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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.

Robert Seale lighting workshop webinar posted

A video of the lighting workshop webinar presentation Photoshelter founder Allen Murabayashi and I recently took part in is now available.  The video features our live webinar from March 31st in which we discussed my lighting demo shoot with Michael Scott Creature from the SXSW festival in Austin last month.  Taylor Jones, the owner of Texas Grip, provided us with a fabulous grip truck stocked with Profoto gear for our demo shoot.

The video has made the rounds among many of my favorite photography websites, including, David Hobby's Strobist site, Rob, and even the Profoto blog.

Creating a Sports Illustrated Cover shot

The cover shot from inside Kentucky's Memorial Hall

The cover shot from inside Kentucky's Memorial Hall

I recently had the good fortune of a great assignment in Lexington, Kentucky.  I was sent there a couple of days after Christmas to photograph one of the top college basketball players in the country, John Wall, for Sports Illustrated.

A static portrait of Wall inside Kentucky's Memorial Hall

Portrait of Wall inside Kentucky's Memorial Hall

My charge was to photograph Wall on the Kentucky campus in an iconic and easily recognizable setting.  Lexington is an absolutely  beautiful area, but the horse farms, race tracks (Bourbon distilleries?…..just kidding.)  and the like were out due to the limited time we had with Wall, and oh yeah….it was about 24 degrees, completely overcast, snowing off and on,  with 20-30 mph winds that day!

We couldn't use Rupp Arena either, as the team was practicing throughout the day, and the women's gym (the old coliseum) was being set up for a gymnastics event.  I found a nice expanse of three large glass brick windows (the outside wall of an old swimming pool) on campus, but alas, it had been divided into classrooms/study halls for the athletic department tutoring program.  Ugh!  Most of the buildings with character  on campus were closed for the holidays and we were quickly running out of options.

It's tough trying to come back with nice pictures, when you have very little to work with in the background department, but it's also the most common problem most photographers deal with.  When pressed, I can take a 6-10 foot sliver of just about anything and make a passable shot.  I was just about ready to stage the shoot in a practice gym, or a locker room hallway….hell, even a stretch of solid white concrete wall was looking pretty good to us at that point!

Fortunately, with the help of the Sports Information Director, we were able to convince a campus guard to let us access Memorial Hall, a grand old theater/church-like building on the campus.  Anyone who is familiar with Kentucky knows this building, which is a memorial for soldiers killed in WW I, and dates back to 1929.  During our scouting trip the night before, our plans were just to utilize the signature building in the background of some of the shots (although we knew we would have to work fast due to the weather conditions).  When we got inside, it was obvious that the stage, with the cool arched windows in the background, could make a great and very graphic shot.

Black background, with the gridded Wafer 75 right in front of the subject

Black background, with the gridded Wafer 75 high on a boom, right in front of the subject

We had to make the most of our 35 minutes of alloted time, so SI assistant Andrew Loehman and I  quickly went to work inside, setting up lighting gear in a central location around one spot, so that Wall would not need to move much at all.  Since we originally planned to be outside on the campus, we brought Profoto 7B packs and heads for the assignment.

For the black background-tight shot we used a Plume Wafer 75 directly over and in front of the subject's head on a boom, with a Lighttools 30 degree fabric grid to limit the spill. The rim-light was formed by  two lights with regular reflectors and makeshift snoots from behind the subject on each side..  We intended for the background to go completely black, but since we were working in a white room with no black background, I placed a black reflector disc behind the subject's head, in the event that background retouching was required (so there would be no issues with selecting hair).

Sepia shot from the middle of the hall

Sepia shot from the middle of the hall

For the full length shot, we used a Plume Wafer 100 with a 30 degree grid, high and to the subject's right, and a Wafer 75 with 30 degree grid from behind on the left side of the subject…slightly lower.  This formed a simple crosslight effect, and the grids kept the white walls of the room in check.  I would have preferred using a larger light source for both of these, but the smaller boxes with grids were really the only solution to preserve the effect of the dramatic window in the background.  We added a full CTO gel to the strobes so we could shift the overall white balance  cooler, making the subject a normal skin tone color, but the window light slightly blue.  For this shot, we did tight and loose static poses, and then just before moving on, I asked Wall to do a few leaps for me.  He obliged with a few dramatic spring-loaded jumps.  One of these was eventually selected for the cover.

