Nathan Schroder: A Fantastic Reality

Written by Fredrik Franzén on . Posted in Commercial photography, Lighting tips

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©Nathan Schroder

Many photographers make an effort to create a context for their images. But Nathan Schroder takes the concept further than most.

“I think of my images as stills from movies that don’t exist,” says Nathan. “I create the characters in my head, because I need to know who they are and why they are in the situation that they are in. Generally when I’m making a proposal to a client, I’ll include these character sketches on a written page, describing the characters and the setting. Not only does that firm up the image in my head, it also helps me direct the people in front of my camera lens.”

Skylight lighting setup

Nathan’s interest in photography sprung to life during his years as a psychology student – which might explain his passion for character studies. At first, he shot pictures to use as blueprints for his own drawings and 3D renderings, but as time went on, Nathan focused more and more on creating a complete image with just the camera. His interest continued to grow over the years, and when the time came for Nathan to do his internship, he took a leap of faith and started to work as an assistant at a studio specialized in interior photography.

“Lighting interior shoots is more or less about trying to recreate natural light,” says Nathan. “So I spent the first part of my career softening light and learning how to balance light through different diffusion materials to create these very ambient light sources. It’s still in me, I think. Psychologically, where the light is coming from has to make sense to me. That’s why I so often incorporate ambient light sources or include windows or chandeliers in my images.”

This does not mean that Nathan’s images could be described as realistic. As he says, the lighting has to make sense, but it is often exaggerated. The images feel complete in the same way that an impressionist painting feels complete. The look is surreal, but the impression of light – the feel – is very, very real.

“Yeah, it’s beyond realistic,” says Nathan. “It’s more fantastic, like an idealized reality. But still, it has to make sense. I don’t just throw in light for the sake of it.”

©Nathan Schroder

Campfire lighting setup

Nathan’s distinct style has attracted everything from fashion magazines and clothing brands to airlines and vodka distilleries. The images in this article are taken from an assignment he received from an American boot manufacturer.

“They came to me with this concept of really strong, powerful and independent women wearing the company’s boots. Then I wrote the character sketches. The first image is of a woman in a French chateau. She has just shot down a chandelier from the ceiling, so there’s still smoke coming out of the gun barrel. The chandelier is simply lying there on the floor, while she kicks back in the chair with her boots resting on it. As you can see, the image is dark but with a lot of details. You know, I wanted it to feel like the room was illuminated by the fact that she had shot down the chandelier.”

“I used several light sources to create the light coming down from the ceiling. The key light is a ProHead with a Softlight Reflector Silver, aimed straight at the woman. I used another ProHead with a grid to light up the dust particles, and I used a third one to create that flair at the top of the beam. So yes, it actually took three lights to create this one beam of light. For the fill light, I used a ProHead and a Giant Reflector 150, standing just right of the camera. Finally, there was light bouncing off a show card, just outside the French doors on the left. I wanted it to look like there were some candles there or something, even though you can’t see them in the image.”

“For the second image, the client had come up with an idea of a woman standing in her apartment with her furniture burning. I took that idea and created a backstory that she had found another woman in her lover’s apartment. She’s taken all his furniture and made a bonfire out of it, and there’s water coming down from the ceiling, as if the bonfire has set off the sprinkler system. It was important that it felt as if the image was shot at night, so although there’s light coming through the windows, it’s only bluish city lights. The room is sort of bathing in this cold, blue light, while there’s warm light coming from the bonfire.”

“Firstly, there’s a ProHead with a strip softbox just above the frame, aimed toward the camera to illuminate the water drops against the dark background. Secondly, there was a light on the right, bouncing off 8’x8’ white flat to create the window light and illuminate the rain a little more. For key light, we used the Softlight Reflector Silver. For fill light, we had a Giant Reflector 180, I believe. Finally, there was a ProHead with a grid above the wooden panel to the left. It highlighted the panel surface and the woman’s hair. No wait, I think there was one more, but I can’t really remember where… You know, you try so many different things, and you don’t always keep track of what you ended up using in the end. Also, I like to keep an open mind and listen to the people I work with. I mean, I understand light, but there’s just so much to learn. You don’t really get to a point where you are too good to learn from somebody else. Oh, you know what? Now I remember! We had a medium StripLight behind the wooden panel too, just for rim light around her legs and boots. That’s it!”


Nathan Schroder’s website

Written by Fredrik Franzén

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Comments (3)

  • Natasha Ashwe


    Incredible emotive detail. They do look like movie stills. Nice work!


  • Nathan Schroder's Lens Flare | Profoto Blog


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