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February 2011

Studio portrait photography with NASA Astronauts

Cmdr. Mark Kelly and the rest of the STS-134 crew

If you ever want to feel bad about yourself and what you've accomplished in life, sit down for an afternoon and read astronaut bios.  They represent the best of  Type-A overachievers.  They are an incredibly exclusive group – you have much better odds of being hit by lightning, winning the lottery, or becoming a rock star than orbiting Earth in space.

Last summer, I had the rare opportunity to photograph a group of astronauts who had all been major players in the Space Shuttle program for a magazine that I've always wanted to work for:  Air & Space.  I had a fabulous editor who was one of the most supportive and collaborative professionals with whom I've ever worked.

The working title of the piece was “Shuttlenauts”, and I was able to photograph many of the key people who shaped the program.

You might be asking:  “Gee, dude – why aren't these portraits environmental, with launch pads, shuttles, mission control, underwater training tanks, etc. in the backgrounds?”  That would have been fun to do, but these current and former astronauts were assembled in one room (in various groupings) for two, 1-hour sessions, on separate days, several weeks apart.  Some have since retired or joined the private sector, and some have taken management positions within NASA…..hence, not everyone would be in cool orange ACES high altitude pressure suit – in fact, many of them were going to be in street clothes.  When working in a situation like this, with limited time, and lots of different outfits, I feel it's best to simplify and unify the essay with a common background technique.

Shuttle Commander Eileen Collins; a group shot of “Station Builders.”

There's a great Richard Avedon quote about simplification: ” I have a white background.  I have the person I'm interested in, and the thing that happens between us.”

Since we were photographing everyone on a standard backdrop, and some of the shots were large groups, I used something I like to call “corner lighting.”   I'll write more about this in a future post, but it's basically a way to light large groups, or open up shadows on an individual portrait while still retaining some direction and shape.  I think it works well, and is much more pleasing to the eye than standard “butterfly” lighting schemes or (God-forbid)…. ringlfash.

Although these pictures originally ran in color in the magazine, I've really decided I quite like them in black and white.  The originals were captured as raw files with Canon EOS1Ds Mk III  cameras.  I did the black and white conversions in Adobe Photoshop CS5  from  16-bit TIFF files exported from Lightroom.  Using Photoshop CS5's “Black and White” adjustment tool.  I set the reds at 60, yellows at 90, with the hue adjustment at 39, and the saturation at 4 to add a little warmth to the tones.  I left the other colors untouched.

I've photographed sports stars and other celebrities, and I'm rarely starstruck, but I was just absolutely blown away to be in the same room with these people.  As a kid, I really wanted to be a fighter pilot (who didn't?), and many of the astronauts began their careers as Navy or Air Force pilots, and eventually many of them were  top test pilots before joining the astronaut corps.  These are my kind of people!  (Blog sidebar: So, I gave up on the whole Air Force fighter pilot thing when I had to get glasses for my then 20/400 vision in 8th grade….so what career did the legally blind guy choose?….what else?  A photographer.  Hmmm.)

Veteran astronaut and STS-1 Commander John Young.

As for the actual shoot, we photographed some of them individually and some in small groups according to various themes as follows:

– the entire STS-134 crew, including Commander Mark Kelly (which at the time was slated to be the last shuttle mission.)

John Young: Young is a total badass.  He's perhaps the most famous and accomplished astronaut.  He's a  former Navy fighter pilot and test pilot.   He's been in space on 6 missions in 3 different eras of the US space program.   He served as the commander of the first shuttle mission, and also STS-9, Gemini 3, Gemini 10, Apollo 10, and Apollo 16 (yes, he not only walked on the moon, but he also drove the lunar rover on the surface).  Young was also Chief of the Astronaut office, and served on several backup crews, including Apollo 13.  He is 80 years old, and reportedly still attends weekly briefings at NASA.

Robert Crippen: Crippen is the astronaut most identified with the Shuttle era: he flew with Young on STS-1, and later served as commander of STS-7, STS-41C, and STS-41G; he also ran Kennedy Space Center, and was Director of the Shuttle program for NASA)

Eileen Collins: Collins was the first female Shuttle commander (on STS-93), and also flew on STS-63, STS-84, and STS-114, when she was the commander of the first “Return to flight” mission after the Columbia accident)

-Pam Melroy: A former Air force test pilot, Melroy was pilot on STS-92, and STS-112, and served as commander of STS-120.

