It's been under wraps for a few weeks, but we're finally able to show some cool portraits from a recent JJ Watt cover shoot for Sports Illustrated. We were lucky, in that we were able to get a little extra time with Watt since he was featured twice in the magazine. JJ's been tearing it up as the star of the HBO behind the scenes series “Hard Knocks” featuring the Houston Texans during training camp.
For the first set of shots, we wanted to create a memorable and “tough” looking portrait of him. We were stuck working in the Texans practice bubble, which is not my favorite location, but sometimes you have to roll with it, and in this case, a studio portrait was in order anyway. In addition to JJ, SI commissioned four other regional covers for the NFL Preview issue: NY Giants receiver Odell Beckham, Chicago Bears RB Matt Forte, Bucs linebacker Lavonte David, and Seahawks QB Russell Wilson. SI art director Chris Hercik and Director of Photography Brad Smith wanted these to look consistent, so we needed lighting schemes that other photographers could duplicate in other cities, without worrying about backgrounds or ambient outdoor lighting.
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt posing for portraits on Wednesday, July 22, 2015. Photo by Robert Seale
We utilized several different lighting schemes to give the editors a few looks to choose from. They ended up using a photo lit from the back on both sides by Plume Wafer 140 strip banks with Lighttools grids inside, with a small Chimera strip Bank coming from below on JJ's face, to give him a “sinister” or intimidating look. Or, as Todd Rosenberg, the Chicago based photographer who photographed the Forte cover said: “Vincent Price lighting.” All the lights were Profoto – a combination of B4's and one legacy 7B.
Our other setup was for a feature story where the editors of SI asked several different NFL players what position they would like to play, other than their regular position. JJ, of course, said he wanted to play quarterback! This led to a secondary setup where we ran JJ through a variety of quarterback action poses. He had a lot of fun with it (I'm pretty sure he had practiced these before – he looked REALLY GOOD! He even had the telltale slick QB crossover footwork on his drop back down cold.) For lighting, we knew the imaging department would be dropping the action shots into action scenes from actual games, therefore, I shot from a low angle (just like I would shooting game action on the sideline), and used one Profoto B4 with a Magnum reflector to simulate outdoor sunlight. We placed a 6 x 6 Scrim Jim in front of the Magnum reflector a few feet out in front of it to soften it somewhat…similar to what a movie crew might do. It worked great, and gave us a wide open, evenly lit area for JJ to do his thing.
Check him out! JJ Watt at quarterback. I'm pretty sure this is every defensive player's nightmare. Note the fancy crossover footwork on the drop.
Our crack assistants, Lauren Swanson, and Travis Schiebel had the lucky job of playing catch with JJ: Lauren threw the balls in to JJ, and Travis played receiver. I think JJ had a good time with it. He even did a Peyton Manning style scramble while pointing at his “receiver” (Travis) downfield.
Sports Illustrated even sent a video crew down to document the shoot. You can see the behind the scenes video here.
I tried a few dramatically lit black and white shots of him as well.
Tight study of JJ Watt's chiseled profile in black and white.
Another look we tried: flare coming over the shoulder. In the parlance of the great Joe McNally, assistant Travis Schiebel served as a VOL, or “voice operated lightstand” on this one.
Happy JJ goofing off between shots.
This is the cover shot, as originally shot: minus the red background.
Look! I'm taller than JJ! Seriously, he's got a great eye, and is fully invested in collaborating on great photos.
Lauren with about half the gear we used on the shoot. Travis brought a truckload of stuff too.
Dr. Brian Butler, working with 4-D images in Plato's CAVE facility at Houston Methodist Hospital.
We recently completed a big Healthcare photography project, completing principal photography for six annual reports for Houston Methodist Hospital. We spent about 10 days shooting in and around several of the hospital’s buildings in the Texas Medical Center.
Moving around a giant medical complex with our usual plethora of lighting gear was a challenge, especially with tight and ever changing physician’s schedules.
Dr. Lidong Qin with the “V-Chip” at the Houston Methodist Research Institute.
We even ran into a couple of situations where we couldn’t use our lighting gear at all. For example, we photographed a doctor and patient near an MRI machine, which meant that we couldn’t put any lighting equipment in the room for fear of damaging the imaging machines. (We were told that our cameras, tripods, and light stands would be sucked into the machine’s magnetic vortex during an actual scan!).
Fortunately, the machine’s lights were adjustable (somewhat) from outside the room and with a tripod in the doorway we were still able to get some good pictures. Another lighting challenge was shooting actual surgeries (we were able to photograph three of them, obviously with patient consent). We had to utilize the overhead surgical lights in the room, since you can’t exactly do flash photography while a surgeon is operating. Fortunately, halogen and LED surgical lights are bright , dramatic, and many doctors prefer to turn off the ugly fluorescents in the room, which creates dark backgrounds and makes everything very dramatic in photographs.
