Boxers are a special breed of athlete. To willingly put yourself into a position where you have a very real chance of being rendered unconscious by another human being takes guts. More guts than I have anyway.
Sports Illustrated assigned me to photograph boxer Victor Ortiz who will be fighting Floyd Mayweather this Saturday night in Las Vegas. Mayweather is a legendary fighter and comes to the bout with a record of 41-0. More than half of those victories are by knockout. But, Ortiz is slowly becoming a legend in his own right and he’s always been a terrific story.
Victor Ortiz was born and raised in the midwest—Kansas, of all places. When he was seven, his mother abandoned Ortiz and his family to live with another man. He is quoted as saying, “I hated that lady. I drew her a card once with a little rose on it and I gave it to her. She just threw it down and said ‘What do I want that shit for?’ That’s when I picked up boxing.”
His father abandoned the family a few years after the mother left. Ortiz was then placed into the Kansas foster care system and began dealing drugs to get by. He later won the Kansas Golden Gloves championship as a young teen and when he saw his picture in the newspaper, it moved him. “The photo came out all over Kansas and that’s when it hit me. I realized that I didn’t need to be involved with selling drugs in order to make something of myself. I said, ‘Screw this. I don’t need all this crap or this guilt.’”
In person, he’s a soft-spoken man who is way too handsome to be a boxer. He’s the kind of guy I’d expect to shoot for a fashion layout wearing a Hugo Boss suit and Bruno Magli shoes, not boxing gloves and a mouth guard. But once he’s in the ring—or in front of something he can punch—the boxing gloves suit him quite well. Terrifyingly well.
My friend Rick brought me up to speed for this shoot. He’s a boxer himself and he was instrumental in helping me to understand Ortiz’s boxing style and several aspects of his career. He sent me videos to watch of a few of his key fights and I got to know both Ortiz’s technique and his personna. One of the things I noticed while I was watching one of the films from 2007 was that he had a tattoo across his back that read, “Ortiz.” By 2010, that tattoo had been replaced by a larger, more graphic tattoo. When I met the fighter, I asked him about why he’d changed it and he told me that it was because he’d learned that his father, who was now in prison, was telling everyone that he deserved all of the credit for Ortiz’s boxing success. Ortiz resented his father for not acknowledging his hard work, so he had the tattoo covered up. When I heard that, I realized that the tattoo might be another possible image for the story.
The morning of the shoot, I loaded up my car with three Profoto packs, eight heads, four sling bags full of stands and light modifiers, a case full of cameras and lenses, a case full of meters and other light control equipment, and a Macbook Air. Nine cases, four sling bags, eight sandbags, a large cart, and Rick and I all ready to go. Then, my previously trustworthy Lexus GX470 wouldn’t start. Fortunately, the Auto Club can now change a battery on location. 55 minutes and a lot of pacing later, we were on our way.
Once we arrived at the gym—and I saw that it was lit with rows of dull, fluorescent lighting—I immediately began discussing what I wanted to do with one of his trainers. It quickly became clear that I was going to have to light everything with strobes, weave all of my shots into Ortiz’s workout, and not have any lights or cameras in the way. By assuring the trainer that we wouldn’t impede the workout, I created an ally, and he was later instrumental in helping us to get the shots we wanted in a very short amount of time.
“You’re so lucky to shoot for Sports Illustrated. I’m sure you get so much more time than I ever get”
Not true. In fact, in the eleven years that I’ve been shooting for S.I., I’ve often gotten less time with a professional athlete because they have far greater time constraints than a high school or college athlete. But, I still need to find a way to get the pictures no matter how little time I get.
The way I try to compensate for the lack of time is by bargaining for more time up front to prepare the sets. I will often promise less time with the athlete in front of the camera in exchange for more set-up time before the actual shoot. For Ortiz, I had to capture whatever I needed in the moments between sparring, the heavy bag and the speed bag. The trainers didn’t want him to cool down, so I agreed to take no more than about 90 seconds for each shot if they’d let me get into the gym hours before Ortiz arrived so that I could get all of the sets built in advance. Once all the technical stuff was out of the way, all I’d have to do is direct him and capture the images I was after.
My plan was to shoot three completely different images of Ortiz so that the editors at the magazine would have plenty to choose from. The first shot would be a picture of him standing in the ring near the ropes. I found an elevated position and decided that using the floor of the ring would give me a clean background so that if the editors wanted to run an image across two pages, they would have plenty of open space for type. This would be the “safe” image. The next shot would be of his back and since it would also be in the ring, I could shoot both pictures during the sparring part of his workout.
The two images were made with the same core lighting set-up. The main light was a Chimera pancake lantern clamped to an exposed rafter about fifteen feet above the ring. There was also a head with a narrow-angle reflector high up on a stand to provide some value on the floor behind him. The third light was a 10-degree grid about 8 feet in front of him. This light was to create a catchlight in each of his eyes and just provide a hint of fill to his face. The idea was to make the scene look dramatic, but not to let his eyes go completely black.
The final shot would be of Ortiz working the speed bag. Unfortunately, the bag was positioned at the end of what was essentially a long hallway. With very little room to place lights that wouldn’t end up being seen by the 24mm lens, I decided to place the main light on a boom arm, control it with some barn doors, and then bounce it off the wall behind the speed bag. I positioned it so that it would light the opposite side of him from the camera and provide some shape and definition to his body and to the perspiration on his face. The second light was a medium light bank that was up high and behind him, and turned way down to just prevent the camera side of his body from falling into deep shadow. The final light was a grid up on another boom arm and pointed almost straight down. It was there just to create a little interest on the wall behind Ortiz.
The first frame of Victor Ortiz was made at 2:18:31 p.m., according to the metadata recorded by the camera. The last image of the day was made at 2:27:02 p.m.—less than ten minutes later. We arrived three full hours before that first frame was made with the intention of being completely polished and dialed in before Ortiz arrived. Once he began his workout, I was able to just focus on capturing the grace and skill of a talented athlete. On Saturday night, that grace and skill will be on display in Las Vegas, on HBO, and around the world.