Location Assignment: Firehouse Portraits

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Photographer Ian Spanier shot the images for this lesson at the Riverview Manor Firehouse in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York using members of Engine 46 as his models. These portraits – shot in color and converted to black & white – capture the rawness and grit of the subjects.

While navigating around the firehouse, Ian overcame some location challenges to get these stoic images, which, in addition to shots from three other fire departments, eventually led to a book deal (“Local Heroes: Portraits of America’s Volunteer Firefighters,” due out Fall, 2012).

His shot list grew to double its original size, and he had to work fast and efficiently (without an assistant). In this lesson, Ian walks you through his prep work and setup while demonstrating how he handled the inevitable roadblocks that always seem to pop up.

Topics Covered:

  • Intro
  • The Lesson Plan
  • The Shoot
  • Setting up a Small OctoDome® with Accessory Grids
  • The Lighting Combination
  • Converting to Black and White
  • Final Results
  • Summary

Camera Equipment:

  • Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
  • MacBook Pro 15” Laptop

The Lesson Plan

My name is Ian Spanier and I am primarily an assignment photographer. Recently, my Creative Director friend, Florian Bachleda, approached me about working on a book project together and I jumped at the chance. For this project, the idea was simply images combined with a Q&A from each subject.

When Florian and I began the search for a subject, we ran into many surprising roadblocks. Originally, many subjects said they were interested, but then backed out. Nearly six months later, on a whim, I called my old friend who I remembered was a member of a volunteer fire department in my hometown. We lucked out in the fact that the house was celebrating its 100th Anniversary next year. Our timing was perfect.

We initially thought we’d photograph about twelve members, but that quickly ballooned to twenty-seven subjects. I had to work simply and fast, given the number of subjects. Normally, I would choose to position my key light and leave it, but Florian suggested that we move the light for each subject based on how we posed them.

The Shoot

As with most of my location shoots, challenges are always present. It’s a rare occasion to be given a large empty covered space with ample outlets, consistent power and high ceilings. Fortunately, in this location, the firehouse had a large room with decent ceilings (but not high) and good electricity. We were able to move couches, tables and chairs over to the side of the room to fit the lights and the seamless background in, but still had to work around a big screen TV and wall unit. [Figure 1]

Setting up a Small OctoDome® with Accessory Grids

Attaching a small OctoDome® to the Photoflex® ProFoto Connector is as easy as one, two…errr…eight. Each rod from the OctoDome® slides easily into the ring’s holes.

The interchangeable inner gold and silver inserts are one of my favorite features of the OctoDome®. For this shoot, I chose to use an alternating silver-gold-silver-gold pattern. For the rear cowling reflector, I used silver because I wanted mostly specular highlights, but with a little warmth, which the gold supplied beautifully.

Next, I chose to utilize the small OctoDome® accessory Grids. The Grids make the small OctoDome® focus the light on the subject. Attaching the Grids is also easy, as they simply Velcro® on to the front of the face.

The OctoDome® comes with an inner baffle and an outer diffusion face, both which I chose to leave off for this shoot. Knowing that I wanted a hard light source, these diffusion layers would soften the light if I had wanted that. The Grids create a slightly different feel than shooting without them. It all comes down to preference, and the situation, when deciding whether you feel the shot warrants this effect.

Here’s a look at the light once it was all set up. Notice that you can see right through the Grids to the silver and gold panels since I removed the diffusion faces.

The Lighting Combination

I always light from back to front. So beginning from the back of the set, I put two lights powered by a Profoto Acute 2400 power pack. This can be done with reflectors and/or umbrellas facing the white paper.

My key light was a small OctoDome® on a Profoto 7 Head attached to a Profoto 7B power pack. The same pack powered the fill light, a 7 head with a Photoflex® Small HalfDome® NXT. As I was planning to move the key light with each subject, I used a Matthews Baby Jr. Roller with a 40″ gobo arm. The fill was on a lightweight Photoflex® background stand.

