With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio coming up, I thought this might be a good time to write about a shoot we did earlier this year with US Olympic gymnast Simone Biles. Biles, who trains in Houston, is 4’9” tall and a three time world all around champion.
The media landscape is changing these days. This is the kind of shoot we might have done for Sports Illustrated once upon a time, but instead, this time we were commissioned by Buzzfeed to do this sports portrait shoot.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, the notable competitors (like Simone) have huge demands on their time. In addition to their normal training schedule, they are also doing interviews with various writers and television programs, and posing for photo shoots with not only media outlets, but potential endorsement partners. They are seriously busy, and it’s hard to stay focused on their training with all these various demands on their time.
To that end, we knew that we would have very little time to work with her, and that everything would need to be prepped carefully so as not to waste any of her time.
The photo editor wanted a classic, quiet portrait and sent several examples of gymnasts/fitness models on concrete walls and muslin backgrounds. Since Simone’s family-run training center was brand new and very modern, we knew we weren’t going to get the muted, moody industrial concrete wall background. We took a big muslin backdrop instead , and did a classic one-light portrait that stayed within the spirit of the comps.
We also prepped a secondary setup on a balance beam to capture some rim-lit “action” shots of Simone doing her thing. For this we used big tall C-stands with two Profoto B4’s and one Profoto 7B. (Note to self: always be careful when setting up lights in a gymnastics facility….one false step and you might find yourself neck-deep in a Nerf-cube-filled landing pit….not that this happened to me or anything….).
We mixed in some available light practice shots (I was able to dust off my usually dormant Canon EF 300/2.8!) of Simone and her coach working together to round out the assignment and give the photo editor lots of options.
The backdrop session went very fast…about 6-10 minutes. The balance beam shot went fast too, but not by choice. The coach shut us down after just a few frames saying the strobes were a distraction to the other young gymnasts training there. Even though we prepped them for what we were doing, you really can’t argue in that situation with the person controlling your access…..you just have to say yes ma’am and move on. I knew we had some nice frames already, ( thanks in large part to Simone’s perfect technique on the first few frames – thanks Simone!), so we pivoted and quickly moved on to available light practice shots.
The new family-run gym, World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas is an incredible facility. Simone’s parents and brother work together managing the facility and they do it with class and good humor. We were surrounded by a steady stream of youngsters training at various stations who I’m sure were hoping to someday be the next Simone. A “WARNING” sign near the lockers read, “CHILDREN LEFT UNATTENDED WILL BE SOLD TO THE CIRCUS.”
Buzzfeed recently ran an extensive story and collection of the photos here. I thought the story and presentation turned out great! Because of the virtually unlimited space they were able to run many more photos than you would typically see in a normal magazine layout. We in the newspaper/magazine journalism world have been talking about this advantage for years….it was nice to finally see a media outlet exploit the web format to full potential.
I covered Tim Duncan during countless games, including three San Antonio Spurs NBA Finals titles in 1999, 2003, and 2005. I probably took thousands of photos of him, but on the occasion of his quiet retirement, I picked a few out just for this blog.
I first met and photographed Tim Duncan on literally his first full day in San Antonio. He was drafted in Charlotte at the 1997 NBA Draft and flown to San Antonio, and then early in the morning of June 27, 1997 at Trinity University I photographed him for The Sporting News, my employer at the time. I had a crazy schedule back then, and had just flown back from Vancouver, and then been dispatched straight to San Antonio the night before for the Duncan portrait.
There were three shooters there that day: the Spurs photographer (and all around classy guy) Clarke Evans, Patrick Murphy Racey, who (I think) was shooting for NBA photos at the time, and me. I think Clarke was the only one with an assistant, Patrick and I were there alone.
This “photo day scenario” was not an uncommon practice: you’re scheduled for a shoot with some big time pro athlete, and the team schedules several different media outlets for the same time frame. The athlete might be on set for half an hour, but each photographer gets 5-6 minutes on their own individual background , and you’re literally shooting a couple of feet away from the other photographers in the same room. I think Clarke and Patrick both had seamless setups, so I went outside on the balcony of the conference room we were in and set up my lights out there.
