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.

No comments:

Post a Comment