How I Got That Shot: Justin Fantl’s Still Life With Fleeing Cat

February 18, 2015

By Holly Stuart Hughes


For each spread he shot, Fantl used a Mole Richardson on a megaboom, and then bounced more tungsten lights into V-flats around the set for fill. To capture the skittish cat, he also brought in a strobe. As he composed and previewed the shot, he had the pink number “8:00,” referring to the dinner hour, displayed on the monitor.

Client: WIRED

Photo Editors: Paloma Shutes and Julia Sabot

In his personal work, photographer Justin Fantl often constructs studies of shapes and colors. The editorial and commercial clients who hire him to shoot still lifes of everything from clothes to sleek, high-tech gadgets have described his style as “clean,” “graphic,” “playful,” “cheeky” and “surreal,” he says. On a recent assignment for the 2014 WIRED: Design Life special issue, Fantl applied his crisp lighting and eye for color to a series of complicated product shots, photographed on a grand scale. WIRED photo editor Paloma Shutes told Fantl they needed eight spreads that would serve as openers to each feature article, plus a cover. Fantl had previously shot smaller assignments for WIRED, but this assignment would stretch over the course of four days, giving him “more time and luxury to play around,” he says.

Working at Blast Studio in San Francisco, he had space to lay out a wide selection of props, showing their use in the course of an ordinary day—from exercise to work to dining at home.

“I have quite a bit of experience with lay-downs,” Fantl says. What made this shoot difference was the scale of the arrangements of objects he would be shooting. His image of a dinner table laden with food, glassware, plates and silverware, for example, was shot on seamless measuring roughly 9 x 20 feet.

“It was a very hands-on collaborative process. We had a food stylist, a stylist, myself, my assistant, a designer and two photo editors all working to put the table together,” Fantl explains.

Fantl says he likes the crisp shadows he creates with continuous lights—and his clients do, too. To maintain a consistent look in all the photos for WIRED, he set up the key light and fill lights for his first photo, then made only small adjustments for all the other photos.

To show that these were objects that people live with and interact with, the photo editors wanted to add an element of life to some of the photos. In one shot, WIRED photo editor Julia Sabot served as a model, striking a yoga pose on a yoga mat along with weights, a balance ball, gym bag and other props. A well-behaved dog belonging to WIRED editor Scott Dadich made an appearance in another shot. For the shot of the dinner table, the photo editors suggested placing a cat in the scene. To capture the cat as it dashed through the set, the photographer had to bring in an additional light in order to freeze the motion of the skittish creature.


Before the shoot began, Fantl and Shutes came up with a plan for shooting a maximum number of props and a schedule for capturing each scenario, so that during the shoot they would be able to focus on arranging the objects. “We knew that we wanted to be clear about what we were going after and what we wanted to do,” he says. Art director Claudia de Almeida had designed numbers that would be incorporated into each image, to indicate the time of day that the props would be used: The layouts called for the numbers to appear under the lay-downs, and the team discussed making the numbers out of cardboard or wood and placing them on the floor. Fantl says that while he prefers capturing every element of a composition in camera, he proposed adding the numbers in postproduction, “because I knew it would give us more flexibility” to create interesting arrangements.

While shooting each scenario, they overlaid the number on the monitor using Phocus software, so that as they arranged each composition, they could see how the props worked with the colors and shapes of the numbers. “The process felt like live graphic design in a way,” Fantl says.


Fantl says he began using Mole Richardson 1K and 2K tungsten lights while working in a variety of rental studios. “In many studios there is usually a deep, dark closet, and on a shelf in the abyss you can often find a worn and battered stage light,” he explains. He gave them a try, “and began using them more and more.” He says when he shows clients tests shot with the tungsten lights and with strobes, they often choose the tungsten. “I find that the shadows are a bit crisper and the quality of light is somehow different from strobes,” he notes.

On the WIRED shoot, he says: “We had a half day to figure out the lighting and we used it.” Once he set up his lights for the first shot, he would use a nearly identical setup for each of the shots.

He first put his primary key light, a Mole Richardson 2K tungsten on a boom hanging over the center of the set. Next, he set up walls of V-flats around the set. Inside the V-flats, he set up four 2K Mole Richardsons on light stands. “The lights were pointed away from the subject and bouncing light into the V-flats,” Fantl says. “So a more even, soft light was bouncing back onto the set.”

This bounced light worked, he says, “to create fill as well as highlights.” Depending on where he wanted the shadows to fall in each scenario, he could adjust the light stands and V-flats.

Once the table was in place, but before it was set, Fantl needed to capture a shot of the cat, which could later be composited into the final shot. “One problem with continuous light [is that] you can’t freeze motion all that well,” the photographer notes. “We had to rig up a strobe next to the continuous key light in order to capture the cat without motion blur.” He had a Profoto head with a Magnum reflector placed near the key light on the boom.

He notes, “The cat was a little freaked out by being in the studio, so basically as soon as we put him down, he took off like a rocket to hide. We didn’t want to stress him out so we only put him down a few times and got one or two options.” After the cat was back in his crate and on his way home, the stylists began setting the table with placemats, glasses, tableware and food for the final shot.


Fantl fixed a Hasselblad H5D-50c to a scissor lift, then hoisted it to about 30 feet above the floor. He used a 35mm lens at f/16. The relatively wide lens served two purposes, Fantl says. “In order to get the whole area, we needed the wider focal length, and with the wider lens, you start to see the sides of objects,” even with the camera pointed straight down. “If you could only see the tops of the objects, it would be harder to tell what they are.” Fantl says he shot most of the images at 1/4 to 1/3 sec, but to capture the image of the running cat, he shot at 1/500 sec.

Though he shot tethered, Fantl climbed up the scissor lift to look over the set as the compositions came together. “There was a lot of going up and down,” he recalls. “It was fun for me to go up there, and ponder the game plan.”


Fantl estimates that setting up and shooting the tabletop image took about four hours from start to finish. He and the photo editors previewed each image, tweaking the arrangement of objects and lights as they went. Fantl did some color correction and made some sharpening adjustments to the selected images on the spot. Then he saved the native Hasselblad RAW files as high-res TIFF files and JPEGs to a hard drive. The team at WIRED handled the compositing of the numbers and the final shots. “It can be hard to just turn your images over to someone else to work on,” Fantl says, “but I am fortunate that most of my esthetic comes from my lighting.”

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