Beauty Avatar

By Douglas Dubler Back to


When I was first presented with the assignment of producing a cover for photo technique, I immediately began the initial and most important task of conjuring up a strong concept from which the visual image could emerge. I use the verb “conjure” because the process is both evocative and mystical with little logic.

As a beauty photographer, I look for inspiration from many diverse sources: museums, mythology, films, cultural events, opera, ballet, etc. I had just been to see James Cameron’s Avatar and was completely captivated by all aspects of the film—so much so that I went to see it twice. I was drawn to the obvious, such as the camera work, the story and the technology, as well as its subtle parallels to the treatment of the American Indians, gross neglect of our own planet’s ecosystems and Eastern inspired spiritual philosophies. For me everything came together in a marvelous way. He is a master story- teller, and I think it is his best film to date. It really resonated with me on a very personal level. Here was my inspiration!

Since my approach to photography is neither literal nor linear, I used the film as a point of departure. It inspired my choice of color palette, lighting, make-up, and of course, the fabulous feather hat by Makins, which was the basis creatively for the cover shot. I wanted everything to have that organic, wild, tribal feeling. A very important part was also the fashion. I chose a silk jersey top from Proenza Schouler’s Spring 2010 collection. I felt their animal design motif was perfect—again not literal, but very interpretative. To have used something more literal like a traditional animal print would have been, for me, too obvious. Using two subtractive primaries, magenta and green, creates a sense of color depth as the eye is unable to focus on both simultaneously. It is one of several techniques that I am frequently inclined to use in order to enhance the perception of three dimensions in a two- dimensional art form.

The lighting is from a single Broncolor Lightbar 120 with a Para Soft 220 SB as a very weak fill. Power was provided by several Broncolor Scoro A4S packs. The Lightbar’s spread was reduced with barndoors to narrow the beam of light and raise the contrast. The lighting configuration provides even coverage, good modeling with smooth fall- off under the chin. My signature “shutter drag” technique created a slightly off-register secondary image while maintaining an ultra sharp primary image. This is a technique that I have been devel- oping over the years which adds a “3D” look to the image and softens the profile of the model. This is even more appropriate since Cameron chose to film Avatar in 3D.

I used the new Phase One 645DF camera made by Mamiya with an AF 150mm f2.8 IF lens. Capture was with the new Phase One P 65+, whose virtually full frame sensor produces an impressive 350MB file in 16-bit with extreme resolution, very smooth tonal transitions and great skin tone. The camera was set at 50 ISO to insure maximum file quality. This camera/back combination has become my new “favorite” for medium format digital capture.

The second look was an extension of the original concept, but even more interpretive. Loose feathers were woven into the model’s hair, which had been wound around a Styrofoam form. The color palette was more minimal with the focus being the futuristic eye make-up and the free-form hairstyle with contrasting colored feathers. The nude lips further accentuate the eyes, which have a distant gaze. I had the make-up artist add a collar of gold and silver leaf to play off the metallic eye colors and bring a textural element to the tight beauty shot. The jewelry is 19th century Victorian Bakelite.

The lighting for this shot was an unusual arrangement of Broncolor Lightbar 120 Evolutions in a horizontal line at camera height with a Pulso- Spot 4 on top of the camera as a fill light. Their combined effect gave me that “deer in the head- lights” effect which I thought went with the styling and coalesced all of the visual elements. I tried several variations on the mainlight before settling on this configuration.

Capture was with my Nikon D3X 24.5 megapixel D-SLR with Nikon’s new 70-200mm f2.8G ED VR II zoom. The close focusing ability of this lens enables me to get “tight” beauty shots while maintaining the distance I need for the lighting setup. I also like the compression afforded by the longer focal length. I captured the image at 50 ISO to virtually eliminate noise and processed the files in Capture NX2 software.

Accurate gray/white balance for both shots was achieved by using the X-Rite’s ColorChecker Passort each time the lighting or camera was changed. In addition, all images were captured to the Apple Mac Pro computer using Phase One’s Capture One Pro soft-ware, which enables multiple camera connection without reconnecting or restarting the software. It supports tethered capture with Phase One, Leaf, Nikon and Canon cameras.

After the images were edited, the selects were electronically sent to my retoucher, Willie of Cursor Control in Australia ( We have been working together for about 14 years, long before retouching came to the Apple platform. I think his “skin” technique is the best in the market and conveys a sense of moisture, translucency and transparency while maintaining the dimensional quality of the original capture. After several minimal revisions, I had the two files that were the completion of my initial vision.

The final chapter for me is always the execution of the print, so I made two prints on my Epson Stylus Pro 3880 on Epson’s new Hot Press Bright paper. They exceeded my expectations. I could finally rest.

This shoot, like most of mine, required con- siderable thought and meticulous planning, which are necessary if one is attempting an accurate ex- pression of an abstract concept. There were many meetings, many more phone conversations and more than enough text messages to insure that all of the creative team was on the same page on the day of the shoot. At that point, I like to leave ample room for creativity so the images that I shoot look inspired, not produced. The difference between the two is what separates good and excellent. And time is often the best barometer of what is trend and what is enduring. In this case, I hope time is on my side.

Product Resources Cameras: Phase One 645DF Camera w/ AF 150mm F2.8 IF lens, Phase One P 65+ 60.5 MP Digital Back, Nikon D3X 24.5 MP DSLR Camera w/105mm f/2 DC Nikkor lens, AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8G IF-ED lens; Lighting: Broncolor Scoro A4 and Grafit A4 Power Packs, Para Soft 220 FB, Para Soft 220 w/diffuser, Lightbar 120 Evolution w/barn doors, Ringflash P, PulsoSpot 4; Kobold 800 DW HMI Par Lights; Software: Capture One Pro 5, Nikon NX2, Adobe Photoshop CS5; Color Management: X-Rite ColorChecker Passport, X-Rite ProfilerMaker 5, Color Eyes Display Pro, Color Think Pro; Printers: Epson Stylus Pro 9900, Epson Stylus Pro 3880; Monitors: Eizo CG303W, Eizo CG243W; Computer: Apple Mac Pro 8-Core 3.2GHz w/16 GB DDR3 Crucial RAM, Apple iPad 3G 64GB, G-Technology external hard drives, Lexar UDMA 600X Compact Flash cards; Meters: Sekonic L-608 exposure meter, Sekonic C-500R Prodigi Color colormeter; Graphic Technology Print viewers, Wacom Cintiq 21UX, Intuos4 tablets.

About the Author

Douglas Dubler
Douglas Dubler is a fashion and beauty photographer who seamlessly joins craft and creativity to produce some of the most memorable images in editorial, advertising and fine art photography. Clients include Max Factor, Revlon, Clairol, Coty, Redken, Avon, Charles of the Ritz, Sally Hansen, Alexandra de Markoff, CNN, Epson, Broncolor, Nikon and Nik Software, as well as celebrities Jacqueline Bisset, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Brooke Shields, Andie MacDowell and Sharon Stone. Recent assignments find him working as both creative director and photographer. Dubler has been recognized by the industry with awards from the Starch Report, Communication Arts, Art Directors Club and Clio. Teaching venues include The School of Visual Arts, Brooks Institute, The International Center of Photography, Hallmark Institute of Photography and Palm Beach Photographic Workshops.