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Photographing The Renaissance of Poetry, a Walkthrough

Warning: This is a very long blog post.

Hi, it is me again, the (self-proclaimed) Unofficial Resident Photographer of Penwing’s poetry books. Today we are going to talk about the recent photoshoot we did for the Poethree o’Clock box set. This is something exciting for me and the team to share with all of you, the readers, as the photoshoot itself took the span of a whole month to be manifested, and it all started with a what-if thought. It goes something like this: “Wouldn’t it be pretty awesome if you (Charissa) and your book set could end up like a classical painting?” The next thing we know, we were already planning a photoshoot based on that casual thought.

A Cascading Thought Process


Before we made any action plans to set things into motion, we were determined to get an idea and art direction fixed, so that if and whenever we get lost in our ever-evolving thought processes, we can always return to the beginning, to re-orientate and center ourselves again. 

I suppose, the first step to producing a photograph that looks like a classical painting is to look at actual classical paintings, and then figure out why they looked the way they do. There is no easier way to do this than to literally type in “Classical Painting” in the Google search bar and look up on the Images tab. We decided to settle for *this image, and set it as a starting point for us to spring board to our next few steps.



*Madeline after Prayer, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1871.

After having a broad idea of how classical paintings should look, especially paintings from the Pre-Raphaelite era, we scoured Pinterest to see if there were already photoshoots done that may have a similar look that we are going after. As a photographer, I do have a couple of photographers’ work in mind that may have qualities resembling classical paintings, one of them is Zhang Jingna’s Motherland Chronicles. The other photographer is Lillian Liu, whose recent work reflects the classical vibe with a fantasy twist to it. Inputting their names into Pinterest’s query, many similar artworks did appear and we went down the rabbit hole that was in front of us, leading us from one image to another. While exploring our options, the visual direction slowly led us to the Scottish Celts and its Gaulish goddesses, we were convinced their visual aesthetics had an appeal, and subconsciously from within there existed a kind of symbolism to classical poetry. Inspired by that, we decided to run with that look and feel.



   



Some of Zhang Jingna’s work from her Motherland Chronicles series, which I believe was accomplished back in 2014.

     



Lillian Liu’s recent fantasy/Avalon work, which occasionally evokes Lord of the Rings vibe.



To give an idea how our Pinterest album looked like for the project.

Since the box art for Poethree o’Clock is predominantly blue, we decided to lean towards color palettes consisting of mostly dark blues, accompanied and accented by small, warm colours here and there, with a good balance of moody shadows. At least, that was the tentative plan we have in mind when we were moving forward.



The box art IS predominantly blue, no lie!

In our next step, we started sorting out our saved images into multiple categories for the different kinds of qualities we wanted; we grouped them into “Expressions that suit the overall theme”, “Outfits ideal for the era”, “Make-up styles”, “Compositions for prop and furniture arrangements”, as well as “Lighting qualities”. I may have missed a category or two from my listings here. Once we have known our categories, we compiled everything onto a Miro board, so that all images get visually set up for the convenience of viewing everything in one go, and to constantly review tasks at hand with checklists. After a long glimpse into the visualized big picture, we knew we have quite a bit of work ahead of us, and I knew we needed some help piecing all of these together.



 


Charissa and I are advocates of education and technology, so we do try to encourage the utility of updated online tools that will help make your projects that one bit more efficient and successful. This one here is Miro.

Stocking Up

 
When Charissa and I knew that this project would be best handled by a team, we enlisted the help of our friends who can do the things we cannot. While I do have the slight knack and interest in visualizing a scene or a concept, materializing the set design required knowledge and techniques that may be beyond what we would normally do, especially if we are recreating an indoor Renaissance-like room from scratch. This is where we took in Cheryl and Rachel from The Dot Design Atelier as part of the team to help us the source for various items to build our set design from the ground up. 

We shared our Miro board with them to align our views and expectations, and told them what we have found that might be hard to source; perhaps we were not looking at the right platforms. It turns out there is a treasure trove of insider knowledge that a measly photographer and poet lack, but a couple of interior designers will have an easier access to these insider knowledges. Many accessories and props can be sourced cheaply from the Taobao markets, as long as you are familiar with the Chinese folks there. Otherwise, there are always Lazada and Shopee to shop around within the Malaysian market.

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The rough sketches I made to communicate with the team how the rough compositions will be like with the arrangements of props and furniture.

The first thing we did was an attempt to nail down the dresses. We were looking for that simple, yet elegant Celtic dress that came with a touch of fantasy, and the ideal place to look for these authentically-made dresses would have been Etsy. The thing with the Etsy market place is the uncertain timeframe of shipments, because items may take weeks to be crafted and then shipped from the other side of the world, with an estimation of more than a month to arrive. The uncertainty was too much to bear. We turned to Lazada to find other accessible alternatives, and we managed to find a couple of dresses in dark blue and another airy one in light beige. Although cheaper in quality, we did think it was possible to salvage the quality of those dresses and still make good images out of them. As for accessories (and a decorative vase), Taobao has everything we needed, which were conveniently affordable too, so we just ordered them from China weeks before the photoshoot.

