Barry Harley, an editorial photographer from Northern Virginia, took whatever tools he had at hand to create an image reminiscent of nothing less than Annie Leibovitz's Vanity Fair group portraits. The difference: Harley was using two Yongnuo YN-560 II speedlites and a Canon 5D Mark II whereas Leibovitz usually uses Profoto strobes together with a Hasselblad and Phase One back or a Nikon D810.
Personally, I can say that using speedlites has been a specifically frustrating experience for me. When you are getting accustomed to incorporating artificial light from only using natural light, it can be tempting to look at expensive lighting kits and blame less favorable results on the absence of quality light. "It is not about the gear but about the person behind the camera." This phrase, or various modifications of it, might just be the most used statements among photographers. However, if you are struggling to get the results that you want, it might sometimes be hard to believe. In this case, showing you some visual examples might do the trick.
Barry Harley and his wife Julie were planning a week-long vacation with their friends. Their destination: Duns Castle, a 14th-century burg located one hour to the east of Edinburgh, Scotland. An ancient castle is quite an unusual spot for a vacation, so when Harley decided to create an Annie Leibovitz-inspired group portrait of himself, his wife, and their friends, the memorable backdrop was already guaranteed. His approach was modeled after two articles by Photographer and Fstoppers Writer Clay Cook. One on his own website and one on Fstoppers.
Before he left the U.S., Harley came up with some ideas regarding the concept of the photo such as attire and posing that he then sent out to his travel companions in order to prepare them for the shoot.
After arriving at the castle and taking a look through its interior, the group decided on the location for the photo: the grand entry stairs.
- Canon 5D Mark II
- 2x Yongnuo YN-560 II speedlites (with an adapter to mount both of them together)
- 42-inch Westcott bounce umbrella
Note that this excludes stands and tripods. With this gear list, you are keeping the cost at a little above $1,000. Leibovitz's gear, on the contrary, might range somewhere between $5,000 and $35,000.
How He Did It
Harley secured the camera on a tripod, facing the scene. He then placed individuals and small groups of people in their pre-planned position on the stairs and photographed them, lighting them with the two speedlites that he mounted to a c-stand.
Afterwards, he composites the individuals into the background image of the stairs. For more detailed instructions, follow those two articles: "Quite The Composite" and "Lighting Like Leibovitz" by Clay Cook.
By no means am I trying to say that gear like the Phase One digital back or other expensive equipment does not have a right to exist. There is definitely room for improvement and sometimes certain projects ask for certain equipment. However, many of the visions out there can be achieved with minimal equipment and without breaking the bank. If you ask me, Harley did an impressive job on this one.
Edit: A reader pointed out that Annie Leibovitz used the Canon 5D Mark II for her Vanity Fair shoot, which demonstrates another facet of why the newest or most expensive gear is not always necessary to create high-quality imagery. In some instances, today's old, lower-tier equipment has been yesterday's pro gear.
Images used with permission of Barry Harley.