Working instinctively during a portrait shoot is often better than trying to create images to fit pre-set ideas, says Harry Borden
For me, improvisation is a vital part of the creative process. When I’m shooting a portrait, I enjoy looking for something that hasn’t been done before and ending up with images I hadn’t anticipated. Tampering with the instinctive approach and plundering pre-existing ideas is likely to produce images that are contrived and hackneyed. I believe it’s better to react to what’s around you and riff off things, because then you get the unexpected.
That’s what happened when I did a portrait shoot of the actress Rosamund Pike in September 2006. I had been commissioned to photograph her for the Sunday Telegraph magazine, to illustrate an interview. At the time, she was 27 and in the early stages of her successful screen career, following her debut in the Bond film Die Another Day four years earlier.
The shoot took place in Jasmine Studios, which was a studio complex in Shepherd’s Bush, West London. It was a great location which had really good daylight, which I generally prefer to use, and was equipped with lots of other light sources. There was nothing chintzy or retro about the studio, which is much more the fashion these days; it was just a cold, empty and very functional space.
I arrived at the studio at 9am with my assistant, and was met by a stylist and racks of clothes to use in the shoot. While I was waiting for Pike to arrive, and afterwards when she was in hair and make-up, I anxiously paced around the outer areas of the studio. Whenever I do a studio shoot, I always walk around the immediate area to see if there are interesting places I can use.
While I was wandering upstairs, I found I could get access to a mezzanine floor that looked directly down on the studio. I wondered if I could use that viewpoint in the shoot.
As I had the whole morning to work with Pike, I did a variety of different shots, from tight close-ups of her face to wider shots where she was just one of many elements in the picture. I mainly used daylight, but in some I used a big Octa softbox for flattering light and a Quantum flash, which gives a much harder light.
Pike is genuinely beautiful, with almond-shaped eyes. I thought she looked like a kind of British, prim Brigitte Bardot. Her experience as an actor means she’s comfortable taking direction and adopting a range of personas, poses and facial expressions. She’s very intelligent, but at the same time there’s a kind of brittle coldness about her.
As the shoot progressed, I was pleased with the pictures I’d got, but still wanted to try shooting from the mezzanine floor. I took some shots of her from that viewpoint, sitting in a chair surrounded by lights. Then I decided to try a simpler image with her lying on the floor with the tangled black cables of the studio lights at the top of the frame.
I would be embarrassed about asking somebody to lie on the floor unless I was sure it would make a really good picture. Making someone feel uncomfortable would be excruciating for me. It was
just a question of having the strength of my convictions and asking her to do it. As it turned out, she happily agreed.
She lay in different positions, but the one I liked most showed her looking to one side, with her arms above her head and both her hands and feet crossed. The picture was lit only by daylight. I used my Canon EOS 1DS Mark II and a 50mm lens, and the settings were 1/80sec at f/6.3, ISO 250. The camera was tripod- mounted due to the slow shutter speed, but I had to hold it on two legs and steady it against the mezzanine’s waist-height wall, so I could look straight down on her. This perspective makes it almost look as if she is floating.
The pose in this picture is relaxed and psychologically submissive, but the fact that she’s crossed her hands and feet suggests she’s keeping something back. That fitted in with the mood of the shoot, because although she was very photogenic and interesting to photograph, it wasn’t an engaging or warm process. I didn’t feel I had a sense of who she was after spending time with her.
This picture was used over a double-page spread in the Sunday Telegraph magazine and has been published in the same way in other magazines. It’s a good image to use over a spread as it’s eye-catching, and, from an editorial point of view, allows space for text to be overlaid.
Rosamund Pike is beautiful and famous, so any professional who photographs her really has to get something good. However, although there are lots of portraits of her around, this one is special to me. It was later included in the RPS International Print Exhibition for that year. Even if it had been a more lavish shoot, I don’t think I’d have got a better picture.
Harry Borden is one of the UK’s finest portrait photographers and his work has been widely published. He has won prizes at the World Press Photo awards (1997 and 1999) and in 2014 he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the Royal Photographic Society. The National Portrait Gallery collection holds more than 100 of his images.