How I Designed The Craziest Photo Ever Taken With A Smartphone

ft. Huawei P8

“You won’t believe the call that just came in” my agent, Suzy Johnston reported to me excitedly.

This is the perfect job, the one that you’ve been waiting for. They want you to create the craziest photograph you possibly can using their upcoming telephone, the Huawei P8 for their global launch campaign. “

“Oh, and it gets better. They want you to use fire!”

TLDR: see the final results in this video for the most epic smartphone photo ever
30 second commercial finale video by Director Eli Sverdelov

In the best of conditions, fire is one of the most challenging elements to capture. Not only is it dangerous, its luminosity varies with time. Long exposures result in motion blur, and the high contrast between subject and flames typically means that an amazing camera with a large dynamic range is necessary.

Despite living for new exciting challenges — I was a little worried. Though I am a photographer, I am used to shooting with high end cameras like my 33,000$ Mamiya Leaf Credo 80 to create my surreal art pieces.

To make things even more challenging, Sean Sim, the Executive Creative Director of the project presented me with three additional rules for the photographs that I would have to follow:

  1. You must use the phone’s Light-Painting function
  2. The model must be surrounded by fire
  3. Absolutely no photoshop allowed
Planning and prepping fire tools with Starlight Alchemy — Shot on the Huawei P8

Could It Work?

That was the first question I had to answer, and the only way to do that especially on an unreleased phone was to actually do them in person. We invited fire performance team Starlight Alchemy to assist us with some critical tests one cold evening off in Shanghai and prepare for the ultimate test: Was it even possible to capture the fiery images we had in our minds using just a smartphone?

After about an hour of testing using some of the original P8 engineers as stand-in models, and some simple ND filters, I felt confident. Yes, this was going to be possible.

Test shots using the Huawei P8 with flames from Starlight Alchemy

How Did It Work?

Traditionally, smaller sensors can’t take long exposures without introducing an ungodly amount of noise into an image. The P8 found a way around that — to minimize noise, it would capture multiple images over an unlimited amount of time that it would then compare, stack and blend — all on its own. Basically the same idea as how star trails are made, except without the need of a computer!

What this means, is that it has the capability of taking an infinitely long exposure without overexposing an object so long as the camera doesn’t move.
Setting up the P8 tethered to a laptop — Photo by Dan Lim

Set-up and prep began at 3 PM one late afternoon in Shanghai at a wonderful european-style location. It was a cold day that eventually led to rain and then snow, but the excitement ran high in anticipation for the magic that would be created.

Lighting for the set was carefully designed to make the pillars and backdrop stand out without hitting our model. Light spills during a long exposure, would mean that our gorgeous model would come out looking blurry.

To light the model without blur, a single tightly controlled Broncolor flash boomed overhead contained within barndoors were used which were manually triggered by hand.

Add on a little fiery magic with the help of Starlight Alchemy and all we had to do was create the perfect shape.

Once the lighting was set, creating these photos was almost like synchronizing a dance. The phone was already doing it’s job — now it was all about coordinating the pyrotechnicians to do the right movements and making the clients happy.
From Left to Right — Photos by Sean Sim: Happy Clients / The Huawei P8 with a set of Formatt Hi-Tech ND filters taped to the Front / Starlight Alchemy making Natalia’s wings.

Unfortunately, simply capturing an epic image was only half the battle. Now that I had proven my ability to capture the image on the phone, it was time for me to get in front of the camera. While hair, makeup and stylist fussed over my look and struggled to keep me dry in the pouring rain, talented photographer Dan Lim prepped the lights to complete the job using his trusty D800.

The final result?

Final advertisement taken by Dan Lim of my creation.

See the high rez final images here

Media Requests

  • Feel free to quote and publish the photos on your web publication (please credit & link back to the original). High-rez press images, BTS and more can be found in this dropbox link
  • See the full one minute advertisement on Huawei’s Channel Here.
  • Commercial requests and rights: suzy@suzyjohnston.com
  • Interview requests: ben@vonwong.com

Stills Credits:

  • Client: Huawei
  • Agency: Ogilvy & Mather, Shanghai
  • Production: Untold Images, Shanghai
  • Photographer: Benjamin Von Wong
  • Second Photographer: Dan Lim
  • Assistant: Kai Wang
  • Pyrotechnics: Starlight Alchemy
  • Wardrobe Designer: Calvin Chu

Video Credits:

  • Client: Huawei
  • Agency: Ogilvy & Mather, Shanghai
  • Video Director: Eli Sverdlov
  • Video DOP: Emmanuel Kadosh
  • Production House: Carrot Films