Next, we quickly moved forward in the seats (about 20 rows back) to  create a higher-key portrait from the middle of the hall (which I converted to black and white).  Then we had John change into his warm ups (not for sartorial reasons, but  for warmth), and sprinted outside with one light and a Plume Wafer Hexoval 140 (Plume's medium hexoval).  There we photographed Wall for 4 minutes or so at two different spots with Memorial Hall, with and without tungsten white balance settings.  On the tungsten shots we added a full + 1/4 CTO gel to bring the strobe back fairly close to daylight on camera.

Wall was a great kid to work with, and I'm hoping to photograph him again someday (probably soon), when he makes his next leap to the NBA.

Wall: outside in the elements with Memorial Hall in the background

Wall: outside in the elements with Memorial Hall in the background

All Photographs in this article are © 2009 Robert Seale.  All Rights Reserved.  Feel free to link to these, but do not otherwise use without permission.  Thanks.

Fashion Photography for GLOSS


Ostrich Dior suit

Ostrich Dior suit

I was recently asked to collaborate with the fashion staff of GLOSS, a monthly glossy broadsheet fashion publication produced by the Houston Chronicle (Hearst Newspapers).  Over the past few months, I’ve shot four cover stories for GLOSS.  I thought I would share a few stories from those shoots, since they presented some interesting lighting challenges.

Bottega Veneta coat (Plume Wafer 100 with grid, Dramalight optical spot for rimlight, Plume Wafer 75 for the background),

Bottega Veneta coat (Plume Wafer 100 with grid, Dramalight optical spot for rimlight, Plume Wafer 75 for the background),

Fashion photography is a nice break from shooting sports portraits of famous athletes, or annual report photography with CEO’s.  It’s nice to be completely creative, and work closely with a talented team of writers, editors, stylists, and designers who produce the section.  Even though you can experiment more and take chances with the lighting (more so, than with a CEO for example…); you still have to keep in mind the paramount principle of fashion photography….the point is to show (and sell) the clothes!

During our first shoot together last fall, our showcase piece of the season was a purple Dior suit made of ostrich.  We really wanted the texture to come out in the exotic skin, so we kept the light soft and simple, but directional, with a dim backlight on the background in the center behind the model.  The idea was that the model be almost anonymous, so your eye would really focus on the texture of the suit.  We kept the lighting similar for a purple velvet hat/coat ensemble.

For a gray-purple Bottega Veneta coat, we took a slightly different lighting approach.  The coat featured all sorts of embellished fabric….stacked layers of loops and fringes outlining the shoulders and sleeves of the coat.  Lighting it in exactly the same manner as the other two wouldn’t show this critical signature feature of the piece, so we placed a Dramalight (a Flash Clinic custom modified optical spot), behind the model and tightly focused on her back to highlight the irregularities and loops of fabric in the coat.  The keylight was a Plume Wafer 100 with a Lighttools fabric grid to limit the front light to her face and front ¼ of the clothing.

Many of the clothes had a funky sixties feel to them, so our makeup artist, Wendy Martin created some really over-the-top heavy eye makeup to keep with that era.

Herve Leger bandage dresses (Photek Softlighter).

Herve Leger bandage dresses (Photek Softlighter).

With the exception of the different treatment of the Bottega Veneta coat, we used a Photek Softlighter (essentially a 60” umbrella, with a diffuser on the front) as our main light for most of the day.  With the grey background formed by either not lighting (or in some cases barely lighting) the white cyc wall background, this gave a very similar look to Avedon’s 60’s lighting style, which fit well with the dresses and makeup.

The Photek is an interesting piece of gear.  At 90 bucks, I often call it my “Ghetto Octabank”, but in reality it gives a look with more contrast.  If you place it close to the subject on a high boom, you get a similar look to the lighting style of Avedon or David Bailey in their 1960’s heyday.

Fashion editor Clifford Pugh and designer Kellye Sanford prep model Megan O"Leary.

Fashion editor Clifford Pugh and designer Kellye Sanford prep model Megan O”Leary.

Lance Armstrong in 4 minutes flat

Lance Armstrong

The 3 light, rim light setup, with a small stripbank directly over the camera.

UPDATE 8/24/2012:  Lance Armstrong Portrait photographs available – contact us directly for information.

I recently had the opportunity to photograph seven time Tour de France champ and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong in Austin, Texas for an editorial client.

Lance was preparing for his Tour de France comeback, so he was only in Austin for one or two days in the time period that would make our deadline, so there was a very narrow window to schedule the shoot.

