Thursday, September 10, 2015

NFL Rookie Goals for the 2015 Season

Back in May, I was tasked by the NFL to photograph portraits of a select group of players from the 2015 rookie class.  As I began to conceptualize my portraits, I tried to think of a way to make a memorable project for both myself, and for the rookies.  Since it was going to be the first time that many of them would be wearing their uniforms, I knew that it was just more than a typical portrait shoot, and that they would undoubtedly be excited about getting their picture taken.   In my head, I wanted to come up with something that would be meaningful to these guys, along with something that would be able to show the world what goes through the mind of someone turning pro and achieving a lifelong dream. 

I had recently bought a Fuji Instax Mini 90 Neo classic instant camera.  Many of you might know this as a “Polaroid” camera, although technically it is not, it’s just easier to understand when associated with that name.  It is an instant film camera but is made by Fuji.  For years, Fuji has had a niche audience on the instant photo market with their Instax cameras, and I believe that even they’ve surpassed Polaroid on becoming the “new polaroid.”  I like the concept of the instant print, but I never really wanted to own what looked like a "toy camera."  It wasn’t until I saw the Instax Mini 90 Neo classic that I was sold on it, especially since I have wanted a Fuji X100t for so long, but could not get myself to splurge on it, so I had no problem spending $150 for a smaller, cuter version that looked kind of like it.  There are a few differences between the Neo classic and the regular Instax camera.  The first is that it has two shutter buttons – one for vertical compositions, and the traditional horizontal shutter that everyone is used to.  The second major difference is that it has the ability to take multiple exposures, which I thought was a fun addition, and that's one of the main reasons I decided to buy it.

A double exposure is a technique in photography that allows you to take two exposures, and combine it into one frame.  There are many creative things that I have seen done with multiple exposures, and many of the current digital SLR cameras have this feature as a built-in feature.  To do it on film, however, is a different challenge because not only do you not have the luxury of having unlimited exposures with digital, but you don’t really know what you are going to get because there is no preview, and therefore less forgiveness in composition.  The camera has an optical viewfinder, which is not 100%, which means what you see when you peer through the hole is not exactly what the resulting photo will look like.  It is definitely a challenge, especially given the small size of the photos, and when you are asking players who are already on a tight schedule to be patient as you take multiple exposures, and then ask them to wait for the photo to develop and process (and if you're wondering, yes, many of them did "shake it like a Polaroid picture"). 

Photographing Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota with a Fuji Instax Neo Classic 90 camera

The print is about the size of a credit card, and I selected this medium specifically because I wanted to be able to give the players something that they could keep with them.  As you know, there is a small white space on the bottom (in vertical orientation) or on the side of the photo (in horizontal orientation).  Before I began shooting my  portraits for NFL, I asked the players to begin thinking of a single goal that they wanted to accomplish in their first season as a pro.  When I conceptualized the idea for this project, I remembered something that someone once told me about achieving your goals.  Regardless of how big a goal might be, it helps to set small, achievable goals for yourself.  I simply wanted the rookies to set a single goal.  When I asked them to think of one, many of them admitted that they had not set any goals yet, but a few had already had some goals in mind.  The bottom line is that I wanted every one of them to have something to reach for this year, and I intended for them to keep the photo so that they'd always remember their hopes throughout the year, and throughout their careers. 

