Capturing Coney Island On a Smartphone

October 20, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Ryan Schude

Shooting a promotion for a smartphone, Ryan Schude lit a Coney Island scene with more than 20 continuous lights. From atop a 35-foot-high scaffolding, he directed the cast of 70 to hold still while he pressed the shutter by hand, timing the exposure to the moment the fire breather’s flame reached its peak.

CREATIVES: Josh McGuire, group creative director

Harsh Kapadia, creative director
Todd Houlette and Edi Loyola, art directors
Kolby Slocum, executive producer

Los Angeles advertising photographer Ryan Schude has shot for Skittles, Arby’s, McDonald’s and Honda, but he’s probably best known for his personal series, “Tableaux Vivants,” in which he fills the frame with a large cast of characters engaged in a variety of offbeat scenarios. For a recent ad for Motorola, creatives at the ad agency VML used his tableaux vivants as inspiration.

Says Schude, “They wanted to create a similar photo for their campaign but had no set creative direction beyond that in terms of what story we would tell or what location we would use.” There was one other stipulation, however, that added logistical and technical complications to the shoot. The image had to be shot on Motorola’s Moto X smartphone. To demonstrate the capabilities of the phone’s camera, Schude’s image couldn’t be composited or heavily retouched.

When the ad was posted online, it was turned into a grid of 21 squares (symbolizing the 21 megapixels the smartphone captures). Clicking on one of the squares in the grid would display a video of the characters in the scene in action. “The whole idea for that was based around clicking on each portion of the still image to reveal a video showing the vignette of that frame,” Schude explains. A cast of 70 people appear throughout the scene. Capturing the 21 videos required two crews, each shooting on video cameras. While Schude was working on setting up the still shoot, he also would drop in to check on the video crews, he says, “and direct or co-direct as many videos as I could during that process.”   

Schude and the creatives considered several locations before they decided to shoot the scene in Coney Island in Brooklyn. “They felt it was so iconic that people would be drawn to it,” the photographer recalls. They decided he would shoot at dusk, in the magic hour when lights in windows and on the amusement park rides would glow against the darkening sky. That left Schude only a short window of time to get the shot. He adds, “To show all those things in focus at dusk on a phone camera was challenging, but it worked out.” To make sure details in each scenario were clearly visible, and to mimic the glow of lights in the windows of the arcade and nearby buildings, Schude and the gaffer deployed 20 continuous lights in all.

The lights and all the talent had to be in place and looking great the second he yelled “Action,” so Schude wrote what he calls his “battle plan,” which he followed on both the pre-lighting day and on the shoot day.


The location had to be immediately recognizable as Coney Island, so Schude needed to make sure his image encompassed all of the amusement park’s most famous features: The Wonder Wheel, rides, the boardwalk, and an arcade. “There aren’t many angles where you can capture it all in one photo,” he notes. Schude visited the location a month before the shoot, along with location scout Ralph D’Angelo, who determined that the camera had to be 35 feet above the boardwalk. That meant building a 35-foot-high scaffolding that had to be placed precisely: Working with the phone’s lens, which is equivalent to about 27mm, Schude wouldn’t be able to adjust its focus.

VML’s producer, Kolby Slocum, recommended the production company Black Watch Productions. Several of the subjects in the shot were chosen through street casting, but the cast of characters included several figures associated with Coney Island. These included Joey Chestnut, the reigning champion of the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest; actor Terry Michos, who had been in the original Warriors movie (set in New York City); and a fire breather. VML also cast several people with large social media followings, to help generate interest in the finished photo. These included the dog Momo and his owner, Andrew Knapp, and mural artist Jeff Soto, who appears in the scene painting a wall on the roof of the arcade. Some engineers from Motorola also appear in the scene as a group of guys strolling on the boardwalk.

The fire breather became Schude’s central focus.The fire was only at its peak for a split second. “Something we didn’t anticipate is that I’d be calling ‘action’ when the fire was going.” Many of the actors in the large scene couldn’t see when the fire breather inserted the fire in his mouth, “So they just had to trust me when I yelled ‘action,’” he says. To communicate with the talent, Schude had a public address system set up.

Schude’s plan was to have the monitor on the boardwalk, near the base of the scaffolding, and fire the Moto X’s shutter remotely, but triggering it at the exact moment the fire reached its peak was a challenge. Schude had tried Bluetooth triggering and a headphone trigger, which caused a slight delay. In the end, to ensure accurate timing, he decided to climb the scaffold and press the shutter himself. “It was cold and windy at Coney Island, and I remember my finger shaking,” he says, “which was scary, because if you move the camera at dusk, [the shot] will be blurry.” He adds, “The phone was clamped with a Cardellini on a C-Stand to ensure we didn’t get camera shake.” Schude communicated with the creatives at the digital tech’s station via walkie-talkie.

He gave each member of the cast directions in advance on how to hold their positions at the moment he shot the image. “Before I went up in the scaffolding, I would go and physically place them, and say, ‘It’s important for you to do exactly this.’”


Schude says he typically lights his tableaux vivants using strobes synced to his camera so they fire simultaneously. Syncing wasn’t an option with the phone, however, so he and the gaffer, Gary Hildebrand, turned to continuous lights—a mix of 1.5K and 2K HMIs and 800-watt Arris. “They don’t have adjustable power, so you can only add more lights, or move them closer or farther” from the subject, he notes.   

To light a group of girls on the roof of the arcade and people on the boardwalk foreground, he set a stand just to the left of the frame, about 12 feet high, to mimic a street light. On it he placed two 2K lights—one illuminating the girls, one illuminating people walking on the boardwalk in the foreground. Of the 20 or so lights he used, these were both the most powerful and the furthest from the subjects they were striking.

To light an opera singer who was partly lit by a shop window, for example, he was able to place a light very close to the subject, so he used only an 800-watt light just inside the doorframe. Working with a variety of tungsten and HMIs, he also used gels to make sure the color balance on different light sources was even and consistent.

At the end of the pre-light day, he made some test shots, and knew he almost had the shot he needed. “The beach shop and the other shops lit from within weren’t glowing enough,” he says, so he brought in more lights.


Because the image had to look like something anyone could take with the MotoX phone, Schude was unable to use lens adapters. Schude had known that he would need to lock in the ISO, first at 64, “so it wasn’t noisy.” The Motorola engineers managed to lock the ISO. The aperture was fixed at f/2.0. The shutter speed was 1/20th of a second.

The shutter speed was too slow to freeze any action, so each member of the cast had to hold still. “Because the phone was locked down, and the distance worked, their subtle movements didn’t read as blurry,” Schude observes. A bunch of balloons moved slightly in the breeze, but the subtle motion blur looked natural.

Schude estimates he was able to capture about 30 frames before the sky grew too dark, and his images would have been too noisy to use.


On the first day of the shoot, Schude’s digital tech had set up an automated download system, “which had the phone upload the image to a Dropbox folder which was then transferred via Wi-Fi to his computer.” The folder of 21 megapixel, 6.7 MB JPEGs proved slow to transfer, however. On the second day, he tethered the phone using a 40-foot USB cable.

“Generally I do my own post,” Schude says, and on this job, the client wanted no more than some subtle color correction and adjustments to contrast on the JPEG files. The agency handled editing for the videos.

The photo has been featured online since last fall. Though the shoot was logistically challenging, Schude says creatives on the campaign gave him creative freedom he enjoyed. “I could go on forever about how rare it is to have an agency and client allow so much creative freedom and involvement from my end,” Schude says. “It was truly a dream come true.”

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