Celebrities have lots of demands on their time, and are often dealing with tons of requests for interviews, photo shoots, etc.  Lance preparing for the Tour was no exception.  On the day we were shooting him, he had a charity event scheduled, two or three television interviews, a live radio broadcast, and our shoot….all crammed between 7:30 and 9am, so that he could train the rest of the day.

3/4 length with the broad Hexoval 180 source.

3/4 length with the broad Hexoval 180 source.

Lance owns a really cool bike shop in downtown Austin called Mellow Johnny’s, and the shoot (as well as the other events) was scheduled for the bike shop location.  We scouted the shop the day before, and determined that the best location would be in the basement area of the shop, where we could essentially set up a studio shoot, away from the charity event crowd and his other interviews.  For the shots of Lance, we knew ahead of time, that we were only going to get a portrait of him in a Livestrong t-shirt.  He was not going to pose in a jersey and bike helmet, he wasn’t going to pose on a bike….it wasn’t going to happen, so, in a way, it simplified things.  The question then became, how many looks can we get out of a black t-shirt portrait in 4 minutes?

With limited time and no props, and no environment, I decided to try to get as many different looks as possible in the short time frame available.  If you try to move a celebrity around to multiple locations, or move lighting equipment during the shoot, you are wasting their time, and you risk the shoot being over even quicker.  The best way to photograph them and get multiple looks, is through careful planning, and essentially encircling them with all the lighting equipment you’re going to use.

I decided on three shots:  The first would be a double rimlit tight portrait, with a small stripbank over camera; the second shot would be a broad softbox source –a large Plume Hexoval 180 slightly from the side; the third shot, would be a dramatic profile, lit with a Plume Wafer 100 with a Lighttools 30 degree fabric grid, with a projection of a bike wheel centered behind his head.

Another broad lit hexoval portrait, with different toning.

Another broad lit hexoval portrait, with different toning.

We started with a grey seamless backdrop, because we knew in the limited space that we had, we could use it as a grey/tan backdrop, we could make it go black, or if necessary, the art director could make a clip path and turn the background white….it gave us a range of options.

We arrived early, near 5:30am and began our setup.  Each lighting setup was plugged in to a different set of power packs, so that we could switch between setups simply by turning power packs on and off.  This kept things organized and simple, and allowed us to get multiple looks without fumbling around, switching  heads, packs, stands, etc.

Andrew Loehman, the assistant on the shoot, actually hung a real bike wheel from a piece of fishing line, and held it at the proper distance between the background and the light to create the shadow of the wheel on the wall.  A custom Dynalite projection spot provided the light.  With more time, we could have created a custom bike wheel “cookie” for the spot, but with limited prep time, an actual wheel was used to provide the signature bike wheel shape.

Lance was in and out of our setup in about 4 minutes.  Other than turning his body 90 degrees for the profile shot, he never moved, and even with that limited amount of time, without changing his wardrobe, and without a bike, we were able to give the art director several looks to choose from for the story.

(All photos © 2009 Robert Seale.  All Rights Reserved. – please do not post, right- click, steal,  or otherwise use any of our photos without permission.  For licensing info, contact Robert Seale Photography through the “Contact Info” link on the right)

The last shot, a profile with a Wafer 100, Lighttools 30 degree grid, and projection spot.

The last shot, a profile with a Wafer 100, Lighttools 30 degree grid, and projection spot.

Nikon vs. Canon Hi-Res shootout

Curtis Brown, makeup by Wendy Martin; photographed with the Canon EOS1Ds MkIII, 24-105/4L (at 70mm), 1/250 sec., F10.0, ISO 100.

Curtis Brown, makeup by Wendy Martin; photographed with the Canon EOS1Ds MkIII, 24-105/4L (at 70mm), 1/250 sec., F10.0, ISO 100.

I recently had the opportunity to test the new 24.39 megapixel Nikon D3X. I currently use the Canon EOS1Ds MkIII, which shoots a 21.1 megapixel file, but I’m always looking for the best equipment, and I try not to buy anything without testing it first.  In addition to some lens tests and landscape shooting, where I compared the lenses I would most likely be using to my current Canon equipment, I also put together a studio shoot to compare systems. I figured it made sense to set up a shoot with people and interesting lighting, since that is the main focus of my business. I was anxious to see what the camera could do under controlled conditions, with light falling on a subject from highlight to shadow.

Top: Nikon D3X, 24-70/2.8G; Bottom: Canon EOS1Ds MkIII, 24-105/4L (Both photos taken at 70mm, 1/250, F10.0, ISO 100).

