Client: Cosmopolitan Fashion UK
Fashion Director: Shelly Vella
Tom Corbett loves to infuse his fashion images with energy, fun and a touch of irreverence. He achieves his characteristic look by creating a relaxed atmosphere on set and using light in unexpected ways. “If I had to choose my favorite way to shoot in the studio, I’d say I like to keep it spontaneous,” says the Australian-born, New York City-based photographer.
His look can be seen in recent work for Cosmopolitan UK Fashion, an assignment on which he collaborated with long-time client Shelly Vella, the magazine’s fashion director. Vella showed him the clothes and suggested model Kyla Moran, and Corbett proposed using graphic, black-and-white backdrops. Though the bold stripes and polka dots suggested the Mod fashions of the Sixties, Corbett and Vella did not want the lighting to look retro. “We felt that was too expected,” Corbett says. To give the shots “a slightly more modern twist,” he chose to use a ring flash as his primary light source.
“Not only does it make the clothes look really good—it flattens creases and it brings a kind of sparkle—but it adds energy,” he explains. “That’s why it can be a really useful light.”
As he’s refined his ring flash technique, he often likes to move it off the camera lens, where it’s typically used, or mix it with other sources. “It is nice to take something and change it slightly with a twist,” he says. “That’s the idea behind all the lighting I do.”
Corbett notes that while he has his favorite light sources, “One tool is never going to be right for everything.” For a recent Essence magazine story celebrating the beauty of curvaceous women, for example, he worked very differently than on the Cosmopolitan Fashion UK shoot: His set was quieter, he used simple gray backdrops, and he chose a moodier, softer light that he modified to increase shadows and outline the curves on his subjects’ bodies.
Corbett worked closely with prop stylist Erin Swift, who painted the black-and-white patterns on 8×8 flats—except for the polka dots, which she painted directly onto the cyc wall in Corbett’s studio. Corbett photographed Moran close to the backdrops. “When the background is too far from the ring flash, it starts to get muddy, and then you have to throw a lot of light on the background,” he explains.
“It suddenly feels staged and lit.”
When it comes to directing his models, Corbett says he looks for “the half-moment, something that’s real and not posed.” On the Cosmopolitan Fashion UK shoot, he kept up a lively banter with the model and crew, and also used a technique that he’s used before to draw out models’ personalities: He told Moran to imagine she is in a photo booth, getting casual snapshots taken. “The idea is to tell the model she’s with a couple of mates. ‘Don’t worry too much about the clothes, have some fun with it and see what we get,’” he explains. “By doing that you get truly spontaneous moments.”
The light from the ring flash can look “raw,” so Corbett often mixes it with another light source. “There’s a ratio of soft light that goes in there,” he says. He has a wall made of multiple softboxes that was designed and built for him by lighting assistants he’s worked with on many jobs over the years.
This is positioned behind his camera to cast a soft light. On the Cosmopolitan Fashion UK shoot, it softened the ring flash and gave it more polish. For his softboxes, he says he prefers to work with Broncolor. “With the amount of movement I get, I can change [the flash duration] easily.”
While the lighting for Cosmopolitan Fashion UK was poppy, he needed more contrast and shadow on the Essence assignment. “We wanted to really define the women’s curves, not to shy away from them,” he recalls.
Shooting the models against simple gray backgrounds, he used a Broncolor Para 220. “It’s basically a hard light in a big, soft umbrella. You get beautiful skin tone, but you don’t get multiple fall off [shadows].” To create the vignetting behind each model, he used 2×4 black cards to block some of the light from hitting the background. “If you put the shadow in the right place, it outlines the shape in a positive way,” he explains.
Corbett uses a Canon 1Dx, f/11 at 100. He always shoots handheld and works quickly. “When I’m on a tripod, I feel lazy. There may be an angle I haven’t explored, and then in a moment it’s gone,” he says. “I find that the longer you take getting a picture, the less natural it becomes.”
In photographing plus-size models for Essence, the typical method would be to use a long lens and stand further away, “but that was a bit too expected,” Corbett says. Instead he used a Canon 24-700 mm at around 35mm “to really accentuate her hips. It gave it a little twist.”
Corbett typically shoots tethered, and his long-time digital tech and retoucher Edward Caruso previews the images. On the Cosmopolitan Fashion UK shoot, he and Vella selected their favorites on the spot. “We have such a productive relationship and we’ve worked together for so many years, nine times out of ten, we’ll choose the images on the set.” When Caruso showed him the retouched images of Moran, Corbett asked him to lighten up on the retouching, “but they still looked retouched. She’s got perfect skin and perfect makeup,” he says, referring to Moran and the effect the ring flash created in making her glow.