Deontay Wilder is an amazing boxer and an equally amazing man.
When he was only 19, his daughter was born with spina bifida and doctors informed him that she might never be able to walk. In order to support her significant medical needs, he drove a beer truck until the day he wandered into a gym in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and decided on the spot that he would become a boxer. Three years later, and with less experience than any other boxer in Beijing, he won the bronze medal at the Olympic games.
It is an understatement to say that this 6’7″ heavyweight is an unlikely and inspirational story. So, it was my great honor and privilege to meet and photograph Deontay Wilder one summer afternoon in Colorado.
When I first walked into the boxing gym where the portraits would be made, Deontay was actually in the ring jabbing, punching, bobbing and weaving with another boxer. Someone pointed him out to me and I immediately noticed his amazing build. But, it wasn’t until he stepped out of the ring and I shook his hand that I got a real sense of just how tall this man was was and how incredibly long his arms were. He was practically in another zip code when I reached out to shake his hand. Then, he opened his mouth to speak and out came the words of a man deeply aware of his ability to intimidate others with his immense size. I was expecting a deep and powerful voice, but his words were actually gentle and smooth and he spoke so softly that I actually had to lean in to hear him. As I watched him captivate everyone with his broad smile and shy demeanor, I glanced down at the hand I had just shaken and realized the awesome power that those hands possessed. I imagined what it must be like to stand toe-to-toe with him and I was glad that my camera was all that would ever come between us.
I couldn’t wait to shoot this gentle giant.
The Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is an amazing facility and one of the places in the United States where Olympic hopefuls come to train. It’s also been home to fifty aspiring sports and portrait photographers who attend the Summit Sports Photography Workshop. Photographers from around the world spend a week honing their skills in action and portrait photography and they have the opportunity to photograph world-class athletes while in attendance. Each photographer is given a credential that allows them access to the training center and the athletes that train there, and many attendees capture portfolio-building images during the week.
Each year at the workshop, I take a group of students into the field and we photograph an athlete in what is hopefully a visually interesting way. We’ve shot cyclists, swimmers, wrestlers and many other athletes and all of them have been eager to have someone take the time to make pictures of them.
When Deontay agreed to be photographed, I was elated. Boxers are wonderful subjects and the boxing gym at the Olympic training center offered a number of interesting possibilities. Since I was going to have about twenty students there to shoot with me, it’s large size would be a huge asset. But, the downside of this particular gym is that it’s clean, it’s new, it’s windowless and it’s lit with fluorescent light. In truth, the shortcomings of the gym actually made it a perfect place to solve several lighting challenges and also demonstrate how the control of light is the best way accentuate the “good” parts of any environment.
We arrived about two and a half hours before we were scheduled to shoot so that we could have enough time to set-up three completely different sets. I like to do this both when I’m shooting for an assignment and also when I teach. When I’m given an actual assignment, I try to deliver three completely different pictures because it gives me three separate chances to be published. When I’m teaching, shooting the same person three different ways shows the students a variety of techniques and solutions to lighting challenges. With Deontay as our subject, the first shot was going to be “safe” portrait of him sitting on a stool, the second was going to be more dramatic and risky shot of him up against a wall and the last shot was going to combine the graphics in the boxing ring with only his feet.
On any project, the people you surround yourself with make all the difference and I was very fortunate to have photographer Christy Radecic along on this shoot. She has an amazing eye, sees things others don’t, and makes suggestions that always make the pictures better. Together with the students, Christy and I built the three sets beginning with the portrait on the stool. The shot was going to have three lights that were very controlled and each had a specific purpose. The first, a small soft box, would mostly light his face and then fall of as the light moved down his large frame. The second light would accentuate his muscles using a narrow grid positioned off to camera left. The third light would be a slightly wider grid that would light the wood floor behind him and separate his shape from the background to give the image some depth.
The second image was going to be made with only one light modified with a 10-degree grid. My idea was to try to simulate a narrow shaft of light that might be passing through an imagined skylight above his head. In truth, the gym was completely illuminated by artificial lights and no daylight at all ever entered the room. My goal was to try to make the gym look like an old, gritty, well-used gym instead of the modern gym that it actually was and I wanted to isolate Deontay in the shaft of light. By positioning the grid about fifteen feet above his head, the quality of the light would become very specular and really accentuate his muscle tone and shape. Since we didn’t have a boom arm to work with that day, Christy had the critical task of tilting the light stand over him so that the shaft of light would strike his face and body just perfectly.
The final shot was made with a single head positioned 40 feet from the boxing ring to give the impression of late afternoon light streaming through a window. Without some actual late afternoon light to use, I decided to create my own using a head with a narrow reflector and a warming gel. I wanted the shot to look as though he was boxing and that I had just captured his feet among the ring graphics in some warm, afternoon light. I liked the graphics of the mat and thought that an image that didn’t show his face might round out the collection of images.
About the time we had all three sets constructed, Deontay finished his workout and was ready for pictures. He was absolutely drenched with sweat and his muscles were completely pumped with blood from the workout which only helped the images to look that much better. He was very cooperative and posed for me for several minutes before I handed the PocketWizard off to the students so that each of them could make a few pictures using the lighting we’d constructed. We repeated the process for the second and third shots and in less than thirty minutes, we had made three completely different images.
Once the workshop was over and I’d returned to my computer, I experimented with converting all of the images to black and white to see if they might actually look more powerful if all of the color were removed and the focus became only the shape and tone of the boxer. The color images are very different from the black and white conversions, but it’s really Deontay Wilder that carries the shots. In both versions, it’s still his gigantic, yet gentle presence that made him an amazing subject to make a memory with.
Five ideas that helped make Deontay Wilder a successful shoot:
- If the room is illuminated with fluorescent fixtures, just eliminate them from the photograph and control the mood using your own light.
- Light only the parts of the environment that strengthen the image.
- Use directional light to enhance muscles, shape and form.
- Create depth in a picture by using light, color and tone.
- It all starts with a great subject.