Racing for Portraits at the Brickyard: Part III

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If you have followed the last two NASCAR lighting lessons here on Photoflex Lighting School, you have seen how photographer Ian Spanier faced the challenges shooting at such an event. In keeping with that theme, this final lesson from that series reveals how Ian dealt with yet another set of curveballs.

For this lesson, I wanted to relay how I went about photographing two different subjects in very restrictive conditions. The first was legendary Nationwide driver Morgan Shepherd (NASCAR’s oldest driver on the circuit) outside his trailer, and the second was Butch Fedewa, a parts hauler who works within the tight confines of a trailer-turned-supply station for race mechanics. In both cases, I wanted to create a mood or atmosphere that wasn’t actually present from the available light.

Light tells as much of the story as the subject of the photo does, and when you’re presented with limited options, having more than one trick in your bag is crucial to success. You’re not always going to have the luxury of shooting in a controlled environment, nor will you always be able to shoot exactly where you want. I’ve been on shoots where we had no choice but to shoot in a tiny room with low ceilings, or where the gym equipment on a fitness shoot was bolted to the floor right where I wanted to shoot. But at the end of the day, my job is to capture imagery that will work for the client, regardless of whatever obstacles I may face. Such details are unimportant to the client. To make it as a professional photographer, you also have to also be a problem solver.

Since when is shooting outdoors limiting?

In my previous lesson about how we worked around the midday sun with our TritonFlashes and in my planning, I had thought this would be an easy one. We had the shade of the trailer to work under, which took the bright sun out of the mix.

I knew I’d be photographing the oldest NASCAR driver on the circuit, so I thought I’d go for a more nostalgic image – the seasoned driver who has been there and done that, now in the twilight of his career. For this look, I wanted the light to feel like sunset. Race day is over and our driver is now sitting on the deck of his trailer, noble, contemplative, relaxed. I wasn’t going for a “powerful hero” image, but rather a more reflective one.

As my assistant Adam sat in as the subject, I took a frame with no strobe. When shooting outside, this helps me to visualize what I want the image to look like with added strobe light.

At first, it seemed as though we’d have plenty of room in which to work. I wanted my key light to be farther away to give the effect of a setting sun, but our contact explained that the “territory” around a trailer was limited. Even placing a light stand in another driver’s “territory” was not permitted. It made me think of siblings painting a line down the middle of a room they have to share. In any event, I took every inch I could take, as you can see here.

The first test shot with the strobe was too strong and the light spread too much, so we added a Grid to the face of the OctoDome to both cut the light down and focus it more on the subject. And to cut some ambient light out of the equation, I shortened the shutter speed from 1/80th sec to 1/125 sec.

The entire test process took 4 minutes. I point that out because once I had decided how I was going to light this, the process became solely about honing the light to perform as I imagined. I tend to do this anyway, but keeping it simple in an environment like this is a necessity. The only alternative I had in mind was to add a fill on the right side, but it was not needed given the exposure and natural fill from the ground behind me. And it was not worth taking up the space in the frame, especially considering the reflective glass door behind him.

Once Mr. Shepherd was in place, I initially shot a few frames where pieces of equipment were blocking some areas within the frame.

Ultimately, I moved in tighter to eliminate those elements.

  • Aperture: f/7.1
  • Shutter speed: 1/125th sec
  • ISO: 100

I think what works best about this image is that Mr. Shepherd’s pose has that wise sage look that I wanted, and the subtlety of the light tells the story of the veteran driver. I added a little color to the reflection of the racetrack seats and sky to complete this sunset shot.

What’s it like to shoot in a glorified closet?

For the portrait of Impact’s parts hauler Butch Fedewa, we really had a tight squeeze to deal with. The interior of his trailer is where he houses the tools for the cars, drawer after drawer of gear, with no room to spare. I chose the back of the trailer, partially because I had already shot nearly all the other portraits outside, but also because the graphic element of the silver drawers appealed to me. There’s about half a dozen ways we could have lit this, but we had so little time that testing out multiple approaches was not going to work. I attached a Medium MultiDome to a TritonFlash and a LiteReach Plus, and had Adam serve as a “human stand” up in the only available corner, while Butch waited his turn.

Once lit, I liked the way the light bounced around in the room. This would ultimately provide some nice fill light.

The small room was a few steps up from the main section, which allowed me to get below my subject to give him a more authoritative look. The low ceiling made for a really tight frame, but I still wanted to shoot a bit wide to reveal the silver drawers as much as possible.

You can see here that the light is a little high, as Butch’s eyes are relatively deep-set. Adding a 7-in-1 reflector helped, but ideally we would have been able to lower the light just a bit more. To correct it, I had Adam lower the light until it was just above the top of my frame.

Talk about a tight squeeze – I was literally banging into parts every time I moved!

Next, I shot a few more frames in tight. To look at Butch, you might think we got him from Central Casting or something – the guy just fit the part.

Although he looks like a tough guy here, mostly because I asked him to give me the look he gives to mechanics who give him a tough time, I knew he also had a soft side.

  • Aperture: f/7.1
  • Shutter speed: 1/100th sec
  • ISO: 200

When in the hectic mix of a shoot, particularly when the location is not conducive to your plans, it’s easy to get wrapped up in technical aspects or just trying to shoot fast because you literally only have minutes to get a shot done. Regardless of the conditions, engaging your subject is imperative. No matter how stressful the situation, remember that the story behind the picture never matters to anyone but you. At the end of the day, it’s your job to get the shot.

Written and photographed by Ian Spanier.

Basic Lighting,

Outdoor Portraits,


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