Medium Format Digital Photography Shoot
Swimming Pool Shoot, Photographer in The Water Too!
Camera: Leica S2, Digital Medium Format
Leica APO-Tele-Elmar-S 180mm f/3.5
Aperture: Setting: f/11
Focal Length: 180mm (144mm equivalent on 35mm)
Shutter Speed: 1/125 ISO: 160
White Balance: 6000K
Camera Mode: Manual
Lighting: Various Hensel Lights, Chimera soft boxes, Rosco Cinefoil
The mission was to photograph 15 NBA Sacramento Kings dancers for a calendar in less than three days between a Photo Plus Expo speaking engagement in Manhattan and two upcoming, one-week, back-to-back photography workshops in the Virgin Islands. The location for the shoot was in Las Vegas and would also consist of working with 5 assistants, four make-up artists and hair stylist, the Maloof Sports and Entertainment Director, and the dance team director.
The Story Behind The Photo
While conducting a photography workshop at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas one year, I asked Gavin Maloof, one of the owners of the Palms Casino and Hotel at the time, if there was anything I could do for him since he’d done so much for me over the years. His response, “Would you like to shoot the Sacramento Kings Dance Team calendar?”
At the time, Gavin, along with his brothers and sister, were also the owners of the NBA Sacramento Kings basketball team and of course my answer was “Yes!” Later the next year we coordinated with his team’s Sports and Entertainment Director and lined up the shoot of 15 dancers to take place in Las Vegas at Gavin’s house.
The shoot was carefully planned between their busy schedules and mine, yet we were able to squeeze a three-day shoot between a speaking commitment I had at Photo Plus Expo in New York and two back-to-back U.S. Virgin Islands photography workshops with an average downtime at home of less than 36 hours between each trip, just enough time to do the laundry and pack out the required photography gear.
In fact, everyone’s schedules were so tight, the dance team flew in the night before immediately after preforming at a game between the Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers—they literally arrived around midnight and the first call times were at 8:00 a.m. The call time for my team and I to set up the lighting at Gavin’s house was 7:00 a.m. so you could say we were all in for a long day as the first day literally ended around midnight.
The second day, same call times, and we worked until around 1:30 a.m. of day three! That last day, about five hours after some light sleeping, and I’m headed back to Gavin’s house by 7:00 a.m. for the final dancers plus any reshoots from the previous two days. We would end that day around 7 p.m. and quickly started packing my gear as I had a flight to catch back to Texas so we could pack out for the Virgin Islands trip less than 36 hours later.
This particular calendar, 2011, Gavin wanted to put more into it than previous years, he wanted higher-end printing and a much larger calendar. Keeping that in mind, I called my friends at Leica New York and asked to use their medium format Leica S2 with various lenses. I wanted higher quality than 35mm as Gavin had also expressed interest in making a dance team poster. Leica delivered this medium format digital camera that looked like a 35mm DSLR on steroids.
The Maloof Sports and Entertainment Director, was the art director too and he wanted each dance team member photographed in a different location, so him, plus my first assistant, Joel Flora, and I roamed the outside of Gavin’s house picking spots, and this allowed us to determine our lighting requirements. Joel even had an app on his phone that showed us the position of the sun and shadows at any give day and time, this allowed us to determined if a location would require scrims for the sun.
We had plenty of lighting gear, plus at least four assistants to help Joel and I out, so this allowed the assembly of the lighting requirements we needed for at least three locations at once. This flexibility allowed us to have three models in make-up plus hair, so as the first one was finished, we’d go to their art director appointed location and get started.
Joel had a great plan, as we’d use one location for an active shoot, he’d have two of the other assistants building the lighting gear set-ups at the next location. Each location involved a different set-up. One minute we’re using a Chimera Octa57, in the 7-foot mode, the next minute we’re using side lighting provided by two Chimera medium strip boxes and a Hensel ring flash mounted with a special bracket on my camera.
Every situation was different. For example, when we were shooting around the swimming pool grotto, we used Hensel Porty Premium battery powered lighting packs with the appropriate Hensel powerheads. Our equipment inventory mimicked a small camera store lighting section.
We had various California Sunbounce reflectors, from the larger Pro version to the smaller Mini versions. We had various brands of scrims, some manufactured by Chimera, some by Matthews, some by California Sunbounce.
Our lighting was all Hensel, from their Integra Pro monolights to their AC power packs to their DC-powered, Hensel Porty Premium packs. Our soft boxes, all from Chimera, varied from small to large, both regular boxes and the narrow strip boxes, up to the larger octaboxes. Obviously we were stocked with at least a dozen C-stands and three-dozen sand bags! Sand bags are a must when working around water and electricity, plus for anchoring stands and power cords.
Now I’m from Texas, so you probably know I’m not a big fan of the cold and in November, typical Vegas is nice during the day, but cold at night—so when the art director wanted this specific shot, I knew I’d have to get in the swimming pool to get the shot from the best angle.