What I remember most is how quiet and childlike Tim was back then. He had a friend with him from college, and I remember them sitting together between the shots and chatting about nerdy guy stuff: knives, swords, or something. I could totally picture them playing Dungeons and Dragons. I wondered how many 20- sided-dice might fit in his gigantic hand. It was really innocent, and there was no ego or bravado. I remember none of us being able to force much of a smile out of him. He was completely uninterested in being a star – he just wanted to play….and I don’t think he ever changed in the next 19 years.
The best part of covering the Spurs during the NBA Finals was the camaraderie among fellow basketball photographers, all of whom travel together for weeks during the playoffs like a big traveling circus. Everyone works long hours, but after the gear gets put away, there were wonderful late night meals at Mi Tierra or drinks in the hotel hospitality suite with guys like Andy Hayt, John McDonough, Andy Bernstein, Bob Leverone, Andrew Loehman, Ronald Martinez, and a host of others.
The worst part of covering the Spurs in the NBA finals (at least the first one in 1999…): hanging strobes and remotes in the ridiculously high catwalks of the God-forsaken Alamodome. The elevators only went to the middle mezzanine, and each pack/head/long lens/etc. had to be hoisted up with a rope from the top row of the nosebleeds. I used eight 2000 w/s Dynalite packs and heads, and about 750-1000 feet of zip line to connect the strobes for the playoffs there. (If they ever tear the building down, I might visit just to spit on the rubble).
After I left the Sporting News in late 2006, I had the good fortune to shoot Tim for a couple of covers while on assignment for Sports Illustrated. In 2013 I photographed him with his teammates Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker during a quick “studio” shoot in a parking garage. We had no more than 5 minutes to shoot the setup, and I had several lighting/background variations to run through. I had a little help, as Tim’s kids climbed all over me during the shoot….his son was hanging piggyback on me making faces, and his daughter was holding up “bunny ears” behind my head to try to get him to crack up. It was awesome!
In 2015, we did another SI cover, this time for the NBA Preview issue. We had about 2 minutes with Tim and LaMarcus Aldridge. The concept (which SI carried through to several teams), was to have the newcomer to the team doing a signature move or pose of the team veteran. In Tim’s case, everyone knows he has a ritual in which the referee tosses him the ball, and he hugs it closely for several seconds before tossing it back to the ref for tip off. We managed to get LaMarcus to do the same move with Tim standing with him. There was no levity this time….just Tim with his usual deadpan expression, almost challenging you to try to take a “heroic” image of him.
The shoot was quick, but I took Tim aside at the end and gave him a large print from that first shoot we did together, more than 18 years earlier.
“Wow, man….thanks.”, he said….and then he disappeared quietly.
Gatorade recently partnered with Sports Illustrated to create a special “advertorial” magazine called “Fuel Illustrated” to be packaged with subscriber issues of SI a couple of weeks ago. (An advertorial is a sponsored section of editorial content promotion for relating to a specific brand…still advertising, but less overt than traditional advertising).
Each spread features a different high profile athlete, and they chose one of my JJ Watt portraits, originally taken for the magazine for one of the spreads. It’s cool to see one of your outtakes, especially one that you liked, published again for another client.
Secondary uses like this are one of the reasons to maintain ownership of your work, so that you can negotiate rates for future use.
We recently did an editorial shoot for Scuba Diving magazine for a special issue they put together on the “Dirtiest Jobs” in the SCUBA diving industry. The photographs were commissioned in various parts of the country by different photographers: a salvage diver, a diver from a nuclear reactor facility, a police investigator, an underwater logger, a croc-wrangler, and our cool assignment: an “industrial deepwater saturation diver.”
Our diver was a nice gentleman named Brian Lacey, and he travels all over the world diving deep underwater for the oil and gas industry, repairing rigs, working on pipelines, etc. He spends up to a month on the job, living like an astronaut in a small pressurized chamber. He’s been as far down as 900 feet, but on average works at around 300 feet below the surface.
I’ve taken many oil and gas portraits, but this was my first chance to photograph an industrial diver, and I was pretty stoked.