-“High Timers” :  Three of the astronauts who have spent the most total time in space: Peggy Whitson: Now head of the astronaut office, Whitson has spent over 376 days in space during two stays on the ISS;  Michael Lopez-Alegria: The spacewalk king.  A veteran of three missions, he holds the record for EVA's (10), and total EVA time (over 67 hours); Franklin Chang-Diaz, a veteran of seven shuttle missions.

– “Station Builders”:  Astronauts who played a major part in building the International Space Station (ISS):  Robert Curbeam, Suni Williams, Ken Cockrell, and Leroy Chiao.  These guys were a great group and lots of fun.  (I learned from them that former Navy pilots who are astronauts (Cockrell, Williams, Curbeam) wear brown boots with their NASA flight suits, vs. the standard black boots….It's a Naval aviator thing.)

-Mae Jemison and Anna Fisher: both were MD's as well as pioneering female astronauts

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger:  A former Earth science teacher, Metcalf-Lindenburger, only 34, has already flown as a mission specialist on STS-131.

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger; Andrew Feustel

There were of course some key people involved in the program that we did not have the opportunity to photograph, due to scheduling problems, but I'm hoping to continue photographing other astronauts and adding to this collection over the next couple of years.

I don't often have my picture made with the people I photograph.  It  seems a little weird to ask, I'm shy, and it's just sort of strange.  I have photos of me with James Brown and Spike Lee, and that's about it.  Near the end of the shoot, while shooting a group shot of the female astronauts, they playfully started kicking up their heels “chorus line” style.  Once we stopped laughing,  (there was lots of laughing) they insisted I join them.  How could I refuse?  It was a blast and made for an awesome behind the scenes souvenir photo.

Easily the highest IQ chorus line ever assembled (even with me handicapping the group).

You can see more of the astronaut portraits on the regular website of Houston photographer Robert Seale.

Shuttle Astronaut cover for Air & Space


I was very excited to be able to shoot the January cover of Smithsonian's Air and Space magazine.  I shot this assignment last summer during one of two, aproximately 1-hour photo sessions with current and former Shuttle astronauts (more on the rest of the shoot later), at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The cover was to feature the first and last Space Shuttle commanders, John Young (STS-1), and Mark Kelly (STS-134).  NASA has since added another mission, STS-135, to the schedule so our premise about first and last became a cover and 8-page photo essay of astronaut portraits during the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle program.

We had very little time to shoot the cover and subsequent inside images due to Kelly's busy training schedule, so we arrived early and prepared two backgrounds….a black cloth background and a large white seamless.  Robert Crippen, Young's pilot on the first Shuttle mission, arrived early, so we spent a few minutes photographing him on both backgrounds.

I knew that Young would probably show up in his signature white turtleneck and blazer, and that Kelly would very likely be wearing a polo shirt (the outfit in which astronauts commonly work and train).  For a cover, especially a fairly tight portrait, I knew it would be important to have something in the picture that “says NASA” so I asked both men, through the astronaut office, to bring their blue nomex NASA-issued flight jackets.  I wasn't sure that they would both remember to bring their jackets (I was really nervous that Young might not still have his).  I was anxious about this small detail, but relieved when Kelly showed up first, carrying his.   I was overjoyed when Young turned the corner into our building carrying a weathered NASA flight jacket just like Kelly's.  It may sound like a small detail, but it was critical – and really the only thing that holds the picture together for a cover, and makes the photo something other than two men wearing blue blazers.  I think I actually jumped up and down in front of the NASA media rep.

We had the black background pre-lit with a Plume Wafer Hexoval 180 on the right as our main light, and a Wafer 100 with a Lighttools grid as our “hairlight” on the left behind them.  We fitted the hairlight with a slight blue gel, which I thought would look good, and closely match the blue flight jackets – outlining the shapes of the subject heads against our black background.

