Dan McClanahan Chimera Visionary Contest Winner talks about maintaining growth in a smaller market

The biggest thing you’ll always hear over and over in tons of businesses is – location, location, location.  Photography is no different but that mantra is not entirely as simple and direct as per se, the real estate industry.  Simply put, people tell you that if you shoot a certain style of photography you should be in a big market for that said photography genre to make your business flourish. Yet, as we’ve mentioned, things like that aren’t always as simple as they seem.

For Dan McClanahan of McClanahan Studio based in St. Imes, Iowa his path to photography wasn’t very direct or simple either. While an undergrad at Iowa State, he realized his original major wasn’t for him. Around this time, coincidentally, he met his future wife whom was a graphic designer, intriguing Dan to create things of his own.  After graduating from college and shooting his share of it all, Dan then went on a tear, pitching his work to practically every ad agency within Iowa state lines taking meetings, portfolio reviews, and following up with everyone he met with. The young hunger started to pay off when he received a call one day from an ad agency looking to hire him to do a basketball shoot for an athletic program at none other than, you guessed it, Iowa State. It was at this time in his life is when Dan made a conscious decision to bring about a new piece to his arsenal: risk. Fast forward to present day and Dan realized something huge – risk pays off well when you hustle. McClanahan now handles the entire basketball account for Iowa State with creative control shooting all the materials for the women’s and men’s team producing amazingly well lit images that seamlessly integrate into advert artwork.

This period in Dan’s career has been all about taking more risks, both creatively and professionally with the pros heavily outweighing the cons. While on Facebook one day, he noticed Chimera was running a contest called The Visionary Contest – it called on photographers to submit one image and explain their vision behind the shot and how they approached it. Dan quickly was reminded of a great shot that he put together during one of his first personal projects; a shoot in a parking garage with a female lead, bullets flying everywhere, very Matrix-esque. Once he submitted the image, amongst tons of others, photographer then shared their entries in hopes to get enough likes to be in the Top 10 – the pool that then Chimera would use to select their overall winner. While Dan made it to the Top 10, he wasn’t at the very top so he figured his chances of winning were slim to none.

After some time passed, the thought that the prize was someone else’s made the contest fall from Dan’s mind right when he got a call yet again – ‘You’ve won and we’re flying you down to Miami to produce an entire photoshoot with photographer, Jarmo Pohjaniemi.’ The images submitted weren’t the only thing judged when making the decision; instead everyone’s whole body of work was taken into consideration of whether they could handle the demands of lighting entire sets, taking charge with teams on location, and ultimately securing the image they had in their head before the shoot. 

Going from the work he was producing up until this point, a full-production fashion shoot at a sprawling mansion location was definitely a bit out of Dan’s comfort zone. Never having been one to shy away from a challenge, Dan knew it would be a great opportunity to learn from Jarmo, whose work he knew and respected. Their differing approaches on how to run a set helped Dan learn to be more assertive while on set, which is a lot of times as easy as herding cats – as in, it’s not, at all. Many photographers will agree; you’re never really done learning as a creative. The burden is on us as working professionals to constantly be pushing boundaries, learning new techniques, and keeping up on the latest technology to give our clients the best experience possible. Knowing this, Dan dove in headfirst on making the most of the great opportunity that was awarded to him. More on that in a bit.

These days Dan has the good fortune of saying that he’s been able to expand his commercial work more, so much in fact that he’s no longer shooting any other work. He sees the lighting challenges as an opportunity to flex his creative muscles to, “use lights and gels to sculpt dead spaces and make them look interesting.” It’s been a welcome change in his career and one that he intends to continue on with.

Still, there are the people who will say that Dan is in too small of a market and should relocate – to which he responds that family always comes first, especially with him and his wife expecting their first child. Yet, at the end of the day, where you call home as a photographer really doesn’t hold as much weight as it used to years ago. With the Internet, social media, and new branding techniques coming so far in the last few years, one could conceivably live wherever they like, shoot whatever they want and make a living. Photographers like Dan are the testament to this new way of thinking – learn your craft, shoot what you want how you want, and hustle. If you do those three things right long enough, after a while people from all over will take notice and want to pull you into their fold whether they be someone like Chimera or a big ad agency in New York looking to book you for that signature look which stood out so well in your local, small market.

Remember that contest Dan won? Well what’s the easiest way to overwhelm and test a photographer’s problem-solving, situational thinking, stress management skills – give them a ton of the best lighting gear & modifiers, an experienced model, and an epic location with complete access. Then task them with shooting portraits highlighting fashion, architectural elements, and the overall location feel in the Miami heat.

Welcome to McClanahan’s creative brief for the day when he arrived on set in Miami with experienced model Isabella Fontes,  master shooter Jarmo Pohjaniemi of Shoot the Centerfold, and tons of gear courtesy of Chimera & Hensel. The contest was suddenly becoming very real for McClanahan. The ensuing collaboration between the two shooters made for interesting takes on how to light certain shots, approaches to take with on-set props, and variety in the perspectives of shots.

After shooting tons of looks, locations and lighting setups Chimera, in collaboration with Jarmo & Dan, have come up with four final image selections that I had the pleasure of going through in detail with Dan to get a behind-the-scenes look into how he approached each image. Being no stranger to lighting myself, with my first real job out of college during grad school being at a high-end studio with 6-8 light setups with overhead rail systems, rolling C-stands, and power packs, I really enjoyed getting nerdy on lighting with Dan to see what he saw on set while shooting. In the ensuing article, we’ll be going through composition, the storyboarding behind each image, what modifiers were chosen and why, and what tools were the best for each shot.