Top: Nikon D3X, 24-70/2.8G; Bottom: Canon EOS1Ds MkIII, 24-105/4L (Both photos taken at 70mm, 1/250, F10.0, ISO 100).

With my good friend and stellar makeup artist Wendy Martin, we came up with a couple of ideas. One of my favorite places on the planet is California’s El Mirage dry lake bed. Inspired by that location, I’ve always wanted to do a photo of someone covered in cracked earth makeup.

Wendy knew all of the tricks for making this happen, and was quickly able to research and buy all the right supplies and colors for the shoot.

Next, we needed the perfect model for the shoot. We were hoping for someone with a shaved head and really interesting eyes. We looked at a lot of models, but my favorite was Curtis Brown, of One Model Management. Curtis is a veteran model, and has been featured in Soloflex and REI ads. He has killer green/hazel eyes. He travels all the time for modeling work all over the country, but we were very fortunate to land him for a day and collaborate with him on our shoot.

We booked a rental photo studio with Holly McDonald, a fabulous producer from 808, Inc., and were all set for our shoot. Nathan Lindstrom was on board as an assistant to complete our small crew for the day.

Wendy spent quite a bit of time mixing the masque material with various airbrush colors and a powdery red makeup, that almost looked like dirt. After experimenting for a while, we discussed airbrushing the cracked masque in various colors, particularly earth-tones, but finally decided that the reddish color would be a great contrast to Curtis’ eye color.

Makeup artist Wendy Martin applies the mud makeup to Curtis Brown. (Photo by Nathan Lindstrom)

Makeup artist Wendy Martin applies the mud makeup to Curtis Brown. (Photo by Nathan Lindstrom)

After mixing the makeup, it was time for Wendy to apply several thick coats to Curtis’ head and shoulders. She used a hair dryer to dry the makeup until it started cracking. Just the movement of Curtis’ facial muscles and skin caused the tight dry makeup to crack and give us the perfect look we were all after.

We had two different lighting schemes in mind, but eventually decided to stay with a very simple setup……one large Plume Wafer Hexoval, slightly to the right of the camera, equipped with a single Dyna-Lite 4040 head.

Everyone did a great job, particularly Curtis, who sat for hours with all sorts of gunk caked all over his face. He is a serious pro.

Both cameras produced great files, but in the case of this particular picture, I thought the camera I currently use, a Canon EOS1Ds MkIII, produced the best image. I shot several tests over a couple of weeks with the D3X, but this photo was instrumental in convincing me to stay with my current Canon system.

Another image from the shoot in black and white.

Another image from the shoot in black and white.

Read more about my Nikon D3X vs. Canon EOS1Ds MkIII test at

Adobe Showcase: Robert Seale

box_lightroom2_150x150I was recently contacted by software manufacturer  Adobe to be featured on their website as an “Adobe Success Story”  in the Customer Showcase section of the Adobe website.

Adobe Success Stories profile photographers, artists, and companies, their work, and the different Adobe products they use in their business.  In my case, the article mostly involves the photography workflow program Lightroom, which I've used since it became available.  Lightroom has greatly streamlined my workflow, client delivery, and archiving system.  

There's a link to the story here.

Launching LaDainian Tomlinson from an aircraft carrier

The final photo that was used on the cover.

The final photo that was used on the cover.

I get a lot of questions and comments about the shoot with LaDainian Tomlinson from a couple of years ago, so now seems like as good a time as any to revisit that photograph, and talk about the shoot.

I was in San Diego, scouting locations for a cover shoot for the Sporting News. Each year, the magazine publishes their “Top 100” issue, ranking the 100 best players in the NFL. This particular year, San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson was tops in the whole country, so we needed a great, dynamic portrait and inside spread that would convey his athletic prowess, and also give a little local flavor/context to the photo.

I spent some time looking at various locations around Coronado Island……beaches, sand, palm trees, etc….and with the right time of day, any of those elements might have made a usable background for a photo like this. I was trying to think of something better, and I’ve always been a military buff, so my eye kept going back to the Navy ships in the harbor. San Diego is a big Navy town, and there were several big ships, including a couple of aircraft carriers parked in the harbor.  This was post 9/11, so I figured the chances of getting a location on one of those great Navy ships would be impossible without a blood sample and 6 months of government paperwork, but I mentioned it anyway while chatting with a good friend of mine, who worked at the Padres. Amazingly enough, my friend hooked me up with a retired high-ranking Navy officer who happened to work a lot with the Padres…..this was the guy who arranged for all sorts of outrageous things on behalf of the club: Blue Angels flyovers, Navy color guards, ship visits, etc. In about an hour, he called me back with “You have a venue on the USS Nimitz tomorrow at 1500.”

