Lighting with intention: Aaron Anderson reveals the one tool that can keep up with his lighting game
Photographer Aaron Anderson is having an open love affair with strobes. He uses their power to perfectly freeze a woman dribbling a basketball at full speed; to highlight the contours of muscle on chiseled Olympic athletes; and to stop the action of a high-speed downhill skateboarder on the street in broad daylight, without overexposing.
Such fine-tuned lighting is a complex art form unto itself, especially for Anderson, who’s built his career on striking portraits of athletes and sports photography, within which he is sure to shine his light on several elements: the environment, the action and, most importantly, the physique.
“My goal is to make the athletes look the best they can without over-lighting,” he says. “It’s really about sculpting—building one light at a time, from the top or side to build out tone and muscle and definition.”
No two sessions are ever the same, and often they require vastly different lighting setups. Sometimes he has to overpower the sun; other times he needs to retain details in a dark landscape.
Many of these lighting feats weren’t possible until recently, he explains, pointing to his Elinchrom ELB 500 TTL portable battery packs, which empower him with versatility in the studio and on location, turning his dynamic lighting visions into reality.
When Anderson was approached by pro athlete and trainer Elizabeth Zupancic for a rebranding campaign, he was able to put the ELB 500s to the test with a new set of challenges: fire and colored powder. Riffing off her logo of a phoenix, the first concept was to introduce fire to Zupancic’s training regimen: freezing the action of her waving combat ropes lit on fire, lifting a weight bar with fiery plates and, finally, light-painting enflamed wings at her back.
“It was trial by fire,” Anderson says, laughing. “Fire is not an easy element to handle on set,” he explains, “especially when you can’t test the real thing prior to the shoot.” After a month-long ordeal to obtain permits, Anderson and his team were finally given the greenlight to use fire on this shoot—complete with a crew of about ten, including a firefighter and a fire performer.
For the fire shots, he rigged up three lights with colored gels to make it look like Zupancic was being illuminated by the flames alone. He fired the lights in action mode, which worked well on the dark set so he could freeze motion with a short flash duration, while dragging the shutter on his camera to allow for details from the environment without blurring the figure.
For the ropes and the weight bar, Anderson focused on freezing the flames and Zupancic’s motion. He dragged his shutter for the light-painting shot and fired the flash at the very end so that Zupancic would be perfectly in focus.
For the powder sequence, Anderson had to turn to a more complex lighting setup to make the images pop, switching to high-speed sync (HSS) on his ELB 500s. This let him sync the flash with a fast shutter speed (up to 1/8000 of a second), which is perfect for outdoor shoots.
To freeze the powder mid-air, he fired at 1/3000 and 1/4000 of a second. “The ELB 500 recycling time is so fast that I was able to pop off about five frames per throw,” Anderson explains. “I could get all of the stages of it: first large particles, then the explosion when it hits her, then the effect of a smoke bomb, and then when she’s completely covered in it.”
Aside from getting hit with small debris, Anderson says the shoots went off seamlessly. “On every set, I found a different and interesting use or feature on the ELB 500s,” he says, noting that he recently experimented with combining bright LED modeling lights with the fast flash.
“Now we have everything that we want at our fingertips, and it’s affordable,” he says. “And because they’re battery-powered, it makes the sets much safer since there aren’t cords running on the ground to each pack. Having a pack that you can just throw into a bag, open up, carry around—it’s a dream.” All of these features, he says, help him achieve his ultimate goal: lighting with intention.
To learn more about the ELB500, visit elinchrom.com.