Story of the Year Band Portrait


For obvious reasons I may have a slight bias in opinion, but this promo shot for Story of the Year is one of my favorite band photos I’ve ever made:


One of things I am most proud of as it relates to my band, Story of the Year, is that we’re independent. We’re doing it ourselves. By default, running our business without the financial backing, marketing, and general “push” of a record label comes with considerable challenges. In short, nothing, and I mean nothing,  happens unless we make it happen. So, we’re constantly iterating and learning how to think less about the music business and instead focus more on the Story of the Year business. For for our latest release we launched an uber-successful Pledge Music campaign and built our own publicity team for the launch of the album. Still, sooooooo much of it was, and is, left up to us. There is no conference room full of record company personal hard at work promoting SOTY like there was in the past. So, in the spirit of operating like a small business, we have to be in the mindset of getting our hands dirty and wearing multiple hats if we don’t have the money or resources to execute a task or vision. For example, Josh (drummer) will sometimes tour manage, help with accounting, and handle some of the administrative duties. In 2018, we all pitch in. As a business we’ve saved tens of thousands of dollars by me doing our album art work, music videos, social media campaigns, photography, etc instead of flying in photographers and hiring other people to do everything. And yes, sometimes we’re exceedingly crappy businessmen, but we’re doing it ourselves and I’m proud of us. And “Wolves“. Holy shit I’m proud of that record. Dan (singer) and I wrote every song, every lyric of that entire record not knowing if it would ever see the light of day, and I think that’s what makes it so special. It was purely for us, and not worrying about what record labels, radio programmers, or even fans wanted from us sort of took it back to the beginning when we just because we loved it. It took literal years of work. I love this album, and it’s safe to say that I’m more proud of Wolves than all of our records combined.

So yeah. Band members pulling double-duty. Our newest promo pic. Photo-nerd stuff.

As our band photographer, here’s how I went about creating the photo I saw in my head.

There were a couple of hurdles:

1) I don’t own enough lights to pull off the stylized, semi-movie poster / commercial vibe I envisioned if I were to shoot all 4 members at once. I suspect it would have taken 5-8 lights & modifiers to have every one properly lit in one shot, especially given the fact that I wanted nice shadows on each face for contour. I don’t think just pointing a single light or two at the full band would have yielded the same result.  So I felt with a composite shot, I could light each band member individually, one at a time, and get the shadows and overall portrait look I wanted. (Compositing is basically combining multiple photos to form one final image).

2) I was shooting illegally on private property. When location scouting I looked everywhere for concrete that was broken and almost reminiscent of a dried desert bed, and this was the only place I could find. To be fair, I didn’t know it was private property. Although the cops and owner did show up and were cool enough to let us finish the shoot, I still felt like getting off the owner’s property as fast a possible was the respectful thing to do.

3) It was raining slightly. Fuck rain when you have many thousands of dollars of gear exposed.

4) It was windy. Fuck wind when you don’t have multiple assistants to hold big octoboxes from blowing away.

5) It was cold. Fuck cold when you want your face to look good.


My high tech, super professional way of marking each band member’s position was to throw a stick on the ground where they should stand. (That’s what photoshop is for.)  I set the focus to where the band members would be standing, not on the background, and locked the camera off on a tripod. This is crucial. This type of composite involving both subjects and a static environment doesn’t work unless that camera is completely locked off in the exact same position for each shot.


I had the band park their lambos in position, and asked Adam the Skull to run back and forth like an idiot with a can of fog. (Fog: Atmosphere Aerosol- it’s expensive and only lasts for maybe 20 seconds, but it’s awesome).


The fog is actually pretty crucial to the shot. The visual aesthetic of the new Story of the Year WOLVES album is heavily influenced by Spielberg era horror / adventure cinema, so naturally I couldn’t not have fog. The final plate shot was a composite of 6 fog shots.

Adam fogging up the place:



Below are the individual portraits. I let the headlights back-light the bodies, but I used a yellow-gelled beauty dish to mimic the headlights and cast light on to each person’s hair. The main reason I used a beauty dish is because it was windy as shit and a big modifier would have blown over and most likely damaged or destroyed my light. The dish is small & decent in wind. (I used up all of my sandbags for the main light, so notice the chunk of concrete anchoring the B-dish light stand. That’s how professionals do it.) I probably could have used a simple 7″ reflector or even a bare bulb, but i wanted the light semi-soft because the headlights would be softened by the fog.


As you can see below, the hair-light is crucial. The whole image falls apart with-out it. That’s some shit I would have done 3 years ago. The headlights didn’t cast a wide enough angle to give shape to the head or illuminate any hint of hair, so this backlight was necessary. The end-goal is to trick the eye into believing the hair is illuminated by the headlights. In retrospect, I did mess up at least 2 things: 1) I should have gelled these backlights orange, or a mixture of yellow and orange, because the headlights were significantly less yellow than I anticipated and 2) I should have backed the power off a bit more. But again, until I’m an expert, photoshop sometimes has to save me.

Example of portrait with no hair light. Dan’s head & hair gets lost in the black sky and the headlights just don’t seem cinematic. Not sweet, IMO.


The other band members portraits. The last guy should be a professional male model:



Here is what adding each band member to the composited plate shot looked like. The fog worked great, but notice how off I was with the gel colors!


Final hunk composite:



Some modest color correction, mostly notably making the headlights and strobes the same color:



And lastly, painting in some additional fog in photoshop. It was important to me to have actual, real, fog in the photo, as I wanted the headlights to have an authentic blur / blown out look. But it wasn’t enough fog for a brain like mine that was raised on ET and The Goonies. More fog was needed:


That’s about it! Desaturated it a bit, some minor sharpening, etc. All in all, this was a composite of 10-ish separate photos.

So yeah, that’s how I handled executing the vision I had. I made sure to shoot it wide enough to leave plenty of room for text, logos, etc, as this image was used for admats, magazine articles, marketing material, etc. Always have to leave room for that stuff!

Party on,


Ryan Phillips is a freelance photographer based out of St Louis, MO, and a founding member of the internationally known rock band Story of the Year. 

You can follow him on Instagram @Ryan_T_Phillips and view his photography portfolio at

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