How I Got That Shot: Still Lifes (And GIFs) For Refinery29 and Nasty Gal
April 23, 2015
An image from “The Truth About Tripping” shot for Refinery 29, which published Gonot’s animated GIFs.
Image from "Insult Cakes," a persona project with Max Siedentopf photographed by Stephanie Gonot.
Client: Nasty Gal
Director of Photography: Anouck Bertin
Photo Editor: Julia Finch
On most of her assignments for editorial and commercial clients, still-life photographer Stephanie Gonot does her own propping, styling and art direction. “I think that clients like that I can do the whole thing myself,” the Los Angeles-based photographer says. “I enjoy shooting solo on the smaller jobs, because I can get into a zone and move quickly.”
Her long-time clients often give her a subject, then let her figure out how she wants to shoot it. That’s true for Nasty Gal, the online fashion retailer Gonot has been shooting for since 2013, when Sarah Kissel, the senior art director at the time, hired her to shoot a photo illustration for the Nasty Gal magazine. Typically, Nasty Gal sends her some fashion accessories to shoot, sometimes with suggestions for a color scheme or materials to use. A few days later, Gonot delivers the images she has created, which Nasty Gal typically uses in its email promotions.
When the assignment called for her to shoot a white shoe, Anouck Bertin, Nasty Gal’s director of photography, said she had in mind one of Gonot’s earliest still lifes, which showed a meal from McDonald’s that Gonot had spray painted white and shot on white seamless. Gonot, who had studied painting, made the image in 2010, shortly after she began experimenting with photography. It inspired her to begin her best-known series—on the ingredients of fad diets—shot on colored backdrops. Her playful imagery is a good fit for the Nasty Gal brand, which Gonot describes as “colorful, and a little bit irreverent. Or maybe a lot irreverent.”
Her assignments for Refinery29 are even more open-ended. The first time the fashion and lifestyle website hired Gonot in 2014, she sent the editors some PDFs to show her ideas and get them approved. After that, she’s been given free rein to come up with her own treatments. “They would come to me with a story and say we need six pictures that illustrate this story, here are the six points we’ll cover, do you have any ideas?”
For a story called “The Truth about Tripping: How Psychedelics Made a Comeback,” Refinery29 photo editor Julia Finch asked her to come up with four trippy images, and suggested it would be fun to show them as animated GIFs. Though the compositions were very different from the shot of the white shoe she created for Nasty Gal, on both assignments Gonot used the same lighting and camera setup, making only slight modifications.
Gonot shoots most tabletop setups on 4-foot-wide seamless, and has a variety of colors and materials to choose from. She does most of her own prop shopping, “which keeps costs down,” she says.
For the Nasty Gal white-on-white shoot, she pulled some seamless from her collection, and bought some fruit for propping and some spray paint. For the Refinery29 story, she bought some colorful children’s blocks, which she set on a sheet of black Plexiglas, which absorbs and disguises shadows. After some experimentation, she decided to use some white pegboard she had in her studio as her backdrop. The pattern of holes in the pegboard, which she leaned against the wall behind her table, was reflected in the black Plexi.
To photograph the reflected pattern, she says, “I was on my tiptoes, looking down on the Plexi to capture that weird effect of the dots trailing away.”
Gonot puts time and attention into her compositions, so she finds it satisfying to work on images that will appear online: “It’s nice that the images aren’t cropped,” she explains.
Though she rents bigger lights on some productions, when she’s shooting on her own, Gonot likes to use a simple setup so that she can move quickly and easily as she shoots. This setup usually combines two Calumet Travelites with a Canon Speedlite 430EX II on her camera, which she’ll turn up or down to adjust the flash. She’ll also use the speedlight to trigger her strobes. “That’s the general setup when I’m in my studio, then I modify from there, depending on what I’m shooting.”
For the white shot for Nasty Gal, she used one Travelite on a stand about seven feet high, to the right of the table. Shooting white objects on white seamless, she wanted to soften the light, so she fired it through a white umbrella. The Speedlite provided some fill. “It gives it a little bit of extra kick of light,” she says. “It takes away dark shadows.”
For the shot of colored blocks, the strobes were bare, and positioned so they hit both the blocks and the white pegboard background at the same time. For this shot, she powered the Speedlite down. “It’s used almost as a trigger, more than a fill, but it adds a little bit of something.”
Gonot used a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with 24–70mm f/2.8 zoom. She notes, “These are small objects. I’ve got to zoom in to get the details.” Shooting with the Speedlite turned up, she’ll typically shoot at ISO 160, and rarely uses a tripod. “I like to move around and try different angles and move things around.”
Gonot began making still-lifes before she learned Photoshop, “so I had to make sure I got everything in-camera because I didn’t know how to clean things up.” These days she’s more experienced, but she typically has to turn a job around in only four or five days, which leaves little time for retouching. “I try to shoot these so that not much post is needed.”
Gonot typically shoots a lot of variations, modifying her lights or position as she goes, and may produce up to 200 images on a shoot. “It’s like I’m doing a lot of sketches,” she explains. She reviews the take, noting everything she likes. She’ll typically send about 20–60 low-res images to Nasty Gal; when they choose the finals, she’ll clean up the selection then send high-res files; Nasty Gal has their own retoucher for more extensive retouching. For Refinery29, she typically edits the story herself, and forwards her final selection to Finch. “That’s just how Julia and I work,” Gonot says. “I’m choosing this image from this set because it looks good with the image from that set.”
The Refinery29 tripping story was Gonot’s first experience making animated GIFs. Once she figured out the process in Photoshop, she delivered four subtly reverberating GIF files, which were published on the site in August 2014.