One of our “lighting tricks” in the hospital to match today’s flat screen LED monitors is to utilize (and of course hide) various LED sources in the room to make the subject look like they are only lit with only LED screen light. One of our main tools in this, believe it or not, is the 9.00 dollar Larrylight 8 LCD flashlights . We carry lots of these, and can stick them under and around computer screens to light things up when necessary. One of my favorite shots from the entire project was a shot of Dr. Butler in “Plato's CAVE”, an area in the hospital with LCD projectors, and a giant interactive Ipad-like device in which doctors can combine imaging technologies into one interactive scan. We placed these small LED lights all around the room to light the scene.
Surgeons working in the operating room during a kidney transplant.
I always try to dress appropriately for the job. In sports, we often wear shorts and running shoes, for executives, we wear suits and ties, and in the oilfield, we wear Nomex coveralls, steel toes, and hard hats. To shoot surgeries in a hospital, I was able to fulfill my lifelong quest to wear scrubs to work! At the Scrubs Store, near the hospital, I learned that medical duds now come in all colors and patterns, and I narrowly resisted the urge to buy Sponge Bob scrubs and stuck to basic black, to keep with my photographer persona.
Once you spend a day in these, you realize why doctors and nurses wear them all the time, even when they aren’t in surgery.
Sometimes that comfort comes at a cost. While pulling the drawstring tightly closed on my pants one morning before an important surgical shoot, I managed to snap and break the string on the scrub bottoms. Did you ever have a pair of warm-ups in high school gym class, with the string trapped inside the warm-up waist band with no hope of ever fishing it out? Well, that’s what this was like. Oh yeah, this happened with three cameras around my neck about two minutes before I was slated to be inside a surgical suite. For those who don’t know, scrubs are big and baggy (I think these had a 72″ waist or something). Without a drawstring, my scrubs would be useless, sitting around my ankles, and well…..that wouldn’t be good. Fortunately for me, a quick thinking nurse dug around in her desk drawer and found some binder clips and helped me tighten the pants up to the point that I could move around and still work without flashing the surgical team.
That harrowing incident aside, the reports turned out to be beautiful. I consider it a real treat to work with very smart people, and the staff at Methodist are all first class, from the PR and Marketing staff, to the physicians and researchers themselves. The layouts were landscape format, with several full bleed photos of our best work. An added treat: one of the photos from our annual report shoot was selected to be in Methodist advertising. We're hoping to do more medical and healthcare photography projects in and around the Texas Medical Center in Houston.
I can’t wait to don my scrubs again, and this time I’ll be more careful, ensuring that the only flashing going on is from my portable strobes.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Gavin Britz, removing a tumor from a patient's brain.
Examples of the full-bleed horizontal layouts in the Houston Methodist Annual Reports.
I’ve dreamed about shooting Houston Rockets guard James Harden for a long time. How can you go wrong with THAT BEARD? He’s just awesome looking. I wanted to pose him with ZZ Top for the last couple of years…or at least with Billy Gibbons, but alas, no one has bitten on that idea yet. (You hear that Texas Monthly? It would be a great cover, trust me….).
Anyway, the call finally came a couple of weeks ago from Sports Illustrated. Harden had a super tight schedule with the All-Star Break coming up, and the editor asked if we could put together something with the iconic Houston skyline with only 24 hours notice.
I suggested a view from the traditional western side…there are great spots along Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive where the buildings separate and line up well. Yes, it’s been done, but it really is a great angle. (Sidebar: I may sound like a homer, but Houston's western skyline is among the best I've seen in the world – right up there with Dallas, Chicago, Shanghai, and Doha in the manner that the skyscrapers line up and separate in a photograph. It's the result of a late 70's-early 80's skyscraper building boom that hasn't been matched in the US since.)
The editor already had a specific view in mind (slightly north a bit, but also very nice – and much closer to the buildings), and we referenced a rooftop fashion shot I had taken a few years earlier from that same spot. On the plus side when using a parking garage roof, you can control access which is a plus when working with a pro athlete. If we had done this out in the park, we might have gathered a crowd and needed more security guys.
While the editor was pitching the idea to the Rockets, I called the building with the rooftop parking deck we had used a few years earlier to ask for permission. Then I went by to see the manager in person and deliver a check for a location fee. Done.
I researched the shoot from a few years earlier and put in calls to my Plexiglas shop and found out they didn’t have what we needed, but could ship it in by noon the next day from Dallas. Done.
James Harden SI cover by Robert Seale.
Then another call to a GCG Productions, a stage company I used previously on that fashion shoot to build another stage platform for the Plexiglas sheets. I keep all my emails so I just looked up the email from 7 years earlier and found my stage company buddy George. George is awesome – and luckily he was available. Done.
I booked Travis “cowboy truck” Scheibel and Michael “MacGyver” Klein as assistants. Two of the best in Houston, or anywhere for that matter. Done.
After all that scrambling to get ready in record time, the weather took a turn for the worse, and the shoot was moved to Saturday (on the Rockets suggestion, no less!). Actually, it was a good thing….I knew that our first window on Thursday would be cloudy and our chances were looking much better for good weather on Saturday. The shot wouldn’t really work on a totally cloudy evening. We had to then rebook everyone for the Saturday evening shoot….fortunately the stars aligned, everyone was available, and the location was still ours.
