Ian Spanier: Limited Equipment, Group Shots and Dinosaur Mosquitoes

This past May, I got the call from MTV to go to St. Thomas to photograph the cast of season 27 (amazing it’s been on that long huh?!?) of the original reality series, MTV’s The Real World. Head to St. Thomas in May? AWESOME! What a way to get the summer started right? Not so fast…

Challenge Numero Uno
Since we’d be traveling out of the country, we’d of course be facing airline limitations and baggage fees, coupled with the fact that this season’s house was located not on St. Thomas, but rather just across the bay on Hassel Island. This meant we’d only be able to reach the location by boat, thus limiting how much equipment we could bring.
A good percentage of the time, I work with Profoto lights, occasionally with Broncolor. Neither of which are lightweight, even when going the portable route, which I often choose when working on locations where power could be an issue and/or when I know I need to do a lot of shots in one day. I prefer the mobility of portable units to avoid the excess of stingers, and the freedom of not relying solely on electricity. There was one assignment years ago in Scotland where we brought Profoto Acute 2400s with us to cut cost, and not only had one shot outside where we ran 500 feet of extension cables - literally to full extension - but blew a bunch of fuses in the 200 year-old distillery where we shot.  Lesson learned.
With these limits though, there was no way we could travel with the Profotos and have enough lights to accommodate a group shot. Now, I’m a big believer in the ideology that you can make do with one light. After all, the sun is only one source, right? But I'm also a proponent that you need to be prepared. There’s always variables on shoots and little did I know how true that would come to be.

Originally, I thought to go with Profoto Acute B’s. 600 w/s and the reliability of Profoto. I had used them once for a cover shoot in Majorca with a Heavyweight Boxer. They worked well, but I was staring down a tight budget, renting six with at least two additional batteries, extension cables, etc, would mean two cases at least. Then I had an idea. I own two Photoflex TritonFlashes, their newer monobloc portable flash units, which are highly versatile, lightweight, and have lithium-ion batteries that often seem to have no end. Add four more and I’d have six lights, all that would fit in the Tenba hard case that normally houses my Profoto 7b, with triple batteries, chargers, reflectors, speed rings, Flashfires (Photoflex transmitters), cords, accessories, and woah, still more room for some of my other gear, all UNDER 50lbs, the airline baggage weight limit. OH HELL YES! Why six? Well, my thought was to get a Photoflex 39”x72” LitePanel frame with White Translucent fabric and place four units behind it. That would be enough to make a main source equate to 1200 w/s that should be enough to equal a Profoto 7b, and the two additional units could be backup and/or used for hair lights, fill lights or anything of the sort. I am not a proponent of bringing everything and the kitchen sink, but an extra head never hurts. Lights solved.
(As an added measure, we carried on one pair of the lights, batteries and accessories. If our bags didn’t make it we’d at least have something in terms of lights….That’s just me being extra cautious.)

St. Thomas = Sunshine and Blue Skies Right?
Think again, we arrived to a misty humid rain, and the forecast called for ten days of cloudy skies and/or rain. Throw in some mega-humidity and mosquitos that look and sting like something out of Jurassic Park. Needless to say, the first addition to the supply list was plastic bags to cover the lights. Second was bug spray.

Of course, there was some talk of postponing and what do we do, but in the world of tight budgets, we’d have to make it work. Already, we knew we’d try to avoid the worst light of the day since we had no scrims. So on our scout, we chose areas where we could avoid the direct sun (or direct rain), but word came that THE shot we needed to come back to New York with was the entire cast on the boat they use to get to St. Thomas proper, blue skies and sunshine. Did I mention the forecast of ten days of rain?

The First Shot of the Day

One of my assistants, Lee Morgan, setting up the Photoflex TritonFlashes for the first shot.

Sure enough, it was raining when we awoke. We covered ourselves in bug repellant, and jumped on the boat to Hassel Island. The first shot would be under a gazebo, thankfully, but as we set up, I had eyes in the back of my head watching for any piece of sunlight and blue sky I could use later in post should the skies not clear. I don’t like to disappoint, so I needed to be prepared to make the boat shot happen. I was able to get about six minutes of sun and a few scrapes of clear sky, and I was even able to grab a couple of shots of the sea planes that take off from across the bay. This would be a nice addition to the boat shot, assuming I pulled it off.

I had a thought about how the light would look through the translucent fabric and the TritonFlashes did not disappoint. We placed four of them behind the frame, added a little bit of 1/4 CTO gel for warmth, one fill (-2 stops) inside a Photoflex Medium LiteDome as a fill opposite the key source, and our last light clamped to the interior of the gazebo roof with a Photoflex Small LiteDome as a hair light (-1/3 stop). I shot at 200 ISO, knowing that I needed a little extra to open up the background as well. The recycle rate at full power was a little slow, but what I found was unlike some of the other group shots, where I was using big studio packs, or quick recycling Broncolor packs. This was like shooting 4x5, where I could coax the subjects a bit more, and elicit the personalities to come out.

Now the lights were working great and the only thing that was useless was the bug repellent - the mosquitos were brutal! The DP (Director of Photography) actually had a bite that looked like something from Aliens!

The first group shot, Real World St. Thomas

Second Group Shot, then Singles
Shot two was also inside, taking advantage of the threatening skies, and the same setup proved itself again. The house was surprisingly small, given that the show includes seven subjects and two-to-three cameras following them around. We chose their pool room and composed them around the table. We lifted the LitePanel frame above a doorway and again placed the four TritonFlash heads behind it. One -2 stop fill under camera and bam! We’d have faced some major problems trying to get an Octabank in this position, and same for most soft boxes.

Group shot two. Real World St. Thomas

After this, we did a series of individual portraits and here’s where the TritonFlashes again proved their value. We took our two additional heads and put a Photoflex Small OctoDome as the key and the XS OctoDome NXT as the -2 stop fill. We moved around the house with ease. We took a moment to check where the batteries were, and after two group shots, seven individual portraits, and about ten couples and triple shots, the majority of the batteries hadn’t used 50% of the capacity yet! We actually didn’t change a battery on the lights all day. I can’t recall that ever being the case with Profoto 7b’s.

The Client ALWAYS Comes First
How many times have you heard this? Well, there’s a reason it’s repeated. It’s f***ing true. If you make it happen for them, they'll remember it. I’m a believer in cautiously advising my clients when they ask for the world. I don’t like to disappoint, and at the same time, I don’t want them to believe everything under the sun is possible each and every time. I do my best, and so long as they see it, they will see you are honest in your efforts.

Given the limitations with equipment and all the weather issues, expectations were a bit lower, and when I saw the opening to succeed, I went for it. Time for the boat shot.

Assistants Cam Camarena and Lee Morgan set the lights one more time, our biggest challenge, now we are outside. (Of course when we set up, the sun peaked out for a bit, then we could see a storm coming toward us). Time to get it done.

First test frame of the boat shot, look at those lovely clouds. No fill on this one, just the one source.

The final version. (Note the sea plane on the right.) Cast of MTV’s The Real World St. Thomas, 2012*

*Special thanks to Photoflex for helping make this possible.

To see more of Ian Spanier's work, visit www.ianspanier.com

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