Combined with the OctoDome®, I used a Photoflex® Small HalfDome® NXT set up on the Photoflex® background stand. This stand can be used as a floor stand or a regular low stand. Depending on whether the subject was standing or seated (or kneeling), I moved the light from knee-height to the floor.

I have found that a ratio with my key light being two stops brighter than my fill light works best for my style, opening up shadows which I can darken in post, and providing a great catch light in the eye on the shadow side of my subject. The small HalfDome® NXT has thick baffles, which provide a soft, beautiful fill to the hard light provided through the OctoDome®.

As you can see here, the fill light is opposite the key light, this is consistent no matter which side the key is on.

Here’s a bird’s eye view illustration of the general equipment positioning of the set.

Converting to Black and White

As a big fan of the darkroom way back in the dark ages when we all shot film and made prints, my approach to Photoshop has always been similar to my approach in the darkroom. I had the good fortune of spending a term of college working for a former printer of Arthur Rothstein’s. He really taught me the idea of seeing the world in B&W, and as well using dodge and burn as a means to making an average print special. With both, I always say that there is no right or wrong way to use either — it’s all about what works for you based on the image and your personal preferences on how you see the final product.

Shown here are examples of the portraits as shot, and then final retouched results. As you can see, I converted the images from color to B&W, increased the contrast, and added a film grain effect in Photoshop. I do this with a lot of my work, as I am a film lover. I greatly miss shooting with film and this is my solution to maintaining the look of film with my digital photographs. Note the specular highlights, as I previously mentioned, and how the light on the subjects is focused, with a hard, contrasty look.

The following steps outline my workflow, starting with my camera RAW image:

I process my images in Photoshop’s Camera Raw, making the conversion to B&W first, sliding the various colors to get close to where I would like the image to be. Next I go to the main dialogue and make subtle adjustments to the image, but knowing that it doesn’t need to be perfect as I will make many steps within Photoshop itself. Finally, I make a few tweaks to the shadow and highlights dialogue that get a little closer to where I want to take the image.

After processing the image, I use a combination of Veritus Fluid Mask 3 to silhouette the image from the white background, (to ensure an even tone), the eraser and history eraser to correct any edging problems caused by Fluid Mask. Then I touch up any dust in and retouch anything that is required in the image. I then duplicate the bottom layer and use the shadows and highlights adjustment to increase the detail in shadowed areas and bring down bad highlights as well as increase the contrast.

Next I duplicate this layer and change the opacity of that layer to “Multiply.”

Don’t be scared by the image going dark. Click the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers palate, and with black in the foreground, use a very soft brush at about 65% opacity and “paint” over the face, hands, and any area of the image you want to stand out. Then change the opacity to about 22%, and using the same soft brush but larger, “paint” the in-between areas (in this case his jacket) and open up the shadows to allow a gradual transition from light to dark areas. If you make any mistakes, switch the foreground color to white and “paint” back the area. Here’s a result from such steps.

As you can see, this enhanced the lighting from the shoot and also allowed me to darken some of the buttons that were too bright and highlight the fireman’s helmet better than in the previous layer.

Following these steps, I make a new layer, which I make an “Overlay” layer and check off the 50% gray check box. Once again, I paint in the highlights and shadows with a soft brush at 6%, white for highlights, and black for shadows. I find this is the equivalent to dodging and burning in the darkroom, but even better as you can zoom into the image so easily. Next I flatten the image and use JB’s Smart Sharpening Action to sharpen the image, and finalize with Imagenomic’s RealGrain Film Filter which mimics the film grain of Kodak Tri X 400. Finally, if necessary, I use an exposure adjustment layer and increase the exposure to pop the highlights.

Final Results

Here are some more shots from the day, with a couple more of the initial color images for comparison.


In closing, I have to say the beauty of the Photoflex® line of softboxes is the versatility of each product. For example, I can make at least 8 different lighting styles with the small OctoDome®, and that’s not even addressing the distance of the light source to the subject, which adds many more options. You have to experiment and find your own favorite combination of the baffles, inserts and accessories.

Written and photographed by Ian Spanier.

Indoor Portraits,

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