Travis rigged up an ingenious method for transporting the large sheets of Plexi vertically in his truck between sections of heavy MDF board with lots of clamps and ropes to keep the Plexi from bending or getting bowed. I leave the rigging/knot-tying Eagle Scout stuff to Travis and Michael, since I never made it past my Webelo badge.
The James Harden spread as it appeared in SI.
We set up Saturday afternoon several hours before the shoot to test. You may be asking why we built a stage with plexiglas on it? The simple reason is, parking garages, or most roof structures for that matter usually have a waist or chest high border around them, which destroys your look for a full length photo. Building a stage solves the problem, and puts the subject up high enough to get rid of the unsightly “lip” around the edge of the building. Why plexiglas? Because the parking garage is white concrete, and it's ugly….that and I'm a sucker for reflection pictures….just ask Travis. He jokes that if there is a 1′ x 1′ mud puddle on the ground somewhere, I'm usually laying next to it trying to shoot the reflection. I'm a weirdo, I know.
We also set up a separate backdrop off to the side of the platform, just an 8 x 8 Scrim Jim to do some tight portraits of James as requested by the editor. The skyline would make a nice spread, and the tight portrait showcasing the beard would make a great cover (if we were lucky!).
It was super windy on the roof by the appointed shoot time, and I was fortunate that a couple of strong guys from George’s stage company agreed to help us out to steady ropes and function as human sandbags for us. Michael Klein, who literally has an entire grip truck in his Toyota SUV, dug around and came up with rigging for a wind break around our backdrop so:
A.) Harden wouldn’t freeze, and….
B.) So our background and lighting gear wouldn’t get blown off the roof.
He also built us a super boom, which came in handy considering Harden is 6’5”, and he was over 4 feet in the air on the stage platform. Getting the lighting up high was critical.
About the lighting: on the Plexiglas shot, I used a Profoto B4 on a Plume Wafer 100 with a 30 degree grid. We could have gone with a bigger light modifier, but I wanted the light to fall off and not contaminate our plexi reflection with a giant hot spot. On the tight cover shot, we used all Profoto (one B4 and two 7B’s I think). There was no power on the roof, but with all the battery powered Profoto units, we were ok.
Our crew setting up the plexiglas stage on the rooftop parking garage.
Timing was critical – we only had 20 minutes with Harden to get both shots, and predicting the cool after sunset glow on buildings is not an exact science. I figured it was ideal somewhere between 6:12 and 6:23pm. If Harden arrived early, we would start with the tight headshot portrait, and if he was late we would reverse the setups.
We had an audience for the shoot, including Harden’s bodyguard, his nephew and mom (who’s a fun lady!), my wife, who was shooting some BTS video for us, the Rockets media relations director, and finally, James himself. He was a little early, so we got the plain backdrop out of the way first, and then moved on to the plexi platform.
After watching cloud cover all day, we were lucky and the clouds parted just an hour before sunset for a fabulous magenta purple afterglow. The magazine repro’d a bit on the blue side, but that’s printing. SI Art Director Chris Hercik did us proud again with a nice classy layout for the cover and spread.
After Harden left, the crew had fun taking turns taking photos on the stage.
Now, if I can just find Billy Gibbons’ phone number for the next time…..hmmmmm.
Here's the simple Scrimjim backdrop with windbreak to keep it secure on the roof.
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been invited to speak again at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar Nov. 13-15, 2014. I’ll be doing a couple of workshop sessions on lighting on Friday Nov. 14.
I attended the event in 1992 as a young photographer at my first real newspaper job, and also spoke there previously in 2004. It’s a real treat to be invited back to such an awesome event. The staff that puts on the workshop (all great photographers in their own right) do a hell of a job putting this thing together every year. It really is a first class event.
Among the other Friday speakers: my old sports photography colleague, Jamie Squire from Getty Images, speaking about (logically enough) Sports! Eric Seals a photojournalist with the Detroit Free Press will be leading a session on GoPro and drone photography. Also, I’m really excited that Judy Hermann, from ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) will be speaking on business practices for photographers.
Saturday speakers include National Geographic contributor Amy Toensing, Scott Strazzante (San Francisco Chronicle), Al Diaz (Miami Herald), Ken Lyons (Denver Post), and freelance photojournalist extraordinaire Matt Eich.
Thursday is devoted to video presentations, and in addition to Eric Seals, other speakers include Wes Pope (University of Oregon), Lauren Frohne (Seattle Times), Oliver Janney (CNN), and Amani Channel (Visual Eye Media).
The Atlanta Seminar has been around for quite some time – here’s an overview from their website: “The Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar was founded in 1973 by a group of photojournalists representing newspapers, magazines and wire services. Its reason for being is to promote the highest standards of photojournalism through an annual educational conference and a photography contest judged by working photographers.
Speakers throughout the years have included Pulitzer Prize winners, Photographer of the Year winners, major magazine and wire service photographers, influential directors of photography, important educators in photojournalism, academia, and others important in this profession. Founded as a regional event, the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar has grown to become one of the most prestigious photojournalism competitions, with participants from throughout the world.”