For some reason, I really like pictures of people looking off camera, with no eye contact.  To me it just feels more heroic and formal.  This was a perfect and appropriate opportunity to use that pose, so in addition to shooting portraits with eye contact, I had both men look off camera, up into the Hexoval 180 for the heroic portrait fitting the first and last commanders of the Shuttle program.  It was honor to meet them and photograph them.

(Note: A month after this cover was released by Air & Space, Mark Kelly's wife, US Representative Gabrielle Giffords was critically injured in a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona.  Kelly has been by her side throughout her ordeal, and has only recently returned to training for STS-134, after she was moved to a rehab facility in Houston.  Our thoughts and prayers are with Giffords and Kelly, and we hope she makes a speedy and full recovery.)

"Fly like a butterfly…"

Ernest H. Cockrell with a glass butterfly display in the foreground.

As a corporate photographer, I'm called upon to do executive portraits of  CEO's and local business leaders.  Ernest H. Cockrell is a longtime Texas energy business executive  who is also very well known in his hometown of Houston for his philanthropy.  Over the years he's given millions of dollars to a number of causes, notably the University of Texas (his alma mater), and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Most Houstonians recognize the Cockrell name from the namesake Cockrell Buterfly Center, a giant glass annex to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, built several years ago containing a tropical butterfly habitat, rain forest, a 50 foot tall waterfall, and thousands of butterflies.   After receiving a commision to photograph Mr. Cockrell for the University of Texas, I decided that this would be the perfect location for his portrait.

He had very little time on this particular day, and one of the things I'm very proud of, is being able to create several different scenarios in the same location without making the subject wait around on us to move lights and change our setup.

Although I fully planned on shooting him in the rain forest habitat, hoping to get a few butterflies in the picture, I quickly found another area in the children's educational center of the museum, adjacent to the rain forest that offered some interesting but challenging visual possibilities.

We had a very limited amount of time (about 15 minutes), so I chose an area where we could get several shots in one location.  A large wooden display inside the educational area contained  2 large vertical pieces of glass which contained a static display of  butterflies who had generously donated their bodies to science.  The space was tight, with interactive displays for kids, a weird corner wall behind the display, and built in stools for children everywhere.  I thought that we might be able to light the butterflies, and shoot through the glass, placing our subject's face on the other side of the glass wall.

After tinkering with the lighting and composition, we decided to backlight the butterflies from each side behind the glass, and we maneuvered a Plume Wafer 75 with a Lighttools 30 degree grid into place outside of the visible frame as the subject main light to reduce spill onto the glass.  We used grids on the two backlights (a 20 and 30 degree, as I recall), and the left backlight conveniently served as a hair-light for Mr. Cockrell.  Rosco cinefoil was used to gobo the backlights and prevent flare.  The background was a corner wall, and was very close, so my assistant, Nathan Lindstrom was put in charge of holding a 6 x 6 black felt Scrim Jim in place behind our subject to give us a nice black background behind the multi-colored butterflies.

The space between the glass panes was quite wide, and reflections around the butterflies were an issue, so much so, that I toyed with retouching reflections in post.  I finally settled on leaving the photograph as it was originally shot, after deciding that the reflections actually added a feeling of motion to the picture – almost as if we had used a slow flash sync with actual moving butterflies. (“Yeah….I meant to do that….”)

The second shot with the butterfly shadows on the wall.

The second picture was created by utilizing a small section of our cramped corner wall.  We set up another light with a snoot to narrow the flash to a very small beam, and placed it about 20 feet away from the glass, at a slight angle to the wall.  This created a pattern of distorted butterfly shadows on the background.  We turned off our background lights from the last picture, and removed the black Scrim Jim from the set.

We had Mr. Cockrell step about 2 feet to the side to get him away from the snoot spotlight which was creating our background, and we moved his Wafer 75 main light over a few feet to keep him (but not the background) lit correctly with the small softbox.  I then moved about 90 degrees and shot towards the wall, creating the shadow picture.  We did all this in about 10 minutes, utilizing our remaining 5 minutes just outside the nearby doors in the rain forest habitat where a third setup with a Profoto 7B was waiting.