September 1, 2009
For the past 15 years I have been making portraits of professional athletes for a variety of editorial and advertising clients. Depending on whom I am photographing and what the end use of the image will be determines my approach to lighting and composition. Here are three of my favorite images and how I approached each assignment in terms of lighting.
Lance Armstrong, Cyclist
Getting the opportunity to make a portrait of Lance was incredibly special to me. Six years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer and underwent chemotherapy very similar to what Lance went through in his bout with testicular cancer. His book, It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back to Life (Berkley Trade, 2001), was a huge influence and inspiration to me during my treatment.
This assignment came from Competitor Magazine for its cover story on Lance winning the Tour de France. We had about 10 minutes for the shoot, which took place in a hotel banquet room. I knew I wanted to make a tight headshot of Lance as I often do with athletes. As photographers, we have the unique opportunity to get as close as we choose to people, who in all other aspects of their lives control the proximity of people to themselves. I chose to shoot with a 4 x 5 view camera. I have found that the physical presence of a large format camera establishes a slightly different perception in the eyes of my subjects.
Arriving with an assistant to the location one hour prior to the shoot, we set up two different backgrounds and two lighting sets. For the image pictured, I rented (4) four-foot, two-light, Kino Flo lights, which are lights that are fluorescent tube sources mainly used in the motion picture industry. I had just finished working on a television set where I was introduced to these lights. I liked the idea of being able to create a large square of light, much like a ring flash, but on a much bigger scale. By changing the type of tubes, you can choose either daylight or tungsten color temperatures. In this case, I chose to shoot with daylight tubes and daylight color film.
A 300mm lens was placed on the camera and the camera then placed on a heavy tripod. Each Kino Flo was placed on a stand and the boxes configured to make a square. The bottom light was just off the ground and the top light about 3.5 feet above it. The camera was then positioned so the lens was in the center of the light sources. The camera was about 10 feet away from the blue seamless paper background.
Next, an assistant sat on a stool three feet away from the lights and took an incident meter reading with the dome of the meter aimed at the camera. This reading was 1/60 at f/8. I then looked though the camera’s groundglass and adjusted the camera position until his face almost filled the frame. In doing so, I needed to draw the bellows of the camera back. Since the film plane was now further way from the lens, I needed to factor in this light loss or bellows compensation, as it’s known. There are a few tools you can use to determine this exposure change. Based on experience, I figured the change to be about 1/2 of a stop, making my camera exposure 1/60 at f/5.6 and 1/2.
A Polaroid back with Type 59 color film was used to test the exposure and lighting prior to Lance’s arrival. Once he arrived, we sat him in the same position and began shooting immediately. To confirm our exposure, I shot a color Polaroid and then went straight to film, shooting about 20 sheets of 4 x 5 and two sheets of Type 55, black-and-white Polaroid. The black-and-white Polaroids, which contain a negative, were not processed until we got back to the studio. This set of images took about five minutes, having Lance make minor changes in his pose and expression between each shot. I then moved him to a second set and shot for another five minutes.
The film was processed at the lab, normally in E-6 chemistry and the Polaroids processed at my studio. In the end, I liked the black-and-white images better and made an 8 x 10 print from the negative. I then copied the negative back onto a sheet of color 4 x 5 film using a view camera and a copy light setup in the studio. These images were then processed in normal E-6. This left me with a black-and-white transparency of the image.
Next, I taped this transparency to a piece of opaque Plexiglass and recopied the image at a one-to-one ratio back onto a 4 x 5 chrome film. However, this time I lit the image from behind with a small flashlight. During a long exposure (about three minutes) the image was painted in with light. When using this technique, I move the flashlight around in small circles, not leaving the light focused on any area of the image for an extended time. Again, Polaroids were used to test the exposure prior to shooting film. Since the flashlight has a tungsten light source, and I was shooting daylight-balanced film, a warm, yellow color shift was created on the final image. I have tried to create this look in Photoshop, but have not been able to come up with a result that has the same feel.
Robert Gallery, NFL, Oakland Raiders
This image of Robert Gallery was taken for The Upper Deck Company as part of its annual NFL Rookie Premiere. After each year’s NFL draft Upper Deck holds a photo day for all of the top draft picks. A group of seven to 10 photographers are hired to shoot at a single location, each given a specific assignment. While some shooters take portraits, others will shoot action images; the objective being to create a large library of images, each with a different look. The group of images is then used to create a card set prior to the start of the season. Once the season starts, assembling this group again would be nearly impossible. My assignment on this particular shoot was to make portraits in a locker room using both current and vintage jerseys.
