Lighting on the Fly

April 14, 2015

By Laura Brauer


Portrait and commercial photographer Nick Fancher has garnered an impressive clientele (The New York Times and Forbes Japan among them) from his native Columbus, Ohio. He’s sharing his lighting tips and other lessons in a book released this month called Studio Anywhere: A Photographer’s Guide to Shooting in Unconventional Locations (Peachpit Press).

Nick Fancher is a busy guy—as most photographers are, but this Ohioan might be a bit busier than most—especially this year. Having just returned from Tanzania shooting for non-profit organization Help-Portrait, the portrait and commercial photographer has moved on to preparing for this month’s release of his new book (and accompanying workshop series), Studio Anywhere, featuring lighting tips and other advice that he’s picked up along the way in his self-propelling career.

The idea for the book came to Fancher last April when he was in New York consulting for the e-commerce menswear startup JackThreads, wanting to do some test shoots with models on his own time. Booking a studio would cost him $1,000 a day, so to save money, he decided not to have a studio at all.

A commissioned shoot for New York City-based dancer Katie Stehura’s portfolio in Detroit’s abandoned Lee Plaza hotel. “We both love abandoned spaces,” Fancher says. “She wanted to do a shoot in one, and I couldn’t think of a better spot than here.” All photos © Nick Fancher

“I wondered what it would be like if I just met the models wherever they were,” he says, “just carrying a small amount of gear so I could travel by subway.” Fancher met one in a small apartment in Long Island City, another at a “crazy artist loft” in Williamsburg, and another just on the sidewalk. “Each space was equally amazing in very different ways, and I realized that I was kind of onto something,” he says, wondering to himself, “What would it look like to have a book for photographers who, like myself, don’t really have the need or the means to have a regular studio, can walk into a space with minimal tools and transform it into whatever they want?”

This has become Fancher’s creed, and the premise of Studio Anywhere. In it, he explores a variety of difficult lighting scenarios and provides accompanying explanations of esthetic choices (why he positioned which light, why it was gelled, hard, etc.), lighting diagrams, Lightroom screenshots, plus tips on marketing to editorial clients, scouting locations remotely, editing online portfolios and even quizzes on how to deconstruct lighting situations.

The Beginning
Thinking back, it’s almost amazing to Fancher that he’s teaching others about what he’s learned in becoming a professional portrait and commercial photographer, considering he’s using hardly any of what he was taught in school.

Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Fancher’s fascination with the still image was originally piqued as a junior in high school when he saw the work of Annie Leibovitz and David LaChapelle, inspiring him to enroll in film photography classes and spend most of his study hours holed up in the darkroom. Having been offered a full scholarship, he earned a fine-art degree upon graduating in 2005 from Ohio State University, where he says (much to his chagrin) he was mostly taught concepts over esthetics and getting galleries over getting published.

Model Halle Sobiech wears a geomatrix hat from Dream Shoot Rentals that can be styled in different ways.

With dreams of shooting for publications like Interview and The New York Times Magazine, he immediately traded in his rolls of film for a Canon 20D, and for several years, he says, he was scanning blogs like Strobist and books like Joe McNally’s The Moment It Clicks to soak up any knowledge he could on digital photography. Having gotten married and settled down in Columbus, it wasn’t in the cards for him to uproot and move to a hub like New York City (though he did assist NYC-based photographer George Lange whenever he swung through Columbus for shoots, getting the chance to work on bigger commercial productions and learning how to set up large octabanks, tether equipment and practice file management).

Fancher complements model Melissa Koch’s black outfit with the clean-cut Columbus architecture, and a high-contrast, monochromatic treatment.

He began his LLC in 2007 and dove into it full-time in 2009 (when he finally quit his job at Starbucks), shooting lifestyle photography for JackThreads (one of his wedding clients happened to be the company’s creative director), portraits for Ohio State (he shot a personal project of dancers, which lead to jobs shooting for the school’s dance and music department) and then products for the eco-friendly apparel site Zulily. Once he built a diverse, yet focused portfolio, Fancher pursued editorial gigs and landed shoots for The New York Times and ESPN the Magazine as well as some banking and internal publications.

The Enlightenment
For Fancher, his quasi-DIY instruction in digital photography wound up benefiting him most. “That, right out of the gate, helped me to do things my own way,” he says. “I tried to set myself apart by doing things differently, focusing on lighting and being creative.” It included developing a sensibility to color usage and lighting that has become his signature—he plays with opposing warmth and coolness, his shadows taking on a certain creaminess.

For this test shoot, Melissa Koch “took on this femme fatale persona,” Fancher says, “reminding me of Laura Dern in a Lynch film. So I used this really dramatic light to play that up a bit.”

Fancher realized with time—after using Photoshop and Bridge, only to find the workflow to be “a bit chunky”—that Lightroom best accommodates his vision, which he now uses exclusively for post work. Because he didn’t have any formal digital training, Fancher fiddled his way through the sliders and came to understand some amazing potential after seeing a tutorial on Fstoppers that showed how much control he has in Lightroom’s Curves, just by playing with the blacks and the midtones.

“That really opened my mind to wondering, ‘What if I go into the red channel and set the shadow point higher, or the green channel,’ so then I could add these tri-layers of color tones,” Fancher says, who does all of his editing by hand, using his own actions and presets. “I have about 20 or 30 that I’ve made and often use one as a starting point to then tweak it to fit that specific photo.”

Model Chelsea Weller at her apartment for a Studio Anywhere shoot. Finding a blank wall, Fancher moved her bed and stacked four sheets of foam core for her to stand on to mask the carpet and baseboards.

The Dream
Even with Fancher’s busy schedule this spring (he estimates his clientele grows by about 10 to 15 percent every year), he’s always got his eye on what’s next. It’s a good bet, for instance, that he’ll be doing some test shooting while he’s in Iceland next month documenting a wedding. (While Fancher considers himself a portrait and commercial photographer first, he’s seen a recent uptick in his wedding coverage, having shot about 10 weddings last year compared to the one or two weddings in previous years.)

“I’ll definitely hop on the Interwebs and see if any models would be interested in doing some shooting,” Fancher says. “My goal isn’t to become a fashion photographer, but I reach out to models anyway and try to come up with the most innovative way of shooting them, because I feel like it’s the closest thing to what I’d ultimately like to be doing: shooting actors and musicians [like Chelsea Wolfe, below] for publications like Interview and Rolling Stone.”

A portrait of singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe—one of Fancher’s favorite musicians—shot at Sargent House, her Los Angeles record label (and an actual house where bands stay from time to time).

Nick’s Nitty-Gritty Lighting Tips
1. Un-modified, hard light can be made to look softer when combined with a balanced ambient light, mindful subject positioning (avoid nose shadows) and a shallow depth-of-field. Shooting this way allows for quick setup and no light modifiers, which means you don’t need an assistant or sandbags.
2. By zooming the flash head in or out, you can quickly shape the spread of the light, allowing for reduced output and less modifiers.
3. By cutting a lens-sized hole in a disc reflector, you can shoot without the need of an assistant or reflector stand—not to mention you can light head on, rather than from below or from the side.
4. Any lighter-toned, neutral-colored wall, both indoors or out, can be used as a bounce surface for your light. This means soft light with modifiers.
5. Want to combine outdoor, lit portraits with a soft depth-of-field? Use a neutral density filter, rather than high speed sync. It’s cheaper, quicker and more effective.

Related Links

The Educators: 10 Teaching and Tip-Sharing Photographers to Keep on Your Radar

Editor’s Pick: Punctuating Motion by Russ and Reyn

Fully Lit: Getting Artsy with Artificial Light