Michael B. Shane: On The Verge

Like many great photographers, Michael B. Shane entered adulthood on an entirely different career path. He was a classical musician with a master’s degree in music and a full-time job playing the clarinet.

Robin Wright

"I first started taking pictures when I was on tour with the Cleveland Orchestra," he says. "Sometimes, you end up with a lot of free time. You’re in Europe, you don’t want to hide in your hotel room practicing, so what do you do? You go out and you wander around. I had a camera; that’s how I got started.

"One of the pivotal things that I did," Shane explains, "was a 365 project, where every day for a year I had to take a self-portrait. This was before I had learned anything about lighting, so it was all ambient light, really straightforward stuff. In terms of making pictures before I really understood light and lighting, it was probably an incredibly important formative experience. Just forcing myself to be creative and make a photo every day, with what in hindsight was obviously very limited gear and technology, was a really wonderful exercise. That was 2009. I was a baby then. I knew nothing."

Today, Shane knows a little something about photography. As director of operations for The Verge—a website covering the intersection of technology, science, art and culture—his job isn’t specifically photographic. But as director of operations for the low-budget startup, Shane often takes the reins to create something out of nothing. Well, not exactly nothing, but certainly nothing much. Just a camera and a flash and a whole lot of newfound know-how. He learned photography the new old-fashioned way.

"Everything I learned about taking pictures I learned on the Internet," he says, "and through practicing; a lot of trial and error. It’s kind of ridiculous, if we’re being honest. For off-camera lighting, all of my foundational knowledge is from David Hobby, who runs the Strobist website, and Joe McNally, who does a lot of stuff online. These guys have provided a tremendous amount of accessible knowledge for free, which is mind-blowing."

Learning photography online is really no more mind-blowing than a musician landing a job in photography by responding to a Tweet.

"I saw a random Tweet," Shane says, "that the editor in chief of The Verge was looking for an assistant, and at that point my options were basically to continue to work part-time, do some photography when it comes, and freelance as a musician in the city and see what happens, or get a doctorate. I didn’t want to get a doctorate because I didn’t want to teach music in college. The other thing that I’ve always been really passionate about was technology, which is why I think photography has always made so much sense for me, because it’s sort of the perfect combination of nerdiness and gadgets and technology and creativity and artistry and making something. And I’ve always found that balance, that combination, really gratifying and interesting."

He shoots in a studio, on location or on the street.

There are similarities between playing music and taking pictures. Both rely on manipulating a mechanical device in a highly technical fashion in order to make art. It’s the perfect left-brain, right-brain combination.

"On the one side is all the creative aspects," Shane says, "and on the other side, you’re really just talking about physics and figuring out how to control a piece of hardware to make it do what you want to do. With music, you’re trying to make the exact sounds you want to make, and with photography you’re trying to make it capture the exact right amount of light at the right time."

Shane’s photographic tools are fairly straightforward: high-quality cameras and lenses, and lighting that’s easy to use.

"I’ve been at The Verge for a little over two years," he says, "and in that time, I’ve done, I think it’s something like over 70 stories—a combination of features and reviews—but I’ve only ever used big studio strobes for one of those. That was our back-to-school guide, for which I used Profotos. It was a really glossy, magazine-style lifestyle guide. Because of what we wanted to achieve, we rented studio space and hired models and hair, makeup, wardrobe. We did the whole thing, we did it for real, right? So for that I got big lights and we did it that way, but every other lit photo that I’ve done has been lit by small flashes.

I think photography has always made so much sense for me, because it’s sort of the perfect combination of nerdiness and gadgets and technology and creativity and artistry and making something. And I’ve always found that balance, that combination, really gratifying and interesting.

"It’s amazing what you can do with one small flash and a roll of tinfoil," Shane says. "You just have to experiment. I’m an experimenter because I still consider myself learning. I’m like an accidental photographer. I think a lot of being a professional photographer is figuring out how to do trial and error in front of other people on other people’s time without ticking them off. If you look at my website, the first two photos that come up are a portrait of Jeff Bezos and a portrait of Robin Wright. Both of those portraits were made in less than three minutes because a lot of times, when we’re doing a story, especially with high-profile people, you often have very little time. With Jeff Bezos, for example, he was literally having a conversation with the editor in chief while I did the photo. You have to be able to go in, set up your lights and make the photo, and you can’t do it in less than three minutes with a bunch of Profotos unless you have three assistants with you. If we’re on location, I’ll have one, if I’m lucky. Maybe an intern is available, or the writer who’s with us at that time is able and willing to hold a light, or something like that."

The Verge is often characterized as being a technology news site, but that’s really not taking the big view. Says Shane, "We report on everything that’s happening in the world from that [technology] point of view. So, obviously, we review the latest iPhone and we review the latest smart watch, but we also report on what’s happening in Syria, and we report on net neutrality, and we do long-form features about people building doomsday bunkers or, you know, people modifying their bodies and implanting magnets in their fingertips, or online scam artists, things like that. To us, The Verge is really everything that’s happening in the world today from our connected point of view. We think that technology touches everything."