I was using a large Chimera softbox as a single light source. For each player, we were only given five to seven minutes so I needed to keep the lighting simple. I had the light set up on a stand and was side lighting each portrait. When Robert walked in—all 6 foot 7 inches, 325 pounds of him—I knew I had the opportunity for a unique image. After taking several frames with the lighting setup I had been using, I quickly took the softbox off the light stand and placed it on the ground in front of the camera.
This created classic “monster” lighting on his face. The camera, a handheld, Canon EOS 1D, with a 28–70mm lens, was positioned just over the top of the light. I then asked Robert to take a seat on a stool and lean out to camera with his elbows on his knees. This forced him to slightly drop his head and look up at the camera. My assistant quickly took an incident meter reading of the strobe from Robert’s face with the dome aimed at the light. Since the front of the light was only about four feet from his feet, I dialed down the power on the strobe pack so that the flash was not too bright. This yielded a meter reading of 1/125 at f/8. Directing Robert to make minor adjustments to his head position between frames, I only shot about 10 images before it was time to move on to the next player.
Back at the studio, using Photoshop and Nik Color Effects Pro, I darkened the background, retouched a few blemishes and increased the overall contrast of the image. The end result was my favorite image from all of the players that day. It captures the intensity of Gallery’s persona on the field.
Tony Gwynn Senior, MLB, San Diego Padres
This image was taken several years back as part of an advertising campaign for No Fear Clothing. Tony had just won his sixth batting title and awarded another silver bat trophy for this accomplishment. I was given the assignment to make a portrait of him with all of his silver bats. The main problem was that he could not physically hold seven bats at once. To solve this, we posed him with three bats and digitally created the others.
The shoot took place in my studio in San Diego. Once again we had limited time, so we conducted our pre-light the day prior to the shoot and tested out several setups. I made arrangements to get the bats ahead of time to see how we would need to light them.
Again, I opted for a 4 x 5 camera, this time with a 90mm wide-angle lens. I wanted to shoot down on Tony to get an interesting perspective and felt this was the most flattering angle for him. To light this set, I used one Super Chimera softbox on a stand. It was placed just to the right of the camera. This would create a nice specular highlight on the bats, and flattering, soft light on Tony’s face. Next, I set up a Broncolor Hazylight above the set and just out of camera frame. This is a 4 x 4-foot soft light attached to a rolling stand. Prior to the shoot, I took a photograph of a baseball on black background and had it made into a 4 x 4 transparent display print. By placing the print over the diffusion surface of the light, I was able to create the reflection of the balls in the tops of each bat.
Incident meter readings were used to determine the exposures of each light and test Polaroids were taken of an assistant prior to the shoot. The exposure was 1/60 at f/32. I needed to have as much depth of field as possible to pull focus from the bats to the reflective light source so the baseballs would be in focus.
On the day of the shoot, we took 24 images of Tony in poses similar to this image. Once the film was processed, the art director and myself looked over the images and selected our hero image and one other that would be used to create the additional bats in Photoshop. The following year Tony won his eighth batting title and keeping the image current was as easy as adding another bat.
Developing unique techniques to make portraits is one of the things I enjoy most about being a photographer. Over the past few years, I have been capturing images less on film and using digital capture and Photoshop techniques to create new images. The technical process has changed, but the visualization of the final image and need to make the right light remains. When people ask what lighting they should use on any given shoot, I tell them to trust their instincts. Photography is part science and part feel. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, explore and trust your instincts. With assignment work, you have to satisfy the expectations of your client; I always try to do that first, then push it a little further to see if I can exceed my own expectations. (Visit Tim’s website, www.mantoani.com, for more info.)
Tim Mantoani is a graduate of Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, CA, specializing in advertising photography. He was the studio manager for renowned photographic educator Dean Collins. Later Tim shot for a variety of advertising and editorial clients under the Collins banner as an associate photographer. In 1995 he started his own studio in San Diego. Known for his dramatic portraits, he has a showcase of his athlete and sports photography published in his book, Mindgames, Explorations Into The Mental Area of Sport. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, and Newsweek, among others. His corporate clients include Coca-Cola, Reebok, Bank of America and DirecTV. His passion and love aside from photography are his wife and son, Lynn and Lucas.