Photographer Jessica Wikström had lost her appetite for working as a photographer. Her studio closed and she was ready to try something else. But everything changed when an acquaintance contacted her and asked her to photograph him and his fellow bearded friends. Out of the blue, Jessica found a style, lighting, and form of expression that restored her motivation.
“It all started two years ago,” says Jessica. “Eight bearded guys walked into the studio. I said I would take the assignment as long as I could choose the light and theme of the pictures. And it became clear pretty quickly that photographing men came naturally to me. Since then, I’ve been hired by various beard-care companies in Sweden and abroad,” she says.
Faces have fascinated Jessica ever since she began her career in photography. So shooting portraits and beauty shots followed naturally. For Jessica, the bearded men project was primarily about sculpting and highlighting, and using shadows to complement rather than conceal.
“My biggest source of lighting inspiration is Chris Knight. The way he paints with light and isn’t afraid of shadows is fantastic. He turns shadows into something positive, while so many other photographers want to avoid them at all costs,” she says.
Inspired by that dark and more cinematic style, Jessica set up her lights. She shot the project with a Leica M240 or Leica M9, usually using just one flash (Profoto D4 or Profoto B1), and she alternated between light shaping tools, with everything from softboxes (Octa/Strip) and deep umbrellas to beauty dishes or harder reflectors, like the Profoto Zoom Reflector. She lightened the pictures with reflectors.
“The light shaping tool I choose depends a lot on the model’s face and how much drama I want to create,” she says. “I usually need to see the model in front of the camera to get a sense of the light, and then I go from there. But almost all photo shoots begin with a Profoto RFi 3 Octa Softbox. There’s something special about the soft light it provides and it suits most of my models.”
Much of the end result is thanks to intensive image editing. “I would say that half the work is done in the studio and half in Photoshop,” says Jessica. But in turn, successful post processing requires careful preliminary work and lighting.
“In Photoshop, I’m bringing out the light and color-correcting, rather than manipulating something that wasn’t right from the start. The light should always be set directly in the camera; you can’t recover from misplaced shadows.”
“That’s why I use products from Profoto. I can always trust that the light quality will be consistent. I don’t want to have to worry about being disappointed by my equipment; rather, I want to know what results I can expect every time,” she says.
Jessica considers the bearded men project as an opportunity to have total freedom to develop her style, and she likes that. “Plus, I have the chance to work with a lot of different people from different backgrounds and countries, which is incredibly exciting,” she says.
What are Jessica’s top tips for photographing this kind of project? Or more specifically – men with beards.
“The eyes and expression are most important. It should never look forced. It’s so easy to see when someone was told to look happy, sexy or mad when the emotion isn’t authentic, or that the photographer missed the moment that was authentic.
And for God’s sake, make sure the beard doesn’t look small in the picture!”