Photo assistant Michael Klein and I photographed Brian on a dock in Galveston with his super heavy deepwater dive gear. We used two Profoto B-4’s and one Profoto Acute 600B. I scouted the location previously, and due to the recent downturn in oil prices, several offshore rigs were parked in port, which provided us with a great background normally not seen next to shore. It worked perfectly for the story, and the photo gods blessed us with a wonderful colorful sunset to complete the assignment.
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.
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.
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 recently had the opportunity to create some executive portraits for Barron’s magazine. Barron’s, founded in 1921 is a weekly publication published by Dow Jones, and each issue features a profile of a mutual fund manager. We’re pushed to shoot these fund manager portraits in an interesting way, often with an environmental portrait link to their hobbies or interests…something more creative than a person at their desk.
Our feature subject for the issue, Juliet Ellis, the Portfolio Manager of Invesco’s Small Cap Equity Fund, suggested a great location for her portrait, the Houston Methodist Hospital Research Institute, where she serves as a board member. I was already familiar with the space and the personnel there, having photographed healthcare annual reports in the past for the hospital. In the morning, we knew that it would make a fantastic “light and bright” portrait location….definitely a welcome departure from the average trading desk photo.
Although we had fantastic natural light for most of the shoot, we supplemented the ambient with just a low power “kiss” of light from a Profoto B4 with a Plume Wafer 100. We didn’t want to disturb any of the cool natural shadows around her in the background on these, so we stuck with the small source and even added a Lighttools grid in some of these to focus our light and keep it from spreading everywhere.
We couldn’t have asked for a more lovely and patient subject, and our friends at Barron’s of course created a fantastic layout with excellent display.
Houston lost one of it’s most iconic characters this week. Dr. James H. “Red” Duke passed away at 86. Dr. Duke was a true medical pioneer, founding the Hermann Hospital (now Memorial Hermann) “Life Flight” air ambulance service during the 1970’s. He was one of the first faculty members of the UT Health Science Center at Houston (now known as UT Health), where he taught several generations of medical students the intricacies of trauma surgery.
Dr. Red Duke was instantly recognizable to millions of people through his television health reports, which were syndicated on stations all over the country in the 70’s and 80’s. He was known for his signature signoff, “I’m Doctor Red Duke,” delivered in a frontier Texas drawl that was more Texas cowboy than brilliant trauma surgeon.
Dr. Duke often masked his considerable intellect with folksy country humor, and a friendly bedside manner, which gave comfort to his trauma patients and their families during difficult times.
In addition to his many medical laurels, he also was an Eagle Scout, received a divinity degree, served as a tank commander in the US Army, was a yell leader at Texas A&M, rode horses, created western art, and grew up with Willie Nelson.
Early in his medical career, he was one of the emergency room doctors at Parkland Hospital in Dallas responding to the assassination of President Kennedy, and was widely credited with saving the life of then Texas Governor John Connally who was wounded while riding with the president.
The doctor ordered a CT scan of the brain and in order for the child to lie quietly and motionless, it was necessary to apply Valium that would allow the procedure to be done. Learn more at website https://tysonmutrux.com/valium-online/. The child fell asleep, woke up two hours later. The first hour after waking up he was sluggish and sleepy. It was very nervous for me. An hour later I fed him a bit. Three hours later the child returned to his former state, walked and ate as before.
I grew up watching Dr. Duke on TV, and in 2008, I was lucky enough to photograph him on the helipad at Memorial Hermann. We had no guarantees that there would be a helicopter for our background, as the aircraft were out and about, delivering critical patients to the hospital. When the doctor arrived a little later than our optimal sunset time, he apologized: “Sorry – I was in surgery….had to fix up a guy up who decided to wrap his car around a pole.”(or something to that effect).
I think he was 79 at the time, and still working every day.