Since this was somewhat of an extracurricular project and not my actual assignment, my main concern was first getting portraits of the players.  After shooting their "real portraits," I introduced them to the concept of my project.  For each player, I had to make at least two prints – one for me, and one for them to take home with them.  Sometimes the initial images didn't come out the way I wanted them to (see Leonard Williams below), so I worked at it multiple times before I was happy (they all kept the better-looking ones).  Some players were really open to sticking around to make sure I got what I needed, which was great.   For the double exposures, I came up with the idea to photograph their team logos as the second image.  Since I was short on time, I had a library of each team's logo saved on my computer, which allowed my assistant to pull up the logo on the computer whenever a new player walked in to have his picture taken.  I then moved from photographing the player to my computer screen and shot the logo on the screen.  In hindsight, I probably could have done something a little more creative, or even had a print of the logo made so that I wasn’t eyeballing the composition from my computer screen, but time was tight, and I felt that it was most practical for me to pull the images from my computer and photograph the screen directly.  Given the challenge in composing two exposures accurately without a true preview, I ended up with a lot of photos where the players' faces were covered up.  As I mentioned before, the challenges of accomplishing a successful double exposure under these conditions (especially when each sheet of film costs money) wasn't easy.  Since this an experimental process, I didn’t place too much stress on the mistakes.  After being disappointed with some of the early results, I eventually scrapped the idea of the double exposure, and got down to the true essence of the project - to get the guys to set a goal, write it down, and have something meaningful to take home with them.  As a result, some of the final images might not be the most visually stimulating, but I hope that you can appreciate the personal nature of the images.  

New York Jets defensive lineman Leonard Williams reviews his instant prints.  You can see the third one is still developing on the table.
Overall, I feel that it provides a small look into the minds of these guys.  To me, it is cool just to see what their handwriting looks like!  These are little things that make them more human to me, kind of like that time at the Pro Football Hall of Fame when I saw my childhood hero Emmitt Smith eating a sandwich (yes, they do normal-people things).  Speaking of the Hall of Fame, I had a chance to photograph the Hall of Fame game this year between the Minnesota Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  I saw one of the rookies I photographed back in May – Stefon Diggs, who had a reception that almost led to a touchdown.  I walked up to Stefon after the game and he remembered me.  I told him not to forget about his goal for this season, in which he replied that he has not forgotten.  I told the players to keep the photo with them in their locker, or wherever they need to come back to it easily for inspiration throughout the season.  I have no idea whether or not they will do it or not, but the fact that Stefon remembered, offered a little bit of validation to the project.  It's also something that I hope made their first shoot in the NFL a memorable and meaningful experience, and it is meant to be something we might all look back on in 10 years and see how things turned out.  I carried over the idea when we celebrated my son's first birthday a month later, and I had our friends and family take a photo with the Instax camera, and write down a goal that they would like him to achieve in his life.  Naturally, I had them pose for two photos, so that they could keep one, and we have the other copy in a scrapbook for him to see when he grows up. I digress...

Ok so NFL football is here again!  As the 2015 season kicks off today, I hope that every one of these rookies has a successful season, and achieves all of their goals one at a time, beginning with the ones they set back in May.

Take a look at what they wrote down (most of them, at least), in their own words.

Oakland Raiders WR Amari Cooper

Detriot Lions RB Ameer Abdullah

Baltimore Ravens WR Breshad Perriman

Green Bay Packers QB Brett Hundley

New York Jets QB Bryce Petty

Baltimore Ravens RB Javorius "Buck" Allen

Kansas City Chiefs WR Chris Conley

Tennessee Titans RB David Cobb

Arizona Cardinals RB David Johnson

Miami Dolphins WR DeVante Parker

Carolina Panthers WR Devin Funchess

New York Jets WR Devin Smith

Tennessee Titans WR Dorial Green-Beckham

Cleveland Browns RB Duke Johnson

New Orleans Saints QB Garrett Grayson

Houston Texans WR Jaelen Strong

Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston

Washington Redskins WR Jamison Crowder

Miami Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi

Chicago Bears RB Jeremy Langford

Atlanta Falcons WR Justin Hardy

Buffalo Bills RB Karlos Williams

Chicago Bears WR Kevin White
New York Jets DL Leonard Williams (take 1)
New York Jets DL Leonard Williams (take 2)
New York Jets DL Leonard Williams (take 3 - I really wanted to nail down that tattoo exposure)
Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota

Washington Redskins RB Matt Jones (He wrote over his face, "1000 yard rusher")

