In the Mind of the Beauty Photographer

Edited by Loud Kitchen LLC

What makes photographers gravitate to a certain genre? What does it take to become good at it? As part of this series of interviews, we do a deep dive into the minds of veterans to see how they tick.

Today, we delve into:

Beauty Photography with UKay Cheung

UKay Cheung
Image taken by Geoff Ang

As a fashion and advertising photographer, UKay has worked on a wide range of projects with international fashion brands, magazines, and clients from all over Asia and Europe, such as Guerlain Paris, Chanel, Loewe, Burberry, Harpers Bazaar, Prestige, and SingaporeBrides amongst others. You can view his work at UKayPhotography.com

UKay won his first major award in 2008 when the Master Photographers Association (UK) conferred him the title of Singapore Master Photographer of the Year 2008. He has gone on to win many more accolades in the international photography arena. His latest award is International Fashion & Beauty Photographer of the year 2012.

What’s the difference between beauty photography and portraiture?

Portraiture is more about the person or persons in the picture. The subject is the main focus – like with family portraits and graduation photos. The usual goal of portraiture is to act as keepsakes or to commemorate an occasion.

On the other hand, Beauty Photography is essentially portraiture made with the purpose of selling something – be it a product, a service or a brand.  

Images by UKay Cheung

Traditionally, you would encounter these images in any department store, on buses, in magazines, billboards, etc. Nowadays, these images have moved online as well, appearing on Instagram, Facebook and other online platforms.

What drew you to Beauty Photography?

Short answer: Because it’s about beautiful images of beautiful people.

I was intrigued with photography from a very young age. After exploring different photography genres like product and still-life photography when I first started out, I came to the realisation that I loved portraiture the most.

When I decided to go commercial, I simply leaned towards shooting portraiture and beauty photography, as that’s the natural evolution. I did mainly test shoots in the beginning as a means to hone my skills and train my photographic eye. I then started sending out my portfolio to everyone I could get it out to, and then assignments started coming in slowly after. As time went on, I just kept putting out the best work I possibly could, and fortunately, clients continued to call. It’s been a really fun and rewarding career so far – being able to work with some of the best people in the industry and churning out consistent work.

Currently I am doing more and more video projects due to market demand, but stills photography will always be my one true love. There is always something magical in freezing a moment in time that you can keep coming back to.

What’s your approach to lighting?

Less is usually more. The nicest light is the sun.  

Allow me to clarify – although some of my beauty pictures are crafted using between 8 to 12 lights, that’s usually done to mimic the sun.

Image by UKay Cheung

It is, in my opinion, the minimum requirement in delivering the image to my clients, to achieve the look that best portrays the brand and their message.

My personal challenge is always to get as close to the final image in camera as possible with good makeup and lighting. It saves lots of time, and at the same time, maintains the integrity of the talent, as it does not need extensive post editing.

Let’s talk about your favourite gear

Although the most beautiful and versatile light is the sun, we can’t really have that at our beck and call.

My latest setup uses 2 systems.

I love the Broncolor Para 88 as my main light; it adds a certain specular highlight in to the T-zone area when done correctly. It gives a very special wrap around effect to the subject that I cannot replicate with any other light modifier. It’s like the Australian golden hour sunlight in the middle of winter. Beautiful contrasts with tonal highlights in all the right places when used right.

My main lighting setup, which I have been using for eons, is the Profoto system. For cameras, I am using Canon and Hasseblad. When it comes down to the essence of an image, whatever gets the job done well is a good system. Reliability and quality is a very important thing. I am a firm believer of the saying, ‘buy it once, buy it right.”

What are the most important elements in beauty photography?

A good beauty image should be aspirational. Important factors are shape, form, colour, and in particular, how the skin looks.

Image by UKay Cheung

Shape determines the way lines fall, move or lead the viewer’s eyes in the image. The right lens choice is important. Although lens distortion is frowned upon most of the time, having the right distortion makes a better image, under certain circumstances. For example, the right distortion can lengthen facial features, or sharpen the chin.

