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BEST OF 2012, Ian Spanier
Long Beach, NY
Project: Two-day assignment to photograph the 40 athletes (in 18 different positions) competing in the UFC’s reality TV show, “UFC: The Ultimate Fighter” and post-production work to make the images look special.

© Ian Spanier

© Ian Spanier

A whirlwind assignment for the Ultimate Fight Club tasked Ian Spanier with photographing 40 athletes in 18 different positions during a two-day shoot.

“We slammed through the shot list, even adding an extra set up, but how special could these images be with so little time and so many shots?” Spanier asked himself. “On the plane back to New York, I recalled a texturizer filter that Adobe’s Dr. Russell Brown had posted on Facebook. The overlaid texture made the grey seamless into a totally stylized background, something that took what could have been ordinary, and making it a piece of art.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Ian Spanier: Technically, I’ve been a professional since 1995, but I was a full-time photo editor for most of that time, and have only worked full-time as a photographer for about three-and-a-half years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

IS: Since May 2004.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

IS: I’m a pretty technical guy. Although I learned 35mm in college, I am mostly self-taught with all other format cameras, lighting and Photoshop. I love lighting, even when it’s only dealing with making available light work for me.

I was fortunate to learn black-and-white printing from a photographer who worked with Arthur Rothstein, so when I was in the darkroom, I was quite proficient. I transferred those techniques into much of what I do in Photoshop. I’m definitely a retouching nerd, and although I don’t use it as a crutch, I prefer to retouch my work whenever clients make that possible.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

IS: I would have to say it’s my ability to roll with the punches. From gear to subjects, difficult clients to flight delays, if you can’t deal with what gets thrown at you, you’re not very professional. I pride myself on staying sharp when the problems come up. Being prepared is a big part of this, as is knowing how to come up with a solution to get the job done when you’re not prepared for something. It’s our job to get the shot, come hell or high water, so what happens leading up to the moment you press the shutter is not important to anyone else but you. I’d say part of being a professional comes with comprehending that. We’re all going to strike out and have bad shoots, but the ability to maintain a level of professionalism is paramount.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

IS: A camera! Haha. Cameras of course come first, but outside of that, I do rely on my various Lowepro bags and my Photoflex light modifiers. I almost always use my ProRoller x200 and, in the field, my SlingShot 202. I have also used the DryZone and ProTrekker packs; it all depends on the shoot. I love all the S&F accessory pouches and they are always on hand.

If I could only have one modifier on a desert island I’d want Photoflex’s Small OctoDome. I love how versatile it is, given silver and gold inserts, and the two removable baffles. I can use it to create so many different looks, from soft to hard light, warm to cool and everything in-between.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

IS: In this flooded market it’s hard to stand out, so I’d be remiss to say what I do is so unique that no one else can do it; but what I think I do bring to the table that is perhaps better than most is my ability to run my business. Being a talented photographer will really only get you so far. I like to think of photography as a house, and your talent is the foundation of that house. The levels of the house are the skills and abilities you possess to handle the adversity, treat your clients, present and future, maintain the operational parts of your company and market your company.

ASMP: For this assignment, you had to shoot 40 fighters in 18 different positions over the course of two days, to be used for the Ultimate Fight Club’s reality TV show, “UFC: The Ultimate Fighter.” This is not very much time in which to shoot a lot of images. Are you accustomed to working under such tight deadlines? How do you keep focused and maintain your cool in such a stressful environment?

IS: I’m definitely accustomed to clients throwing a lot of shots at me. When digital took the place of film that became a bigger animal. I’ve always shot fast, even when I shot 4x5. Of course that has its negatives, but I do pride myself on being faster than many photographers. It’s a thin line of being taken advantage of and pleasing your clients, and I toe that line all the time. I’m honest with them when I think something is not possible, and then if I pull it off anyway, I only look better to them.

I keep a very calm set, my assistants are always very chill, and I prefer the same with makeup/hair artists, stylists and so on. This sets the tone for the set; it puts the clients and the subjects at ease. It seems minimal, but having that aura really makes a difference.

ASMP: What kinds of preparation can you do beforehand to help successfully complete an assignment under time constraints such as these? Are there any organizational or workflow tools that you use on set to make sure all the bases are covered and that you haven’t missed anything?

IS: I always go in with a plan. I sketch out a blueprint for my lighting and ideas before a shoot. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. I can hand my sketchbook to my assistants if I need to deal with my clients or the subject, and when problems come up, I know that I, at the least, have a starting point from which to make changes. I tape images into the book after the shoot and that also works well to show to clients on set and even use as a reference.