Building roofs are windy anyway, doubly so with helicopter rotor wash all over the place as you’re trying to shoot photos. I’m sure it was equally difficult for Dr. Duke but he was unfazed. We had several volunteers helping out the assistants to keep the lights safe and secure. My favorite moment with him came at the end of our photo shoot….he had been very patient with us, and as we were starting to pack up, two rather attractive young women from the hospital (who had been graciously helping us out), asked to have their photo taken with Dr. Duke. As he stood in the middle and posed with his arms around both of them (in heels they were both quite taller than him…), he looked down at me and said, “You can take as long as you want to now…”
With the help of a generous friend at Canon, I was really excited to spend a few days last week shooting with a pre-production model of the highly anticipated, brand new Canon EOS 5DS camera. The 5DS is Canon’s newest camera, with a whopping 50MP sensor (8688 x 5792 pixels). Many Canon shooters have been on waiting lists for several months to get one of these in their hands.
For commercial photographers, landscape photographers, and others who grew up shooting medium format film (and more recently, RENTING crazy expensive medium format digital systems), this camera is the one we’ve been waiting for, and based on my very preliminary testing, it’s a game changer on the order of the EOS 1DS Mk II.
My initial impression of this new technological development can be summed up with this classic front page from the Onion. (This is a family photo blog, so you follow the link at your own risk).
A little bit of camera history: though many of my photojournalist friends were VERY EARLY adopters of digital camera technology (anyone remember the lovely Kodak NC 2000?), most of my sports magazine shooter brethren arrived late to the digital party. Although early digital was “good enough” for newspapers and wire services, magazines still needed and demanded, high resolution images for magazine spreads and covers.
My Sporting News colleagues and I made the switch to the first EOS-1D (4.15 MP!) camera in the Fall of 2003 for most of our action photos. We clung to our medium format film cameras for portraits though, and we were still hanging Hasselblads up as remote cameras in NBA arenas as late as 2005. The original EOS-1DS (11.1 MP) was an improvement over the regular 1D, but it was slow, and still produced a file that was not up to medium format Velvia scanned on a fantastic Hell drum scanner.
The BIG game changer for me (and most of my colleagues) was the Canon EOS-1DS Mk II. I began using this camera in 2005, and it clocked in at a pretty impressive 16.7 MP (4992 x 3328 pixels). That’s roughly an 11 x 16.5 inch photo at 300 PPI. For reference – at that time, we were making 50 MP drum scans of our Hasselblad chromes. I remember shooting a test and looking at two files, side by side on the same monitor, one shot on film, and one out of the EOS-1DS Mk II, and my colleagues and I quickly decided that this camera was the one to finally allow us to become an all-digital publication.
It wasn’t just The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, and other magazines…..this camera changed things for just about every commercial photographer I knew. When this camera was released, the price of medium format gear dropped like the 1987 stock market crash. Waiting for Polaroids to develop became a completely unnecessary ancient photography ritual.
I went out on my own in 2006, and my EOS-1DS Mk II cameras were the cornerstone of my corporate and advertising photography business. Things quickly improved even more in 2007-8 when the EOS-1DS Mk III was announced. I sold my Mark II’s and upgraded to the new 21.1 MP chip (5616 x 3744 pixels).
I LOVED my DS bodies. I loved the professional grade finish, the weather sealing, the EOS-1 ergonomics and standardized controls, the robust build quality, and the 1/250 flash sync. When the 5D Mark II was released in 2008, I was impressed with the full HD video capabilities, but the actual still resolution was unchanged. I didn’t like the prosumer body form factor. I did not buy one.
Almost five years after the DS Mk III, Canon combined their EOS-1D lines (previously the high resolution, but slower DS and the lower resolution, but faster Mark IV) into one camera: the EOS-1DX. The 1DX is a fantastic camera: faster than hell autofocus, 12 FPS motor, great ergonomics, wonderful low light capability, and solid professional build quality….it’s awesome….BUT, wait a minute…..they went DOWN in resolution to 18.1 MP! (5184 x 3456px). A new 5D Mk III was also released, but with a disappointing 1MP upgrade over the previous 1DS Mk III. UGH! I eventually gave in and switched out my aging 1DS Mk III bodies for the extended dynamic range and higher ISO capabilities of the 5D3.
