Annie Leibovitz's Lighting, from the eyes of a Photo Assistant

Annie Leibovitz's Lighting, from the eyes of a Photo Assistant

Assistants, aka "voice activated light stands", can be a wealth of knowledge and experience if you are fortunate enough to have access to one that's been around. It's not entirely unheard of, to meet an assistant that knows their lighting better than the photographer they are working for. If only one of them would create a blog about their behind the scenes exploits... wait a minute. What do we have here?
Melanie Mann is the author of a blog called: Confessions Of A Mad Photo Assistant, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Where she post really insightful articles, detailing the lighting set ups for shoots like the one below. But she doesn't stop there. She also promises to share with us "...the stories no one gets to hear from the view of the lowly photo assistant–from plucking the gray stress hairs off of your boss’s wife’s head to chatting with John Paul Jones about smoked salmon eggs benedict."
Melanie Mann:
"Tell me these aren’t the most stunning rendition of Disney art to date! LOVE! Alright before I start getting carried away and prattle on about how epic I feel these images are, let’s examine one…"

"Here is Queen Latifah portrayed as Ursula from the Little Mermaid. Amazingly I stumbled upon some behind the scenes photos of the set from different angles, so I think this diagram is a pretty good representation of the set up."
"The Breakdown:
To camera right, a large octobank shooting through a large diffusion panel toward the Queen. Two large strip banks on either side of the camera, low, illuminating the underside of the tentacles. Two large octobanks, one above and slightly behind the Queen camera left, and the other handheld by an assistant at 45 degree angle to Queen also camera left. Another large octobank is boomed overhead, an umbrella illuminates the background, and a reflector held by an assistant camera right. Quite an impressive set up! Understandably as there are several moving parts and awkwardly twisting tentacles. Overall beautifully soft soft illumination."



"Here’s a behind the scenes video you can see the whole thing in action:"

"How fun would it be to climb into that get-up!! And Queen Latifah makes the perfect Ursula! Beautiful lighting, amazing final image."
via [Confessions Of A Mad Photo Assistant]
I have to thank Corey for turning me on to this oh-so-fun blog. And if you get a chance you should too, by either: friending him on Facebook, following him on Twitter, or joining him on the Fstoppers Flickr group. Heck you should do them all.
From Kenn:
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LOL, nice find and nice plugs!

The assistant is holding a Photek Softlighter. Annie uses them all the time.


check out my kick A** photo blog folks! :)

actually, it's not a Photek. Annie does use one all the time, but this particular one is a Profoto Giant Umbrella Reflector ( ) that they have put a diffusion cloth over. She rigged this one up herself for whatever reason.

Great blog dude...

Massive lighting setup. Queen Latifah is great. 

lol, i read this backwards. "Lighting setup is great. Queen Latifah is massive" HAHA

Nicholas Gonzalez's picture

As abundant as this setup appears, what I love about Annie Leibowitz, is how she keeps her approach simple. Basically, she used the big light sources to create one big wrap-around light source. One light could not have lit the tentacles properly. What an inspiring force she is, as well as this post! Thanks for posting it.

8 or so lights, a couple fans, a giant rubber octopus suit... simple... right ;-)

Simplicity is not measured by numbers, but rather by concept.

That should be a famous quote somewhere.

Sometimes i can't help but think if there is going to be that much post anyway then why the need for elaborate lighting and expense.

Kenn Tam's picture

I am putting that one on Disney cause I totally agree.  If you look at the set and all the detail they put into it, like the charred, rocky surface the Queen is on and then look it at the final... meh.  Honestly I bet Annie's finals are far more compelling before the retoucher layered on the effects.  It's a shame really.

