By Ian Spanier
When it comes to making portraits, or photographs at all these days it’s pretty hard to do anything that has not been done in some form or fashion before. To stand out from the crowd- sometimes you have to show people how you see things, not how everyone else does. One way to break the mold is to take a different perspective on your subject.
Recently I got the chance to work with award-winning musician/songwriter Travis Howard. We decided to approach the whole shoot a bit differently; we had a dry lakebed as the shoot destination in mind- but decided to be very loose about how and when we would plan it out. If inspiration struck we would pull off to the side of the road and make images.
After a few stops we arrived at the lakebed. Having shot there before I knew there’s amazing light at sun down- what we didn’t count on was 30MPH winds! I had asked Travis before the shoot if he happened to have any props, and if so to bring them. He had this great cattle skull, which fit perfectly on the dried-out surface. I wanted to take the perspective from behind the skull, at a low angle. I told Travis to take a walk and just play a song that was in his head. Sure, I could lie down in the dirt, as I have done so many times before, but why work harder when you could work smarter? I popped my ball head on a Platypod Max and grabbed a cable release. While I was not making a long exposure, I did want to steady my camera with the winds, and be able to fire the camera easily without being behind it.
Part of seeing things differently is experimenting; having success and failure…it’s that old saying about not knowing till you try. I decided Travis looked so cool set against the stark background, so I shifted my focus to the skull, making it the main subject in the image, then from behind the camera directed Travis left or right to walk toward me as I continued to shoot. As he approached me, there was that perfect moment when you could see his movement and he’s not so far from the skull that they are unrelated. Thinking in my mind’s eye of an image that would work well as a full horizontal of even better, as a square everything fit into place. One of the many advantages of the fixed position on Max was that I could set my frame and direct the picture in my head to happen in front of me.
We were psyched we got so many good images so we packed up and started the trek back to LA. Not 20min down the road I saw what looked like an abandoned motel with the sun setting behind it. We pulled over and as Travis changed clothes and grabbed his banjo I set myself in the desert grass. With the low light, I needed stability, and still thinking about how well that low angle worked on the lakebed, I popped my camera back on Max and set a frame. Getting the exposure right in these situations without time, lights, or even a reflector is a challenge-, which is why a stable support for your camera is necessary.
I love pushing light at the end of the day, and will take an afternoon shoot over a morning call time any day. As the sun dropped, the light lit the desert grass on fire and the idea of the lone banjo player enjoying the evening light was created. In all my portraits, I want to evoke an emotion or a feel and I’ll use all the tools at my disposal to make that happen. Sometimes it’s the subject, sometimes it’s the light, and sometimes it’s the angle- when you get all three, well, that’s a successful shoot.
About the author: Ian Spanier is an award-winning commercial and editorial portrait, travel, outdoor/adventure and fitness photographer based in Los Angeles, California.