How I Got That Shot: Photographing “Crisis Moments” for AARP the Magazine

May 25, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Brent Humphreys with members of his family.

Client: AARP the Magazine
Design director: Todd Albertson
Photo editors: Caitlin Peters, Marisa Zanganeh

Imagine yourself confronted with a crisis, where quick thinking can save your life and panic can be deadly. That was an assignment that AARP the Magazine gave Brent Humphreys. The creative director and photo editor asked the photographer to suggest ideas on how he could illustrate five “crisis moments,” including a plane crash, an encounter with angry wildlife, your car falling into deep water. After 20 years of shooting for clients such as Esquire, TIME, Men’s Journal, WIRED, Dell and Cessna, Humphreys says clients rarely give him detailed instructions for how to execute each shot. “I feel very fortunate,” he says. “More often than not, clients are calling for my interpretation of how I would illustrate a story, which is really great.”

To illustrate the risk of drowning in your car, Humphreys sketched a car plunging off a bridge at night and heading into what looks like a fast-moving river. After testing some ideas with a model car, he decided to shoot two dramatically lit images in two locations, then composite them.

“I love production,” says Humphreys, who is based just outside Austin, Texas. “I knew if I could find a car that we could buy for cheap, that maybe had a blown engine, we could get as close as possible to getting [the image] in camera.”


Humphreys decided to shoot a bridge first, then shoot a car rigged to a crane and suspended over water. Humphreys found an abandoned bridge over a gully, then tried to locate the owner. “In seeking permission for access, no one would take ownership, so in the end we went in commando—at dusk with headlights and gear while hiding the vehicles down the road.” Two smoke machines set at camera right added mist.

To find the large body of water he needed in the shot, Humphreys looked close to home. “My neighbor across the street has a two-acre pond. It’s stocked with fish and his horses drink from it.” The water was too calm to look dangerous, however, so during the shoot one of his assistants used an old plank of wood to slap the water and create waves.

To help rig the car to a crane, “I hired BMX pro friends that I’ve built skate ramps with,” who could weld and modify gear. “I said, ‘You want to hang a car?’ and they were like, ‘Sure, sounds fun,’” Humphreys explains. They found an old Volkswagen Jetta with a blown engine. “We stripped the car down—seats, spare tire, everything—to make it as light as possible.”

He adds, “My friend Taylor Jones at Texas Grip helped us extensively.” Jones removed the headlights on the car, replacing them with flashes that synced with the camera. “Let’s say we’d left the battery in the car, and turned the headlights on, that would have required a lengthy exposure,” Humphreys says. Using Qflashes in the car “was a genius solution to get the headlights to look accurate and crisp.”

They brought two cranes—one for the car, and one for lighting—onto the neighbor’s land. They had anticipated that welding a support bar to the car, then hoisting it with the crane, would take five hours, but they needed eight. The support bar welded to the front of the car to keep it from twisting in the wind failed, dropping the car nose first in the water. They paused to fix the front end, solved the problem, and had the car re-rigged by dusk.


Humphreys says illuminating the bridge required eight Profoto heads and packs. “We basically surrounded the bridge with light,” he says, then used 7-inch grid spots to highlight certain areas.

They placed three Profoto heads with Magnum reflectors “which throw the light a good distance” at either end of the bridge, just out of the frame. He also used 7-inch grid spots to rake certain areas of the bridge, so the structure would read clearly.

Also, Humphreys says, “We brought in two 7-inch grid spots to simulate the headlights of another car.” These beams of light are visible on the right side of the bridge.

“We lit the bridge from underneath with a Profoto Magnum diffused with red gels to simulate the tail lights of the careening car,” Humphreys adds.

For the shot of the dangling car,  he placed a large Profoto Octa box on a crane to the left of the camera, which provided a rim light on the car. “In addition, we had two large Profoto softboxes, coming from the same direction as the camera, for subtle fill on the front,” he says. A 7-inch grid spot raked the fog in the headlights.

Shooting on a tripod, he positioned his camera at the same angle when he shot the plate of the bridge and the plate of the car. “The orientation is obviously important,” he says. “It sounds easy combining plates and all, but if you’re going to do that, camera placement is pretty critical in terms of perspective.”

© Brent Humphreys

Hollywood stuntman Gene LeBell, 82, photographed on another assignment for AARP. © Brent Humphreys

Humphreys encountered a different challenge when he had to capture multiple plates for an AARP story titled “Never Too Old.” Humphreys made portraits of seniors who are still working, including Gene LeBell, 84, a Hollywood stuntman who has worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tommy Lee Jones and other stars. Creative director Todd Albertson suggested showing the octogenarian on the set of an old-time Western, being thrown through a window—as if in a bar fight. Humphreys planned to shoot LeBell in the air—and enough images of flying glass shards to be able to composite the image in post.

Wooden Ladder in Los Angeles built a saloon facade, and had six sheets of breakaway glass stenciled with the word “saloon.” James Boone Humphreys, the photographer’s wife, was the stylist on the shoot, which took place at Pink Poodle studio in Los Angeles.

LeBell, suspended from cables attached to a vest under his costume, would be swung like a pendulum so he popped through the window. But first, the crew hoisted a mannequin and used it both to check the lights and then smash through panes of glass.

To provide fill light, the crew placed a large Profoto Octa softbox near the camera. A second, midsize Photoflex box, gridded and lined with silver, was placed on a stand to light the mannequin and LeBell from above. A 7-inch Profoto grid spot with diffusion illuminated the subject’s face and torso.

Behind the saloon façade, the crew placed a Profoto Magnum with a grid. This illuminated the curtain and the window, and skimmed the ceiling rafters.   

To capture the scene and several shots of flying shards of glass, Humphreys wanted to fire two cameras—one facing the façade, and one placed at a 45-degree angle. However, the digital tech lacked the cable needed, Humphreys says, “so it required me to shoot single frames to capture the glass shattering.”


Humphreys shot the bridge and car images on a Canon 5D Mark II with a Canon 28-70mm f/2.8L lens set at f/22, “probably at 1/160th of a second to nullify any ambient light,” he recalls.

For the image of LeBell and shards of glass, Humphreys used a Hasselblad H2 system with a Phase One digital back and 55mm lens, shooting at 1/500th.

Post Production

Humphreys checks his monitor during shoots to make sure he has all the plates he’ll need. “When I get back to the studio I’ll go through everything again to make sure that we pulled the plates that are the best for what we’re trying to accomplish, and build a comp to give the retoucher a direction,” he says.

For most of his portraiture, Humphreys works with Gretchen Hilmers of G-TOU. When a commercial job or editorial production requires atmospheric effects, he calls on Imaginary Lines in Dallas. He worked with Imaginary Lines on both AARP assignments, sending them rough composites and RAW files of all his plates. For the car shot, he also asked them to add an extra piece of flying shrapnel. “That’s something they created” digitally, Humphreys explains.

The retouchers then returned a proof for Humphreys to check. “There’s usually not a lot of back and forth. Their work is mind blowing, so when they send the image back, it’s great.”

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