What can I say? What has been the best unexpected early birthday present you’ve ever gotten? For me, it happened last July when I got a call from Brad Smith, the Director of Photography at Sports Illustrated, asking me to shoot an assignment.
I first met Brad a couple years ago when I attended the Eddie Adams Workshop (Barnstorm 24) in 2011. I found out about EAW and was encouraged to apply by Al Bello. He strongly recommended it as one of the best workshops, and besides, it was tuition free! It was my first time applying & final year eligible to attend and luckily all the stars aligned in my favor and I was accepted.
Al had been mentoring/helping me throughout the year via phone/email and when I told him I got accepted he requested that I be in his team. Each team at EAW has a Photographer, Editor and Producer. And the editor in Al’s team was Brad. At the time, he was the Senior Sports Photo Editor for the >NY Times.
It was an amazing experience getting to work with Brad and also being able to show him my portfolio (along with meeting everyone else and the entire EAW experience). Working with him during the workshop went well, which led him to call me for a few assignments for the Times. Those assignments also went well, and then about a year or so later Brad left the NY Times to be the DOP at Sports Illustrated. All those stars had to align for me to get the call for this assignment.
Needless to say, I was thrilled! There was no way in the world I would turn this down or not be available. And so he started telling me about the assignment, where it was going to be and who I was going to photograph. Then he told me what he was looking for visually.
He said “you’re going to have to get a grey seamless. You know how to light well, keep it simple and have fun.” He told me to keep the lighting simple and straight forward with the grey seamless, and that they would cut out Shayne and replace the background in post. In my mind, I knew exactly how he wanted the image lit and what he was looking for… and it bummed me out.
As soon as he told me this, it became bitter/sweet for me. Yes, it’s a dream to get an assignment from Sports Illustrated, and it would be a nice tear sheet to have, but regardless of where it’s published I wouldn’t be proud to have an image lit like that.
I LOVE lighting dramatic, I LOVE light fall off, I LOVE using real finicky lighting setups that aren’t simple to light and are dark & dramatic. I also know that for assignments like this, time is precious. They can tell you that you have an hour with the talent and the day of the shoot that can get cut in half or less. One time I ended up having 35 minutes which sounds like a lot but that included the time to set everything up. Another time I only had 39 seconds. It just the nature of the business and you have to be ready.
After talking with Brad, I got in touch with Clair at SI who was the editor I was working with. It was an absolute joy talking with Claire. She got me super excited about Shayne Skov and working with him. She told me about the premise of the photo shoot which was basically self proclaimed nerds who do really well in school and are bad asses on the field as well. The look they were going for was a nerdy appearance tied in with the rage the player exhibits on the field. So I had to go buy some props for the shoots.
At this point, everything was set. I knew what was expected of me both visually and for content. It included a number of different nerdy looks for Shayne and if time allowed some portrait of him in his full football uniform. The total amount of time I would have with him was an hour. But as I mentioned before, I’ve done enough assignment to know that there can be a great difference between the amount of time you’re told you’ll have and the actual amount of time you get the day of shoot.
This being my first assignment for SI, I didn’t want to waste any precious time doing my own thing or lighting setup. I wanted to achieve all the looks/outfits they wanted in the limited time I would have. But back to how they wanted/needed it lit… simple and against a grey background. That was like a dagger straight through my heart. Plus, the advice Brad gave me was to KEEP IT SIMPLE, HAVE FUN and don’t mess it up.
So what did I do with this amazing opportunity and first assignment for SI? I didn’t listen to what I was told, of course! At least on the keeping it simple part.
I love light and I’m always doing lighting test and practicing. So when assignments come around I don’t having to think about it. As I like to say, you have to practice enough to where you just become fluent with light and you can focus on you subject 100%. Whenever I get an assignment to photograph someone, I also research them as much as possible to create rapport with them once we meet.
For this assignment, in addition to looking up and doing research on Shayne, I did some extra homework on the lighting. (Side note: One really cool thing that I found about Shayne while researching him was that he spoke fluent Spanish! Which was awesome! I photographed enough Hispanic boxers during media days to know that if I start speaking Spanish to them, it helps create rapport really quickly with them vs. all other photographers/media that don’t speak Spanish).
At the time, I was in the market for new lighting triggers. I was using the Cyber Sync’s by Paul C Buff and pretty fed up with their design flaws. No on/off power button on the transmitter or battery powered receiver. It sounds like something really small but makes it a pain when you want to quickly switch from shooting with strobes to available light. Also, during a spur of the moment photo shoot I did in the Dallas Airport with a musician during a three hour layover, the battery powered cyber sync didn’t work! It had fresh batteries but just wouldn’t trigger the light. That was the last straw for me. I told myself NEVER again am I going to deal with these cheap triggers and their design flaws. I’ve always wanted Pocket Wizard‘s because of their range and actually having a simple On/Off button. I had been looking at the new Plus III’s and also the MultiMax, and one of the features in the MultiMax that really caught my eye is called “Speed Cycler.”