Baltimore Ravens TE Maxx Williams

San Diego Chargers RB Melvin Gordon

San Francisco RB Mike Davis

Philadelphia Eagles WR Nelson Agholor

Indianapolis Colts WR Phillip Dorsett

Jacksonville Jaguars WR Rashad Greene (that is a photo of the Virgin Mary tattoo on his arm)

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Sammie Coates

St. Louis Rams QB Sean Mannion

Minnesota Vikings WR Stephon Diggs

Atlanta Falcons RB Tevin Coleman

Jacksonville Jaguars RB T.J. Yeldon

St. Louis Rams RB Todd Gurley

Green Bay Packers WR Ty Montgomery

Seattle Seahawks WR / Returner Tyler Lockett

Cleveland Browns WR Vince Mayle

Friday, July 10, 2015

NFLPA Rookie Premiere Portraits: Behind-the-scenes photographing the NFL's newest young stars

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback and 2015 #1 overall draft pick, Jameis Winston

 A few months ago, I was asked to photograph portraits of NFL rookies at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere.  This is a four-day event hosted by the NFL Player’s Association, in which over 40 of the most exciting and marketable young stars are introduced to business partners, such as Topps, Panini, Nike, EA Sports, and New Era.  It features one of the most exciting moments for the young rookies – putting on their official Nike team uniforms for the first time.   If you’ve ever wondered how they get photos of these players as Rookies onto trading cards before they’ve ever played a game, this is the place where they do it. approached  me about the shoot about a month before the event, and I started to think about portrait ideas.  Since this was the first time I was doing this, I wanted to provide  them with the most versatile images for their uses, so players against a white backdrop was the first thing I wanted to do.  Portraits on white are relatively straight-forward, and players can easily be “cut out” to be placed on various backdrops if they so desired.  I went into this with the intention of having two separate “sets” for the players to pose against.  The second was going to be a dark backdrop, with some sort of creative flair.

The inspiration behind my photographic vision:  Around the same time I started thinking of portrait ideas, I was at a photo booth job at Kaiser Permanente hospital in Downey,  and stopped for lunch at Portos bakery.  As I waited in line to order my lunch, I noticed  a bread rack behind the counter, which had a single light bulb shining above it.  The rack had wooden slats across it, and as the light shone through, it cast shadows against the wall, which I thought looked really cool.  I  knew then that I wanted to incorporate this type of look into some of my portraits.  The idea was to shoot it against a dark backdrop, and have these rays of light shining down, infused with a lot of smoke and fog.

I began to think of a few different ways to create this on a larger scale.  After meddling around with different materials like wood, duct tape, and poster board, my wife suggested that I use vertical blinds.  This idea saved me so much time and trouble and it was simple and brilliant!  I went off to Home Depot and bought a few sets of vertical blinds.  While I was there, I also purchased a few sheets of plexiglass to use on my white backdrop portraits. 

I called my good friend, Shawn Cullen to check his availability for assisting on the day of the shoot.  Over the next month or so, we talked about the best way to execute the two setups under one 10x20’ tent on grass (everything was shot on the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where USC plays their home football games).  Together with NFL photos lead photographer and photo editor Ben Liebenberg, I made a comprehensive checklist of gear to bring – most of it from NFL Network's very own TV studio, and photo studio.

The shoot was going to happen on a Saturday, but we decided that it was in our best interest to begin setting things up on Friday.  I left home around 11 am to pick up a rental van to haul all the gear (The Chrysler Town and Country / Dodge Grand Caravan are ideal because of their “stow and go” seating ,which allow you to fold downthe seats and turn it into a cargo van).  When I got to the Hertz counter at LAX, they told me that they were going to put me in a Nissan Quest.  When I heard that, I immediately made them check their lot for one of the aforementioned vans (I had seen plenty of them on the return lot on my way in), and after a 20 minute delay, finally was on my way.  I stopped by the NFL Network first to pick up gear (lighting, grip, stands, backdrops), and then back home to load my own gear (lighting, camera).  From there, I drove straight to J.W. Marriott hotel in L.A. Live, where a lot of the Rookie events were happening that week.  I was there to pick up my credential, and apparently was lucky enough to secure it after their office had closed. 

