the 2009 L’Oreal Colour Trophy  and was impressed with their sense of style and  creativity, along with their cool and calm  approach under pressure. Above all they were  friendly and the kind of people I would happily socialise with. The Millers have a long  relationship with L’Oreal and a huge amount of  trust exists between them and the world’s largest  cosmetics, beauty and hair company. The shoot was a success for L’Oreal and the  Millers, who particularly liked the way shooting  in soft, warm, continuous light had created  work with feeling and atmosphere. My assistant  Roger Richards and I had pitched up with eight  Redheads (the Arri kind) and injected a feeling  of backstage high-end fashion which lent itself  extremely well to India and Jason’s work.  Several months later, India approached me to  shoot a campaign for the uber-cool Japanese  makeup and hair brand Shu Uemura. She was to  become the ambassador for the brand in the UK,  and had been given a lot of freedom to create a  series of pictures that were both ‘on brand’ for  Shu Uemura as well as for India.  With their inspiration coming from art, fashion  and photography, I felt the privilege and the  pressure to make sure that this shoot would meet  our collective expectations. Most importantly,  with this wonderful opportunity, I wanted to  stamp my particular brand of ‘auteur’ on to it.


Post production at this level fascinates me and the results far exceeded my expectations, with tiny tweaks on highlights and reflections while keeping detail in the shadow and not losing the overall contrast. If only it were possible to do every shoot this way!


Our first pre-production meeting at Shu  Uemura’s London office established the theme of  cinema or, more precisely, cinematic. India had  some really beautiful examples of recent work she  had seen from various photographers and film  makers and I left with homework! Could be a lot  worse… Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s 2006  movie Marie Antoinette (more for styling than  cinematic reference) and, for both style and  lighting, I sent India Stanley Kubrick’s  much-underrated 1975 film, Barry Lyndon. I  particularly love the story of how the Carl Zeiss Planar lenses were made especially for the  film and even my Canon f/1.2 85mm and 50mm  can’t match the f/0.7 50mm lens  which enabled Kubrick to shoot the famous  candlelit scenes with nothing but candles.When I  first saw this film it had a profound effect upon  me, as I had been experimenting for several years  with Canon’s incredible primes, shooting wide  open and being amazed at the results and  low-light shooting capabilities. The technical  difficulties of shooting those scenes must have  been immense for Kubrick, as each actor would  have had to stay in exactly the same position with  only millimetres of depth of field to play with. I  really wanted to utilise the Canon primes on this  shoot, making full use of the f/1.2 capabilities to  really push the possibilities for creating work of a  super-sensual and atmospheric nature. Three other  visual references that helped to cement the final  approach were the incredible silver-print  Hollywood portraits of George Hurrell from the  thirties. forties and fifties, maybe somewhat  strangely, the native American Indian plate  camera portraits taken in the early 1900s which  bear a startling similarity to my finished pictures,  and finally, certain scenes of Captain Kirk in the  original Star Trek series (now remastered and  great to watch all over again).    Work began about a month before the shoot  date with our first casting of 70 girls that took  most of the day. We were looking for slightly unusual models who would give the pictures an edge. A further day enabled us to make our final  selections that included two girls and a boy. For  castings I always take my camera and lenses,  plus a portable lighting system (usually 1×1  Litepanel LEDs on stands) or whenever possible  window light. I also like to see how the models  take direction and I’m often surprised how a  seemingly ordinary looking girl or boy can come  alive when seen through the viewfinder. I like  to ask if the models have had any acting or  dance experience, because I find this can make  a huge difference to face, hand and  body shapes, expressions and movement.


I spent many days looking back at my work over the past few years for lighting and styling references, which sparked  many phone calls between India and myself. This  helped with our final decisions on look and as we  didn’t have the luxury of a pre-light day we  sketched out lighting plans well before the shoot. Our equipment list left nothing to chance with a  4K, two 2.5Ks, two 1.2Ks and a 650HMI, along  with all manner of clamps and flags, plus lots of  polyboard. Originally I had intended to blast the  4K HMI through the frosted studio windows but  after what seemed like an eternity we managed to  craft the light down to two 1.2Ks bounced  through polyboard and frost with a 650HMI to  paint the black colourama backdrop. To further increase the atmosphere we built  polyboard walls to kill the reflected light and  then, finally, feeling happy with this look, we  spent many hours flagging the light on each  model.We had decided that the final pictures  would be head and shoulder portraits, and so lens  choice was the easiest decision of all, 85mm. The  Canon EOS 1Ds MkIII was for the most part kept  static on a tripod and shot tethered straight to  Capture One Pro, which then converted each file  to a pre-configured temporary colour profile by  our digital assistant. I’m always really pleased to  hear the buzz around the monitor when a file  appears having been shot on the 1Ds MkIII and  85mm prime, as most digital techs are used to Hasselblad or Phase One with the usual Schneider  lenses and are simply not expecting to see  a comparable result from a Canon set-up. The Canon cannot compare on resolution, but  it can hold its own and then some, when the  optics of the Canon primes are at wide  apertures.With all this continuous light I also  shot some short video sequences, as has  become the norm on almost every shoot I do.


My agent and producer for this project, Mark  George, suggested I shoot the job at Iris Studios in SW10. A visit confirmed this would be a superb  place to work; in fact everyone on the shoot  wanted to move in and live there! It’s a beautiful  space that has been converted from a municipal  church hall by Found Associates London. It has  been thought through as far as photographers,  guests, hair and make-up are concerned. There is a  feeling of calm which is always a plus, when often  there is so much at stake with so little time to  spend on its achievement.


The styling was simple; my best explanation is  Bohemian tech, as we wanted to draw on the work  of the past and yet use the styling to keep the  pictures in the present. Saskia Price did a  wonderful job and brought a wardrobe that used  glass, plastic and reflective materials which gave  the pictures a whole extra dimension without  overpowering the models looks or expressions.  I particularly love the crystal glass shoulder pads  and plastic scale dresses. Billy (my lighting  assistant) and I put a lot of energy into making  sure we made the most of them, adding little  highlights here and there which were blown out  with the extremely narrow depth of field. The make-up also made use of subtle gloss  around the eyes and a very pale silver sheen to the  skin. This was key to our original idea of using  cold low light that is in stark contrast with the  usual hair photography that is for the most part  very warm and bright. I have to admit to  a yearning for rebelling against the usual plastic,  heavily retouched look that hair and sometimes  make-up advertisements have, and to India’s great  credit we kept a little imperfection in both hair  and skin. The Millers had set me a wonderful  challenge and I knew this project would require  a serious amount of detailed preparation.  The Final studioset-up,  a polyboard maze.  “Post production at this level fascinates me and the results far exceeded my expectations, with tiny tweaks on  highlights and reflections while keeping detail in the shadow and not losing the overall contrast. If only it were  possible to do every shoot this way!”


I knew from the outset that this project would  benefit from good retouching and post production  and thank Chris Roome and Happy Finish for  adding his particular brand of magic to make this  job complete. Chris’s clients include Nick  Knight’s Dior campaign and award-winning  Dolce and Gabbana ad campaigns, along with  dozens of British and international Vogue covers.  I had spent many hours on screen shares with  India and Jason in Edinburgh and me in  Derbyshire, post producing the files in Aperture  3.0 to a level with which we all felt comfortable. I  than met up with Chris in Happy Finish’s Soho  studio to discuss the RAW captures along with  my own interpretations. The Aperture files gave Chris a direction and we discussed how he would  work towards keeping the reality in the shoot  while not over-smoothing the skin; a trend that he  reliably informed us is very definitely ‘so last  season’. We wanted to maintain the pores and  subtle imperfections while making sure  the colour temperature was cool and yet still  retained a degree of warmth. Post production at this level fascinates me and  the results far exceeded my expectations, with  tiny tweaks on highlights and reflections while  keeping detail in the shadow and not losing the  overall contrast. If only it were possible to do every shoot this way! Everyone invested so much energy, enthusiasm, passion and care into this project and I believe for the most part we have  met our own brief and maybe even exceeded it.