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Lighting Scenarios

Shooting on Plexiglas for the SI Baseball Preview

Tampa Bay Rays slugger Evan Longoria's swing, through 1.25″ thick Plexiglas. ©2011 Robert Seale[/caption] I recently photographed Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays in mid-swing through Plexiglas for the Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview issue.  I photographed a similar shot of Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon years ago, and I ‘ve wanted to update that portrait for quite some time (it's so old, he was actually wearing LA Gear shoes!).  The cool photo editor at SI remembered my Hakeem photo and asked me to produce a similar shot of Longoria.  Just to prove that there are very few new ideas in this world, he sent me an awesome John Zimmerman photo of Ted Williams from the 1950's taken from below his feet through a glass floor! The Longoria portrait was part of a series on baseball players who are the best in the league at hitting a certain pitch:  best curveball hitter, best fastball hitter, etc. The essay was parceled out to several different photographers since some of the players were in Arizona and some were at Spring Training in Florida. [caption id="attachment_713" align="alignleft" width="300"] Check out Hakeem's “LA Gear” kicks.[/caption] It took several days of pre-production phone calls to source our 1.25 inch thick, 5′ x 8′ sheet of optically clear Plexi.  We finally found a piece in Ft. Lauderdale, and had it trucked in for the shoot.  It wasn't cheap. Cy Cyr, a great SI assistant from Orlando who I've worked with many times over the years, helped out by picking up our additional rental gear, and then accompanying me to the Rays  Spring Training location in Port Charlotte.  Armando Solares and Chip Litherland, both great photographers from Sarasota, agreed to help out as well.  A 400 lb , 5′ x 8′ sheet of Plexiglas is incredibly heavy and difficult to move, so we needed all that extra muscle to assemble the set. When I did the Hakeem picture, we placed the Plexi on a set of wooden boxes that were only 2-3 feet off the ground, which limited our lens choice to a super-wide, and it really was not enough room to work properly.  This time, I decided to erect a platform of heavy-duty construction scaffolding, which gave us an elevation of five feet.  At that distance, I was able to use a variety of lenses. Once the scaffolding was delivered and assembled, we unloaded the glass (which took 6 people), secured everything, and strapped it to the scaffolding.  Ground stakes with cargo tie-downs and a ton of sandbags made the whole set very safe and secure.  The last thing I needed was to injure the Rays star player! The biggest issue with shooting a photo like this is unwanted reflections.  We covered the inside of the scaffolding, ground, and back of the set with black drape, essentially creating a “black box” for me to shoot from.  For lighting, we used a Plume Wafer Hexoval 140 (the medium one) as our main light, positioning it just above the plexi, but a little lower than usual to illuminate Evan under his hat.  We then added a medium stip bank with a 40 degree grid, from below the glass, right behind my head.  This light gave us some fill, and illuminated the soles of Longoria's shoes.  We used two lights from behind the set with regular reflectors to outline Longoria and his bat, and separate him from the background.  All of the lights used were Profoto 7B's. [caption id="attachment_710" align="alignright" width="300"] LightTrac is an awesome tool for planning a shoot.[/caption] Once we had everything set, we peeled the protective adhesive paper off the plexiglas, shot some tests (in socks!), and did our final preparations before Longoria arrived.  The time of day was not ideal:  we were shooting at 3:30pm, rather than 5pm, so the sun was still a problem. although we had chosen our location carefully based on recon from the Ipad app LightTrac (which shows the sun path on a google map satellite photo), we still had some sunlight to deal with. We erected an 8 x 8 on Matthews hi-rollers to block the sunlight , although we did toy with the prospect of putting Cy in a tractor bucket with a large golf umbrella, due to the heavy winds in the area.  Armando and Chip did a great job of keeping the 8×8 from blowing away during the shoot. We had about 30 minutes for the shoot, and Longoria was great during the whole thing.  He even got into it at the end and started making some great faces, screaming while pretending to knock the cover off the ball. Check out the cool time lapse video that Cy shot for us which chronicles the entire shoot start to finish. Robert Seale photo shoot time lapse from Robert Seale on Vimeo. And, yes, of course – we had to shoot some pictures of ourselves as well! [caption id="attachment_711" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Cy Cyr, Armando Solares, Chip Litherland, and me doing the “mush-face” pose after the shoot.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_712" align="aligncenter" width="600"] A cool view from underneath. (Photo by Chip Litherland)[/caption]

Robert Seale shoots Coach K at Duke

The March 13, 2011 USA Weekend cover.

Since March Madness is in the air, I thought now would be a great time to share a shoot I recently did with Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.   The assignment was a cover story for USA Weekend magazine (a Sunday newspaper insert with a whopping circulation of over 22 million!).

“Coach K”  (yes, we all have trouble spelling his name…) is an icon at Duke (currently # 3 in the AP top 25), and a Number 1 seed in the west bracket of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, and he's led the Duke Blue Devils to 4 NCAA Championships and 11 Final Four appearances.  He was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001, when his current crop of players were 8-9 years old.