You can see the entire schedule, list of speakers, contest information, and registration information at: Photojournalism.org.
We’ve been fortunate to work on an ongoing advertising campaign for the Huntsman Corporation (HUN), a very large differentiated products company. Huntsman doesn’t make products that you or I can buy in the store, but their products are everywhere…the foam in auto seats, insulation in buildings, even the soles of athletic shoes.
The challenge for Huntsman then, is showing what they do, without “selling” a specific product. Their advertising is often BTB in trades within the industrial world, and the theme/concept for their ongoing campaign is collaboration between Huntsman and the partners who use Huntsman materials in their products.
To that end, I’ve done a few shoots for them, always collaborating with the incredible Chris Pearson, a British designer who really knows his stuff. I’ll break down a few of the recent shoots I’ve done for them below:
In advertising photography, unlike corporate or editorial photography, you often get a very specific comp or brief. In the old days, designers would draw the concept on paper, and after these were presented to the client, the advertising photographer was brought in to execute the idea. These days, the comps are often “theme boards”, or “mood books” – multi page PDF presentations with a mixture of drawings, existing stock (to show mood or lighting style), and sometimes, full-on Photoshop illustrations made up of 10 or more individual photo elements….a background from here, a person from there, etc…with color changed to suit the designer’s vision of the final piece. Sometimes there is room for collaboration and interpretation, and a good photographer always tries to give the designer what they want, but improve on the concept if at all possible.
For the first shoot, we needed to show a builder and a client looking at plans within an unfinished home highlighting a spray foam insulation product. We used Plume Wafer 100’s with Lighttools grids on each person, lighting each model’s face. We used a large softbox to fill the scene (very slightly) from above the camera, and a low shutter speed on a floor level tripod to open up the ambient light coming in from the window. I used the new Canon 24 Tilt shift on this shot. (If you would like to see more lighting scenarios from previous shoots, you can find them here.)
Grocery store shoot for Huntsman freezer insulation products.
For the grocery store shoot, which was to highlight the insulation products Huntsman makes for commercial freezers, , we had to rent a large grocery store location after hours (the middle of the night!), and balance our strobes to the existing banks of fluorescents overhead. It was a tough lighting situation, as the lights couldn’t show in the final picture. We ended up using two large rectangular softboxes high above the camera on either side of the camera, feathered up slightly above level, and two Canon 580 speedlights inside the glass freezer cases on each side to pop a little fill on each model’s face. A retoucher removed signage on the back wall in post.
Stadium shoot with two soccer players for Huntsman products in athletic shoes.
For the third shoot, we rented a large Texas high school football stadium to highlight Huntsman’s products used to create Adidas soccer shoes. Since the theme, was one of Huntsman working together with other companies, the decision was made to show a couple of soccer players doing pre-game drills….working together on the soccer field.
Finding soccer players that looked realistic was a tall order for casting, but eventually, we found models with soccer experience, and we shot a series of drills that players might do together on the field – running, stretching, warming up, kicking a ball back and forth, and heading the ball back to each other. Again, the emphasis was on teamwork – not competition, hence the identical uniforms.
This shoot was the most elaborate in terms of lighting. We brought in three assistants for the shoot, and used Profoto 7A’s with Bi-tube heads and Magnum reflectors from behind the subject on high-rollers, 2 more 7A’s with large Plume 140 strip banks with grids from a slightly closer to side angle (still slightly from behind though), and a Plume Wafer Hexoval 180 feathered up slightly from high above camera. We shot throughout sunset, and did enough takes to make the models really, really sore the next day! A retoucher was able to duplicate the edge of the high school stands in the background and create a mirror image that made the stadium seem larger than it actually was.
In the end, the client was very happy, and we had a great time creating images for some hard to illustrate concepts.
High-tech engineering schematic of the set…..drawn with pinpoint laser accuracy.
Behind the scenes set shot from the soccer shoot, showing assistant Andrew Loehman with the 5 light setup.
I recently completed a cool corporate photography project for The Methodist Hospital System’s Leading Medicine publication. Methodist is the official health care provider for several of the sports teams in the Houston area, among them, the Houston Astros, The Houston Texans, The Houston Dynamo MLS team, Rice University, and The Houston Ballet.
The project was coordinated by the creative team at Methodist, working with the help of an outside agency, Adcetera, here in Houston.
Among the stories we photographed for the issue, were a story on Houston Texans running back Arian Foster’s vegan diet (I think he has since recanted…), and a story on NFL quarterbacks dealing with concussions, featuring then Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.
We had a lot of fun with Arian Foster and his vegan diet story.
The photo of Matt Schaub for the NFL quarterback concussion story. We used an LCD projector to project a brain image on the side of Schaub's head.
Another view of Schaub, using the projector to generate a background of brain synapses.
For the Schaub story, we ended up trying two photos in addition to his cover shot setup: in the first “concussion story” shot, we used an LCD projector to project an image of a brain on the side of Schaub’s head. To make the head stand out and keep the “brain area” in mostly shadow, we used a Profoto strobe with a small softbox (a Plume Wafer 75) on a backdrop in the background (to silhouette the head with a graduated falloff), and then another Profoto Acute 1200 from 90 degrees camera right with a 3 degree grid on a Profoto grid reflector. This gave us a nice tight light on the face, but with a quick falloff to black so that the brain image would show well on the side of the head. The second concussion shot was more simple, as we just projected an out of focus image of brain synapses in the background, with the same keylight on Schaub.
