How to Shoot a Lookbook

The DNA of Dope

A series about brand building.

Getting behind the camera.

Fifteen years ago I used to model, which helped me pay my way through university. I was pretty good at it too. I modelled for brands like Abercrombie, Calvin Klein, and Dsquared². At one point, ET ranked me as the second second top male model from Canada. 

The thing is, I didn’t really like it. What I did like, however, was everything that went on behind the camera. Any minute I wasn’t in front of the camera, I spent my time learning what everyone else was doing. 

I got to know many talented photographers, creative directors, art directors, stylists, makeup artists, directors, and the like. I wanted to know everything about what they did, how they did it, and why they loved it. 

The best way to learn was to be kind, ask questions, and help out where I wasn’t expected to. Most models don’t do food runs with production assistants, or help unload the equipment, but I would. The point is, ego closes you to learning; removing pride opens you to it.

Even the lowest on the totem pole can offer extremely valuable lessons, (and oftentimes the most illuminating ones). What kind of passion drives someone to work for nothing, or next to nothing, is a kind of passion worth understanding.

As an entrepreneur, which is what you are if you’re starting a brand, you’ll be the last to get paid, so you better be passionate about it. Material success should never be your primary goal anyway, it’s merely a derivative of hard work, and passion.

Many of those early relationships I developed on set are still in my life. Some remained strictly professional while others grew into deep friendships. Either way, I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. 

If you’re lucky, as I was, they’ll end up doing some really interesting things with their careers, and might even take you along for the ride. If you’re even luckier, you can return the favour.

Wait! Weren’t we talking about lookbooks? Right, we were. So what’s the point? The point is, your brand isn’t just images in a lookbook, your brand is you. As such, learn everything, be friendly, and carry some f***ing equipment. Be the kind of person people remember and would be thrilled to work with again.

Build your brand's DNA.

Your brand, while small right now, is a living thing, and you’d like it to grow, and grow in the right way. As such, how you structure it, nurture it, and instruct it, will result in healthy, or unhealthy DNA. The latter cannot survive in this hyper competitive online environment.

Shoots are high pressure situations. There’s often a lot at stake, timelines tend to be tight, and usually a lot of resources have been invested. You only get one shot. It’s in these scenarios you really learn to develop a deeper understanding of people. Some break. Some thrive.

This is survival of the fittest baby! You’d be surprised by the difference in quality that people will give you with even the slightest bit of praise.

You might not like the framing in a certain shot, but instead of, “I’m not feeling this. Let’s move on,” try out, “Wow! I love this look! Can we try a few more from different angles to make sure we nail it?” Language is everything.

It’s quite likely your first shoot will be just you and a friend who has generously offered to model your clothing. Graciously accept their feedback and adjust. If they tell you a pose feels uncomfortable, it’s likely uncomfortable, and that’ll come through in the final result.

Comfort, in this sense, needs some clarification. There’s physical discomfort, which often renders the best results, and there’s mental discomfort, which often renders the worst results.

Physical discomfort is straining the body, like, my body is starting to hurt after holding this pose for too. That’s when the face starts to contort and turn into something beautiful. That’s when the muscles shake and create tension. That’s when the body hurts and becomes something beautiful.

Mental discomfort is straining the brain. This is when things start to fall apart, because people don’t want to show up for you.

You can, and should push the limits of physical discomfort, but you need to mitigate the mental discomfort while doing so.

You need balance and harmony.

Here are two examples to further clarify the point I’m trying to make.

Scenario One: I once did a fashion editorial in a film studio. The call time was late at night and the shoot went well into the morning. It was the middle of winter. On camera, it was myself, another male model, and another female model. We were bent and twisted for hours, touching intimately in a series of semi-erotic poses, while it rained cold water on us.

Scenario Two: I once did a music video in a luxury hotel. The call time was late at night and the shoot went well into the morning. It was the middle of winter. On camera, it was myself, nine male models, and ten female models. We were bathing naked together in a warm luxurious pool, while the musician ceremoniously baptized each of us.

You’re probably thinking the latter scenario was more comfortable, but you’d be mistaken, so let me elaborate.

While the first scenario was certainly more physically uncomfortable, and had all of the right ingredients to be more mentally uncomfortable, the photographer asked us how we were feeling, let us see how beautiful the shots were turning out, allowed us to take breaks to warm up, was encouraging, thankful, and energetic.

The end result was a beautiful spread in a world renowned fashion magazine.

Conversely, in the second scenario, we waited for hours while the musician got comfortable, and when we finally began shooting, the director barked orders at us the entire time, moving us around like props, and never once asking, how we were feeling.

The end result was a music video that never saw the light of day.

Create a comfortable environment and your DNA will multiply.

Heavy is the cost.

I’ve worked on shoots that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the results were tepid at best. I’ve also worked on shoots that cost virtually nothing, and the results, launched major brands into the stratosphere. 

Of course, the reverse can be true, and often is, the distinction, however, always goes back to healthy DNA. As the expression goes, “Money can’t buy happiness.” You don’t need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get great results. 

Back when I was doing it, things were necessarily more elaborate. Camera Phones were new, and not good, but more importantly, social media was in its infancy, therefore, advertising still happened exclusively through traditional media. Basically, high quality production could only be achieved if you paid for it. That’s no longer true today. 

Moreover, customers are much more accessible today, which is great news for you, however, it also means the competition is much more fierce, because you’re not only competing with the big brands, but also, thousands of other young brands just like yours. The eyes and ears of your customers’ have never been easier to reach, but they’ve also never been harder to breech.    

Frugality is your friend. It’ll force you to invest in good ideas, instead of, elaborate sets, expensive equipment, and disinterested talent. Big companies have an expression, “Appeasing the gods,” which simply means, do what management wants. What management wants is usually quite dumb.

Use this to your advantage.

With fewer barriers to entry, there’s a lot of really poor work put into the market. There’s something throwaway or disposable about the work being created today. I don’t really love that myself. Just because something’s easier to do, doesn’t mean it requires less effort, indeed, I’d suggest it’s quite the opposite. 

Aim to make something that lasts. Try to do something novel. Take pride in what you’re doing. Be purposeful about it. Make people feel something. 

Be inflexible in the purpose, but remain flexible in the vision, because you’re not the only one that needs to see it. The purpose of a lookbook, and this is important, isn’t to satisfy your artistic whims, it’s to allow others to imagine themselves in your clothing. Your job is to compel people to buy your products.

If you can make these things align, then you’re likely onto something great. 

One last frame.

Photography leaves more to the imagination, but can be less honest, because it tends to be more manipulated, whereas, video tells a story, honestly. One is not better than the other. Just make sure the medium delivers the message you’re trying to convey.

Be ethical. Pay people. Have fun. Once more, carry some f***ing equipment.

I make things like Dopesite Co., Artful Record® and It's All Sad™. I've worked with musicians like Janet Jackson and DVBBS. And I've consulted for brands like Budweiser and Adidas.