Because of Coach K's demanding schedule and celebrity status on campus (he apparently gets mobbed when he lingers on campus too long), we elected to shoot him inside the controlled environment of the Duke practice facility (the main floor at Cameron was in use).

We had a tight 15-20 minute window, and needed several looks – at a minimum, we needed  a cover image and an inside photo for the magazine.

The open "corner lighting" setup - used as the opener inside

One of the critical things about shooting a cover, is finding ways to simplify the picture – particularly the background, so that the composition works with the publication's logo, and that there is enough room for the various cover lines.  An added challenge, in the case of a Sunday insert is keeping tones and colors in a range that is printable by literally hundreds of different newspaper printing facilities all over the country.

On this shoot, I had the added treat of working with a vastly overqualified “assistant”, my old Sporting News photographer colleague Bob Leverone.  He was not only a big help with pulling off the shoot, but he also took me on a short Carolina BBQ tour after we wrapped.  (Sidebar:  We sampled pulled pork at four of North Carolina's most famous cue joints around the state, but the best by far was the barbeque we had at Dan Huntley's place.  Huntley is the author of Extreme Barbeque, and a former Charlotte Observer columnist.  He is the real deal, and I'm a BBQ snob from Texas…. …ok, end of sidebar – back to the shoot.)

We settled on three lighting setups:  a simple, blue padded background with fairly open corner lighting with a graduated “glow” in the background; a second, more dramatically lit setup with a row of sideline chairs; and an elevated look from a ladder with a simple background of court flooring.

For the cover, the photo editor (a longtime client, and wonderful guy to work with, who also accompanied us on the shoot)  chose a dramatic tight shot of Coach K with a ball looking off camera, taken during our more dramatic setup with the chairs.  We shot it with a Plume Wafer 100 with a 30 degree Lighttools grid, and a bare reflector head aimed at the wall behind him.

I'll talk more about my corner lighting setup in an upcoming post.

Best of luck to Coach K and Duke in this month's tournament.  Perhaps he'll get to visit us here in Texas later this month at the Final Four!

A pensive Coach K, taken with a Wafer 100 with a 30 degree Lighttools grid.

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.

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.

Nolan Ryan's fastball grip, Arlington, Texas, April 28, 2010.

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

Photographing Yao Ming in the Studio

The Sports Illustrated China cover[/caption] 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. [caption id="attachment_610" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Red background with a Plume Wafer 100 with Lighttools 30 degree grid[/caption] [caption id="attachment_608" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Loose shot of Yao with a Plume Hexoval 180 on a cyc wall[/caption] [caption id="attachment_612" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Plume Wafer Hexoval 140 on an overhead boom[/caption] [caption id="attachment_615" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Another shot taken with the Plume Wafer Hexoval 180[/caption]

All Hands on Deck: Photographing a kayak in motion

The final image of Brad Pennington speeding through the water.

Recently, I worked  with champion marathon kayaker Brad Pennington.  I've shot many athletes in my career……and many are absolute tops in their respective sports, but you have to be completely blown away by a 43-year-old guy who set a course record in the Yukon River Quest by paddling (yes, paddling) his super skinny racing kayak 460 miles in 44 hours, 14 minutes.

Most people think kayaking is all about having giant shoulders and arms, but in fact, it engages the core muscles more than most people would realize.  If you sat in Brad's boat, you would turn over almost immediately and fall into the water.  My assistant, Nathan Lindstrom, a very agile and athletic guy, who rock climbs regularly,  had a pretty hard time keeping the boat upright, and he ended up in the drink.  Brad offered me a chance to sit in the tippy vessel as well, but I politely declined.

I planned on photographing him paddling towards the camera, in motion, with a slow shutter speed capturing some movement in the background.  I had done a similar picture with a bicyclist at a velodrome before, with the camera attached to the bicycle: rider frozen with strobe, but with the background completely blurred in motion.

Our first attempt. (Photo by Todd Spoth)

I talked to Brad about mounting a camera on his kayak, with a wide angle pointed back at him.  I made arrangements to rent an SPL surf housing and a Canon 5D MkII for the shot (we decided that a Canon EOS1DsMarkIII would be too heavy and unstable.  Assistants Todd Spoth and Nathan Lindstrom drilled a hole in one of Brad's older kayaks, and we then mounted a small ballhead to the bow and attached the housing/camera.

We set up our lighting equipment on another boat (a party barge, with a large flat deck), and had Brad follow us, slightly off to one side.  although the lighting worked great, and the Pocketwizard Multimax triggered everything perfectly (inside the housing), what we found was, that the top of the kayak was just too thin to support everything in a stable manner.  The thin hull, although mounted securely to the ballhead, still allowed the mounted camera and housing to buckle like a plastic bottle, allowing the camera to flop back and forth.  Brad makes constant adjustments, using his balance (and core muscles) to keep the kayak upright.  With a slow shutter speed, this resulted in a lot of undesirable side-to-side motion blur, rather than the linear motion blur we were hoping for.  There were some good frames, but again, it was not the picture I had originally envisioned.  While I had the housing, I tried some other “waterline” shots with Brad and his kayak.