Tight portrait of LT with San Diego in the background

Tight portrait of LT with San Diego in the background

Now, all I had to do was convince the Chargers that this was a good idea.

After several phone calls, a lot of schmoozing, and descriptive selling….”Just think of the headline on the cover….”Top Gun!”, and promising to send a limo for LaDainian to pick him up, we finally got a commitment about four hours later from LT and the Chargers.

Now, I absolutely had to pull this off.

I lined up a limo service, and secured directions to LaDainian’s house, leaving careful instructions, to load up the back of the limo with his favorite beverages, and securing the uniform and pads from the team.
My assistant on the shoot, Shawn Cullen (a stellar, former SI assistant who has worked with great San Diego photographers like Andy Hayt, Tim Tadder, Tim Mantoani), and I arrived at the naval base that afternoon for security screening, which was very similar to an airport. After they checked out all of our equipment, we headed towards the carrier, where I assumed the large aircraft elevator would promptly whisk us up to the top deck.

Wrong!  Most of the crew was on shore leave, and the key people who could operate the elevator were not there. I guess we’ll be taking the stairs.

Shawn is a strong, strapping young dude….but lugging each Lightware case up an M.C. Escher maze of ladders and hatches up I don’t know how many levels of stairs was excruciating for both of us. There were more stairs leading to that deck than to the top of the Empire State Building! We were so worn out, we figured we would just throw the gear over the side after the shoot….or launch it off the catapult into the harbor.
Strangely enough, once on deck, with help from the crew, we found power outlets all over the place, and we didn’t have to use any of our battery packs. We ran power cables and began setting up lighting.
We found a great spot where we could see the bridge…and framed it up with the impending sunset. LaDainian’s car was on the way…we shot some tests and anxiously awaited his arrival, along with staff from the Chargers.

Sending a car for an athlete or other celebrity is always a good idea on a location shoot.

LT during one of the earlier shots, prior to sunset

LT during one of the earlier shots, prior to sunset

Relying on the subject to find the location and get there on time (especially with something critical like a sunset) is never a good idea. Having a car and driver go to retrieve the talent allows the photo crew to set up on set well ahead of time, prepare and test the shoot, and be ready to go at the appointed time.

We were tested and ready when LaDainian arrived…..he was into the idea, and actually brought his wife with him as well. As always, I began with some pretty straightforward portraits before trying the more athletic poses that we eventually ended up with.

He was actually a bit early, and we also had some built in time in case there was a problem getting him there, so it now became critical to stall a bit. We knew the sunset would be beautiful during the magic hour, and it was just a matter of keeping him there, and keeping him interested long enough to finish the shoot in the optimum light of the day.

We moved on, after the straightforward stuff to some athletic poses, including some leaping and jumping. No trampoline here, just LaDainian’s insane vertical leap. Putting the camera all the way down on the deck gave us an extremely low angle, which accentuates the feeling that he’s high in the sky.

Shooting on board the USS Nimitz

Shooting on board the USS Nimitz

We shot another series of tight pictures….faces, with San Diego shoreline in the background to pass the time…..stalling his departure until about 20 more minutes until the light was a classic ROYGBIV spectrum sunset.
People have asked me about whetether we used rear-sync on these. Actually, we were using Dyna-Lite studio strobes with a Hasselblad at the time… there was no rear sync. I have found, over time….while shooting with slow-sync speed exposures with strobe, that if you have people leap into the air, and if you fire the exposure (and strobe) right at the apex of the leap, that the blur falls below the subject…making it appear that it is a rear-sync picture. It is sort of like panning backwards…it gives you the same look as a rear-sync, but you can precisely control the moment that you want strobed. Personally, I think rear-sync, unless the exposure is very short, leaves too much to chance.
We bracketed the shutter speeds to get different looks from the sky, but the final pick was shot on a Hasseleblad 40mm lens, at around ¼ second at F11.

This turned out to be one of my favorite photographs, incorporating many elements that I like: beautiful twilight sunset background, nice big soft light on the subject, an athletic action pose, and a strange location with conceptual context) into one photo.

In the end, as much as we wanted to, we didn’t launch the gear off the deck……but we thought long and hard about it when we had to face all those stairs again.