And there we’ve sat for the past 3 years. While Canon shooters were waiting, Nikon came out with the D800 (36 MP), and then the D810. Sony came out with their A7R (also 36 MP). I toyed with switching systems, but had a ton of money invested in Canon glass, and after testing the D800 with my Lightroom workflow, I decided that I actually preferred the color rendition of the Canon sensors better – particularly on skin tones. I also loved using the X bodies for faster moving objects, and since I use both types of cameras, I didn’t want to take another step backward in MP size since Nikon’s similar competitor to the 1DX was the D4 at an even lower 16 MP. (Again, different cameras are tools for different needs…if you are a photojournalist shooting in low light, the 1DX or D4 might be just the camera for your needs).
All of this said, please remember that pixel counting is mostly for photo gearheads. Your clients probably don’t notice a difference between photographs shot between 16, 18 or even 22 MP. It is nice, however, to have options, and the option to recompose and do a ridiculous crop from a wider frame is pretty useful at times.
There were a couple of times where an ad agency requested bigger, non-interpolated files, and we had to rent a Phase system. The quality can be absolutely amazing, but incorporating medium format into my average job workflow definitely requires a slower, more methodical way of working. Shutter lag was also an issue, and I had a really hard time timing shutter release delay on sports portrait images.
So after some frustration, I was excited when I began hearing rumors about Canon’s new high res baby. I was ecstatic when I finally got my hands on one in late May.
This won’t be a scientific review, you’ll have to go to DP Review or another site for that, but I wanted to convey a few first impressions. First, if you are an EOS 5D Mk III user, this will be a seamless transition for you. Unlike virtually EVERY new camera I’ve ever purchased, the physical size of the 5DS is relatively unchanged, which means the battery grip from the Mk III is the same! It uses the same batteries and charger! That’s great news, as I can just use the same grips I already own, keep plenty of extra batteries around, and I don’t have to buy new Really Right Stuff tripod plates. In reality, I’m told there were some physical changes made to the body – Canon strengthened the area around the baseplate and tripod screw to make the camera more stable. I’m just glad they designed it to accept the same grip and batteries.
Inside the camera, the menus are very similar, but there are a few new features, including one where you can set a slight shutter delay after mirror lockup to dampen any mirror vibration before the actual shutter release. This is very useful if you’re locking down the camera and shooting long exposures on a tripod. Since I shoot a lot of industrial facilities stopped all the way down with 20-30 second exposures, this is something I will definitely try. (My solution, prior to this was, to hold my hand or a black card in front of the lens at the beginning of the exposure).
The flash sync is 1/160, which is very disappointing (why is 1/250 so difficult?)…..my solution to this is to use hypersync and high speed sync more and start incorporating that feature into my location work with my Profoto lighting gear.
A long overdue feature is the incorporation of a USB 3.0 port, which will be a huge help during tethered shooting. The Nikon D800/D810 have had this feature for some time.
Other than that, the 5DS and 5D Mk III are very similar, I went right to work with it without as much as reading the manual. I’ve warmed up somewhat to the 5D form factor with the grip (it still doesn’t feel quite as good as the 1DX), and I sometimes get irritated that critical buttons are in different locations than they are on the 1DX series cameras (like the button to light up the LCD display for example). For 50 MP at 3700 bucks, I’ll make that trade off gladly, but I will still hold out hope that the DX series continues in higher resolution form at some point.
It’s not exactly scientific to show you resolution testing results on a (decidedly low resolution) blog. However, I am here to tell you that this is a transformative development that we haven’t seen since that EOS-1DS Mk II. I purposely made some very loose compositions during my week with the camera, just to see what it would do, and the 200, 300, and even 400 % crops are just stunning. I’ve included some samples, but like I said, it’s hard to compare skin texture and noise from my 30” monitor to your mobile phone screen. To become a true believer, you’ll have to try it out for yourself.
This will not be my high-ISO camera, so I didn’t even test those features….everything I shot was between 50 and 250 ISO, most of it portraiture with studio strobe, and it is fantastic at those ISO’s. If I need to shoot low light, high ISO photos, I’ll use the 1DX.
Some people have asked, if Canon’s 35mm lens designs will still hold up at 50MP of resolution. Resolution that high will certainly magnify any design flaws in your glass. Again, these are first impressions, with a pre-production camera, but I feel like the results were good with my workhorse lenses: the 24-105/4L, and the latest version of the 70-200/2.8. I didn’t have time to test every lens in my bag. I know that Canon has been steadily redesigning most of the lenses in their arsenal over the last few years with higher resolution sensors in mind.