In addition to the inside stories we shot for the magazine, one of the ideas was to create a giant fold-out cover, reminiscent of the Vanity Fair “Hollywood issue” covers with a representative from each team/organization featured on the piece.
The tricky part was, these were eight (count em – 8!) separate photo shoots! Planning was crucial, and just to hedge our bets, we actually created two lighting schemes that we used on each and every shoot:
-A large, soft, one light setup with a big Plume Hexoval 180 camera right – very close to the subject.
-a three light setup, with two gridded rimlit softboxes and a Plume Hexoval 140 boomed into the middle.
(Both of these lighting scenarios are shown in diagram form on a previous post about a San Antonio Spurs SI cover shoot here.)
With the help of assistant Nathan Lindstrom, we created a template on seamless during the first shoot with exact locations and measurements for all the lights. The strobe settings, angle, and height of the lights were matched exactly on each shoot, along with focal length and camera position. We unfolded this giant diagram at every shoot to place everything in the proper locations.
The inside tri-fold cover with the 3 light setup. (L to R): Texans running back Arian Foster, Rice basketball player Jessica Goswitz, Houston Dynamo soccer player Brad Davis, Texans QB Matt Schaub, Houston Ballet's Lauren Anderson, Olympic gymnast Chris Brooks, HS soccer star Lindsey Biggart, and Houston Astros pitcher Bud Norris.
The outer tri-fold cover with a one light setup. Background is a heavily retouched image provided by the ad agency.
The project went on for almost three months, due to the crazy schedules of the athlete participants. Once the final work was completed, the Methodist team and the Adcetera team produced a marvelous, incredibly printed publication – and ended up using BOTH lighting setups – one as the outside cover foldout, and one on the inside. The final retouching and composites were put together by the agency.
Among the really fun moments… having longtime Houston Ballet prima ballerina Lauren Anderson teach me the proper way to stretch on a ballet bar rail. (There are photos, but hopefully, I will take them to my grave… you really DON’T want to see what that looked like!).
Crew photo at the end of the Houston Ballet/Lauren Anderson shoot: From left – Nathan Lindstrom, makeup artist Wendy Martin, Arick Chikiamco, Lauren Anderson, me, Sheshe Giddens, Melanie Fritzsche, and Hugo Perez.
Lauren's idea: It's not every day you get to hold a world class Prima Ballerina on your shoulders.
The final cover treatment, designed by SI Creative director Chris Hercik.
With the NBA Conference playoffs nearing completion and the Spurs already a lock for the Finals, I got a call from Brad Smith, the Director of Photography at Sports Illustrated, asking if I could quickly get to San Antonio. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker rarely if ever pose together, but had reluctantly agreed to pose for an SI cover which would come out a couple of days later, to coordinate with the beginning of the finals.
Andrew Loehman, a great digital tech/assistant from Austin agreed to sacrifice his Sunday and help us out, and gathered additional gear from Taylor Jones of Texas Grip in Austin. Loaded for bear, Andrew and his wife Chrissy met me in Austin early on a Sunday morning before Spurs practice to scout potential locations.
We knew we would have a mere 5 minutes with the Spurs “Big Three” so we wanted a location from which we could coax multiple looks. Unfortunately, the Spurs Sunday practice was slated for their practice facility, not the arena where they normally play. At the arena, setting up multiple backdrops and lights would be no problem, as there is ample space off the court, under the stands, in high bay loading docks, etc.
The practice facility, though very nice for basketball operations, had no such wide open spaces, and network crews had already commandeered the limited available real estate to shoot their NBA Finals introductions and promo spots for the upcoming TV broadcasts.
The original plan - note: we changed the V-flats out and just used the strips.
It had rained heavily that morning, so outside was not ideal either, although we had a cool corrugated metal wall picked out that would have worked well. Then we saw it…next door to the facility, across a parking lot, was the world’s greatest parking garage! It was the world’s greatest because it was empty and had a 12-14 foot high ceiling – which I’ve never seen before. It would make a great studio. With the help of Spurs PR man Tom James and Facility supervisor Julio Rodriguez, we were able to set up in the garage and prep for the shoot. Power was at a premium, but Julio saved the day (and our bacon) by finding additional avenues and helping us run long cables across the parking lot. We were all set.
Our lovely parking garage studio.....
Brad had mentioned how much they wanted a white background for the shot, so we elected to set up a big Matthews 12 x 12 as our backdrop. We did this instead of just seamless, because it was much more stable in case a gust of wind came through the open garage. We used the seamless for a white floor, and rolled it back to where the silk began. It would require a minor retouch if we shot full length, but it was the safest solution.
