Light Aircraft, By Andrew Zuckerman

By including the lights in the composition, Andrew Zuckerman's photo of this Icon A5 sport plane elevates the subject practically to an object of fetish.

To WIRED's credit, the magazine used this photo in the story -- much to the delight of the photographers who subscribe. But what about the lights that you can't see in the photo. Any guesses?

See inside for some Q&A with Zuckerman, plus a look at one of his other projects.

Andrew Zuckerman: Q and A

Many photographers would have freaked a little when they first saw the Icon A5. It is a beautiful, but complex, shape that sees and reflects everything. Many people would have cursed under their breath and ordered a truckload of silks. How did you arrive at the idea to light the environment, so the reflections of the lit floors and room would define the shape of the plane?

When I looked at the space the morning of the shoot I was struck with the tone that the floor of the space and the plane shared - so I decided to use that as a formal device.  To me - form is the most important element in an image- I am always trying to identify a way to elevate and distinguish the form of the subject.

What kind of strobes did you use? You had enough aperture to go front-to-back sharp -- was that mostly about the efficiency of the reflective lighting or did you just slam a lot of watt-seconds?

I often travel with profoto acute 2400 ws packs.  They are super simple and portable and they give out a ton of light.  A lot of the light was simply coming in through the large garage door.  We were in the mojave desert at noon and the sun was cut beautifully by the roof and door opening.  The feathered natural light was the base ambient and the strobes helped to sharpen and define the shape- they were aimed directly at the plane- probably at full power to hold the stop.

Other than the three rim lights, is that another soft box or two giving frontal top light? And is that light also picking up the whole room, or did you do that with shutter speed? 

Those are not softboxes in the glass of the cockpit - it is a reflection of the skylight in the garage - the ambient is all coming from the sunlight from the outside.

Leaving the rim lights in the frame was either inspired or absolutely necessary. Or maybe both. There aren't too many mags that would have gone for such a self-aware look, which is one reason WIRED rocks. Did you give them safer photos of the plane? They appear to give photogs a lot of leeway to stretch the boundaries. Does that create more freedom for you, or more pressure?

Wired Magazine has always been a great publication to work with - they trust the people that they commission to do work for them and that trust inspires one to create the best work possible.  When I got back from shooting I did an edit and sent the editor the images that I thought worked best and that is what they ran in the magazine.  If they had thought the strobes in the shot didn't work they would have asked for them to be removed, but I think WIRED is about transparency and the mechanics of how things work- so the strobes were speaking to that message.

Zuckerman's light was opportunistic and inspired, but it follows the classic technique of working against the ambient.

Normally, when we think of doing that we tend to light from the front and push it against a brighter ambient background. But in this case, all of the light was pre-set from the front and the background was just a whole lotta dark.

Question: Why use hard light?

Because you need a lot of power and soft modifiers are gonna steal at least a couple of stops. Besides, unless the mods are huge, it won't smooth the specular highlights much anyway. (You'd need a really big silk and many, many watt-seconds.)

Second question: Why aren't the hard lights' reflections showing up as bright spots on the plane?

Zuckerman has positioned the lights so the topography of the plane hides the specular reflections. (Those are small highlights, so they are gonna be pretty easy to hide.)

So, with a plane so complex and reflective he is not lighting it so much as lighting the floor all around it. Which, in turn, is reflected by the shiny, curved plane revealing beautifully controlled form. In a sense, the floor becomes the modifier. And because the reflective surface of the plane is so efficient, all of the tones are in the same neighborhood.

So, how would you expose for all of this?

Assuming I would have been bright/lucky enough to think of it (I'm not sayin', either way) I would crank the lights all of the way up and nail down the flash portion of the shot first. As mentioned above, the reason for this would be to maximize my depth of field. If I needed still more, I might cheat the ISO a tad. But that'd be a last resort.

I'd be shooting at the high sync speed and chimping the various aperture settings until the strobe-lit part looked best. It sounds inefficient, but you could zero it in really quickly.

Then I would open the shutter speed up in third stops until it balanced the way I wanted. You are going to get very close for the first shot just by metering the foreground. Your aperture already chosen by the flashes, just dial in your shutter speed to zero out the needle and start from there. One combined exposure would present itself as the best option, with a little wiggle room for different mixes right around it.

So remember, the idea is not always to light from the front and burn the ambient from the back. That's just the way it tends to work out because we generally like to have control over the quality of the frontal light on the the subject -- especially when we are shooting people.

The important thing when mixing flash and ambient is to try to line them up so they are working against each other, for maximum control.

Andrew Zuckerman's 'Wisdom'

Also worth noting (if you have not yet see it) is Zuckerman's book, "Wisdom: 50 Unique and Original Portraits". In it, he photographs and interviews 50 significant people, all over age 65, to create a collection of their advice about life.

"I learned an enormous amount about love, work, the environment, and conflict resolution as those were the main themes the interviews touched on," Zuckerman said.  "In addition to the knowledge captured in the interviews I learned a lot about how to efficiently work through a project that contained so many uncontrollable challenges."

To that end, I would recommend a visit to the project website. There you can see not only excepts from the DVD that is included with the book, but a "making of" that includes glimpses into both the logistics and the lighting involved in creating the glowing, ethereal portraits. (Click on 'making of," and then, 'how it was made.')

I found the book inspirational both from a human and a photographic perspective. It was a meaningful and significant project, and one which would have intimidated many photographers -- especially younger ones. (Zuckerman is in his early 30's.)

As a photographer, my takeaway was that if you are waiting until you are "older" to take on a meaningful project, you are just fooling yourself.

