Lighting Chameleons: Wesley Mann on Adapting When Conditions Aren’t Ideal

September 23, 2016

By David Walker

Celebrity portrait photographer Wesley Mann has a signature lighting style that he achieves under ideal studio conditions with a simple set-up: two umbrella-diffused lights about an arm’s length above the subject, and 45 degrees to one side of his camera, and a third light—often a strip bank—providing the slightest amount of fill from the other side of the camera. Clients such as The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard and other publications “hire me because of the lighting and expressions I get,” Mann says, so he has to deliver his look with consistency.

Wesley Mann.

Wesley Mann.

The challenge is that conditions are not usually ideal. Mann shoots on locations where lighting conditions are variable and unpredictable, from dark theaters to private residences to outdoor locations under harsh midday sun. “I’m usually going in blind,” he says. But he adds, “I can bring my esthetic into any scenario I’m handed, which is something that I’m frequently called upon to do.”

It requires an extensive grip accessories kit, and a lot of improvisation. For example, The Hollywood Reporter recently hired him to photograph Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where Miranda’s blockbuster “Hamilton” is now playing. Union rules barred him from using electrical outlets, and upon arrival, Mann was informed that he had more lights and gear than the rules allowed. He was limited to just one light stand with a boom, plus two c-stands and a crossbar for his backdrop.

“I would typically use eight stands and three lights,” he says. So he effectively turned a solitary key light into three lights by rigging mirrors to his light stand with magic arms and clamps.

Mann describes his kit as overflowing with bounce cards, mirrors, foam core, clamps, diffusion material, black aluminum foil (to shade ceiling lights), and connectors of all kinds. “I try to bring a kit where anything I encounter, I can work around it,” he says. “I love all this little stuff—shopping for it, collecting it, playing with it.”

The mirrors he used to light Miranda, for instance, were DIY reflectors he made after he first saw Matthews Mirrored Xeno Reflectors, which are for reflecting continuous lights on movie sets. At nearly 50 pounds each, they’re too big and heavy to cart around. So Mann went to Canal Plastic Center in New York City, which sells acrylic mirrored surfaces in a variety of colors. He bought several small pieces, and started experimenting. They reflected “really hard light,” he says, so he used LEE Filters Hampshire Frost to soften them, plus “a little neutral density gel if it’s still too reflective.” He attaches the mirrors to foam core and carries them in his strobe cases. “I have like 20 of them,” he says.

An assignment to photograph Mo’ne Davis, a young superstar athlete, posed different challenges. The shoot was under direct afternoon sunlight on a baseball field, where there was no power source. Mann built a 12 x 20-foot steel frame with a solid fabric cover to block the sunlight above Davis. Below the fabric, just above Davis and to the right of the camera, he positioned a heavily diffused Octabank on a megaboom. Inside the Octabank were two bi-tube flash heads rigged together using a double-sided stud, he explains. (Those studs are just one of the many items he carries, never knowing when they’ll come in handy.) He connected four Profoto Pro-B4 1200 power packs for a total of 4800 W/s to the bi-tubes. He used 1/8 stop blue gel to match the strobe output to the temperature of the ambient light. And he rigged silver bounce cards to the rolling Octabank stand to reflect fill light onto Davis from below. “Having the key light on a rolling stand with the fill cards attached allowed me to move the light source as needed throughout the shoot,” he says.

Mann says he learned how to pack for location portrait shoots during an internship with Martin Schoeller more than a decade ago. With military order and precision, the first and second assistant packed a huge grip kit for every contingency. Mann says, “Once you get in a pinch, and you can’t solve something, the next time, you have an answer for it,” he says.

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Related Links:

Lighting Chameleons: Anders Overgaard on Creating Natural-Looking Light 

Lighting Chameleons: Thomas Brown on Creating Simple-Looking Lighting 

Lighting Chameleons: Austin Hargrave on Creating Versatile Portraits with Minimal Adjustments