Waterline shot of Brad Pennington taken with an SPL surf housing.

It was clear that we needed to somehow have the kayak and camera on the same platform, moving at the same speed through the water.

I decided to reshoot on another day.  In the interim, we explored building a camera rig for the kayak, almost like a Hollywood style car shot, but eventually we settled on strapping the kayak to the barge using nylon webbing and rubber pads to provide friction and to protect the hull.

After trying in vain to secure Brad's kayak to the barge (there was no way to do it without scratching or otherwise damaging the kayak), we finally realized that we could essentially tow him through the water with very little effort.  Because there were no eyelets or holes to tie a line to, Nathan laid down on the stern of the barge and held on to Brad's kayak as we towed him through the water.   Brad paddled some, but mostly to keep himself balanced and upright, as Nathan held the bow in place, between the pontoons of the barge.  As strange and low tech as this sounds, it worked quite well.

Torn from one of Leonardo's notebooks, obviously.

Our light source, a Profoto 7B, with a Plume Wafer 100, was mounted on the deck of the barge, off to the side opposite the kayak.   We tried out a new product from Lighttools, the company that makes Soft Egg Crate fabric grids for softboxes.  We used a 30 degree grid in the Wafer 100, to limit spill and concentrate most of the light on Brad instead of the kayak and water……not an unusual setup, but this time, we added a Lighttools Stretch Frame.  The Stretch Frame, consists of collapsible poles covered in velcro, which mount inside the softbox, providing a rigid frame for the grid.  This eliminates sag, and keeps the openings in the grid fully stretched open, which was critical on a moving, windy boat deck.  I was skeptical when I first heard about these, but they actually work really well, and are now a permanent part of my lighting kit.

I mounted my camera to the railing of the barge with a Bogen superclamp and ballhead, directly over Nathan's head, but eventually switched to a handheld shot so that I could manually keep Brad's head in the center of the frame while we were moving.  although I normally wouldn't have done this, I zoomed the 16-35mm lens ever so slightly to accentuate the motion of Brad coming toward the camera.

The lesson here:  Despite the best laid plans, renting expensive equipment, hiring extra assistants, etc…..sometimes the simplest solution is the right solution.

Portrait of Brad, taken with a Plume Hexoval 180, (rimlight courtesy of the Sun).

Robert Seale Featured on Profoto Lighting Blog

Profoto site.  I was really honored that I was asked to participate.  It's got some career history, lighting stuff, and a little bit about how much I enjoy using the awesome Profoto 7B, and the famous Jeffrey Salter quote:  “Saw the hot shoe off your camera.”, (which is what got me started in lighting in the first place).   Check it out here.

Figure Skating in Window Light

I was recently assigned to photograph figure skater Becky Bereswill.  Becky is 19, and won the gold in the 2008-2009 ISU Junior Grand Prix in Goyang, South Korea.  In addition to being an incredible figure skater, Becky was also a record setting track athlete in high school, and she has an identical twin who also competes in figure skating! She normally practices at a suburban Houston ice rink.  Most ice rinks are tough to light, and usually have all the drama of a high school gym, with fluorescent or sodium vapor lighting.  We are fortunate to have a great ice rink here in Houston in the Galleria mall.  The Galleria is one of the first multi-level malls in the country, and the ice rink on the bottom level was the centerpiece of the design when it was originally built in 1970.  I thought that the skylights in the roof, and the elevated positions on the second and third levels might make for some interesting pictures…..certainly better than a fluorescent lit metal building. We arranged access for early morning, before the mall opened to shoppers.  Becky was in expert hands with makeup artist Wendy Martin, while assistant Nathan Lindstrom and I set up the lighting for the shoot.  Unfortunately, we knew it was going to be a cloudy day, so in order to get something similar to the skylight effect I was hoping for, we brought a 2000 watt-second optical spot called a Dramalight (made by the Flash Clinic in New York).  I’ve mentioned this unit before, and even though I rarely use it, it comes in handy in a situation like this. The Dramalight was set up (and chained to the railing for safety) on the second level of the mall, and pointed down onto the ice.  We used a variety of Rosco gobo patterns to create different window light effects on the surface of the ice.  To light Becky, we set up a Profoto 7B on the ice with a Plume Wafer 100 and a Lighttools 30 degree grid.  This provided a soft yet dramatic effect, and minimized the amount of spill from the Wafer onto our window pattern background. Becky was tireless throughout the shoot, and showed us a wide variety of poses and jumps.  Not only did she execute perfectly, but she also hit her marks so well so that we were able to line her up exactly where we wanted in the various window pattern compositions.