By the time I got to the Coliseum, Shawn had already found our designated tent on the field, and was awaiting his credential from me before he could proceed onto the field.  I was able to park the van close to the field inside the tunnel where the players usually enter the field.  The Coliseum has very strict rules about which carts you are allowed to roll onto the field, and they provided a handful of “approved carts,” which were in high demand from all of the vendors trying to unload at the same time.  I received a floor plan a week before and our tent was originally one of the closer ones to the tunnel, but upon our arrival, it turned out that our tent was moved to a different location for reasons unknown, and we ended up being the furthest tent on the opposite side of the field.  As a result, we had to travel the furthest distance to transport all of our heavy gear across the length of the field.   

Notice the tent opening out to the stands instead of the field.  That was intentional.
By the time we finished unloading, our tent was not even done being set up, since Friday was also the set-up day for the company responsible for providing all the tents.  This actually proved beneficial to us because we were able to tell the guys setting it up that we preferred to have the tent open up into the stands, instead of into the field.  Given the small amount of space (10x20) in the tent for two setups, we predicted that I would end up having to stand outside of the tent to shoot, and the direction of opening greatly helped reduce flare, as well as protect our set from wind (the tent with no walls opposite of us had a seamless destroyed by the wind during lunch).  It also provided a sense of privacy, because our setup was not out in the open.  We were one of the few people to set up the day before, and I am really glad that we made that decision.  First of all, it takes a lot of time to unload, set up, and test.  Second of all, you never know what kind of issues you might run into.  In our case, our location was moved, and we spent some time talking to the electricians to make sure that we had enough juice to get us through our day, and that we got the power rig that we paid for.  While Shawn began setting everything up, I made my way to Samy’s to pick up a fog machine.  When I made my way back to the field, most of everything was already set up.  At the end of the day, we packed up the lighting gear and went home with them.  The backdrops stayed, so we already had a large portion of the work already done.   Since everything was on grass, we secured all the cables off the floor so as to avoid dew and wetness.  We laid the acrylic pieces over the white seamless, which actually helped protect the paper from wetness.  It did get a little wet, but there was no condensation where the acrylic sheets were.  We also placed 3 tables under the white seamless, above the grass, which provided us with a flat surface for the players to stand on without having their cleats decimate the paper.   You can see in the photo below that there are 3 sheets of acrylic placed next to one another.  They were purchased from Home Depot, at about $60 apiece.  There is a protective plastic sheet over both sides, and we waited until we were ready to shoot before peeling it off.  One added bonus was that the acrylic also kept our backdrop clean from shoe prints and cleat holes throughout the day, which made cleaning it up in post a lot easier.

Lighting test on our "white set" the day before the shoot.  Notice the "acrylic-paper-table-grass" sandwich below Shawn's feet.  3-light setup with 2 Dyna-Lite 1000 watt packs powering the umbrellas, and a single 1000 watt pack powering the main light modified with a Chimera OctaPlus to camera left.

If I were to do it all over again, I would have used a different material for the reflections.  Home Depot also supplies something called "thrifty white panel board," which covers just about the same surface area as the 3 acrylic pieces above, for just a little over $20.  The only reason that I opted not to go with the thrifty white panel board was because after packing a van full of gear, there was no way I was able to fit this large panel in there.  The 3 acrylic pieces were easy to stack and fit in a full van.  In hindsight, I would have purchased it after dropping off all the gear and made a second trip with an empty van.  The biggest benefit to the thrifty piece is that I would have not had to clone out the seams between the pieces in post, which actually took me longer than I was hoping. 

The next morning, we arrived at 6 am (shooting would begin at 8 am), and unloaded our lighting gear, carting it over to our tent across the field.  They wouldn’t let anybody cart anything on the playing field, so we had to go around the perimeter.  We were already done by the time most of the other vendors arrived to set up their own rigs.  That extra time we put in the night before was totally worth the peace of mind of having everything already set up.  Since we would start shooting at 8 am, we got the fog machine going around 7:45.  Before we knew it, our tent was full of fog, and it was absolutely uncontrollable.  Not only did test photos look washed out against our black backdrop, but it was also spilling over to our white set, and washing that out as well.

