Whenever I set up to do a portrait of a football player, I always seem to end up with a lens that’s not wide enough attached to a camera that’s not far enough away. I never seem to remember that these guys are that big.
Football players are built differently than the rest of the world. They’re taller, they’re wider, and some of them weigh as much as three cheerleaders. So, they require special allowances when composing. But what happens when you have to include 19 of these big men in the same frame?
I was assigned by Sports Illustrated to make a portrait of former players who’d found second careers in movies, television and commercials. Some of their faces might be familiar, but it’s their size and football skills that has shifted their career from the field to the TV screen. These elite 19 played at a level that makes them indispensable to filmmakers and advertisers who don’t want posers on the gridiron when the cameras start to roll. These guys have the pedigree, not to mention the size to make it all look authentic.
One of the busiest in the group is Randall Bacon. If he looks familiar, it’s because you’ve repeatedly seen him in commercials featuring Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. While Wilson himself handles the scripted lines and the close-up shots, it’s his football double Bacon who steps it to throw the passes, absorb the hits, and endure the tackles. No matter how many takes are required, it’s Bacon who takes the abuse.
Since the story was going to be about their work in the film industry, the natural location to photograph them would be on a working soundstage. Unfortunately, the expense to rent on the backlot of a movie studio was wildly cost-prohibitive so we decided to create our own soundstage.
We figured that if we strategically positioned some of the same lighting tools routinely used on a movie set around the 19 players, the space itself would only make up a small part of the final image. We decided that the medium-sized space at 5th and Sunset LA would convey the movie studio look and was also large enough to hold 19 large men and 800 pounds of photo equipment.
Long-time Sports Illustrated assistant Shawn Cullen played a critical role in the shoot because not only was there tons of equipment to construct that would appear within the frame, but there was also all the gear necessary to actually light the image. Prepping the set began 4 hours before the arrival of the players to insure that all of the gear would be assembled in plenty of time to allow for testing and any change of plans that invariably occurs.
The process I use to construct a shot like this to first decide on the perspective of the image. Because Randall Bacon was featured so prominently in the Sports Illustrated story, I decided to use a wide-angle lens to force the perspective a bit and make him appear much larger than everyone else. Not only would this make him more prominent in the frame, but it would also make the other 18 large men fit more naturally into a small space. I had Shawn stand in the position that I expected Bacon to occupy and then I composed the rest of the frame around where Bacon would stand. Once I had his position set, it was simply a matter of physically moving the camera to arrive at which lens would deliver the right amount of perspective.
I finally settled on a 24mm f/3.5D Perspective-Correction Lens which would allow me option of controlling the plane of focus. Perspective-correction lenses have the ability to shift, swing, and tilt their elements which allows the plane of focus to align more or less with the subject plane. In this case, if I chose to swing the lens so that it was more aligned with the players, they would all be in focus. If I swung it the opposite way, only Bacon would be in sharp focus and all of the other players would be much more out of focus than they would have been if I used a traditional 24mm lens. The perspective-correction lens is a very handy tool in a situation like this and it gives the photographer control similar to what you might find in a view camera.
With the lens chosen and the framing set, lighting was next. There would need to be two different areas of illumination to consider: the lighting that was done for effect and the lighting that would actually light the subjects. For the lighting within the frame, I used a 12×12 silk overhead that was illuminated by a single strobe head with a warming gel. I also used two Arri 2K tungsten fresnel lights on roller stands. In order to get the Arri lights to produce a star effect that would support the movie set look, I stopped the lens down to f/16 and angled the lights so that they shined directly into the lens.
Click Diagram to Enlarge
The subjects were illuminated by a variety of light sources. The group was lit with several soft boxes to provide some control to the light. Rather than using one large source, the smaller sources allowed me to keep the light from spilling all over the set. The idea was to make it feel as though the light on the group was naturally coming from nowhere in particular.
The light on Randall Bacon was much more specific. The main light was a Plume Wafer 75 soft box with a 20-degree grid that was positioned to the right of camera. Fabric grids are incredibly helpful in maintaining the soft quality of a light bank while simultaneously directing the light only where you want it to fall. There was also a small Chimera Super Pro Plus strip bank with a 20/60 fabric grid positioned to the left of camera and slightly behind him. Using a Profoto D4 unit, this light was reduced to almost minimum power so that the light would simply provide some tonal value to the dark side of his face. Finally, a reflector head with a 10-degree grid was placed just out of frame to subtly provide separation from the wall behind Bacon.
Once the subjects arrived, 90% of the shoot had already taken place and all that remained was placing the 19 large men into the frame. The composition provided space for type in the planned two-page spread while making sure the gutter didn’t run through someone’s face. After days of planning, sketches, and 4 hours of pre-lighting, it was possible to simply focus on the final step of actually taking the picture.