Giving the art director options is always a good thing, so we set up our lights so that they could serve dual purposes. Normally, we would set up large foamcore V-flats and stands with regular reflectors bounced into them to light the white background. We decided instead to use two Plume Wafer 140 Medium strip banks to light the white silk from each side. If I turned them off, we would get the same shot with a medium gray background. Then, if they were turned back toward the subjects with Lighttools grids inside, we would get a rimlit version with a black background. Andrew, with the generous help of his lovely wife Chrissy, would drop in a black 8 x 8 Westcott Scrim Jim to make sure the background went black.
So essentially, without moving our subjects, we got six different setups:
1. Boomed key, rimlit, gray background
2. Boomed key, rimlit, black background
3. Boomed key, rimlights off, white background
(reposition players in a row)
4. side key, white background
5. side key, gray background
6. side key, black background
We used two different key lights: A Plume Wafer Hexoval 140 on a boom for most of the shoot, and then a Wafer Hexoval 180 on camera right for the final photo. All of the lights were Profoto: 7A 2400’s for all but one light, which we had to substitute a 7B for when we ran out of power.
Chrissy filling in while we were testing our backlights.
We practiced several times and made careful calculations to determine the number of apple boxes each player would have to stand on to be in the appropriate position. We then choreographed the shoot, making several dry runs in sequence so we would be smooth when the players arrived. We would start with the rimlit gray, then add the black 8 x 8 solid for the rimlit black, then flip the strips around 90 degrees and remove the grids for the all white background, and finishing with the sidelit big Hexoval shot…..all in five minutes!
The players arrived after practice and we actually got a rare smile out of Duncan, who is normally quite reserved. His kids came with him, and after sharing photos with them on the camera lcd screen, they climbed on my back and were making bunny ears behind my head to get their dad to crack a smile. It was a blast, although tough to keep horizons level when you’re being climbed like a tree.
I rushed back to Houston to file, (you know you're in a serious rush when you pass both Bucee's AND Luling City Market BBQ without stopping!) SI Creative Director Chris Hercik whipped up an awesome cover within a few minutes of receiving the photos, using a cool spot-color silver treatment which went great with the black and silver unis.
The black background shot with rim lights.
The white background setup with a smiling Duncan.
Manu goofing off.......
The last shot with a Wafer Hex 180. We shot this with white, gray, and black backgrounds.
UH cornerback DJ Hayden, the 12th pick in the NFL draft.
I recently photographed DJ Hayden, a cornerback from the University of Houston, who surprised many by being selected number 12 by the Oakland Raiders in the first round of Thursday night's 2013 NFL Draft. Hayden survived a freak injury: a November 2012 collision with a teammate in practice that ruptured his inferior vena cava, which is fatal 95% of the time, and normally only seen in serious car injuries. Medical personnel rushed him to the hospital and saved his life, but his stock in the draft dropped with the uncertainty about his condition, with many pundits not even picking him in the first round.
I photographed DJ for a story leading up to the draft in Sports Illustrated, and of course we wanted to make a telling picture that spoke to the seriousness of his injury. Normally, we might have scrubbed the shoot due to the rain and dreary weather, but we decided to press on, as the moody sky sort of went with the tone of the story. DJ posed shirtless, baring a scar that went completely down the center of his abdomen. ( His last words to doctors before they split him open to repair his torn vein were, “Ok, just don't mess up my abs…”)
We used two Profoto 7B's on the UH practice field late in the day. We decided to use a Plume Wafer 75 with a Lighttools grid from the right side, to just barely light the edge of DJ's face, with a little bit of spill highlighting the scar on his wrist from the many needles and transfusions he endured during his hospital stay. We used a regular 7″ reflector with a 3-degree grid with a Cinefoil snoot to highlight the scar on the chest and abdomen. Andres Quintero, my assistant on the shoot, operated the 3-degree grid by hand to make sure it stayed in the optimum position as we shot.
With the under-exposed gray stormy sky, the result was a dramatic portrait that told the story of what DJ Hayden had been through en route to the 2013 draft.
Inspirational bracelets made for DJ during his hospital ordeal.
UH cornerback DJ Hayden, who survived a ruptured vein to be the 12th pick in the NFL draft.
The final cover shot with blue background added in post by SI imaging.
I recently photographed 2012 Cy Young Award-winning pitcher David Price of the Tampa Rays for the cover of Sports Illustrated's baseball preview issue. Each year, SI publishes several regional covers for the baseball preview, along with a centerpiece story, and of course all the usual team specific preview spreads. I was fortunate enough to do the Price cover and the opening centerpiece spread story on the Rays pitching staff. Legendary Sports Illustrated Staffer Walter Iooss and longtime staffer Robert Beck shot the other regional covers , so I was in good company!
This was a team effort with different photographers shooting covers in different cities, yet the magazine wanted them to look the same. I was sent a rough comp with a pitcher following through in his delivery, on black, with the broken glass added to the foreground in post. This is not an uncommon assignment, especially in the advertising world, so being able to interpret a comp and match what other photographers have done previously is a useful skill.
