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How to Shoot like Annie Leibovitz – (Part 2: The Setup)

In Part 1, we set out to study one aspect of Annie Leibovitz’s legendary body of work, her Vanity Fair style fashion shoots. Her subjects are statically posed,  bathed in ultra soft moon lighting, and, more of often than not, positioned in front of an expensive canvas background.

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It’d be silly to suggest the following setup guide will work in every situation. Annie’s certainly not a one-trick pony. Especially if the shoot is outdoors where you have to manage the daylight. But think of it as a starting point to Annie’s look, an introduction, to one of the cleanest yet most elegant looks defining our era.

Annie’s Lighting Setup

Behind the scenes video of Annie's Game of Thrones shoot
Behind the scenes video of Annie’s Game of Thrones shoot

The best way to learn from a pro is to apprentice for them. And if we can’t do that, the next best thing is to look at the behind the scenes videos. Annie Leibovitz is well known for her one light magic.

If you are unfamiliar with studio lighting or using your speedlite off-camera, this is perhaps the easiest setup to get into. But before I get into the actual gear used, let me just quickly go over the basics.

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Basic Setup 1 – Single light source modified by a Photek Softlighter II or Octobox

The model is lit by a single light source, above and to one side of the model, aimed at the cheeks. The light is softened by a modifier (softbox or umbrella) but more on this later. Most important thing here is to get the light source as close to the subject as possible, so as to soften up the light. The bigger the light source, the softer it is. The closer the light source, the bigger it is. You get the idea. My favorite writer on Fstoppers, Clay Cook, has written an excellent article just on Lighting Like Leibovitz.

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Basic Setup 2 – Add a white or silver reflector aimed at the chest of the subject to add more texture to the lighting.

Once you have the basic setup down, you can add some texture to your lighting. A single light source in a dark studio creates dramatic shadows, but it’s often useful to soften up those shadows with a reflector aimed at the chest of the model. White reflectors work best in my experience. It just adds another dimensionality to the look.

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Basic Setup 3 – Add a hair light to set off a brunette from a dark background, in this case, a strobe modified by a snoot

If you have a second strobe or speedlite, you can light the model’s hair to add some “pop” or 3D-ness to the image, especially if the subject has dark hair and the background is also dark. It will really separate the foreground model from the background.

As a final note, be careful of the distance between the model and the background. Through my shoots so far, if the model or props are too close, ungainly shadows are cast on the background and it can ruin the look.

The Gear

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Annie’s light modifier of choice is the ultra portable Photek Softlighter II that goes for around $100-120. I personally bought the largest 60″ version and it has just been a tremendous tool. There are smaller, less expensive variants but the Photek is very well made. It has a removable shaft so you don’t poke your model’s eye out, and it throws an amazingly soft light on the subject. I can’t rave about it enough.

Second option is the new 60″ Fotodiox Parabolic Umbrella with Diffusion Cover without a removable shaft. There are even less expensive umbrella softboxes on Amazon that goes for about $20 for a 43″.  I actually bought one of these before the Softlighter because the Softlighters are very often out of stock.

Last option is the Paul C. Buff PLM parabolic umbrella system. They come in 51″, 64″ and all the way up to a 86″ mega umbrella to which you could add a front diffusion fabric to make the umbrella into a softbox. It’s about $75 for a 64″ umbrella + diffusion fabric, but check out this Strobist comparison of the PLM vs. the Softlighter. The Softlighter is more compact and easier to work with while the PLM comes in bigger sizes and work better with strobes which can utilize its parabolic nature.

From left to right: Sandbags, light stand, mount, and the Softlighter II in its carrying bag
From left to right: Sandbags, light stand, mount, and the Softlighter II in its carrying bag

Next you need your light stand (about $35) with an flash bracket ($10-25 depending on quality). You’ll also want to get a few sandbags to weigh down the light stand because the 60″ umbrella acts as a kite outdoors. You’ll also want to get some duct tape or some gaffers tape to hold the umbrella secure on the stand so that it doesn’t rotate around the stand. Your assistant holding the stand will really appreciate that.

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Finally, the light source can come from either a speedlite or a strobe. Annie prefers the sandbagsProfoto Acute Flash head but it is rather expensive at about $1,000. If you are on a budget like me, I just use my regular speedlite, in this case, a Yongnuo 560 III with built in wireless receiver. With a speedlite, be it a Canon, Nikon, or Yongnuo, it won’t be powerful enough to out power the sun. So if you are shooting outdoors in broad daylight, unless you can shoot high-speed sync with the flash off camera (which I can’t), this setup won’t be powerful enough to out power the sun. So you could try using multiple flashes via an multi-flash bracket or just go with the Profoto unit.

The Canvas Background

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Lastly, and subtly important is the painted canvas background. Annie uses Oliphant and Schmidli style photo backdrops in her Vanity Fair style shoots and I wrote a whole article on it last week. The gist of it is it will cost you between $250 to $350 to rent from Oliphant Studios or Schmidli or it will cost you $400 in supplies + labor to paint one yourself.

Conclusion

How did this setup work out? In Part 3, I will discuss the several test shoots I’ve done with this setup, go in-depth with the flash settings, and show you guys the results I’ve obtained. Stay tuned.


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