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These were the dresses we went for in the end.

We did notice that large furniture was a thing that acted as a large supporting piece(s) in most classical paintings, which was what we looked for next. We have the intention to have a chair to act as a throne of sorts or at least a really solid chair that would fit the classical theme. Since none of our friends owned vintage furniture, we went straight to the experts at Empire Classics that make and sell them. If anyone wants to pick up a masterfully crafted, vintage-looking, royalty piece of furniture, Empire Classic is definitely the place to go. After some back and forth discussions with the people at Empire Classics, we managed to make an arrangement with them and picked up a sofa chair at their headquarters in Ampang.

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The many types of furniture that are available at Empire Classic.



At one point, we have even considered getting this just for the photo shoot.

There were also options to rent items locally too, that way we do not have to buy the items at full price and worry about storage and usage problems after the photoshoot. We managed to procure a French-looking side table, a glass container and goblet, and a couple of candle holders from Just Rent It! Malaysia, which is located in Petaling Jaya’s SS2. Do check their website out, they are a cool bunch of people with really good rental prices to boot, to top things off they handle quick confirmation and checkouts online too.


No joke, it’s quick and easy access to renting your next items for your photoshoots, film sets or events at Just Rent It!

Wanting to incorporate a large mockup of the box set like how we did for the Daylight Dialogue photoshoots back in 2018, Charissa got the printers from Cozell (again) to create the giant, blue box set mockup. Like most fabrication projects, we made sure an order for the mock has been placed weeks before the photoshoot, as it has and always will take some time for the job to be done.



These were the large book mockups we did last time for Daylight Dialogues’ photoshoot, but now imagine Poethree o’Clock in that form factor.

Cloths, apparently, were also essential components in crafting the set design. The first set of cloth that we needed to source was printed cloth that acts as makeshift curtains, in which we found them in the cloth section in the flagship Kamdar store in KL. We needed to be sure the patterns were visually identical to the Renaissance era, so regal patterns in blue were the ones we picked. The second set of cloth was meant for the floor with multiple layers of the same cloth, layering and overlapping over each other, which was inspired by one of The Dot Design Atelier’s interior setups in their studio. It also helps when we picked the second type of cloth that was translucent, as it added a unique texture on top of the initial set of cloth.

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The kinds of cloth we have looked for in Kamdar and in Nagoya Textile, your selections may differ depending on season and availability of cloth.



This was our initial inspiration for the cloth-made flooring, which was done by The Dot Design Atelier.

Finally, as for flowers, which were prevalent in our entire set, we decided to go for a mix of fresh and fake flowers to enrich the set design. Fresh flowers (for the foreground) were bought from Weng Hoa Wholesale Flowers from Petaling Street, KL, while fake and dried flowers (for the background) were picked up from Cheryl’s sister’s flower store at MYO Planner. Also, we picked up a couple of large Peruvian pomegranates from the local supermarket, which we thought would appear photogenic in our visuals. The perishable goods were of course purposely gotten a day before the actual photo shoot. Any other unmentioned loose props that appeared in the final artworks were obtained from our very own houses or studios.

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Flowers, flowers, flowers, flowers, and flowers.

This is Finally Happening


Everything that was prepared for the past 3-4 weeks boiled down to these two days: The setup and the actual photo shoot. After gathering all our props and furniture into the photo studio one day before the photoshoot, Cheryl, Rachel, and I got to work, physically building up the set design.

Setup Day

 
We first had a dark grey backdrop set up to act as an empty canvas to work on. After that, we set up another backdrop holder to attach the “curtain” on. Once the overall shape of the curtains was fixed and set, the fake flowers were fit onto the edges of the curtains to give them a uniquely designed floral arrangement. When all of that is done, we moved in the larger objects one by one into the framing to have a rough composition in place, following closely based on our initial sketches. One good thing to point out about the props was that they were modular and movable, so the set design possessed the flexibility to be altered later on.

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Just like the Ikea experience, there are some assembly required for our set design.

As for lighting, I knew I wanted a look adapted from Chris Knight’s Dramatic Lighting series, so naturally I created a “giant window light” from above, which gives off broad strokes of light, with subtle shadows on the bottom edges of various surfaces, like how most classical paintings have been presented. More lights have been added later on for our photoshoot to highlight, supplement and/or lift off shadows whenever necessary. When all of these were in place, we let the set design sit overnight, as it was pretty much ready to be used the next day. 

 



On the left: This is the usual result of Chris Knight’s dramatic lighting. On the right: A rough setup of our main light without a modifier attached yet.

While we prepared and assembled in the studio, Charissa had spent her day at a professional saloon at 176 Avenue to have her hair treated and dyed auburn, to suit the overall theme of the photoshoot: to look like a Celtic lady in a classical painting.

 

 

The constant selfies that Charissa sent over to our WhatsApp group chat while we were working.