The first critical task was finding a place to shoot. Since we were trying to keep these consistent, we needed a large room where we could essentially set up a studio. Spring Training in Florida is often super bright, super windy, and there aren't many private spaces away from fans and other teammates to do this sort of thing. We essentially needed to build a black box of black fabric 12 x 12‘s to control light in the shoot area, and we were lucky to find a spot in the minor league clubhouse that worked well. Setting up an overhead, a background, and two side 12 x 12's in the wind and weather was something I was trying to avoid at all costs. You would need a crew of 3-4, and a million sandbags to do that, and we were on a limited budget.
We photographed all five starters in various stages of delivery.
Since we were dealing with white uniforms, and the background was black, I decided to rimlight the pitchers from behind, using two large chimera strip banks oriented vertically on each side and fill from the front. Since we had left handers and right handers, I decided to use two small lightbanks on boomed C-stands positioned close to the ground in front of the pitchers (Chimera mediums I think…I normally use Plume stuff, but these were rentals). We had each light on it's own Profoto 8A pack so we could shoot everyone fast. We didn't know when we were setting up if we would get all five pitchers in rapid succession or spread out throughout the day, but we wanted to be ready so that we could maximize our time with them.
We varied the ratio slightly on the front lights depending on whether the pitcher was right or left handed (we just flopped settings on the packs accordingly). By doing this, we were trying to keep them from looking too flat. We also used cinefoil on the bottom third of the front lights to prevent the legs from getting too hot in the photo.
Since we were inside, and not on a mound, we drug the lights outside the night before the shoot and lit a practice mound in the same fashion so we would have foreground plates for the retouchers at SI to use.
We photographed all five pitchers throughout the day, in various stages of their delivery, but when it was David Price's turn, we asked if he minded shooting a few photos outside. He was relaxed and said sure, so we promptly moved him out to a practice mound outside of the building we were in. We worked quickly and shot him with an Elinchrom Octabank at full power (2400 w/s) to overpower the high 1 PM daylight. Not an ideal situation, but you take David Price whenever you can get him.
The next day, we finished the story on Tampa's pitching factory, shooting a setup with the Tampa manager and pitching coach, and a young prospect, Taylor Guerrieri, mentioned in the story. When we were done with Taylor, we asked him to hang around and pitch in the foreground for us, which made a nice framework for the coach photo…and of course we shot “normal” stuff of both coaches as well.
My favorite Florida assistant, Cy Cyr, was nice enough to join me on this adventure, and helped us out tremendously by renting gear for us from Rummel Wagner at Central Florida Strobe in Orlando.
In the end, SI imaging changed everyone's backgrounds to blue, and they used a different mound, which was lit a little differently. All the photos were opened up in the shadows so that they were a closer match. The coolest part about SI's final presentation? If you looked at the magazine on an ipad, you hear breaking glass as the cover appears. Cool.
The same frame as the cover – shown as it was originally shot on black.
This is the outside photo of Price – making the most out of crummy high noon light.
One of our shots of young pitcher Taylor Guerrieri.
Tampa manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey.
The March cover of Air & Space, with Col Bud Day on the cover.
I've had a keen interest in military aviation since childhood…when other kids were reading Curious George and other children's books, I was reading military biographies and books about World War II and Vietnam. I remember one summer day, when I was in about 3rd or 4th grade, while returning books to our local public library, one of the elderly librarians tried to usher me from the “grown up books” to the “kid's section” on the other side of the building. One of the other librarians quickly corrected her, “He's ok, Mabel….he just returned a book titled Guerilla Warfare and Terrorism. ” After that, Mabel left me alone. (I actually can't remember what her name was…… Mabel just seems like the perfect name for an old lady librarian).
I thought being a fighter pilot would be cool, I even requested info on the Air Force Academy at one point during junior high or early high school. 20/400 vision, however, and projectile vomiting during a simple Cessna 172 plane ride with a friend conspired to keep me out of the ejection seat.
After photographing the Doolittle Raiders a few years ago, one of my friends from the assignment, Matt Jolley, of Warbird Radio recommended me to some of the nice folks at Wings over Houston, the annual airshow here in the Houston area. I had mentioned to him an idea about a personal project, trying to photograph environmental portraits of notable pilots. The people with the autograph tent at WoH were nice enough to let me set up in their area and shoot simple, white background portraits of the pilots who were there signing autographs. I was able to photograph Col. Bud Anderson (a triple ace in the P-51 during WWII), Col. Dick Cole (Doolitle's co-pilot on the WWII Doolittle Raid on Tokyo), Gen. Boots Blesse (a famous Sabre jet ace from the Korean war) and several others during my weekend there. I was also lucky enough to meet and photograph former POW and Medal of Honor recipient Col. Bud Day.
The photos were interesting facial studies, but I lamented the limitations of the white background. I would have loved to have captured each of them with their respective airplanes, but during mid-day sun at a packed airshow, it was just not in the cards.
The first shot we took, before sunrise on the field at Ellington.
Several months later, John Simmons, one of my buddies from the WoH event sent me an incredible video of Bud Day, eagerly climbing into the cockpit of an F-100 Super Sabre just like the one he had flown in Vietnam and going up for a flight! The video was from the Collings Foundation, a non-profit foundation that owns and maintains not just World War II era prop planes, but also several Vietnam era jets, at….get this…..Ellington Field in Houston, Texas. The F-100, painted just like Bud's Misty 1 Vietnam bird is one of two in the world in flying condition.
