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Justin Bettman

Drag queens

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I recently had an incredibly fun assignment to create a temporary studio at RuPaul Drag Con NYC to take portraits of some of the drag queens for Billboard Magazine. I always enjoy the thrill of these “photo booths” where I get to create a ton of new work in one day. However, these types of shoots are really fast paced since I often only have the subjects for a couple minutes at a time, so I always need to be fully prepared and ready. To add to the chaos, we had a pretty tight space (about 10’ x 10’) that we had to fit in, so I had to take that into account when deciding what type of setups and lighting I was going to use for the day.

For this shoot, I knew I wanted to have two different setups, one for closer ups and one for wide shots. I’ve photographed drag queens in the past and have learned that their skin photographs different than a typical portrait because of all of their incredible make up. In order to highlight their makeup, I decided to shoot the close up shots against a 4.5’ black background along with a posing table.

Prior to this shoot, I didn’t own a posing table, so I decided to create my own by drilling a Matthews Wall Plate onto a piece of wood and covering it with a piece of duvetine. The wall plate was only $16 and fits easily into any C stand with a baby pin. See image on the left.

I wanted the lighting on the close ups to be punchy but not too harsh. I ultimately decided to go with a Siros 800 L into a silver beauty dish with diffusion. Having the Siros 800 L was really nice because it’s a cordless head, so after I was finished shooting the close up setup, I was quickly able to have my assistant pull it out of the way and pull down the seamless for the wide shots.



For the wide shots, I discussed different color options for our 9’ seamless backdrops with the photo director and we chose to shoot half of the day on a light pink background and half of the day on a gray background. It was important to me on these wide shots that the subjects could move around and that the light would still be flattering for the queens. I decided to go with 2 Siros 800 heads into 5’ octabox. One of the octaboxes was directly behind me acting as a fill and the other one was to camera left, acting a key light. This is one of my favorite full body studio setups that I always end up going back to.

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I am really happy with the results of what we were able to capture throughout the day. It’s always exciting when everything comes together and you’re able to execute what you had envisioned in your head.

Link to published work:

Photographer: Justin Bettman

Photo Assistant: Deirdre Lewis

Photo Director: Jennifer Sargent

Photo Editor: Samantha Xu

Billboard Pride Editor: Patrick Crowley