For the candid portrait of Jeff Bezos, Shane relied on just two lights and a colleague lending a hand.

"I had one small flash inside of a LumiQuest softbox," he says, "which are these basically rubberized, miniature softboxes. And I think the one that I used there was a small square one, which is great because it really focuses the light. It’s actually hard and soft at the same time, but by itself, for me, a lot of the time it’s too hard, so I set that up on the stand; then I had Jordan, the guy who was shooting the video f
or this piece, hold a Lastolite TriGrip diffuser. He held that in front of the light, which really adds this creamy touch to it, and then there was just another light just a little bit off-axis toward the right and an umbrella that was just adding a little bit of fill. That was it. Some of my gadget photos have three or more lights, and every once in a while a photo of a person will have more than two lights, but I love to push myself to see what I can accomplish with just one or two lights. The photos that I’ve done that have more than two lights, it’s really obvious, and the third and fourth lights serve a real purpose, if you know how to read the photograph. I’m often more gratified when I can accomplish a photo with one or two lights instead of three, four or five."

For The Verge’s product photography, Shane’s approach remains consistent: aesthetically simple, creatively composed and lit with a light touch. That unifies the look of the publication and helps meet tight deadlines.

"Often, we do product reviews," Shane explains, "or news that’s embargoed or has a very tight deadline. At The Verge, we just don’t do stills; we have to write the pieces, design the pieces, and there’s also our video team. We’re probably more well known for our video work than our photography because the video stuff is mind-blowingly good. But sometimes we only have a day or two to produce the visual elements of the piece due to the writing and reporting schedule, and the video guys need to have the object in their hands for a while before I get it. Sometimes deadlines are tight or sometimes there are just surprises and things suddenly become important in the news, and I have to be able to set up and shoot a product and get 10 to 15 publishable photos in 90 minutes. I do it by myself, but I don’t really do it by myself. We have a really amazing team here. I’m usually talking to the person writing the review to make sure that I’m in sync with their angle and I understand what story they’re trying to tell. If we’re doing a feature or we’re doing a portrait or something, I’m always talking to the guys who design the layout and figuring out where they might see it going—the tone of the piece—because that’s going to affect how we light it, how it looks and how we process the image. So the whole time, it’s a conversation. I’m the one making the photo, but it’s definitely a collaboration, like every great photo is really a collaboration. I think no photographer can ever take sole credit for any image they make."

Shane says his low-key, DIY ethic is perfect for ensuring his photographs are more creative than technical.

"I’m proud of our review photography," he says. "I think it’s real and authentic, and I think it fits with what we’re doing, but it’s not world-class product photography. I think it’s world-class review photography and world-class storytelling, but it’s different. I think a lot of people get hung up on modifiers, but I think you can also achieve a lot simply by where you put the light and where you point it. Feathering the light can sometimes be more effective than a modifier, or with a modifier and feathering, you can achieve a better result than you could with multiple modifiers or something really convoluted. I don’t have the time or the resources to overcomplicate things. "I have the LumiQuest miniature softboxes that I like to use," Shane adds. "I almost always diffuse them again. A big thing I’m into is diffusing the light multiple times, which I think is a Joe McNally idea; it’s certainly not my idea. I have a bunch of those in different sizes. I have a big square softbox I really love. It’s not silver on the inside, it’s white, and it has an extra removable layer of diffusion in addition to the diffusion on the front, so, again, multiple layers of diffusion. I love to make snoots out of cinefoil and I love using grids, and for me, another lighting modifier that’s key is gaffer tape. Even if I grid a light, sometimes the grid is still too wide, so I’ll use gaffer tape to really control how much light is going somewhere; things like that. I think that’s basically it. It’s really straightforward. It’s a couple of umbrellas, a grid here and there, the DIY snoots, softbox, little softboxes—super-simple."

Michael B. Shane’s Equipment

I try not to ever use more than I have to. In that way, when a situation really does call for something special, it’s that much more gratifying to me. I was the same way in music, as well. It happens a lot, especially with wind and brass players. People get obsessed with gear, as in anything else that’s related to gear. I’m an avid scuba diver. People get obsessed with gear. Skiing, people get obsessed with gear. Anything you can do with gear, people get obsessed with gear. So, in music, I was always very minimal and very straightforward about the whole thing. I try not to get emotionally attached to gear.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 5D Mark III DSLRs

Canon EF 100mm ƒ/2.8L IS Macro for product photography

Canon EF 35mm ƒ/2.8L

Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.4L

Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L

I rent the Canon EF 85mm ƒ/1.8L when I need it; it’s an incredible lens

I have one Canon Speedlite flash and the rest are cheap $75 flashes from China. They’re the ones that I think David Hobby has recommended from time to time. Are they as consistent? No. Do they break more often? Yes. But do any of those things happen to such a degree that it interferes with my work? Not really.

I don’t own PocketWizards. I use cheap triggers that I can literally throw away and buy again and not worry about it. We’ve used PocketWizards on our back-to-school shoots because the shoot called for it. They’re wonderful things—like being wrapped in a blanket, a blanket of radio frequencies.

See more of Michael B. Shane’s photography at www.michaelbshane.com.

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