John went to work, getting us permission from Rick Harris of the Collings Foundation to use the airplane. We made arrangements to photograph Bud, who lives in Florida, during a visit to see his son George, a former F-16 pilot, who now works as a SWA captain in Houston.
A few months later, there we were before sunrise on a warm summer morning in Houston, pulling the F-100 out of the hangar and towing it to the proper spot on the taxiway. We had scouted a few days before, using the iphone app LightTrac to position the plane.
Bud showed up in his flight suit, with his boots and Nomex gloves on – he was definitely ready to fly the plane if necessary! His son George also wore his flight suit. Part of my plan was to do a nice group shot of the father and son fighter pilots together.
We started shooting before dawn – long exposures on a tripod with battery powered strobes. Nathan Lindstrom assisted on the shoot and did a great job. We used a Profoto 7B with a Plume Wafer Hexoval 180 on the side, and a Wafer 100 on another 7B boomed in front of the face as a fill.
The second shot, with a Wafer Hexoval 180 and a Wafer 100 as the sun rises in the background.
We next moved onto the backlit side of the plane, and photographed the Col.'s Day together and also the elder Col. Day alone, again using the same lighting setup. Fortunately, the sun came out for a few minutes before going back under a layer of clouds. The sunrise was beautiful!
Col. Day with Col. Day…two generations of fighter pilots.
We next moved to a shot with a long lens looking at the signature angle of the F-100 – straight up the open nose air intake. We carefully framed Col. Day in the foreground and backlit him from each side with a Profoto 7B and a Wafer 100 on each side. We then boomed in a Chimera small strip bank powered by an Acute 600. Although 87 years old, and with his body ravaged by years of torture and POW abuse, in this pose, with this light, in front of the F-100, Bud Day looked like he could still kick some serious ass.
The shot that made the cover, Col. Day still formidable at 87.
We finished with a 3/4 side lit portrait, with his glasses off, which showed off the MISTY patch on his flight suit.
The 3/4 lit portrait with “The Hun” front view in the background.
We did some group shots with the Collings Foundation folks who had so generously donated their time and effort to showcase the plane, and some USAF U-2 pilots, who had gathered during the shoot. All USAF pilots go through survival training at the AF Survival School at Fairchild AFB, named in Col. Day's honor. It was like watching a bunch of NBA rookies meeting Michael Jordan for the first time.
After packing up, the whole crew adjourned to a nearby Ihop for a truly memorable breakfast. I could literally sit and listen to George and his dad tell flying stories for hours. It was a fantastic experience.
After the shoot, I sent a few of the photos to my editor at Air & Space magazine, just on the off chance that they might be working on a story related to Col. Day, MISTY, or the F-100. Several months later, as it turns out, there was a story on the MISTY program in the works. They eventually decided to use one of the photographs of Col. Day on the cover of the issue, with another one running inside.
I didn't want to jinx anything, so I didn't mention it to Bud or George until the cover was posted online. I've worked for many magazines, and covers often get pulled or changed at the 11th hour.
It was really an honor and a highlight to finally be able to make the call to Col. Day and let him know that not only was there a story on MISTY in the current issue of Air & Space, but that he had made the cover! This was truly one of the coolest things I've been able to work on, and I'm grateful to A&S, the Day family, Rick Harris and John Simmons for making this happen.
Col. Day and Col. Day reviewing some of the photos with the me.
A little background on Col. George “Bud” Day: He joined the Marines and fought in World War II just after high school. He came back to the US and earned a law degree, then continued in the Air Force flying fighter jets in Korea and eventually Vietnam. He miraculously survived a no-chute ejection the 1950's. At an age and mission count when other pilots were retiring, he volunteered for another tour and came up with the MISTY Fast Forward Air Control (Fast FAC) program, of which he was the commander. MISTY pilots flew low and fast over North Vietnam, marking targets including SAM missile sites for other aircraft to attack. It was so dangerous that it was an all volunteer squadron.
During one of these MISTY missions in 1967, Col. Day was shot down and captured. Badly hurt and barefoot, he escaped after a few days and evaded the enemy for 12-15 days, subsisting on frogs and berries, traversing miles of enemy territory and crossing the river into South Vietnam. He was within a mile or two of an American base when he was shot twice and recaptured. He spent the next 5 years 7 months in the “Hanoi Hilton” being tortured along with other notable POW pilots like Sen. John McCain and Admiral James Stockdale. For his valor, he was awarded the Air Force Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Today he is the most decorated living service member. After returning from Vietnam, he received 13 medical waivers and continued flying. He eventually amassed over 8000 hours – nearly 5000 of those in fighter aircraft. As if that weren't enough, he retired and went to work as an attorney, eventually suing the US Government on behalf of veterans who were not getting promised medical benefits and won. As a result, millions of veterans (my late mother-in-law among them), have benefitted from the program, called Tri-Care for Life.
Here's a cool behind the scenes video my friend John Simmons put together of the shoot: