A Dark, Dangerous Beauty: Photographer Michelle Monique Captures Dynamic Fantasies & Fairytale Dreams

©Michelle Monique

Characters from ancient myths, childhood fairytales and popular fiction have become a major part of our culture. We are all familiar with them and eager for more dramatic tales of romance and adventure. Like many of us, commercial photographer (and California resident) Michelle Monique has always been enchanted with fairytales and fantastical stories. The magic of photography allowed her to transform this passion into a reality and a successful career.

Monique’s creative journey began with her very first composite image—a shot where she used Photoshop to paste butterfly wings onto her best friend. Now Monique uses her camera and Photoshop to create her own mysterious landscapes, beautiful creatures and powerful heroes, all featuring real models and backgrounds. Most of her commercial work comes from various publishing companies that want to bring their fictional characters (and the worlds they inhabit) to life. Monique says, “I want to continue to create new worlds and characters and push the boundaries of what people believe is possible with a camera and Photoshop.

©Michelle Monique

Shutterbug: Please give us some background on your photography career.

Monique: Up until the time I was 18, I was only photographing my friends on really small scale $20 production shoots. Photography was something I just did for fun, and didn't really see myself making a career out of it. All that changed when I received a message from Random House—my first major client—who wanted to purchase one of my images. I thought that if a company of this scale was interested in my art that there must be more and this fueled my desire to create imagery for a living. I had a lot of fairytales in mind that I always wanted to create and pushed myself to try them even though I knew my Photoshop and prop making skills weren't up to par. After a year or so, I improved quite a bit and clients kept coming—from self published authors to large publishing houses.

©Michelle Monique

Shutterbug: I see that many of your images have a dream like quality and feature characters from fairytales, movies or video games. What inspired you to create those images?

Monique: I don't think much has to be said about humanity’s fascination with fairytales and fantasies—myself included. We are surrounded by them, starting from a young age all the way through adulthood from stories to movies and art. There is something so serene and beautiful about fairytales that just makes me want to get lost in it. Nothing makes me happier than being able to create my own fairytales—or making imagery from an existing story. I enjoy bringing life to characters from cartoons, games and movies. You can see that the model, clothes, backgrounds (etc.) are all real and I personally feel more connected to that than a painting or an animation of the character.

©Michelle Monique

Shutterbug: Each model is expertly paired with the perfect background. How do you achieve that look? Do you use a green backdrop?

Monique: I get a lot of questions about what backdrops I use. The only ones in my kit are black, white, grey, and beige. I've never had any luck with a green screen as I find that the color tends to bleed into the model's skin and hair. Because I plan my backgrounds before the photo shoot, I know exactly what color I will have to place the model in front of. I find it easiest to use a backdrop color that will be as close to the finished image as possible that way you can create a realistic composite. Once in Photoshop, I use the Pen tool to create a selection around the model and then use the Refine Edge tool to get the softness of the edge correct. To further blend the images together, I create a new layer over the hair and paint in soft light to either lighten or darken the background around the hair ever so slightly. I softly erase the distracting parts around the hair and then paint hair back in on a transparent layer.

©Michelle Monique

Shutterbug: How do you capture the images? What gear do you use and how do you enhance the shots with Photoshop?

Monique: Recently I've been trying to create the images with 100 percent of my photos instead of using stock for the backgrounds. I just photograph different elements and scenery at the same angle and with the same lighting, then paste and blend them together in Photoshop with Curves, Color Balance, and Selective Color. It's important to capture everything under the same circumstances as the model to ensure a more realistic composite. I often add fog (or haze) in either the foreground or background around the light source to create that dream like quality.

I use the following camera gear: a Canon EOS 40D, 18-55mm lens, 50mm f/1.8 lens, and a 17-35mm lens. I sometimes use a neutral density filter with the 50mm that way I can get a beautiful depth-of-field but not overexpose the images with my studio lights. Regarding lights I use Aikiphoto flashes, two softboxes, a 60-inch Photek softlighter, a beauty dish, and an umbrella.

©Michelle Monique

Shutterbug: Where do you get those amazing costumes?

Monique: The majority of the costumes you see are a combined effort of my mom and I. I don't have much luck with a sewing machine. I seem to break something the instant I start so I leave that part to my mom—who can work wonders with it. The outfit for my Sucker Punch series was purchased from eBay, and designers created a couple of the dresses in my portfolio. I've always enjoyed making crafty things, so I create all of the small props and ornamental pieces for the sets (or costumes). For larger props (such as weapons) my dad cuts the basic shape out of foam and then I define, smooth, sand, and paint the rest of it. I don't have one place where I get my costumes—it's really a combined effort of several people.

©Michelle Monique

Shutterbug: What advice would you give others who want to create fantasy images?

Monique: It can be a pretty intimating task to create fantasy images because there are so many elements involved but I think it's best to just jump into it, make mistakes, and learn continually. I still make mistakes all the time and with each shoot the images look more and more real. Don't underestimate how much pre-production work needs to be done. I always start with a mood board and put together 4 or 5 final images that I want to be in my story. Then I either draw or Photoshop a prototype composite of the final image that I want. Ideally, you want to create your backplates before you photograph your model—that way you know exactly the angle, lighting, color, and mood that you will need to capture on the day of the shoot.

Michelle Monique

Shutterbug: What other projects you working on these days?

Monique: I'm very excited for this coming year, as I will be releasing a photo series based on the trolls from World of Warcraft that will involve an armored raptor. I've wanted to start incorporating creatures into my imagery to push the fantasy/photography limits even further. I'm also going to have fun playing with beautiful gowns as I plan on working on a Princess Peach and Tangled series this year. I can't wait to see what 2015 will bring me!

More info on Michelle Monique on her website.

See a few more of her images below.

©Michelle Monique

©Michelle Monique