This opening iconic shot is one that is pretty impactful from the jump.  When Dan & Jarmo were storyboarding this opening shot, they wanted something that conveyed the amazing location while also making the model’s dress an integral part of the story being told. Upon finding the right spot on the location, Dan quickly realized the top horizon of the building would be intersecting with her head, thus killing the overall composition. So an important part of shooting on-location came into play – using your surroundings. That’s when Dan opted to shoot the model standing on an outdoor fire pit that was nearby to help elevate the model to be above the house. The next issue, which is a common one in sun-drenched Miami, was the sun spilling onto the model’s right side (camera right) for which Dan & Jarmo opted to flag off that portion of her body from the sun to help keep her evenly underexposed from the background.

Next came the lighting portion of the shot – knowing they wanted to overpower the sun, they went with a Hensel 1200ws head attached to the 4×6 Chimera Super Plus Pro Softbox camera right as the main light. They chose the large softbox to help light the model and her entire dress, needing the least amount of light falloff possible. Knowing the dress was a main piece of the shot, they incorporated a fan camera left to help give motion and life to the shot. The end result is a shot with a beautifully exposed sky all while keeping the model well lit to help her stand out amongst a gorgeous location.

This second shot was an amazing departure from how the first shot was lit – obvious and in your face. With the next shot, Dan wanted to go in a different direction and show how beautifully subtle you can balance natural light and artificial light when done well. When they were picking out the wardrobe for the shots, the sequined dress called for highlights to be used in order to make the dress pop since this was a fashion shoot after all, the clothing comes first; everything else is second.

Compositionally, Dan wanted to incorporate the pool and shadows in a way that made them just as much a part of the image as the model and dress. Laying the model near the edge of the pool showed the highlight of the sun hitting part of the water, but shadowed part of the pool was an interesting partner to the natural hard shadows that came from the sun lighting the model overhead. Once McClanahan had the model, the pose, and framing he wanted, he knew he had to now pull in the lights in a subtle way. With that in mind he pulled out the Chimera Collapsible 30″ Beauty Dish, for both the ease of setting up in a tight location and the fall off it has. Dan then pulled it away far enough camera right (about 8 ft) to make the lights hardness match that of the natural light. The end result is a beautifully subtly lit image making you wonder which is the natural light and which is the artificial light. Another interesting thing to note, is the high key highlight on the models dress (camera right) that manages to show off her body curvature and form-fitting nature of the dress, because again make no mistake – this is a fashion shoot.

For the third shot, Dan & Jarmo went back to having a bit of motion to overall feel. The big thing they wanted when storyboarding this image was the colorful dress to pop against the blue sky. Fighting against time and losing light, they quickly set up and opted to use the Chimera Collapsible 30″ Beauty Dish since it was already set up from the previous shot.

Wanting to have similar fall off to a Chimera softbox, they opted to turn the light straight on the model to help light the entire dress, as opposed to feathering the Chimera beauty dish. Doing so helped also get the most light possible on the model’s face as well as the dress in an effort to cut down the amount of shots they’d take to get the one they wanted. This time Dan went with a really wide lens for two reasons; one to elongate the model’s legs in the shot to really heighten her prancing movement through the frame, as well as use a circular polarizer which this lens had on it already to help bring out the sky as much as possible behind the model. 

This fourth shot went back to highlighting some of the architectural aspects of the location to incorporate them into the shot along with the model and dress. When Dan noticed the opening in the ceiling he knew he wanted to use it to frame the model in some way. Having a similar issue of the model simply not being tall enough to get the framing Dan wanted, they opted to bring in an apple box for the model to stand on.

Once she now was where McClanahan wanted in terms of composition, next to tackle was how to light it. In terms of the main light, this is where Dan realized that he was developing a bit of a love affair with the Chimera Collapsible 30″ Beauty Dish and rightly so, it’s the next modifier he’ll be adding to his kit. Using it as the main light, Dan realized he still had to combat the fall off that the beauty dish has, so he then went into the huge kit they had on set and pulled out the Hensel ring light to add a touch of fill on the model and dress. Once again knowing motion helps create emotion in images, Dan & Jarmo decided to pull out the fan camera left to help give some life to the image. Using those lights helped, as before,  to bring out the beautiful sky and clouds in the background which are a big part of the overall image.

The biggest takeaway from all this is how important storyboarding or even just talking out how you want an overall image to look with your team. Once you have an idea of what look you’re going for, then you can easily figure out what lighting setup will work best to achieve the final image you’re looking to get.

Lighting is one of those things that can be as simple or as convoluted as you want, yet the thing we must always ask ourselves is there an easier way to get the shot I want? That way you can see your lighting kit as merely a tool belt where you pick just the right tool for the job instead of dumping your whole tool box on the floor to see how many pieces you can use to justify lugging all that gear to the location.

There’s always going to be one part of your brain that thinks 8 light setups will only impress art directors and clients on set more, which sadly sometimes is true, but instead make it a point to wow your clients with your vast knowledge of light, and how you can create something beautiful with just the right amount of gear leaving them guessing how you achieved so much with so little.