I had no issues with filling the buffer, but I was shooting the way I usually do….portrait subjects with strobe, so I was not motor-driving like a typical sports photographer. Again, there are different tools for different jobs, and if you want to motor drive all day, you’re better served getting a 1DX.
I don’t do a ton of video, and I didn’t really test the video capabilities of the 5DS, but with the new addition of the USB 3.0 port there is now no room on the camera for a headphone jack. Those of you who are full time video shooters will want to hang on to your 5D Mk III cameras for now.
Another big question: 5DS or 5DSR? There are two models of this camera available. The normal 5DS , just like every Canon digital camera we’ve discussed, has a built in anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor. The R has a “self cancelling” optical low pass filter. This is the same thing Nikon did by releasing two versions of the D800. Anti-aliasing filters on the sensor inherently soften the image, but also prevent moiré patterns in things like football uniforms, herringbone suit fabrics, etc. If you shoot landscape images you might prefer the R version, as there is little chance of getting moiré patterns in that type of work. I was not able to test the two cameras against each other, so I reserve the right to change my mind, but I was pleased with the sharpness of the regular 5DS using my regular workflow, which adds a nominal amount of capture sharpening in Lightroom. I ordered the regular 5DS for now.
I’ve heard a fair amount of moaning on the internet about the “lack” of dynamic range in the 5DS. During my brief time with the camera, I had no issues, and at the risk of sounding like “HEY, you kids get off my lawn” – does anyone remember shooting Kodachrome? How much latitude did we have then, like maybe 1/3-1/2 stop? How about medium format Velvia? It was a little better, but still required critical exposure skills. There are times in the past where I’ve wished I had more range….like a portrait with a blown out sweaty forehead hotspot, or an aerial at sunset that would call for a split neutral density filter back in the old days. Honestly though, I’m pretty amazed at what we can do now with these sensors, and the amount of control I have in Lightroom with highlight/shadow sliders is nothing short of amazing.
I’m sure that the higher bit depth of a five figure medium format system results in higher dynamic range – there’s no doubt…but, keep in mind that this is a 3700.00 camera, versus a 20-50K camera, and it’s doing something amazing that’s never been done before at that price. Sometimes it’s like hearing someone comparing the relative shortcomings of Gisele Bundchen to Alessandra Ambrosio…..when they are both supermodels! Keep things in perspective folks.
I just got word as I’m typing this that my wait-listed camera is in a Fed-X box, on the way to the studio, so I’ll definitely be reading the manual and checking out and utilizing some of the new features, but for now, I’m just blown away by the increase in resolution. This camera is a game changer.
My first job after college was a staff photographer position at The Augusta Chronicle in Augusta, Georgia. I was only there one year, but I was able to cover The Masters and walk the unbelievably green fairways of Augusta. It may be one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I consider myself pretty lucky to have photographed the tournament as a fledgling 24 year old sports photographer. Augusta National is notoriously tough and very limited on credentials, but we were treated well there not only because we were the hometown paper, but also because our owner was a member.
I still remember surviving that week on pimento cheese sandwiches (one of the few concessions available there), which were cleverly wrapped in green wrappers so the course would still look pristine on TV even if patrons decided to discard their trash on the course.
I’m not a good golfer, but ever since my time there, I always watch The Masters with interest, and it was even more interesting this year since a young golfer I recently photographed was in the lead.
About a year ago I was assigned to photograph Jordan Spieth, a young PGA golfer who is now the newly crowned 2015 Masters Champion for Sports Illustrated. It was a rainy winter day, and even though he was home and off the tour at the time of the shoot, his schedule was super tight with appointments, so we ended up renting a cool studio space at Bolt Productions in Spieth’s hometown of Dallas. Will Rutledge assisted with the shoot, and we were able to do 5 different setups in 20 minutes. We used a variety of setups, all with Profoto gear from Bolt. Jordan was incredibly polite, humble and cooperative.
It was a real thrill to watch him kill it at The Masters this week – he’s got a great future ahead of him.
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.
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.
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.
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.