Heidi Klum is a Cat Sep 2017

This Rankin series of Heidi Klum pictures made me want to learn to take portraits — I’ve got two frames from the set on my wall. Everyone smiles when they look at them.

Photographer: Rankin, Model: Heidi Klum.

Why I Love These Pictures

I see the sequence and it feels like I was on set. As good a model as Heidi Klum is, there is no way that smile isn’t genuine. I can hear the giggling between frames and the back and forth between Rankin and Heidi. The pictures make me feel part of what happened that day.

Heidi is hugely versatile. I see different people in each frame. In pictures 1, 7 and 16 there is a young Gwyneth Paltrow, but it’s Jessica Simpson in 9 and Katherine Heigl in 11. Rankin himself finds his way in to picture 13.

The endpages of Rankin’s Heidilicious book use a longer, 72 frame version of the set. What’s incredible is that every single frame is a different pose and each a cover worthy image. That there are so many strong pictures from a single setup says everything about why Heidi Klum is in an elite set of models.

Being pretty might give you a couple of good pictures, but not 72. I like a lot of Heidi Klum images and they are never conventionally pretty. She’s always working, pulling a face or doing something ridiculous. In this shoot she’s playing a cat and she’s not messing around. She doesn’t care about looking goofy. Heidi is always all in. In the second frame she is licking her paw — because she is a cat. It’s such an unselfconscious shoot and it feels authentic because of it. Just think how amazing selfies would actually be if we could all find our inner Klum? Heidi wouldn’t do duck face, she would be the duck.

The simple setup and styling compliments its authenticity. The pictures would not have worked if there had been an elaborate set, or it was on a glamorous location, or there’d been amazing clothes. The makeup and styling are all low key so they don’t distract from what is happening. It’s just Heidi, the cat ears and a bra. This may have all been carefully worked out, but the effect is that this just happened off the cuff.

Heidi Klum is so in the moment that she hasn’t even noticed her straps falling down. Models will often drop their straps for a beauty shot — so there’s a clean head and shoulders picture without any distractions (especially pre-digital when there was less Photoshop post processing done). This might have been setup as a normal beauty shoot, intended to be cropped in to head and shoulders, but Heidi started messing about and what came out was so much better than what was planned.

These photos feel so real because they probably are. Rankin and Heidi Klum have worked together many times. The trust and friendship between them makes these pictures possible. There’s lots of negative things about fashion and beauty photography and how it’s used. It’s rightly criticised. For me, pictures like these are the other side. They’re soulful, positive and uplifting.

What I love about these pictures is not how beautiful Heidi Klum looks, it’s that she is having the best time and doesn’t care if anyone likes it or not.

*Photography Nerd Notes

These pictures are not about the technique or equipment used. They would have worked with a disposable camera and some sunshine, but still…

Showing a sequence of images in this form has been done for a long time. Known as a contact sheets they were originally used in documentary photography to help photographers and their editors edit pictures. A ‘contact print’ is a print made when film is in direct contact with the photographic paper (not via an enlarger) so the prints come out the same size as the original film. Cartier-Bresson was doing this in the 1930s. It’s only more recently that they’ve been used beyond an editing and archival tool and as an art-form in their own right. They can be similar in style to those produced using a photo booth — it’s easier to tell a story in a series of frames.

The contact sheet look is often replicated in Photoshop, in the same way people put polaroid borders around digital pictures. The Rankin pictures of Heidi Klum are in his 2006 Beautyfull book, so they would have been shot on film, probably using a Mamiya RZ67 and the contact sheets are likely real.

The lighting is a standard beauty setup, maybe a beauty dish in front and above the camera and a couple of lights on the background to blow it out. You can’t shoot with too open an aperture on a 6x7 camera like the RZ67 as you’ll get a very narrow depth of field. Heidi is sharp front to back, so the lights were probably turned up quite high so they could use a smaller aperture and therefore larger depth of field.

Rankin often uses shadows to add drama to his pictures, carefully controlling which bits of a face are visible. It’s easy to get shadows across the eyes when the light comes from above — photographers are usually taught to be careful to avoid this (it’s one of the “rules”). Rankin sometimes plays with this, deliberately placing eyes in shadow. In some of these frames (7 and 12) one of Heidi’s eyes is in shadow and they’re both partially shadowed in 4. I suspect this happened accidentally but Rankin doesn’t care — they shouldn’t be perfect.

A couple of the images are interestingly framed, cutting Heidi Klum off across her mouth (also against the “rules”). Those frames are a bit more aggressive and have a bit more drama. In the context of the sequence they completely fit, Heidi probably just came towards the camera a little. Like everything else in this shoot they just make the pictures look more authentic.

Hello. I'm Darren Shaw, a software developer at Net-A-Porter, which I've occasionally written about.

I also play at being a portrait photographer - but it's just a hobby. I love the photographs of Boo George, Norman Jean Roy, Steven Meisel and especially Peter Lindbergh. I've also written about why I like their pictures. I sometimes do test shoots, so if you're interested in working together please get in touch.

Darren, June 2022.