could tell them to be ‘normal,’” she explains.
“I think what came out is a very genuine
relationship—because they’d either look to
the nanny if it was strange and they were
feeling fearful, or they would be playful if it
seemed fun to them.”
She wanted her lighting to recreate the
chiaroscuro of Renaissance paintings. She was
also interested in applying “a really formal
approach and composition to address social
issues,” she says. Asselin shot most of the
portraits in her own apartment in New York,
where she was living at the time, and in a
space she borrowed from a friend. She needed
a “super minimal,” portable studio she could
carry herself, since she couldn’t afford an
assistant. She bought a sheet of black velvet
that attached with Velcro to a collapsible,
12x12-foot frame she could fold and put in
a tote bag. The small backdrop created “an
intimate, calm place” for the kids and women
For the double portrait for TIME, she used
two Profoto 8a strobes running on their
own 2400 w/s packs. On the first strobe, she
placed a six-foot Octabank, and set it in front
of her subjects, raised so the light was a few
feet above the subjects’ heads and aimed
down at a 45-degree angle. She then placed a
beauty dish with a grid directly in front of the
Octabank. Together, the small gridded beauty
dish and the larger Octabank function like key
light and fill: “You have a stronger, sharper
light and then softer fill, but in my setup,
they’re coming from the same direction,”
she explains. “I want the light to be
simultaneously soft and beautiful but to have
a little strength, a bolder, sharper quality.”
Asselin and her assistants also use foamcore
V-flats, using either black and white “depending
on how much fill we need, or if one [subject] has
darker skin tone,” the photographer explains.
In her images of Streep, the actress
appears to glow. “I don’t think I can take
credit for that,” Asselin notes. “I feel that a big
part of it is that when people are relaxed and
comfortable, they look more beautiful.”
In contrast, in each of her nanny portraits,
Caravaggio-like shadows contour the outlines
of entwined bodies of woman and child. Asselin
used a single Profoto 8a head outfitted with
a 5-foot Octabank and a soft grid, to give the
light more focus. She placed the light almost
directly above the subject’s head so that it cast
their bodies in a narrow pool of light.
Parts of their faces are obscured by shadow.
Unlike the Streep and Frears shot, which
had to call attention to the subjects’ facial
expressions, the nanny portraits “were more
symbolic,” she says.
Asselin photographed Streep and Frears using
a Hasselblad H series camera with a Phase One
IQ260 back, which she likes for its speed.
“I almost never stop shooting,” Asselin notes.
She shot at f/11 with a 100mm Hasselblad lens.
She also shot a Hasselblad for the “Full
Time Preferred” series, using an earlier Phase
One back. She recalls that she used a 80mm
lens at f/16. She had the camera on a tripod
that she could adjust to each subject’s height,
maintaining a consistent distance between
lens and subject in each portrait in the series.
Whether she is on an editorial shoot with a
digital tech or shooting alone for herself, Asselin
says, she typically shoots tethered. Shooting
fast, she’ll check the monitor when her subjects
need a pause. “After the shoot I’ll sit down and
go through the images, then I think it’s good to
wait a day, if you can,” she says. She typically
sends her clients a selection of ten to 20 shots
from each setup, and recommends her top pick.
“I never do a ton of retouching on anyone.
I think people look better when they’re natural,”
says Asselin. She previews shots in CaptureOne,
but prefers to use Photoshop when she wants to
“mess a little with the exposure, the contrast.”
Since The New York Times Magazine
published a portfolio of her nanny portraits
in 2012, Asselin has gone on to shoot other
long-term projects, including a series of
portraits at a now-closed racetrack in southern
California, and she’s sold prints to collectors.
Her portrait of Streep and Frears was
published in TIME in August 2016.
See more stories about lighting techniques at pdnonline.com/gear/techniques/lighting/