Ma's picture

Oh, look at that... Finally, a picture from Annie Leibovitz that I don't like, even the tiniest bit :P Then again, I really am more of her early work fan.
I agree with Crusty here, what a waste of money and talent this whole setup was! Sure, fun to play with, but did it serve the image at all? Queen Latifah's expression is really not here nor there, so you can't say that it helped her get in character or whatever. To create the whole scene digitally would be a challenge... But wait, don't you have people who already do that, Disney?
So, it seems like the whole point was have a BTS that shows how fun they are.
AND, to show us how to light quite a complicated set. Which is really nice of them.
Seriously tho, I think I just found my new favourite blog. Or second favourite :P

I seriously can't help but think "overkill", especially with the large scrim with the octobank behind it. I love Annie. Her work inspires me a lot. I'm honestly not really feeling the final image that got produced from this setup shot. I was expecting something MUCH more intricate. The tentacles in the final shot look fake, and like they were added in post. It's a shame to have such a GREAT production on set, but then have it PS'd away. Like Kenn pointed out... WHERE IS THE ROCKY GROUND? lololol

I agree with Ken. I'm also surprised they didn't use the rocky surface they created in the final composite. I guess the crashing waves to cover it up came from direction afterwards. Also, is there a link to a higher resolution version of the final composite? It would be nice to see some of the detail work. 

I also agree with Ken... Not only that but look at the final image... the lighting doesn't even match the scenery, not even in the slightest. The tentacles are lit completely wrong. I get the feeling that the final image was not the image that was planned for but instead they just used Annie's original shots and shoe horned them into a new "vision". Maybe it's just the size of the image available here but I also feel as if the shot would have been better if it was closer up on Ursula's face. Disney characters are about... character... not tentacles and waves.

What a beautiful image and what a lighting set up!  Great work!!

Amazing Photoshop work, and the original photos are OK too...

love it !!!

Neil e Gibbs's picture

I guess that's how it goes you shoot some frames, if you don't like it shoot some more I'm guessing that's the case here. Then PS that mother lol. well I can't get down on her she's in a place I'm not.

William Jason Wallis's picture

just lots of lights basically...

RickC's picture

Initially impressive but upon further inspection feels disjointed and full of seams. Looks like Queen Latifah was plopped into the octopus. They should have painted her arms and skin purple - ar at least have faded are arms into the purple so it seems her flesh and the octopus were one. In terms of posing, her arms are out of place, she should have at least made her arms more sinous-looking - she looks like she's just at rest but the octopus arms are flailing and dynamic. Same for her bustier, it should have looked like octopus skin melding with her own flesh but looks like a bustier on an octopus LOL. Love Latifah and Annie but this was a failure, despite the beautiful lighting.

I think the biggest problem in this image is the fact that the (overdone) lighting doesn't actually match the final image.  You can see where the moon 'would' have been in the sky they used.  It matches up well enough with the waves camera left and right.  Almost back lighting them, diagonally from the left.  The lighting on Latifah is left, but way too forward and from the front.  It just doesn't look right and is jarring.  Basic digital compositing mistake really - the lighting always has to fit the final image and, in this shot, it doesn't.  Latifah should have been lit way more from the back, with some general fill from the front.  This is a FAIL for me.  All the talent in the world can't save sloppy work.  I've seen FAR better stuff on deviantArt from no-namers.  Still, as has been said - Annie is doing things and getting gigs I'll never get to do.  But that's the way the industry is...

That's the way the world is. It's not based on merit, but on name. It sucks the world works this way, but if you want to eat the cake, you gotta play the game.

KGB's picture

My God has she sold out.
Her early [read RS work] showed something original, now nothing but overblown schmaltz...
Shoot an expensive set, not that well btw, then send it out to the retoucher.
Her work is overpriced, overrated, overblown nothing.
Why do they keep hiring her?
Annie Who?

Why do people keep asking this question? Honestly, is it that hard to come up with the reason? *sigh* It's because of her name. It's the same reason my boss has several Peter Lik prints hanging up in his offices, yet I personally know several other photographers who produce better work for much cheaper. However, they have not gotten their names out there. Same reason people buy name brands instead of off brands.

The light across her chest absolutely does not fit the shot.

Ederson Nunes's picture

Well, the blog is just about what this Melanie thinks the lightning set ups of the photos was (and about what she sees in behind the scenes videos). it is not really helpful nor interesting. She was not at the photoshoots at all.