With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio coming up, I thought this might be a good time to write about a shoot we did earlier this year with US Olympic gymnast Simone Biles. Biles, who trains in Houston, is 4’9” tall and a three time world all around champion.
The media landscape is changing these days. This is the kind of shoot we might have done for Sports Illustrated once upon a time, but instead, this time we were commissioned by Buzzfeed to do this sports portrait shoot.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, the notable competitors (like Simone) have huge demands on their time. In addition to their normal training schedule, they are also doing interviews with various writers and television programs, and posing for photo shoots with not only media outlets, but potential endorsement partners. They are seriously busy, and it’s hard to stay focused on their training with all these various demands on their time.
To that end, we knew that we would have very little time to work with her, and that everything would need to be prepped carefully so as not to waste any of her time.
The photo editor wanted a classic, quiet portrait and sent several examples of gymnasts/fitness models on concrete walls and muslin backgrounds. Since Simone’s family-run training center was brand new and very modern, we knew we weren’t going to get the muted, moody industrial concrete wall background. We took a big muslin backdrop instead , and did a classic one-light portrait that stayed within the spirit of the comps.
We also prepped a secondary setup on a balance beam to capture some rim-lit “action” shots of Simone doing her thing. For this we used big tall C-stands with two Profoto B4’s and one Profoto 7B. (Note to self: always be careful when setting up lights in a gymnastics facility….one false step and you might find yourself neck-deep in a Nerf-cube-filled landing pit….not that this happened to me or anything….).
We mixed in some available light practice shots (I was able to dust off my usually dormant Canon EF 300/2.8!) of Simone and her coach working together to round out the assignment and give the photo editor lots of options.
The backdrop session went very fast…about 6-10 minutes. The balance beam shot went fast too, but not by choice. The coach shut us down after just a few frames saying the strobes were a distraction to the other young gymnasts training there. Even though we prepped them for what we were doing, you really can’t argue in that situation with the person controlling your access…..you just have to say yes ma’am and move on. I knew we had some nice frames already, ( thanks in large part to Simone’s perfect technique on the first few frames – thanks Simone!), so we pivoted and quickly moved on to available light practice shots.
The new family-run gym, World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas is an incredible facility. Simone’s parents and brother work together managing the facility and they do it with class and good humor. We were surrounded by a steady stream of youngsters training at various stations who I’m sure were hoping to someday be the next Simone. A “WARNING” sign near the lockers read, “CHILDREN LEFT UNATTENDED WILL BE SOLD TO THE CIRCUS.”
Buzzfeed recently ran an extensive story and collection of the photos here. I thought the story and presentation turned out great! Because of the virtually unlimited space they were able to run many more photos than you would typically see in a normal magazine layout. We in the newspaper/magazine journalism world have been talking about this advantage for years….it was nice to finally see a media outlet exploit the web format to full potential.
All photographs © 2016 Robert Seale/All Rights Reserved.