ASMP: You were given direction on lighting, since the fighters are often shot the same way, but you felt you could improve on the lighting so you altered the direction slightly. How exactly did you alter things? What kind of effect did your alteration achieve? Did this alteration need to be approved by UFC?

IS: I was literally given the lighting set up. This I’d actually never seen, but it makes sense: They often have these shoots internationally by many different photographers. I stayed on plan for the most part, but I tweaked the lighting slightly to improve it (in my opinion). This was a case where I would not be doing any post work, and thankfully UFC does a really good job at this themselves. However, for the series in my portfolio, I added a little more drama and texture to the background. Everything for the UFC is shot on a grey seamless as it’s all silhouetted anyway. Before showing my version I did check with the UFC and make sure they were ok with me using the images for my own promotion.

ASMP: Were UFC client representatives present during the shoot? If so what were their job functions and their purpose on the set? Who did you have assisting you during the photo shoot and what were they responsible for doing?

IS: Yes, the creative director, Heidi Noland, was on set both days. Heidi is the top of the department, so she’s not only responsible for the shoot going off right, but also for helping manage the talent, overseeing the clothing, grooming and all aspects to the shoot.

She is fantastic and knows exactly what she wants. Fortunately, we speak the same language, so she gives me a bit of slack to be creative and do my thing with the lighting. This slack is actually what led to many of the images that I submitted. The assignment was 18 shots per subject, all the same. Heidi added one more: a shot of each guy showing off some of his skills. Many of these are the better shots. We didn’t change the lighting, so it was pretty seamless to do this. Giving my client even one more set of imagery to work with is never a bad thing, and it added to some fun on the shoot, seeing what these incredible athletes could do.

I had my first assistant, Cam Camarena, with me on set. He acted as digital tech, making sure that all 18 shots were done. I also had my Las Vegas equipment guy, Mike Roach. Mike has all the gear one could need, and has a long-term relationship with the UFC, so they are really comfortable with Mike. He helped us set up and break down, but since the set wasn’t changing, he wasn’t present for all the shots. Also on set was Nadia Ramnath, my Los Angeles/Las Vegas groomer, and some of the video crew from the TV show.

Staying on task on shoots like this is all about keeping the mood light and fun. We almost always have music on set. Of course it can get a little claustrophobic being inside for two days straight, so it’s always good to step outside for some fresh air whenever there’s a break.

ASMP: You mention that the ultimate fighters were inexperienced portrait subjects. How do you help someone who is not used to being photographed deal with this process? Is each individual different, or are there certain techniques that work with most people?

IS: These fighters were all competing for a professional card in the UFC, so their experience was minimal if at all. There’s not much comfort in being the one person on the set, with six to ten eyes on you. I certainly wouldn’t trade places. I always explain what we’ll be doing and that I’ll talk them through each different shot. In this case, letting the fighter do what they like with the action shots was like a bonus prize. Most of these guys had their own look, and have done these poses before, given that it’s a replication of what they often do before a fight. In general, once I go over the plan for the shoot, I tend to say the same thing to subjects all the time, it goes something like, “I just met you, so you know yourself better than I do, so be yourself.” This either works or confuses the subject. Regardless, they then have something in their mind other than all those eyes looking at them. Sometimes I will just start shooting, which tends to lull people in a bit, and when that happens I find they relax and I can get to the core of what I want. I am also a bit of a quiet guy, so I’ll tell them that if I am quiet, they are doing great and to just keep doing what they are doing and I keep shooting. Being fast definitely helps, particularly with celebrities and business people, but I don’t stop unless I feel like I have the shot(s).

ASMP: This was your second assignment for UFC. How did you get the first assignment? When did this first job take place and what did it entail? In between jobs, did you do anything to keep in touch and remind the client of your services?

IS: The first shoot was to photograph their clothing catalog last August in Las Vegas. I got it through a freelance photo director in Los Angeles I had worked with in New York and LA earlier that year. That was a tough gig in that there were a ton of shots and the weather was very hot during the shoot, with the air conditioning only working in half the building we shot in, and then other shots held outside. All these things combined led to a tough assignment, especially with a new client. This was the first time I met Heidi, and immediately I was able to get from her what kind of a feeling she wanted with the images. She said she wanted a “Fight Club” feel, referencing the Brad Pitt/Ed Norton film. I shot one frame of a bag against a cinderblock wall, tweaked it in Photoshop for a minute, and we nailed it. She loved it and that started a great week. After the shoot, I sent a thank you gift of cupcakes to the UFC, and I stayed in touch with Heidi and the art director who was also on set by sending them e-promo cards and updates when I was travelling.