Most of us have non-symmetrical faces, and this is true for models too. Hence, the way that the model faces the camera, as well as the lighting, are used to play down flaws and enhance favourable features. I once took a course on modelling in order to learn how models pose to best enhance their features for the camera. That has greatly helped me in numerous ways throughout my career.

Form is the third dimension of shape. It creates depth and makes it “pop”. This is achieved by using proper lighting and manipulating the ratio of the lighting setup – i.e. how the shadow falls, and which modifier to use.

This is an important aspect in beauty photography that I cannot stress enough. When it comes to beauty photography, we typically prefer a shallow lighting ratio – because it helps to bring out skin texture without distraction. We use highlight and shadow to create depth in enhancing the T-zone and chin area. We also use specular light to make the eyes pop as well as high contrast lighting to achieve highlights that makes the skin come alive.

Colour. Depending on the market, we may need to skew the colour palette to suit the audience. For example; the Japanese market tends to prefer a slight blue-ish tonal treatment, due to cultural aesthetics, whereas in Europe, a warmer tone is preferred.

In beauty, of course the skin has to be flawless. Usually the model who is chosen would have very good skin. During the shoot, the whole team’s goal is to bring that up to another level by using a myriad of skills.

I’ll make use of different approaches depending on whether the client is selling makeup or skin care products. Achieving the right micro contrast to bring out the texture of the skin compliments the makeup artist’s efforts – it helps to elevate the entire image.  The treatment and lighting of the image has to be able to bring across the key point and sell the product to its intended target audience.

Images by UKay Cheung

Working with a good team is essential. I see it this way – if the photographer is the painter and the model is the canvas, then the hair and makeup artist are the brush and paint that brings the painting to life. I love working with people who always push themselves to do better. It makes me push myself harder too.

What do you look for in selecting a model?

Generally, ethnicity, facial features, skin tone and complexion all play a part in the quest for the perfect model suitable for the brand.

Most brands have a very specific look they expect, that is representative of them. So most of the time, this is already predetermined. We generally have to go along with these guidelines, using the above mentioned elements to best bring out the message.

‘Being comfortable working together’ is something that I look out for when selecting models if I’m the one tasked with the model selection. Models that I have worked with in previous shoots are more often at ease with me and my team.

In the past, I used to relentlessly do test shoots in my free time, and this helped me to keep updated with the talents in the industry.

What are some of the challenges you face in creating an image?

Getting the model to give me the expression and pose that I want.

Image by UKay Cheung

Creating an environment that allows spontaneous creativity to happen is something that I always strive towards. There has to be trust between me and the subject.

Communication between me, the artist and the talent is quintessential. The challenge of establishing a rapport in a short time of usually only a few hours (or sometimes even minutes) is one of the main challenges I face. I am not a extrovert by nature, but the personal challenge of always trying to better myself and my love for beauty photography, have pushed me to come out of my comfort zone and do whatever it takes to get that shot.

Another challenge that I sometimes face is the team not being able to work smoothly together to achieve the look that I want. Hence, I usually prefer to have pre-production meetings and discussions to ensure that everyone is on the same page. It is always a challenge working with teams – especially in new countries –  to make sure that communication is always open and clear.

Language can be a challenge too. In the beginning of my career, I had an overseas client that requested mood lighting for their new jewellery brand. After going on for hours during the shoot trying to achieve the look they wanted and getting rejected, I realise what they meant by mood lighting is actually high key lighting that was totally different from what we were setting up for. The team quickly managed to turn things around and the shoot even finished on time!  Now we look back at that time and have a good laugh about it.

Sometimes things do not go according to plan even with the best laid out plans. Being a professional photographer, we are paid to solve problems for the client, and ultimately we have to get the job done.

Image by UKay Cheung

Any memorable shoots to share?

