Photographing baseball legend Nolan Ryan

Rangers President Nolan Ryan in Arlington.

For almost 11 years, I shot lots of baseball.  As one of three photographers at The Sporting News (the nation’s oldest national sports magazine, founded in 1886), I was lucky to be among the few photojournalists to attend and cover the World Series each and every year.

As a freelancer, I don’t get the opportunity to shoot baseball games much anymore, although I still shoot a lot of sports portraits.  I thought I would use the Texas Rangers first ever appearance in the Fall Classic to show off some portraits I did earlier this year of one of my favorite sports icons.

Nolan Ryan is now the President of the Texas Rangers, the last team for whom he pitched before his retirement in 1993 after a stunning 27 seasons in the major leagues.  In addition to his 6th and 7th no-hitters,  Ryan had another famous moment as a Texas Ranger.  In 1993, just before his retirement, Robin Ventura charged the mound on Ryan, who was easily old enough to be his father.  Ryan made quick work of Ventura, putting him into a steer-hold with his left arm and pummeling him with his right.  Two of my sports photography colleagues, Linda Kaye, and Brad Loper, got great photos of the altercation.  I’m not sure why, but I loved that moment:  it was awesome to see an old scrappy Texas cowboy holding his own against a young punk.  For better or worse, this forever tainted my view of Ventura, and solidified what I already knew:  Nolan Ryan is a badass.

As a kid growing up near Houston, I occasionally had the opportunity to attend games at the Astrodome.   Ryan’s pitching prowess was the main attraction on those teams in the early 80’s, although, I must admit I was probably equally impressed with the Astros massive Lite-brite scoreboard (hey, I was a kid…).  One of my early baseball memories was of sneaking out of class and hiding out in the band hall to watch Ryan pitch in the 1986 NLCS with my high school band director, who was a big Astros fan.

Earlier this season, I shot a group portrait of Ryan, Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux, and the Rangers pitching staff for Sports Illustrated.  The highlight for me, was taking a quick opportunity after the shoot to take a few frames of Ryan alone.  I photographed him with a long lens, looking down the row of archways at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.  We hid a Profoto 7b behind one of the archways  with a Plume Wafer 75 equipped with a Lighttools 30-degree grid (to contain the light on Ryan’s face and upper body without too much spillage on the scene).  Although I don’t use gels much anymore, we also used the old tungsten film trick here, setting the EOS1Ds Mark III to tungsten to add a Rangers blue cast to the scene, and then adding  a 1 1/4 CTO gel to the strobe to filter Ryan’s face back to warmish daylight.  At the end of the session, I asked Nolan to show me his famous fastball grip.

Best of luck to Ryan and his Rangers in the upcoming Series.

Nolan's fastball grip: The hand that struck out 5714.

Photographing Yao Ming in the Studio

The Sports Illustrated China cover

Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, was recently the subject of a cover story for Sports Illustrated-China, and I was lucky enough to get the call to photograph him for the story.  We hatched all sorts of ideas for poses and locations around Houston.  I’ve photographed Yao several times over the years, so I really wanted to take a memorable shot of him, especially since the last photograph of him I took in a memorable location outside, featured the Rockets old uniform design.

After further investigation, it quickly became apparent that my quintessential shot of Yao in the new Rockets uniform was not going to happen.  You see, Yao didn’t have a uniform.

Most people don’t understand, especially after years of watching players like Dennis Rodman ripping off their jerseys and throwing them to the crowd, that most players only have a couple of uniforms for the whole season.  In Yao’s case, he spent all of last year rehabbing his broken foot, and his uniforms were either a.) long ago auctioned off to various charities; or b.) never ordered in the first place.  The uniforms for the 2010-2011 season, we found out, were not yet ordered, and so we found ourselves in uniform purgatory.

This severely limited our options.  Sports Illustrated-China decided they didn’t want to go with workout gear, or a basketball setting at all, but instead asked me to photograph Yao “GQ style”, in a suit and tie in a controlled studio environment.

We arranged to have Yao come after practice to a local photo studio, where he did the interview with star SI writer Jon Wertheim, followed by a quick photo shoot.  SI assistant Andrew Loehman helped me set up 2 different sets, with three totally different lighting looks.  We used Profoto 7A packs and Plume light modifiers.  We pre-tested and choreographed the shoot, since we didn’t think he would stay long.  Andrew stood on a stool to stand in for Yao’s test frames.

Since we didn’t have a cool outdoor location or props to work with, I asked Yao to bring a suit and also a black t-shirt, so we could shoot a nice tight portrait of his face on white and also with a primary red background, the Rockets main team color.

I photographed him with white, grey, and primary red backgrounds in both clothing changes.  Strangely enough, a loose frame I took offhandedly, just to show the scale of Yao’s size (and the fact that he wouldn’t fit on the backdrop), ended up being the 2-page spread in the magazine (Go figure…).  The cover was altered with a golden background from the original white/grey.  I’ve included the layouts as they ran in the magazine, and a few of the originals we took.

Yao  arrived alone in a large Toyota SUV, and  was very accomodating.  Although he had declined our offer to have food/catering there for him at the shoot, as he sat down to talk to Jon, his stomach grumbled a bit.  I offered to run down the street and pick up a Whataburger for him.  Yao looked very interested, and ordered a double meat Whataburger with bacon, cheese, and fries.   He then gave me a sheepish look……” Just don’t tell my coach…”   (Yao had recently lost a ton of weight during a pre-season diet-conditioning program.)

I didn’t tell him at the time, but I’m coming clean now.

Yao, I stole some of your fries.

Red background with a Plume Wafer 100 with Lighttools 30 degree grid

Loose shot of Yao with a Plume Hexoval 180 on a cyc wall

Plume Wafer Hexoval 140 on an overhead boom

Another shot taken with the Plume Wafer Hexoval 180

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