How I Got That Shot: Winnie Au on the Lighting for Her “Cone of Shame” Series
June 14, 2018
A photo from Winnie Au’s “Cone of Shame” series, made with bounced, diffused strobes that provided fill on the dog’s face.
Au on set with a subject. "I’ve always been interested in portraying dogs in a human-like manner, seeing them more as equals to other human subjects vs. just pets.”
Client: Elle UK
Creative: Gemma Courage, picture editor
Winnie Au is known for environmental portraits that are flattering yet naturalistic. She typically uses strobes subtly to enhance or mimic natural light. “I often get the comment from my subjects that I’ve taken a photo that actually looks like them,” she says. “It’s part of my style that I take a real version of someone.”
Shooting in her subjects’ homes or workspaces, “You can’t change much,” says Au, who is based in Brooklyn. For a recent personal project, she decided to create a set in a studio. “This was a way to use another part of my brain,” she explains. “In a studio, it’s starting from a blank slate. You’re creating something that didn’t exist. It’s fun for me, and I like having control of the colors and textures.”
The series, “Cone of Shame,” features portraits of dogs wearing fanciful versions of the protective collars that prevent dogs from chewing on themselves. Au came up with mood boards for each shot, and collaborated with stylist Marie-Yan Morvan, who created the dogs’ ruffs out of feathers, foam, straw and other materials.
Au’s use of soft, broad light sources to mimic sunlight worked well with her canine subjects, allowing them room on the 9-foot wide seamless to move and sniff without stepping out of the spotlight.
The project also gave Au a chance to work with a beloved subject: dogs. “Every time I work with them, it makes me happy,” she says. “The shapes of dogs are so varied, their fur texture is so interesting. They’re interesting subjects.”
Au’s editorial and commercial clients hire her to shoot different kinds of subjects, and she uses different methods for directing them. When working with models or busy celebs, she says, “They don’t necessarily want to spend their five minutes chatting with you. It’s about being focused and getting the shot done.” Au also photographs artists, designers and others “who are either not used to being photographed or are very nervous in front of the camera,” she says. “Normally what I do is have a conversation with them until they forget they’re being photographed, and then try to shoot a lot and get the in-between moments.”
When her subject is a dog, she says, she needs to maximize her time before they get bored or restless, and also tries to keep them relaxed.
Her dog portraiture is influenced by the emotional connections humans form with dogs. “I’ve always been interested in portraying dogs in a human-like manner, seeing them more as equals to other human subjects vs. just pets.”
She gets down at eye level with the dog, and shoots handheld so she can move when her subjects do. She keeps the crew small, to minimize distractions, but she doesn’t surround the dog with V-flats or boards, “because the dog will want to run around and knock them over.” She says, “You have to know who you are working with, and not create an obstacle course.” She also weights all her gear with sandbags for the dogs’ safety.
In planning the “Cone of Shame” series, she briefly considered a bright, poppy lighting scheme, “where I would go over the top with textures,” but instead chose softer lighting and a more refined palette of backdrops. “With dogs, the pictures can get cheesy really quickly. If you put them in the wrong scenarios, it can come out looking like a greeting card instead of something you’d hang on the wall.”
She chose to shoot with strobes in a daylight studio. When the sun went down, she used bounced and diffused light to recreate the window light she had used during the day. Photographing restless canines, she says, “You want enough light that your shutter speed is fast enough to reduce motion blur.”
Au likes to use Profoto B1 500 W/s strobes. “They’re easy to bring on location,” she says, adding, “The heads are great for dog shoots because there are no wires for dogs to trip on or get tangled in.”
For her portrait of a sheepdog in a fuzzy collar, Au hung a 12 x 12-foot silk vertically at camera right, parallel to the window, about a foot from the dog. Behind the silk, she had two heads pointing away from the dog, bouncing into the white side of two V-flats which were placed near the window. The silk diffused the bounced light and created soft shadows.
At camera left, Au placed another V-flat. Her assistant handheld a 4 x 4-foot beadboard and moved as the dog moved. At a roughly 45-degree angle to the set, the beadboard bounced additional fill onto the dog’s face as needed. A third light was placed behind the camera and bounced off the studio’s back wall to provide frontal fill.
She used a similar technique of bouncing light when she photographed stylist and cosmetics maker Linda Rodin and her poodle. For Elle UK’s “My World” column, Au photographed Rodin and the interior of her New York City apartment, which is filled with her collections of shells, perfume bottles and art. While shooting in Rodin’s bedroom, Au wanted to work with the light visible through a window at camera right, but also create the illusion of sunlight coming from the left. She had limited space to maneuver, and bouncing light off the blue walls could have ended up casting a bluish hue on her subject.
Au set up a B1 at camera left—“It’s just out of the frame,” she says—and pointed it at a 45-degree angle at the ceiling near the corner of the room. “The light creates a nice highlight on the camera-left side of Linda’s face, which mimics the softer highlight you are getting from the daylight coming from a window on the camera right of the image,” Au says. “In this way, it looks like she’s in a bright room with windows on either side of her.”
Au frequently shoots with a Canon 5D Mark IV. For the studio portrait of the sheepdog, she used a 50mm f/1.2L USM lens and shot at f/9 at 1/60th, ISO 200. For the Linda Rodin portrait, she used a 35mm f/1.4L. It was shot at f/4 at 1/125, ISO 1600.
Au shoots tethered, “because I like that instant feedback.” She brings images into Capture One to look for her favorites and do some color grading. For more complex retouching, she works in Photoshop. When she works with a retoucher, she sends annotated JPEGs, then she likes to review color proofs in person if the image is going to run in print. She explains, “Giving feedback to the retouchers is often faster in person, and there are also things you catch when you view images printed to scale.”
Au’s portrait of Rodin, along with her images of Rodin’s home, were published in November 2017 in Elle UK. Her “Cone of Shame” series was recently featured in an issue of Four&Sons devoted to dogs, culture, and culture inspired by dogs.