ASMP: After the shoot was finished, you started playing with the images in Photoshop, placing the silhouetted fighters on a different color, but the result was not very exciting. Ideally, what is the background’s purpose in this type of portrait? What did you want the background to contribute to the portrait? Explain what you look for when experimenting with the background in an image.

IS: I think because so much of my work is on location, I find studio to be less exciting. It’s nice to be in that environment from time to time as a break from the challenges that locations present, but there’s a reason people get depressed when it’s grey and drab outside.

In this case, I actually think the background makes the images. Just being up against the grey alone, the subjects are just not as interesting. White made them pop more, as did black, but the UFC is down and dirty, it’s about grit and guts, so I wanted the background to go with that.

As I mentioned, I don’t like to use Photoshop as a crutch, but sometimes it’s a means to a better end. Having the ability to change an image so drastically is fantastic, and frankly, it was done in the darkroom long before Photoshop existed.

ASMP: Eventually you found the perfect solution: a texturizer filter made for Photoshop by Dr. Russell Brown, Senior Creative Director at Adobe Systems, Inc. You downloaded this filter after Brown posted it on Facebook. Are you an avid fan of Brown’s? Please talk about what you feel an industry representative such as Dr. Brown contributes to the photographic community.

IS: I’m a huge fan of Dr. Brown. He’s very wacky, which makes following him on Facebook interesting to say the least, but that aside, he’s a master of Photoshop.

ASMP: Obviously Facebook, in this instance, served an important purpose. How often do you find information through social media that substantially aids your professional photography career, as it did in this instance? How do you use social media Web sites professionally — for information gathering, for marketing for other purposes? Are there any other sites you visit frequently? If so, what are they?

IS: I follow a decent number of resources on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and LinkedIn. I think it’s a great alternative to magazines. You have the freedom to click on what you want and ignore what doesn’t apply.

I only use these social media sites for my business; occasionally I’ll post something about the Yankees, Cowboys or Bruce Springsteen, but never personal stuff. It’s a great, free marketing tool and I use it regularly to promote my work, post samples of my assignments and travels, and I use Tumblr for my blog.

I regularly read, as well as American Photography’s ProPhoto Daily and PDN.

ASMP: Do you have an established marketing strategy for promoting your work? If so, is it mapped out to already point to your next promotion, or is your strategy determined by other elements, such as when the next great idea hits you or your best new work?

IS: I regularly send e-promos to my current and future clients every three to five weeks. I’m also trying out Agency Access this year, with specific e-promos to a wish list of potential clients. For that, I use pre-determined images, but they are subject to change should I have something new that I’d rather get in front of people.

ASMP: Do you work with anyone to advise you on marketing or editing your work? If so, please briefly describe these relationships and talk about what you’ve learned from them.

IS: I started working with Suzanne Sease this past December. She helped edit my work to relaunch my Web site and, additionally, to make two new portfolios of my work. I really just hit a wall as far as looking objectively at my own work, and I needed some help. Suzanne also advised me on the Agency Access promotions and has been a great sounding board.

ASMP: Your interest in photography began at age six, when you received your first camera. What kind of camera was it? As a youngster, what excited you about photography? Who was your first mentor?

IS: My folks gave me a disc camera, which did not last long in the industry if I remember correctly. Photography is and always will be magic. Perhaps more so when it was all film but, to a degree, even with digital, touching a button and making a representation of what you see on a screen is a beautiful thing.

As I progressed to shooting 35mm and getting into the darkroom, I really found more of an interest in making pictures. I drew and painted a lot, so at the time, I liked to shoot things then draw or paint them, often I’d take photographs from magazines, books or music albums and draw them.

Aside from my teachers, my one true mentor is (still) Harry Benson. I was lucky enough to meet him when I was interning at GQ magazine. I had admired his work and to this day remember my jaw dropping when he walked into the office. We became quick friends, and I mopped up all his stories about his experiences. He’s a true legend and I can’t say enough about what I’ve learned from him.

ASMP: Your Web site bio says you are as comfortable in the studio as you are on the edge of a cliff. In fact, you recently entered a shark cage to have a face-to-face with a Great White — your one and only fear. Describe your state of mind both before and after this shoot. Do you use photography to push yourself emotionally, physically or psychologically? Can you share any other examples of shoots that have pushed you to the edge?