Photoshoot Day

 
Everyone gathered by 9:00 am at the studio to start the final preparation, Cheryl & Rachel bunched up the fresh flowers into a flower vase, while one of us cut up a pomegranate to give that final touch to the set design. Our make-up artist Rachel Fong arrived early as well to help Charissa put on her make-up, with a special request to have the make-up look clean, paired with a slight blush on the cheeks, adding on some freckles across the face. For the final touch, Charissa’s hair was frizzled through an iron curler. Friends such as Dani Chan, Lim Wei, Zac Lee had dropped by as well to liven up the photoshoot experience and gave assistance to the entire process. 

 



Some final preparation work was done in the final hours before the beginning of the actual photoshoot, we also had Zac standing in as a placeholder model to test out lightings.

 

 

This is the make-up and hairstyling process, a very long but necessary process in any professional photo shooting environment.

We also thought it might have been a fun element to include Charissa’s cat into the photoshoot as long as the cat does not get spooked too easily, and if we managed to get a good shot from that, that would be a decent bonus. In any case, George the Cat was still an overall stress-reliever for all of us in the photoshoot, especially when we wanted to give it hugs and pets.

 

Should you have a cat in your photoshoot? Yeah, maybe.

  The moment Charissa sat down on the sofa chair, the final jigsaw piece to this photography project is set in place, and for the first time in an entire month’s worth of preparation and assemblage, actual photographic shots started to emerge. We started off working on the composition that would best showcase both Charissa and her box set, making sure subjects were clear and obvious. Gradually, we moved on to reoptimizing all lighting positions and intensities based on Charissa’s height and position to achieve results closer to what we have envisioned. Lastly, we worked on Charissa’s expressions that would give off that effortless, ethereal beauty, which should help sell Poethree o’Clock as that timeless work written by divinity. Well, that was my go-to formula to get one usable shot.



Behind the Scenes 1.



Behind the Scenes 2.

  Without getting into the boring technical camera and lighting details, we continued this process in a rinse and repeat manner by changing the poses, the position of furniture and props, and ultimately the dresses. We moved from planned compositions and then free-flowed into unplanned, improvised ones. Oh, and before changing dresses and shifting set pieces, we also managed to squeeze in a couple of cinemagraphs pieces that we all thought added depth to the series of work. This process kept going from 11 am (when the photoshoot started) and everything finally wrapped around 6 pm, with everyone tired but ultimately satisfied with the photographs produced.

Post-processing


Once again, I am going to spare you, the readers, from the boredom of going through every small details and techniques while processing the photos digitally in Lightroom & Photoshop, so we are going to skip over those parts. However, I do want to emphasize a couple of pointers that I had personally kept in mind to achieve desired outcomes, which was to go for that slight brownish sepia tint to send the images back to the era that once was. Secondly, to make the images look airy and ethereal, there were glows added on digitally in the post-production segment to elevate reality into fantasy. I do believe these were the effects that really helped make the images more immersive than its original state.





It’s subtle, but there are white glows coming from various highlights in the pictures. Subtle sepia tints were also applied throughout the image as part of the colour grading process.


Quick tip: Always have a reference close-by when trying to create a standard for your colour grading.

After all the images were carefully refined to their intended finishing, they were all packaged and sent to various distributing platforms. By the time of this reading, you should be able to see them on display in various book stores and online spaces.



The final artworks are now currently displayed in bookstore fronts, one such place is Sunway Pyramid’s Popular bookstore. 

A Quick Reflection


When looking back at this project, it has been a long month in the making. While all of us did have other on-going projects and day-jobs, we maintained a frequent hands-on approach to allow everyone to be constantly be in the loop, while progressing towards bringing this photography project into fruition.

  To anyone who finds this walkthrough useful and want to follow in our footsteps, I do have one extra nugget to share, and that is to always account for errors and potential disappointments when piecing together an entire project with many smaller components. For example, the large book that we printed for the purpose of the photoshoot was mistakenly printed smaller than its intended size, but we managed to get a second one printed out as soon as possible so that it would be ready for photoshoot. There was also the case where Charissa’s hair treatment and colouring session turned out way longer than expected (it lasted 8 hours long!), good thing there were no other tasks scheduled for Charissa on that day. I would say these things do be like that sometimes, and it is part of the process, so do try to schedule buffers for errors, and if the entire project went on smoothly with no hiccups, consider that as a huge bonus.

One thing I cannot emphasize enough is that I truly appreciate the people that had helped make this project a success. We have gotten immense help coming from the girls at The Dot Design Atelier; they have given great advices in moving the project forward and actualizing the design into reality. Empire Classic had graciously lent us a beautifully crafted sofa chair as part of the set design, which would have felt a little empty if it was not there. We also have to give thanks to Rachel Fong for executing flawless make-up on our very own poetess. Our friends – Dani Chan, Lim Wei, Zac Lee, their presence has been greatly appreciated. Without all of these people & businesses, Charissa and I would be struggling to pull this off at such complex creativity.



Get yourself a dream team for the dream project.

  If you have not already gotten a chance to purchase the Poethree o’Clock box set yet, go get your hands on them, I promise you that your readers will feel classically enchanted as these classical images that we have produced for your viewing pleasure.


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