Basically what it does is that it lets you set different lights in groups (e.g. A,B,C,D) and then fire them off in succession. I’ve seen sports photographers use this feature to get quicker recycling time using multiple power packs and fire off 10fps using strobes. As soon as I saw this, I knew I could use it. I didn’t care to fire off strobes at 10fps; however, I did care about being able to fire off 2 different sets of lights back to back because they don’t have to be the same setup/look.
I have a Canon 1D Mark 4 that can fire off 10fps — that’s taking a frame every 100 milliseconds. In theory that’s 2 separated images in 200 milliseconds and with the speed cycler feature that could be 2 completely different looks shot nearly simultaneously. So I immediately began to draw out my lighting setups to figure out how many Pocket Wizards I would need, and how to configure everything. They also came in handy when explaining what I was trying to accomplish to my assistants.
One of the things I love doing is shooting tethered. I use the iUSB Port Camera to wireless transmit my images to the iPad for previewing. It’s a great way to quickly see what you’re doing and show your subject/client what the images look like on the fly. Here, you can see how I was able to capture the same/similar expressions but get different looks from the two lighting setups look but yet have the same/similar express.
The most essential thing was to have a MultiMax on the camera set with the Speed Cycler feature. The rest of the Pocket Wizards could be either MultiMax or Plus 3′s. You just need to be able to assign them to a letter group. So I assigned the lighting setup I wanted to “Group A” and the lighting setup Brad wanted to “Group B”.
With the MultiMax and a 1D Mark 4 I fired them off back to back, and in only 200ms, they give me nearly the same exact expression with two completely different looks. There was the solution to my problem! I would be able to give Brad what he needed/wanted and also fulfill my own personal creative needs! Win/Win.
This certainly wasn’t keeping it simple. It took a lot of extra work, setting up and figuring everything out. In fact, the whole time we were setting up what Brad said to me kept running through my head “KEEP IT SIMPLE & HAVE FUN.” It was ringing in my ears especially loud when we had an issue and couldn’t fire off one of the power packs with the Plus III.
Since each setup had a mono light with its own Pocket Wizard, I just used the slave on the power pack of the 1st look to trigger it. It ended up working out but really stressed me. Nearly to the point of pulling the plug on attempting to shoot the two looks simultaneously. Fortunately, we made it work. I later found out after contacting Pocket Wizard that the Plus III needed a firmware upgrade to trigger my Dynalite Power pack.
All this extra work and stress was completely worth it in the end, though, because I was able to make images for myself in the style I like and also do what was expected of me. I strongly believe that whenever you’re shooting, regardless if it’s a paid assignment or personal shoot, you should always shoot and do something for yourself whenever possible. Do something that makes you proud. If you’re just following directions or only doing what’s expected of you or what you’re being told to do then you’re just doing a job and going through the motions. And what’s the point in that? Might as well get a day job if you can’t fulfill your creative needs.
Now, I know there’s times where you have limited resources, extremely tight deadlines or have your Cyber Sync fail on you and you’re forced to make with what you have. Fortunately, with this shoot, I had enough time to prepare and the help of two great assistants, Niall and Victor, who helped me put all this together. Niall also took all the BTS photos and Victor filmed BTS Video. I’m not much of a reader, let alone a writer, and so I made a video to summarize everything I did. If you listen carefully, you can hear 2 shots going off for every picture:
Oh, and the best part? SI ended up using one of my photos as a two page spread! I thought it would only run as a single page. And the even BETTER part? When I got the selection from SI, a lot of the images they requested were of my look! And the two images they ended up publishing were with my look! That was so great to see.
HUGE special thanks to Brad for the opportunity, and everyone at the Eddie Adams Workshop for opening doors for me. Also thanks to Shayne Skov for being so awesome to work with and Mike at Standford for being so helpful. Here’s a photo with me & Shayne at the end of our shoot. With two different looks because… well… we can :)
About the author: Alexis Cuarezma is a San Francisco-based photographer who specializes in both on-location and in-studio portraiture. A passion for bold visuals has colored his whole life, and his childhood interest was nurtured at CSUEB, where he studied art, graphic design and photography. You can find more of his work on his website, or by following him on Instagram and Twitter. This article originally appeared here.