FaceTime Is Photography’s New Quarantine Best Friend

By Luana Harumi

“Okay, ready? Three, two, one.”

Not too long ago, Edwin Aviles would  say these words while standing just a couple of feet away from the person he was working with. This time, they were nearly 340 miles apart.

Aviles is a photographer from Fresno, California. He is one of the millions in the US whose work has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many non-essential workers were able to carry on with their activities online and work from home. But how do you do that when your job consists of taking photos of people up close?

Some photographers responded with drones, others with telephoto lenses. But some explored another answer: FaceTime.

“It just started as a joke for TikTok,” Aviles said. “I was just going to take pictures on FaceTime with my camera but then I was like, ‘Why not try to make it something that’s actually good?’ So I just took screenshots on my laptop and then the quality was way better.” The model, a friend who he had already worked with, was in San Diego – about a six-hour drive from Fresno.

The photo shoot was nearly three hours long, resulting in roughly 70 photos.

“It was harder on the model’s part, my part’s pretty easy, just sitting there and taking some shots,” he said. “But she had to set the camera in an angle to find certain spots, the lighting isn’t the same as when we’re taking a picture, there’s autofocus, the quality kind of goes out.”

After that first attempt, Aviles did another FaceTime photo shoot with a model from Fresno, with a twist: they had never met in person before. 

“It was weird because, usually, you meet them in person before you ever go on FaceTime, but it was pretty cool,” he said. “The only difference is you’re not there to actually interact with the model, you’re not able to help them with, like, move their arms a certain way.”

One of the people credited for kicking off the trend is Italian photographer Alessio Albi, of Condé Nast. Since mid-March, he has been sharing photos taken via FaceTime on his Instagram page. Magazines such as i-D and Vogue Italia also held their own virtual photo sessions and over 23,000 publications on Instagram are tagged with #facetimephotoshoot.

View this post on Instagram

We tried the mirror thing over FaceTime haha @genesthat

A post shared by Edwin (@edwinn.aviles) on

“I got the inspiration from my Explore page on Instagram,” photographer Sophie Ming said. “I just tested it out to see what it would look like. Obviously, it’s not the best quality. It doesn’t really compare to a professional camera, but for FaceTime photos, I thought they still looked really good.” Ming, a freshman at Temple University in Philadelphia, is spending quarantine with her family in Manhattan.

A regular in-person photo shoot would usually take her up to two hours. The virtual photo shoot took her 15 minutes. “The reason why it takes so long normally is because you can go to five different locations, you can have the model change. If the model is in the same place, just in their house, they can maybe move to a different room, but that’s it,” she said. “And really all I did was just taking screenshots over and over again of the model in different poses.”

She also worked with a friend she had already photographed before. The two planned what they would do ahead of the photo shoot and Ming sent the model some photo references for what they could do. “Not being able to see people and take pictures of them in person was kind of frustrating and limiting, but working on the patience is not something everybody can do,” she said. “So overall, I feel like it made me a better photographer.”

Ming’s first FaceTime photo shoot is documented on her YouTube channel. Her model was wearing a beige button-down shirt and bright red lipstick while following instructions not only on how to pose – leaning against the wall, running her hands through her hair – but also on how to move the camera (well, her phone) around: up and close, laying it down on the floor, turning it a certain way.

“It forces you to come up with better ideas,” she said. “You have to be creative and come up with things to make the photo good.” 

But taking screenshots is not the only way to run a FaceTime photo shoot. Nick Fancher, a photographer from Columbus, Ohio, had already seen some of his colleagues doing virtual photo shoots during quarantine when a model from Berlin he had already worked with messaged him suggesting that they should do it too.

Fancher knew the video quality would make the photos look very different from the ones in a regular photo shoot. “I didn’t want it to look all pixelated and broken down or whatever,” he said. “So I started thinking about ‘Well, if I shoot through different materials or substances using a shallow depth of field, as long as I can direct the lighting on their end, it would look like real life as if they were in my studio.’”

The video call with the model was projected onto a wall and a piece of acrylic coated with layers of rubber cement was placed between the moving image and Fancher’s camera, making it look like water drops on a window. The model also used a projector in her room to change the lighting and colors. The resulting images have a dramatic mood to them – and make you forget the fact that the model and the photographer were over 4,000 miles apart from each other.

Fancher has been using projectors in his photoshoots for about four years and since 2019 he has been exploring shooting through different materials, such as honey, oil, and different fabrics. He decided to combine the two techniques for his FaceTime photo shoot. 

So far, he has done ten other virtual photo shoots, with people quarantining in places like Los Angeles, Berlin, Washington, DC, and Portland.

Each photo shoot costs $75 and is part of a project now called “Remotrait Sessions.” He is already used to working with a small team on his regular in-person photo shoots, which usually take about an hour – something that hasn’t changed. But now he spends more time directing the subjects. “People have different levels of understanding of their equipment and lighting, they have different limitations,” he said. “Usually, the first five to ten minutes is me walking them through getting a decent image before I can shoot.”

Fancher, who has been photographing since 1997, has seen some big shifts happen in photography, such as the advent of digital cameras and smartphones. “Especially for people working in the creative industries, our fields are constantly changing, technology changes,” he said. “And if we’re not willing to adapt and grow, we’re going to be extinct.”

What comes next?

“I still love having someone in my studio and all that, but this is a facet of photography that I don’t think I’m going to stop exploring,” Fancher said. However, he believes it will take a while for photographers to get back to their regular work routine. “It depends on what happens to the world, how long until we’re allowed to be around each other again.”

For Ming, who had all her upcoming photo shoots pushed back to late summer, photographers will come out of quarantine with lots of new ideas. “If I don’t have to do a remote shoot, I won’t,” she said. “But something will change in the creative world because we’ve been in this for so long now.”

Aviles shares the same feeling. Another way he has been exploring with photography is through self-portraits, something he had never done before quarantine. “This is definitely going to change photography just by how many people are going to take a break, stop and think about what they can actually do,” he said. “Just calm down and think about ‘How can I take this to the next level?’”

And what about FaceTime?

“I feel like that’s a little overdone now.”