His upcoming project, "Bird," is due in October of 2009.

Read more at:

:: WIRED Article and Pix, and video: Icon A5 ::
:: Wisdom Project Site ::
:: Wisdom Book (Amazon) ::
:: Andrew Zuckerman: The F Stop Interview ::
:: Andrew Zuckerman: Main Site ::


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Blogger Blake said...

Hey David,

Thought you might find this interesting.. it kinda blew my mind when i seen it.

It opens up so many doors for the film industry it's unbelievable.



August 10, 2009 1:02 AM  
Blogger Phat Baby Photographer said...

I love how the lights accentuate the plane. What a fabulous shot.

August 10, 2009 1:04 AM  
Anonymous Chuck Loncki said...

Fantastic Shot!!
i would have never thought of using the floor like that.

David, i only recently found my way here and i gotta say that this site is great!
i'll be picking up a flash, stand and umbrella this week.
even though i'm a couple years too late, i'll be starting at Lighting 101 by this coming weekend.

August 10, 2009 1:35 AM  
Blogger Sudhir said...

Very inspirational. Couldn't help noticing, but was he using a ring light and a medium soft box as a frontal light? It nice to see portraits removed from those dramatic low DOF kinds. Very refreshing. Now if someone can break down that lighting for me. Why is it that they look soo...hmm whats the word?


August 10, 2009 2:13 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

I saw this photo shoot when it was a current issue and was blown away by the images of the A5. I love the inclusion in the image of the strobes, as they fit in with the aircraft theme... the technical side.

Thanks DH - as always for interviewing Andrew, and bringing this insight and behind the scenes to Strobist.

August 10, 2009 3:37 AM  
Blogger Baz said...

This inspires me to go out and shoot the Bigger Things, unafraid of using bare speedlights on stands and even *gasp* leave them IN the shot for effect. A blue-gelled SB800 on the floor, a bit of dry ice and the "2001 a Space Odyssey" theme and this would be killer!

August 10, 2009 5:05 AM  
Blogger It's said...

What a great Project.

We should be very thankful that someone went this long way of bringing us this wise people together.

August 10, 2009 5:29 AM  
Anonymous steve Wetzel said...

What a great shot. Thanks for talking about this. I do not know if I ever would have thought to light the background (floor). Its such a great idea - to light the outline of the shape to define it. We do it all the time with sunset silhouettes. This seems kind of like a well front lit silhouette to me!

August 10, 2009 8:44 AM  
Anonymous Rich Green said...

Absolutely beautiful. Great read.

August 10, 2009 8:51 AM  
Blogger Don Parsons said...

I'd rather be flying it taking pictures from the air! :-)

August 10, 2009 9:25 AM  
Blogger Kurt Shoens said...

In the video about the making of the Wisdom series, he mentions using lots of watt-seconds (and one of his subjects complains about the flash being very bright).

Can anyone explain why he would need a lot of subject light? I would imagine f/11 is plenty of DOF and ISO 100, f/11 lighting isn't all that blinding.

August 10, 2009 10:12 AM  
Anonymous Micha said...

The "wisdom" - portraits look absolutely amazing. Especially how the interesting wrinkles on some of the faces get through.

David, can you give some hints on how do you think this was lightened and how we can get near with our strobist- stuff?

August 10, 2009 11:03 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

So I counted 4 lights. The small softbox to light the background, a beauty dish directly overhead, a 2nd beauty dish down low and a small softbox around waist level angled up from the side?

August 10, 2009 11:45 AM  
Anonymous Downtown Imagery said...

As mentioned in the comments above, lighting the floor to define a shape is a great idea and the assistance of the bounce from the ceiling seals the deal.

Great post and fabulous image!!!

August 10, 2009 11:46 AM  
Blogger snikda1 said...

Any chance we could get some of those nice lighting diagrams like Numnuts McNally does on occasion?

August 10, 2009 1:53 PM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

What posing table is that?

August 10, 2009 2:31 PM  
Blogger Brad Wenner said...

This is really interesting to hear him talk about the process of making this image, because I remember seeing this in Wired a while back after I had just finished an assignment where I arrived at a very similar solution with similar subject matter.

I also had to include the lights in the frame out of necessity, and lit the floor up to get it to pop from the gray shop floor. Great minds think alike (ha!)? I did use a light from the front and a small Canon flash in the cockpit in addition to the rim lights since I wanted to include the driver.

August 10, 2009 4:32 PM  
Blogger Bryan said...

Zuckerman's new book should be called "HELVETICA". I can't unsee it.

Anyway, the video for the "Wisdom" shoots is a little misleading. The two little softboxes you see seem to be for the video. The ring flash and beauty dish above and below the subject are the main sources of light. There are two heads lighting up the background, both with large flags between them and the subject.

Something that's only visible a few times, and is certainly not there ALL the time, is a large softbox right next to Zuckerman while he's shooting. I can't see that in any of the shots, so what it's adding to the exposure seems minimal (I have the book here with me).

You can mimic the look with umbrellas, but the ringflash/beautydish gives a much more even tone to the faces.

The book is amazing, can't be recommended enough.

August 11, 2009 7:20 PM  
Anonymous Addison said...

Kurt Shoens, most likely what the subject was referring to when they said "the flash was very bright" was the ringflash. It's not just the amount of light but also quality of light based on modifier and the direction of the light in relation to the subject. Light from a ringflash is fairly hard and they are usually placed directly in front of the subject. Subjects often see little rings of light for some time after a shoot.

August 12, 2009 6:18 AM  

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