Michael Zelbel is a classy boudoir photography expert from Germany who specializes in glamour & beauty photography. In recent years, he’s become well known for publishing great lighting information on his blog, SmokingStrobes. I love the fact that Michael is so passionate about his craft and loves to share information so freely. Because of the hard work he puts into creating free content, he’s gathered a large following on the Internet.
At the end of the day, all my activities in photography are aimed at helping people to pursue their hobby or business of glamour and nude photography. I would like to motivate photographers and models to team up with like-minded people and enjoy this kind of photography. I hope this way all of us can help society overcome the strange notion that a nude body is something to be ashamed of. I am simply using any type of media I need get my points across. A quick little video about a setup or a trick will end up on my video blog SmokingStrobes. When I want to discuss a broader topic such as a complete instruction on boudoir photography, then I poor my mind into an eBook like The Art of Boudoir Photography. My latest publishing activity is our new GoodLight Magazine on the iPad. With the mag I provide fellow photographers with a nice platform for sharing their tips and techniques. It’s all focused on the same goal.
Why do you choose speedlights over other lighting sources?
I love my little speedlights and there are things which I can do with speedlights that I could not do with studio lights. With High Speed Sync I can easily bring down the ambient light down to a level that I can work with. This is great when shooting outside in the sun. With TTL I can use flash at events like weddings, without the need to meter anything. This makes me very fast.
But the single most important factor why I use speedlights most of the time is that they are small, lightweight, and portable. Most of my photos are taken at home in my living room, bedroom, and small home studio. When I photograph friends I often do it at their homes. These types of locations are too small for setting up big studio strobes, huge softboxes, and the like. A small light stand with a speedlight and an umbrella is much more likely to fit into the particular corner of the room that I would like my light to shine from. Whenever I find that my lighting setup does not work for the scene that I want to photograph, then it is much easier and quicker for me to adjust the position of small, lightweight lightstands with umbrellas compared to rearranging a setup with heavy studio strobes and softboxes with a power cords attached.
When you’re on a photo shoot and just can’t seem to take great photos, what do you do?
I start ripping it apart by saying: “OK, now let’s do something completely different” and then posing the model totally different. Next I change the perspective drastically by going into closeup details, where it is about texture more than anything else, or I go into wide angle totals, where it is about geometry more than anything else.
Fortunately these creative blackouts usually never happen to me because I prepare photo shoots thoroughly. I go through a process for coming up with more than enough ideas for suitable scenes.
When you prepare to take a photo, how do you plan and envision your lighting setups?
There are a quite a few lighting setups that I already tried out. Each of them produces a specific look. The basic settings for all of these setups in my Evernote notebook. I usually choose one of these familiar setups as a basis. I choose one, which fits the nature of the photo well. For example I might light a little harder for fashion while I would choose a softer lighting for beauty. I make this basic choice before the shooting.
When building up a particular scene, I often modify it so that the key element in the scene is lit particularly well. But this modification is something that I can do on the fly. I don’t need to plan it. I typically have to adopt the light during the shoot anyway. For instance I might start by posing the model so that she turns her face to the left. In this case I might need my main light to come from the left in order to bathe her face in light. Sooner or later I will always change to a pose in which her face is turned to the right. Consequently I will change my main light so that it comes from the right.
How do you give direction to models to get the poses you want?
Often I show the model which poses I want from her by trying to do them myself. I look totally ridiculous and funny when I pose. This way I not only communicate a pose, but I also add some fun and I psychologically give the model permission to do strange poses because she will definitely look better than me.
How did you get such a large following on your social networks, and what tips would you give a photographer who wants to start marketing themselves on social media?
I personally use a client management system, which is integrated with my social media accounts. This makes it easy and fast for me and my team to stay in touch with our key contacts via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. My target audience is photographers, so I often go to social media spots where photographers hang out. I engage in conversation and contribute bits and pieces which I believed were useful. I don’t just post all of my portfolio photos and ask people 100 times to click “Like” on my fanpage. This common practice is just annoying. On the other hand, if I wanted to become a wedding photographer, I would post a lot of my wedding photos, but only in the appropriate Facebook groups about wedding photography. I would also provide tips on posing for wedding photos. When there are wedding coordinators in the group, I would provide tips on what to look for when choosing a wedding photographer. My tip is to provide knowledge which will make people come back to you for more. The better the tips are, the more the readers will check my Facebook page and eventually jump over to my blog.
Your blog, Smoking Strobes, has become very popular. What are your tips for gaining traffic to a photography blog?
Pour your heart into your blog. Don’t hold back. If photographers read your blog, then solve THEIR issues with all the knowledge and resources YOU have got to your disposal. Forget about posting stuff like “Here are some photos from yesterdays shoot…” Rather post something like “Yesterday we used this trick for lighting lips so that they look extremely lush…”
Post your best tips and tricks as guest posts on other blogs which are bigger than yours. The link from your guest posts to your blog will bring you more traffic than anything else. For example, if you are shooting glamour or fashion, then film your next great photo shoot, explain your setup and get in touch with me regarding a guest post on SmokingStrobes or a feature in GoodLight Magazine.
Don’t waste time on search engine optimization unless you have a lot of time to spare. Then you can worry about your on-site SEO factors such as compelling page titles and meta description texts. These won’t hurt you, but any artificial back link will hurt you. Trying to trick thousands of excellent engineers at Google is a game you can’t win. It will be better to use your time to plan your next great photo shoot.