IS: The shark cage wasn’t for a shoot; it was a self-inflicted challenge. I took some pictures, but I was definitely preoccupied. I think if it were an assignment, I’d have probably not thought about it so much. It was an amazing experience. I was actually the first person on the boat to see the first Great White. Even though it’s not their true nature, this one came in toward the boat with his fin out of the water, in full Jaws mode. The moment I saw him, I actually got over the fear. Once I was in the water, it was pure adrenaline and awe. Thinking back, I should have been more fearful on one shoot when I let a nine-foot Bengal tiger lick my arm, considering I was in the cage with the tiger!

I’m not an adrenaline junky, but I’m down for anything that will make my images better. I’ve jumped off Mount Saleve in Geneva and Mont Blanc in France for a paragliding story; flown to the polar cap in Greenland aboard a C-130 NY Air National Guard plane, then landed and catapulted off the USS Reagan in the middle of the Gulf of Oman; shot hand-to-hand combat training in Georgia in 105 degree heat with 105 percent humidity and hung backwards off a cliff after nearly stepping on a rattlesnake to get the shot. I guess being physical is a part of the job for me. I’m very hands-on, and the emotional and psychological part comes along as well.

ASMP: Your Web site includes only still photography projects. Have you explored in the past, or do you have an interest to incorporate in the future, motion, video or other hybrid forms of imaging among your business offerings or creative output? Why or why not?

IS: I’ve incorporated video on some of my shoots, and I have shot video, but I’m a still photographer at heart, so when it comes up, of course I offer those services, but I’d take the role of director rather than operator. I actually just bid on a large project where I would take on that role. I’ve shot for the client before, and I’m confident I would be able to direct a video version of how I shoot for them. Obviously it’s a trend right now, and so many photographers are doing both and/or moving on just to video.

ASMP: In a blog post, you mention that you keep sketches and notes about your shoots in a book that you carry with you. Generally speaking, when do you make these notations? Before the shoot starts? After it wraps? Before and after?

IS: I almost always draw up my plan before the shoot. Once things are set, I’ll write in the camera settings. In cases when shots get added, I’ll often take my book out and add new notes for this. After the shoot is done and I’m back in the office, I’ll make small prints on my inkjet and that’s what I tape into the notes.

ASMP: Your first published book documents your travel to nearly every country that manufactures cigars. What was the impetus to pursue this subject matter? Why is the book titled Playboy, a Guide to Cigars?

IS: This was the brainchild of the author Aaron Sigmond. We had worked together at a magazine called The Cigar Report, as did the co-author and the art director. When the magazine’s publisher went Chapter 7, we took the idea to Playboy and they liked it. They had actually never had a cigar book in all their history, amazing considering the frequency with which cigars appear in Playboy magazine and the fact they have their own Playboy cigar.

ASMP: You are a featured photographer on the Lowepro Web site. Please talk about how this relationship came about. Do you have any tips for others about establishing these kinds of relationships?

IS: I was fortunate enough to meet Lowepro at the PhotoPlus Expo and was not shy about asking for sponsorship. I had a decent portfolio then, but it was fairly early in my career. They are such a nice group, and so supportive of photographers, young and old. I have really enjoyed the relationship with them, and I love their products. I don’t know if it would be so easy for anyone else, and I have certainly been denied by other companies, but I think if you are going to try, meeting the reps at the photo shows is huge; putting a face with a name is better than a cold call or e-mail.

ASMP: On your Lowepro profile, you say that although your primary focus is assignment shooting, you always have a few side projects going on because you feel it’s important to break away from assignment shooting when possible. Explain how your side projects refuel you. Are there any signs that tell you it’s time to deviate from paying work and turn to a personal project? If so, what are they?

IS: I try to do one to three personal projects per year. It’s not always easy, but I think it’s important for yourself, as well as to have something else to talk about and promote. Having complete freedom to shoot the way I want is always a benefit and although many of my clients let me do my thing, truly having no constraints is refreshing. I don’t think there’s a definitive time frame for this. I think you should always be looking for personal projects. I just shot one through a friend who came to me with an idea, and it’s moving a little slower than I’d like, so I’m at the early stage of starting another, which I think will be really big. It’s invigorating.

ASMP: Earlier in your career you spent time working as a magazine photo editor. What was the most valuable thing you learned working in this capacity? Based on this experience, what would you say photo editors come to understand about images that photographers might not? In your opinion, why is it so difficult to edit one’s own pictures?