Once, the model we flew in specifically for a shoot turned up the day before with an eye infection, causing one eye to swell up. We did whatever we could with the doctors to bring the infection down.

The team was stressed out, as it was a big shoot that had to happen as scheduled. As stressful as it was, we were able to pull through as a team – the makeup and styling team managed to pull off a miracle, thus complementing the excellent lighting crew and hardworking model. We were able to deliver the images that the client was happy with.

Consumers have been skeptical of beauty photography, saying that it’s too “photoshopped” to be real, what are your views on this?

Beauty photography is made to be aspirational. When women wear makeup in public, does that represent a “fake” representation of them? It is actually part of who they are.

Beauty photography is similar – it’s a representation of the brand created with nicely done makeup and hair with a team of professionals, then photographed using the best equipment suitable. Just like how all women want to look their best on their wedding day, Beauty Photography helps brands achieve that same goal, for a commercial purpose.

I am a big advocate of getting the image in-camera as much as possible.

Most of that work is already done even before the shutter button is pressed. Post processing, for me, acts more like an enhancement of the images, as opposed to being what the image must rely on as a crutch. “Using Photoshop in order to make the image look good” – that is not the work of a photographer. Instead, you become a ‘retoucher’, or at least, you are at the mercy of your retoucher.

Images by UKay Cheung

What we have currently that’s known as “Photoshopping” was done in a traditional manner during the film days – it’s just more accessible to the masses nowadays.

Photoshop has become an essential part of photography in general, even more so nowadays when perfection is expected in all areas. For the skeptics and the naysayers, my answer will be this: when you go to a restaurant, do you expect the same level of flavour and sophistication as if you are having cooked a meal at home? This is the parallel for advertising photography or any form of commercial media production. There has to be a certain level of finesse to meet expectations.

Has a client ever asked for more retouching then you’re comfortable with and how did you deal with that?

My regular clients don’t ask for that, as they already know what to expect. There is a fine balance between just nice and too much.

Usually my clients are already seasoned beauty companies that know their brand aesthetics and look very well. There is hardly ever a request that is too “unreasonable”.

Being professionals, we will work to address our clients concerns and needs, and we work together to achieve that goal.

What are the flaws that are commonly attended to in retouching?

Symmetry, making sure the balance of the subject is there.

Skin blemishes and fine lines – skin is absolutely vital to a beauty image. The key is to achieve skin that is close to perfection while maintaining texture. Skin tone and colour is also a key element that is scrutinised during post. Any uneven skin tone or difference in textures will have to be unified.

Eyebrows and lashes can be enhanced in photoshop for anything that has been overlooked during the shoot.

Stray facial hairs that may have been missed during makeup and styling will also be removed.

In general, the first step of retouching involves cleaning up the picture of any spots, blemishes and other flaws that makeup and lighting cannot fix during the shoot. Dodging and burning correctly enhances the work of the makeup and lighting.

Making the photo perfect for its intended purpose is the whole volition behind retouching. As professionals, we have to find the right balance between too little and too much, managing the expectations of the client and all the different stakeholders.

3D generated models are being used in many areas of advertising, particularly in the automobile and products categories. Do you see this coming to the beauty genre or has it already arrived?

The day will come when images using 3D models become part and parcel of our industry. I don’t think it will completely replace what we have now in the near future, but eventually, traditional photography is going to be replaced by technology in many areas.

Companies may want the option of being able to render a 3D asset for their marketing purposes and goals.

Balmain recently revealed 3D Digital Fashion models – that had a pretty big response with mixed reactions online. It’s inevitable that technology will advance, and what we have to do now is to straddle and embrace it and find our own niche in order to stay ahead.

What advice would you give yourself if you could travel back in time to the beginning of your career?

  • Work Harder
  • Work smarter
  • Nurture better relationships
  • Pay attention to your health

Found this useful and want more?

This is part of the “In the mind of” interview series where we get top notch Singapore photographers to share their experience. You can read the rest of the series at: