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How this ELLE Japan designer reinvented herself as a fashion shooter
Hong Kong is the latest location for Paris-based fashion photographer Nahoko Spiess to capture couture, this time on assignment for Marie Claire magazine. The globetrotting photographer began her career in fashion not as a lenswoman but as a designer in Tokyo for ELLE Japan.
When Nahoko Spiess decided she wanted to be behind the lens taking the photos rather than putting other photographers’ images in layouts, she packed up her bags and cameras and moved to Paris.
While she finds La Ville-Lumière—The City of Light—an unending source of visual inspiration, she makes it across the Pond at least once a year to the Big Apple for a major fashion shoot. When she does, she turns to Adorama for her equipment rental.
Mark Edward Harris: What dictates your decision to go on location to do a fashion shoot rather than in the studio?
Nahoko Spiess: I always need to get new impressions when I do a photo session and I find the outdoors is much richer. I can find places that provide strong feelings, that let me imagine a story.
When I see an interesting location, somewhere unknown, I can dream about doing a shoot there. I start to visualize the model. I picture her relating to the scenery.
In the studio you control everything with artificial light, so there are no bad surprises...but no good surprises, either.
MEH: What kind of surprises do you encounter in the great outdoors?
Nahoko Spiess: There is magic in the sunlight. Shadows keep moving on the skin of the model and on the clothes; they dance in front of my camera! At the end of the day, there is a magic light that brings warmth to the scenery, a new color on the smile of the girl in front of me that I had not yet seen. It is a unique moment to capture.
Often when I go on vacation, I bring a set of nice clothes in model sizes in my suitcase, or a batch of bathing suits if I go to an exotic island. I look for a nice set-up, sometimes in the middle of nature, sometimes in the exotic design of a hotel.
If I find a good location I then try to find a pretty girl—but not a professional model—to photograph. There is the challenge of directing someone displaying her femininity for the first time in front of a professional camera. It can be difficult but I love witnessing a shy girl transforming into a charming creature as the shooting advances, as she gains confidence in herself. I always cheer up the model, constantly tell her how beautiful, how intense she is, so that she gives me her very best, so that she can set herself free. My husband never seems to mind being my photo assistant in situations like this.
MEH: You did a great shoot in Cuba that seems to be a good example of this type of impromptu location shooting.
NS: There is so much life on the streets there, and the old cars and colorful building facades are great backgrounds. When I started looking for and selecting girls for the shoot—miles away from a regular Paris casting session—there was electricity in the air, and a lot of jealousy…everyone wanted to be in the picture. There was so much going on but I focused on my vision.
MEH: How are ideas developed for your commercial fashion essays?
NS: First I discuss with the client about the image she wants for her collection then I go location hunting. By the way, there is a Japanese word for it now: “rokehun.” When I see a special place for the first time, let’s say a pond in the woods, I try to remember my first impression. It is the purity of what I capture in my eyes at that moment that I try to reproduce in the photos. Then I dream. The location is very present in my mind all day so it is natural that I visualize at night the ambiance, the colors, and the light. Often I wake up and scream, “I need this equipment!” or “I want fog, I need dry ice!”
I used the same method when I was working as editorial designer at ELLE Japan. I looked at all the elements for my work at night and the next day when I woke up the page layout of the magazine was done in my head. I did not control this process.
MH: How do you work the clothes into the shoot?
NS: I try to match each piece of clothing with the pose I imagined. If the dress has a sexy back, it looks better if the model is walking away from me. If it’s a long dress with light material I want the wind to play with it and give it life. Each piece of the collection is unique in the designer’s mind and I try to understand that.
Outdoor shooting is usually a one-shot experience, unlike the studio where you can reproduce the setup if needed. The team needs to know exactly what I want. When the location is available for a short time only because of the sun or some other reason, I usually make a storyboard like I used to do as a designer at ELLE where I would think about the rhythm - the front cover, the double page spread and to try to conceive and create a well-balanced sequence.
MH: Do you try and stick pretty close to the storyboards?
NS: Everything is open for change once I shoot. Sometimes the model drives the picture in another direction because she moves with grace or she has an intense look in her eyes so I’ll move in closer. I need to establish a link between the model and me, to create intimacy. I want the model to feel relaxed and at ease. I have most of the sections on my iPod dedicated to music that makes models “groovy.” Somehow I feel like a man behind my camera and I love the moment when the model seduces me.
MH: How do you normally light these moments outdoors?
NS: I usually use a mix of natural light and flash. I believe that sunlight is the best source but I still add one or two strobes on a battery to smooth the contrasts. The strobes power is low and indirect with a reflector or through spun.
I use ProFoto strobes or a Quantum QT2 and fire them with a Pocket Wizard so that I can move around without being attached to a wire. My assistant walks next to me with the flash and sets the light on the head of the model like a second sun. I can never put a flash on the camera itself. The result is too flat for me.
MH: What camera equipment are you working with?
NS: Now I use the Nikon D3x. I still love film but the power and convenience of digital has won me over. I can see immediately on the computer screen the image and can react and make adjustments on the spot for better results.
MH: How did you make the transition from the head designer at ELLE Japan to a photographer in Paris?
NS: Everything started when I sat as usual with a photographer at ELLE Japan discussing the kind of pictures we needed for that issue of the magazine. I knew the result I wanted but I had no clue how the photographer would do it. I wanted to learn.
Ten years ago in Japan, as a woman I needed to be way more impressive than any man to qualify for the same position. I had this desire to become art director and thought I had to go out in the world and gather incredible experiences so that I could come back and live my dream.
I decided to pack my suitcase and learn photography and French for two years in the best city I could dream of so that I could become an art director or so I thought at the time. But Paris and photography changed my life, and here I am.
I went to photography school in Paris. Couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying so I taped it and listened again at home. Then I started as an assistant at the ELLE studio where I learned the technique and the sensitivity of several well-known photographers with different styles and unusual tastes.
I had changed, I realized that I didn’t want to compile the work of other photographers for a magazine anymore, I wanted to create the photographs from scratch.
MH: What are the advantages and disadvantages of working in Paris?
NS: In Japan, the senpai-kohai (master-disciple) relationship is so important that you cannot avoid the five to ten year pathway as an assistant to a renowned photographer. Sometimes this leads to locking yourself into a career as an assistant. In Paris I felt that if I did photos that people liked they did not question how I got there, where I came from, or whom I assisted.
The tough side for me was and still is that French photographers are just as much or even more artistic when they talk about their work than the actual art they create. That makes a big difference when you are competing with hundreds of other lyrical photographers for one client. I tend to be shy so I have to let my photos speak for themselves. Sometimes it works but Paris is a challenging place. Sometimes it takes more than just the photos to charm art directors.
One of the key things that happened early in my photography career was at the international photography festival that takes place every summer in Arles.
This was my first experience interacting with other photographers in a unique setting. I was able to get my work in front of the chief editor of a German photo magazine during a portfolio review session and within a few months I had my photo on their cover. This was my first publication and it helped start my career. I realized just how important it is to get your work out and seen by the right people.