IS: I think the one area in which most photographers fall short is their ability to run their business. I used to have three pet peeves as an editor. First: out of focus pictures, there’s just no place for them. Second: when my name was misspelled in the address of promos I got in the mail, that promo would go right in the garbage. My name was on the masthead; there’s no reason to misspell it. Third: when I got invoices from photographers that were not stapled. It’s a little thing and as small as it seems, I’d have to staple their invoice for them. Silly right? But multiply that by twenty or thirty invoices and that’s a huge time suck. Now, as a photographer, I get invoices from crew that do not include social security or tax ID numbers. Often the invoices are just a piece of plain paper with a name and an address. There’s no attempt at branding, and it comes off as amateur.

I think photo editors are the representation of the magazine. They are there to communicate the message of the story and the magazine to the photographers. This was in part why I always shot on the side. I had inside knowledge, and I was often saving a step by shooting the assignment myself. Creative directors became comfortable with me, as they knew the odds of getting a good shoot were higher. When I was the chief photographer for Double Down Media, that was the final argument I used to get the job. So I guess in short, it’s an ability to understand the product.

Editing your own pictures is hard mostly because you were there when the image was made. It’s very hard to remove that connection you have with the image and everything that led up to it and followed. Having someone weigh in who wasn’t a part of the creation of that image is a better test of its success as a visual representation of that moment in time.

ASMP: Your Tumblr blog includes a button named “Ask Me Anything.” How much visitor response have you received through this channel? What’s the most valuable or insightful question you’ve gotten? What was your answer?

IS: I get a few questions from time to time and I wish I got more, as I really am an open book.

I often get asked how I got started. It’s a great question, as we all have different paths. Here’s my response.

ASMP: You mention that, when you photograph, you try to follow the examples set by the masters. Please name some of the masters who you feel are particularly exemplary and describe their influence on your work.

IS: I always admired Steichen, Steiglitz, Brassai, Bresson and that school — more when I was a college student than as a commercial photographer, but I still love to look at their work. I have a limited edition print of Steichen’s Flatiron Building above my desk. More applicable to my career, I admire Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Horst P. Horst, Dorthea Lange, Robert Frank, Harry Benson and Bruce Davidson, to name a few. As a whole, the example that I talk about is that they all shot what they saw. Many of the names above would shoot a wide variety of subjects, and all well. In New York in particular, photo editors and art buyers try to put you in a box and say this person is this kind of photographer. I’ve always struggled with that, because I, too, shot what I saw.

As an editor I often hired a portrait photographer and had them shoot food, or a still life product photographer and had them shoot a portrait. I believed that if they had the technical skill, I could direct them to do something out of the box. I think the better editors and art buyers still do this.

ASMP: Recently you completed a series of portraits for a book about America’s volunteer fire fighters, which will be published in fall 2012. Was this a commissioned assignment or a personal project? What were you looking to visually convey about fire fighters in this series and what technical or other factors helped you achieve that?

IS: This was a personal project. I wanted to pay homage to the heroes that live among us and voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way.

Visually, I wanted to make real portraits of real people. I chose to light them fairly harshly, not to paint them in a negative light, but to expose the reality of the various faces. Along the journey we came across some amazing stories: from the all-too-real racial imbalance of one of the poorest counties in the deep South; to a 100-year-old department consisting of the most unique cross section of a small town in New York; to a tiny department of retirees, none younger than 54 years old, who protect their Northern California community; to the burnt out mountainside of Colorado where the volunteers stood among the ashes of the homes they fought to save, many of which were their own. As a whole, the photographs from the project stand to represent the volunteers across this nation who we appropriately named our Local Heroes.

Technically, I kept things simple, lighting my subjects with only two lights, one main and one fill. I shot digitally, but used a film filter on the final image, something I often do. My go-to light modifier was the Photoflex Small Octodome.

ASMP: Do you have any final insights or words of advice to students and emerging photographers about pursuing, and more specifically, succeeding in commercial photography?

IS: Harry Benson has the best line when asked this question, he says, “…go buy a guitar.” I’m not quite as “daft,” as he would also say. I always tell my assistants that if they want to be working photographers they should “owe” themselves a day of shooting for every day they assist. It’s an incredible challenge, but I believe that’s what I would have done should I have gone the assisting route. Get your work seen, but don’t show a portfolio until it’s ready. I do a lot of reviews for schools and the worst thing any photographer can do is sit down and start making excuses for their portfolio before anyone even looks at it. Success is a mystery; what works for one person may not work for another. For some it falls in their laps, for others they dig the trenches day in, day out. Personally, I believe nothing beats hard work. I am constantly thinking about how I can improve, what I can do to further my career and who I can meet to continue this path. That, and shoot, shoot, shoot.