I wasn’t looking forward to it, but then when I put my hand in the pool to check the temperature, I was surprised, it’s a heated pool! Yeah! Well sort of, as I knew coming out of the pool, especially later in the evening, was going to kick the shrinkage factor in. I hate cold weather!
Safety is always number one in anything you do, and it was something we took serious—though when you see me sitting in a pool of water, holding the Leica S2 with a Hensel ring flash attached to it’s body, you’ll notice a power cord running to the battery power pack. Some photographers will probably say “Your nuts!” Sometimes I feel that way, but there is one thing to take into account. This is a battery-operated pack the cord is attached too, not plugged into a wall socket or power generator.
The battery pack itself is low-voltage and the only time any voltage will come through that power cord is when my Hensel radio-remote sends a signal to the Hensel radio receiver built-in to the battery pack. When the camera shutter is released, the Hensel radio transmitter mounted on the camera hot-shoe will trigger and send a radio single to the receiver. The radio trigger is powered by small 6-volt lithium battery, no high-voltage, and the receiver is built-in to the power pack.
When the Hensel Porty Premium power pack is triggered, yes, it releases a burst of high energy for a fraction of a second—this is why an assistant is holding the cord above the water. Even if I dropped the flash, cord and camera, the only time there is power through that cord, and only for a fraction of a second, is if the radio trigger is released, and it’s attached to the camera so if it fell in the water, it would not function, or trigger the power pack.
I’m sure someone will argue, but that’s why they say, “Don’t try this at home…this is being done by a highly trained professional.” I fully understand the electronics, the equipment, and the mechanics to know I need to operate safely, and my crew and I did everything extremely carefully to ensure this—plus I have faith in my assistants to do the right thing, and they did.
The Lighting Explained
The technique of lighting I’m using is two accent strip lights, which were sandbagged down, cords running underneath one leg of the C-stand, and carefully monitored by the assistants. These two Hensel monolights, with a Chimera Soft Strip medium box attached to their fronts, provided just the right amount of “side” or “accent” light.
The main light is the Hensel 1200-watt-second ring flash unit, in this particular photo. In the other shoots of the other dancers, sometimes we used the ring flash; sometimes we used the Chimera Octa57 as the main light and sometimes both; it all depended on the result I was looking for. Here I was mixing ambient light with a ring-flash and felt the model, plus her make-up would make for a great look with the ring flash output.
When it came to each separate location, Joel and I would discuss the possibilities—two heads are better than one right? The goal was always to use the most flattering light and the rule of lighting states, “The larger the light modifier, the sweeter (more forgiving) the light is.” That was the mantra we followed, make the main light as large as possible and scrim any hot spill light especially from the sun when we were shooting throughout the harsher-light hours of the day.
You might ask, well the ring flash is small and specular. True, however, the key here is the physics law, The Law of Reflection that states, “The angle of incidence is equal to the angle reflectance.” What this law means is that when both angles are equal, there are no shadows that will form texture where the light strikes and in this case, outline the pores or texture of the human skin, or facial skin. So naturally you get a smoother face from this light source, provided there are no other lights striking the face at the same time that are stronger in intensity and directed from different angles.
The reason we used it in the swimming pool at first, was because I didn’t want to put a Chimera Octa 57, configured in 7-foot mode in the water, at least I thought. At one point, I gave in, mainly because the situation at the time needed a bit more softer light than the previous model—so we actually put a C-stand in the swimming pool, sandbagged it down, and used a battery power-supplied head as the light attached to the soft box and then used C-stands stands to secure the cord above the water.
In a nutshell, everyone was exhausted from the minute we all arrived before the start of day one. The dancers had just flown in from a game night with the Lakers, and I had flown from Photo Plus Expo in New York City where I had lectured, briefly stopped at my home in San Antonio for a repack, then back on a plane and in the air to Las Vegas—three different time zones in three days.
We all worked long hours and on the second night we wrapped up around 1:30 a.m. after starting at 7:00 a.m. the morning before. The part of the shoot that took us from midnight to the wee hours of the morning was the group shot of all the dancers standing in Gavin’s swimming pool. It was cold, so when we’d stop to check the shot, the assistants would hand out towels to the models, as we needed them in the exact places in order to move them after checking each shot. The girls were super troopers.
We all headed back to the Palms Casino Hotel to get around five hours of rest before it all started again on the final day. The first half of the day we photographed the last dancers, then on the second half of the day we focused on any reshoots the art director wanted. Finally it ended, we re-packed our photography gear, and I stopped by the Palms Casino Hotel to grab my luggage then immediately rushed straight to the airport.
A day and a half later, I was unloading my gear from the baggage claim conveyor belt in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas airport, on to luggage carts as we were headed to our base camp to kick off two, back-to-back, week-long photography workshops. In the end on my flight back to Texas all I thought was mission completed. Note: A special thanks to Jeff Whitted for all the behind scenes photos!