We were in some trouble with 15 minutes to go before shooting.  Sometimes things don't go according to plan, and you have to adapt quickly.  It also helps to have a good assistant who is able to think and act quickly.
 I ran over to grab a large industrial fan from another tent, and we began airing out our tent as quickly as possible.  Within 20 minutes, most of the fog had dissipated, and I was hoping that we would not get any players in for their pictures until the entire tent was clear.  Thankfully, the players were running late for their group photo, and we didn’t actually see our first player (Tyler Lockett) until around 8:15 am.  By that time, there was no more fog, and we were back in business.  So much for that idea!  I think if we were in a larger space, and not enclosed in a tent, we may have been able to achieve the look I was going for, but in this case, it was just not meant to be.  At least we gave it a shot.

From 8:15 am to 12 pm, players made their way into my tent for their portraits.  I started them off on the white seamless, which was lit by two large umbrellas as backdrop lights, and a large Chimera OctaPlus as the main light  I ran each guy through a set of poses, then had them step off and onto the grass in front of my black backdrop, which was lit by a combination of Profoto, Dyna-Lite, and Elinchrom lighting.  The main light was a Profoto B4 with a beauty dish.  We had backlights aimed at the subject with Dyna-Lite heads with grids, and the top light creating the streaks were made by an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra head directly overhead some vertical blinds.  For remote triggering of the lights, I used the Pocket Wizard Plus III transceiver units, which allows zone triggering.  This allowed me to turn the overhead light on or off if I so desired.  As a result, I was actually able to achieve 3 different portrait looks.  By turning off the overhead light, I could eliminate the light stripes on the backdrop, effectively giving me a clean black backdrop.

The "black set" is a 4-light setup.  It has an overhead light to create the streaks, two backlights to separate the subject from the cloth, and the main light is a Profoto beauty dish behind me to camera right.  The umbrella to the left is the right background light on my "white set," which gives you an idea of how we put two sets next to each other.

At 12 pm, we broke for lunch, where we sat amongst the players.  I used this time to eat quickly and send a few images to the NFL’s social media team.  After an hour, we resumed shooting, and more players cycled through the set.  At the end of the day, we finished shooting around 5:00 pm.  All in all, 41 players were photographed.  You could tell after lunch that a lot of the players’ energy levels dipped a little because it was such a long day.  Our final subject was Bryce Petty, who had great energy, and I was glad to have finished my day with him because he kept everything light and fun. 

By the time we finished striking our sets, we looked out of our tent, and everybody was practically gone, and the only people left were the catering company responsible for taking down the tents.  We left around 6:30 pm, and I returned straight to the NFL Network, where I dropped off all the gear.  The next day, I returned the minivan to Hertz at LAX, and then the day after that, I returned the fog machine that almost ruined our photos (big thanks to the giant fan for saving us).

In order to hide the wrinkles in the cloth, we created a constant pulling effect by weighing it down with a few C-stand poles.
All in all, I felt great about the images that we produced.  This was the biggest assignment of my career to date, both figuratively, and literally, and a lot of work and planning was put into it.   I hope you enjoyed reading about the process, and can appreciate everything that goes into making these pictures! 

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Breshad Perriman

San Diego Chargers running back Melvin Gordon

Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper

Washington Redskins running back Matt Jones

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota

Buffalo Bills running back Karlos Williams

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson

New York Jets defensive end Leonard Williams

Miami Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Justin Hardy

Houston Texans wide receiver Jaelen Strong

St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley

To see more from this shoot, check out's 2015 NFLPA Rookie Premiere Portraits photo gallery.

Also, check out NFL Fan Pass's video from the Rookie Premiere. 

NFL Fan pass also did interviews with each rookie and used some more of my images from the shoot.  See them in the Rookie Confessionals.