Sports Portrait shoot with Houston Texans star JJ Watt for Sports Illustrated

JJ WATT COVERIt’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 in the practice bubble across from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.  © 2015 Robert Seale/All Rights Reserved.

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.

JJ Watt quarterback

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.

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt posing for portraits in the practice bubble across from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.  © 2015 Robert Seale/All Rights Reserved.

I tried a few dramatically lit black and white shots of him as well.  

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt posing for portraits in the practice bubble across from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.  © 2015 Robert Seale/All Rights Reserved.

Tight study of JJ Watt’s chiseled profile in black and white.

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt posing for portraits in the practice bubble across from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.  © 2015 Robert Seale/All Rights Reserved.

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.

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt posing for portraits in the practice bubble across from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.  © 2015 Robert Seale/All Rights Reserved.

Happy JJ goofing off between shots.

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt posing for portraits in the practice bubble across from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.  © 2015 Robert Seale/All Rights Reserved.

This is the cover shot, as originally shot: minus the red background.

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt posing for portraits in the practice bubble across from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.  © 2015 Robert Seale/All Rights Reserved.

Look!  I’m taller than JJ!  Seriously, he’s got a great eye, and is fully invested in collaborating on great photos.

Lauren_JJ

Lauren with about half the gear we used on the shoot. Travis brought a truckload of stuff too.

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