Lighting Lessons for Shooting On Location—Advice from Ian Spanier
December 8, 2016
As a professional photographer, I spend about 85 percent of my time shooting on location, but when I was first getting started in my career, I was always shooting in the studio. Fortunately, I’ve been able to apply my lessons learned in the studio to my on-location shooting mentality, and, along the way, I have picked up some tricks to manage most any situation.
The beauty of the studio is that you have complete control—the sun, rain, snow, wind and other elements have no effect. This is why, for young photographers especially, location shoots can be daunting.
I’ve always approached these kinds of shoots with two things in mind: First, the age-old rule, “Keep it simple, stupid.” This is so important when working outside. There is really no need to make things complicated when you have so many uncontrolled factors to deal with. Second: Be flexible. As there are almost always things that will be out of your control, you must be flexible. Let’s look at the breakdown of a recent shoot I had for Muscle & Performance magazine, The Vitamin Shoppe’s custom publication.
The assignment here called for us to follow Toronto Blue Jay’s star outfielder, Kevin Pillar, for his workout and shoot some portraits. The images would be used for a print feature as well as the magazine’s cover. We arrived at the location—the trainer’s tiny garage—for the workout ahead of schedule, but as it turned out, Kevin was ready to go as we arrived. I had to make a quick lighting decision: Rather than directly light the subject, I decided to aim a Profoto B1 Head into the wall. My assistant could then change the light from one side of the gym to the other depending where the action was taking place. The assignment also called for us to freeze action, so I used the Profoto B1 and Profoto Air Remote’s High Speed Sync option to shoot above my camera’s maximum sync speed. Overall, this decision got the job done without having to manage heavy shadows that could have resulted from strobe light.
Here’s a look at a couple images from that part of the shoot:
Depending which angle I shot, I instructed my assistant to shift the light from the left or right side to provide the most shape for the situation. In some situations, there was no time to move the light which, in some cases, worked better (like in the first image versus the second). © Ian Spanier
After the garage setup we moved outside to find an LA rarity: a cloudy day with threatening rain. (The perfect example of an uncontrolled variable.) As we got out on the field, we knew time would be of the essence and, just in case, we brought some garbage bags to cover the lights.
Just as when I shoot in the studio, I always light from the back first. Outside, that usually means that the background is ambient light.
The first shot we set up was meant to showcase Pillar’s athleticism, so we had him catching a home run ball against the outfield wall. Again, I needed to freeze action, so we used High Speed Sync (HSS). While this is great for that purpose, the power of the strobe is sacrificed. The faster the flash duration, the better the action would be frozen. Jacking up the shutter speed results in less available light, so we had to use a combination of the strobe to light the subject and the ISO to have enough light from the strobe to expose the image where we wanted.
With the grey clouds in the background, I thought the best look would be to give the warm feel of late-day light. I wanted to add some direction to it, but not so much that there would be a hard shadow on the wall. Even though it’s a setup shot, I didn’t want the image to feel like it was staged, especially because, in reality, Pillar would be making an actual catch, so the real aspect would be present.
The second setup is the same at the first, except it has a slight increase in shutter speed. The use of two Profoto B1s stacked provided enough power so we could take advantage of the High-Speed Sync option and shoot beyond my camera’s maximum sync speed. Again, we wanted an authentic-looking moment, so I gave Pillar a mark to hit with his left foot and he is actually throwing the ball. With a bit more speed in this shot, we moved to 1/1250, though still at ISO 400 and f/7.1 (reading f/8).
The clouds helped in some ways, but at the same time, the lack of light meant more emphasis would be placed on the strobe. We settled on 400 ISO with a shutter speed of 1/1000 at f/7.1. When I shoot with strobe, I almost always expose over what aperture I am shooting, thus we measured the strobe at f/8.0. To do this, we moved the ISO until the output from the strobe measured f/8 with our limitation staying within the Profoto B1’s output when using HSS. The key to working around this limitation was manipulating the light.
First, we directed a Profoto B1 directly at Pillar using a 40-inch Gobo arm on a c-stand. On the other side of the 40-inch arm, which has a fixed knuckle, we used a Norm’s Pin and attached a second head with a silver umbrella. The umbrella would be set two stops below the first light. This would spread out the light and soften the shadows from the first light. Combined, we would also gain more power with less output from each individual light. When working on location with minimal time this is highly advantageous.
For the cover shot, we would be doing more of a posed/formal portrait. We used a lower ISO of 200 and HSS to bring out the dramatic clouds behind Pillar. We kept shooting at f/7.1 (reading f/11) and a shutter speed of 1/1250. The background would be the clouds and the ball field, which were mostly in darkness for dramatic effect, and for the foreground (key light) I used a Photoflex Medium Octadome with one of the two baffles and an alternating gold and silver inserts inside. Upon seeing the first frame, I added a Profoto B1 at two stops below the key light to add more separation. It’s a subtle adjustment, but I think that little highlight makes a more rounded image. As we fired off the last few frames, in came the rain.
We packed up quickly and muscled through the last shot. As the sky began to darken, I pumped up the ISO and shot using the available light at ISO 800 1/3200 at f/3.5.
Versatility is key when shooting outside. As always, I go in with a plan but always try to make sure I’m prepared for adjustments should conditions change. For the cover and the action shot, both of my anticipated setups worked with minor tweaks, and for the workout shots, I had to think fast and make larger adjustments. At the end of the day, working simple and being flexible will always lead to a successful shoot.
Ian Spanier began taking photographs at six years old when his parents gave him his first point and shoot camera. After majoring in photography in college, Spanier worked in publishing as an editor, but making pictures never left him. Having only known 35mm, he taught himself medium and large format as well as lighting.
Clients include: MTV, Comedy Central, A&E, HBO, Runner’s World, Fast Company, Shape, UFC, Conde Nast Traveler, Danskin, Field & Stream, Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Marie Claire, Time Out NY, Psychology Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, AirTran’s Go Magazine, The New York City Economic Development Corporation, Bank of America, Gerber Knife Company, This Old House, WP Carey, Time Inc. and Simon and Schuster, FLEX Magazine, M&F HERS, Price Waterhouse, LowePro, FujiFilm, and 2Xist.
Ian’s first full book of published work, “Playboy, a Guide to Cigars” arrived in cigar shops November 2009 and the public version hit retail stores Spring 2010. The book is a collection of his photographs made in six countries spanning two and a half years. His newest book project, “Local Heroes: America’s Volunteer Fire Fighters,” came out to critical acclaim in the Fall of 2012.
Ian is a member of the Lowepro, “Loweprofessionals” Team and The Photoflex “Light Leaders,” a brand ambassador for Hoodman USA and Imagenomic.
The original masters of photography have always inspired Spanier as they shot what they saw. For him, there is no “one” subject that he photographs; he also chooses to shoot what he sees.
Although he works anywhere and everywhere, Spanier recently left NY for the sunny coast, and now lives with his wife and two sons in Los Angeles, CA. Questions or comments, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. To see more of Ian Spanier’s latest advertising, editorial and personal projects, visit his site at www.ianspanier.com. He is represented by Big Leo.