Ian Spanier Shares Lighting and Storytelling Techniques

By Ian Spanier

I’ve always felt our job as photographers is to tell a story. We are after all capturing a moment in time. Lighting is a much a part of telling that story as the subject of the image is.

Although I majored in photography in college, there was no lighting courses. My version of study was to look at images in magazines , coffee table books and source books (aging myself here, but this was before photographers had websites). From these images I would look for clues in the image as to how the photographer lit the image. Sometimes it would be easy to decipher from the catch light in the subjects' eyes, and once I got my hands on some equipment and experimented, it became easier to make my assessment of these images. Outside of that, what really helped me learn lighting was by the one main light, the sun. I would walk around with no camera in sight and note in my head how the sunlight appeared on people’s faces, objects, etc. as if I were using it for light on my subjects. I would look for how it was in full brightness versus overcast versus slight haze and  how it reflected off of buildings, glass, mirrors and even how the bouncing light would “feel” on my make-believe subjects. I took those notes with me when I did my testing,and tried to replicate all these natural and unnatural occurrences artificially with different modifiers, light sources and surfaces.

When I get an assignment, I ask a lot of questions of the person hiring me. I want to know any back story I can on the subject, the direction of the article or concept for the shoot. This is not always so easy to obtain, so often I’m left to my own research. From here I start sketching out a plan for the shoot. I keep a notebook of all my sets. I’ve been doing this since I started lighting shoots and highly recommend this. I make small prints of the final images and tape them into the notebook. Aside from being a great reference tool, this has proven a great source on set. Sometimes my clients don’t know how to articulate what they want, and this is a visual guide to the options I can give them. As well, many times it serves as a mini portfolio on set or even just a good distraction for my client when I am dealing with a frozen laptop or broken light , etc.

Here are eight images, the set ups and the accompanying text covers of why I chose to light each the way I did. Except where noted, most of the shots are lit with a Profoto 7b light, and I use Photoflex softboxes and Octodomes.

1.    Ronda Rousey, UFC Fighter
This was actually an extra set up during a studio shoot. We were tagging along with a video crew while they were making a small video for the lead up to Ronda’s title fight. I had a full seamless set in the back of a lamp store where I was to shoot the two fighters. The DP told us that we could not shoot at all on their set. Fortunately the creative director pressed and we were given a few minutes with each fighter in the gym location. I knew we needed to be fast, and mobile. I  had one of my assistants hold a Photoflex medium Multidome  softbox as our light, and a second assistant hold a 3x4’ piece of foam core as a bounce fill. Part of my decision was for speed, and the other part was because I wanted to make a moody portrait, yet still be somewhat soft with my light. This would be a marriage of toughness and beauty.   ( Pictured above)

Diagram for Ronda Rousey.

2.    Owner of NY’s “Meatball Shop”
This was a commission  for a portrait  series on people with tattoos, and the direction was pretty much, “make a cool portrait.” Thankfully we had a great location. I had arrived early for the shoot and got a chance to scout out a few spots before my subject arrived. This elevator was great, and I quickly sketched out an idea for a dramatic image. This is a simple one, one strobe inside a small Octodome, double baffles. It’s being handheld by my assistant jammed right up against the wall to give me the widest frame possible.

Meatball Shop owner.

Diagram for Meatball Shop owner.

3.     Local Heroes
This is part of a series of portraits of volunteer firefighters that I made for a book on the subject. This is an example of a pretty standard studio shoot for me, even though it was on location. Many of my assignments include making a studio on location. For this series I wanted to make heroic portraits of the men and women and create interesting shapes on a clean background. The white seamless paper is lit by the standard two lights, with reflectors and umbrellas. To keep the drama high on the subjects, I went with a small Octodome with no baffles, and a grid on the front as the key light, and as a fill a small strip bank that is two-stops below. The two-stop under fill is a formula I use with many of my shoots. To me it just works better with the way light is exposed on digital sensors.

Local Heroes.

Local Heroes diagram.

4.  NFL Star Mario Williams
Typical of athlete shoots, I had 90minutes to shoot at least three portraits, and an entire workout shoot in a gym. This of course means I have to work fast, and know what I am doing beforehand. We scouted the field the prior day when we arrived in Houston, and we measured approximately where the sun would be in the morning when we had our call time. We arrived one hour before to set up and be ready when Mario walked out on the field. Using the sun as a backlight, we set our key, a small Octodome 1/3 stop below the sun, and off to the left is a Quantum Turbo Flash with its regular diffused reflector. Using the sun in your images is invaluable. It can save you space in your kit, and artificial lighting is as I noted above, a manipulation of what the sun does naturally.

NFL Mario Williams

Mario Williams diagram.

5.  The Cast of the Jersey Shore
This was a particular challenging as we shot at 4:30a.m. to keep crowds at bay on the boardwalk in New Jersey. The concept was to have the cast look like they were heading home at the end of a night of partying. I wanted to light the group well but also give the feeling of late night. I boomed a Profoto Latern overhead to mimic the feel of streetlight, and lit the cast with two beauty dishes set at the same power to have a nice even spread that still stayed mostly focused. Finally a 2-stop under fill with a medium strip bank which was on the ground under camera. I shot plates of the background, but because the stores were closed I had to create the light in Photoshop. This includes the warm reflections on the cast, as well as the boardwalk. I also had to create the ice cream-stand interior.

Jersey Shore cast.

Jersey Shore cast diagram.

6.    Grey Maynard
My first job for the UFC was to photograph their clothing catalog. They had never shot it before, so this was new for them, and the weeks leading up to the shoot I was not able to have a direct conversation with anyone about anything more than the lighting should be “your style.” This didn’t really answer my question, because you never really know if that’s what the client wants.

When I met the creative director on set, I was finally able to have a direct conversation about what she wanted. She said “I want Fight Club.” That’s all I needed, so I put up two medium strip banks with equal power, and my medium softbox as my 2 stop under fill. In Lightroom I set the files to have a slightly greenish tinge and when I showed the creative director, she looked at me and said, “we’re going to get along just fine.”

Grey Maynard.

Gray Maynard diagram.

7. Ballet Dancers
For this assignment the art director wanted the feeling of ballet images from the 1940s and 1950s. Knowing that back then the ballet schools often took place in buildings with large vaulted windows that had beautiful soft light on the dancers. This image was made on location at a theater in Red Bank, New Jersey. The shoot was meant to have the feeling of a fly-on-the wall, and I believe a more noticeable light source would send the wrong message. For light we placed two large softboxes behind a 12x12 1-stop silk. Because the stage was all black, light didn’t bounce around as much as it did in those old studios that had white walls, so I also added my large Octodome for some additional shaping.  We rigged a camera overhead and I remotely fired it.

Ballet Dancers.

Ballet Dancers diagram.

In all these situations what I am always going for is an emotional response, not just to the subject in the image, but consciously or subconsciously to the lighting. Essentially  I want to aid the image in emoting a mood, atmosphere or overall impression. This to me is what helps in creating successful images, I hope you agree!

You can see an even fuller of this article on Ian Spanier's Tumblr page.  See Spanier's site for more work at www.ianspanier.com. He is represented by Bill Charles.


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