A Sue Bryce shoot is all about the light, posing, backdrops, fabric flow and connection.
That’s why, when I got the opportunity to be on set for one of her shoots, I was excited to see it all come together so seamlessly.
I can still recall my Uber rounding the corner onto a block of warehouse-type buildings in El Segundo, California, when I spotted one that had its top loading “door” rolled all the way up to expose a dream studio bathed in gold tones (Bryce’s signature brand color). There was a grand piano sitting adjacent to a plush couch, striking floral arrangements at every turn, and racks and racks of the most beautiful gowns dripping in sequins and chiffon and glittery goodness. Further in, I spotted a svelte woman with waist-length hair holding a camera as a team of makeup and wardrobe stylists flocked around a young girl posing against black seamless. As I approached, I heard the following directives being given to the subject:
“Long chin. Straighten up a bit more. Relax your mouth. Pull your torso back. Tilt your head, drop that shoulder down… Oh yes, yes, that’s beautiful.” The photographer, all in black, turned toward me—it was Sue Bryce, a Canon Explorer of Light, founder of The Portrait Masters conference, past PPE and WPPI speaker, and master educator.
In the following chat, Bryce shares with us insight into her world as she continues transforming everyday women into the most beautiful versions of themselves.
What does a gorgeous fashion portrait mean to you? Is it about the light, the subject, the clothes, the makeup and styling? How do you bring it altogether?
Every human being yearns to be seen, heard, accepted. This is a beautiful personal experience, and sitting for a portrait is one of the most vulnerable and yet empowering experiences you can have.
We seem to idolize models and celebrities, and their lifestyles seem incredible. We consume reality TV, magazines, fashion and the lifestyle, but no one seemed to be offering the experience to everyday women to look and feel like a movie star for a day; that’s what a contemporary portrait shoot is to me.
I first created a brand based on the experience I want to have as a woman—to feel it and experience it and feel pampered and beautiful. The women who are most attracted to my brand feel the same, and most of the photographers that I mentor are drawn to the brand and experience also. It makes selling it so much easier as I have experienced this also and love it.
I often hear photographers say “it takes a village” for a great shoot to come together. Who is important to you on a shoot?
Everything comes down to what the client wants, what the client wants to wear and how they want to be styled and photographed. I would never do this without my hair and makeup artist; it’s such a huge part of the experience for the subject. I am a trained hair and makeup artist myself and I have done entire shoots alone, but now that I am established, I put somebody in that place to give that calm, pampering energy while I prepare my concept and vision. I train my staff to fuss over the subject and just have a great time so that the energy is organic and really true. They feel it.
What are the starting points for you when a client hires you?
The connection you create with your clients in the consultation is the starting point, finding out how they dream of being photographed, and then (hopefully) providing the perfect experience that they desire. Also important is creating a mood board. It’s exhilarating for me as I watch the client get more and more excited about what we are designing for them; it makes them feel special and connected.
I feel your work and vision has definitely evolved over the past few years and it’s exciting to see you moving from the studio to outside shoots. What do you love about natural light and cloud cover and what made you want to start taking shoots to the beach?
When you are struggling and learning and starting out, you feel so held back by not having this perfect space or studio. It’s expensive and it’s a big commitment and there are so many variables. Part of you wants to commit but part of you is terrified. I remember working from my garage and thinking people would judge me, so I used to try to go to the beach, to the park, to an urban landscape just to be a little more diverse. I simply wanted to teach that you can do this anywhere. This experience is as beautiful on the beach as it was in my garage in my small country town. You can make people feel special anywhere. Trust me, it all comes from you.
You always shoot in neutral. Why?
The generated JPEG that you see on the back of your camera is not your raw file. Adjusting your picture style does not change the result of your image. What it does do is show me something closer to the final edit and look that I want so I can see it starting to come to life on the back of my camera. It helps me change my lighting if I’m going to desaturate or up my contrast in post. I love to show my clients a sneak preview of the back of the camera during their shoot. I shift into Monochrome and Portrait, with contrast up, warm tones and a little desaturation. It’s mostly for me and a little for the client.
Another signature of yours is that you love working with Alien Skin software. You use that a lot for your backgrounds, is that right?
Yes, I love Alien Skin—I’ve been using it for the past seven years. At the end of the day, it is how I set the toning of all of my images, most of which have a remarkable likeness to ‘80s and ‘90s film that I actually used to use. It is a “cannot live without” item in my studio.
Any tips or advice for fashion portraitists just starting out?
Strangely enough, one of the biggest hurdles of my career was letting go of this idea that I was going to be a fashion photographer. I realized that the genre I was most in love with was glamorous styled portraits, but it was hard to find anyone else doing that. Instead of giving up, I followed what I truly wanted and realized that sometimes you don’t have to fit anybody’s mold, you can just follow your heart and soul.
Posing, says Bryce, is one of the most important parts of being a glamour portrait photographer. “You must be able to pose women of all different body types if you want to book them as your clients,” she says. (Note: Bryce’s posing tips can be used on both lean and curvy women, except where noted.)
Cover Girl Pose
• Have your subject push one hip out to the side, but don’t let them tip sideways like a teapot and don’t let them drop the opposite shoulder.
• Subjects will often put their hands on their hips to start, but you need to find the smallest part of their waist and that is where their hands should be.
• Have them bring their hands in toward their belly button a bit to create a faux waist.
• Don’t let shoulders roll forward. Don’t let them hunch or hold tension in their shoulders.
• Create a little asymmetry by having them place one hand higher than the other.
• Practice this in the mirror on yourself until you perfect it.
Basic Fashion Pose
This pose works best for lean bodies because you can get the space around the body that you can’t get with curvier subjects.
• Use staggered boxes to get one knee higher than the other to create a triangle between the legs.
• Make sure the shoulders aren’t straight on to the camera. Put them more at 45-degree angles.
• Create more triangles by having the subject touch the “touch points” with her hands.
• Have your subject come up onto her toe with bent knee to elongate her leg.
• Make sure you are not shooting down on your subject.
• Engage the chin forward to the front shoulder.
Sue Bryce is one of the most recognizable names in the industry today. Her glamour, fashion and portrait style transcends past stereotypes. In her 29 years in the industry, the award-winning photographer and educator has changed the face of portrait photography as we know it.
Want more? Visit suebryceeducaton.com for video tutorials, posing book downloads and much more.