Sport Portrait of an Olympic Hopeful | KelbyOne
I love photographing athletes: high-school athletes, national track stars, or Olympic medalists. They’ve all worked hard to achieve success, and this drive gives them an edgy, focused intensity. Recently, I got to photograph Sir Gregory (Sir) Salonis, a Taekwondo fighter, before he headed off to a national meet in Chicago. Sir’s goals are to win matches and make the U.S. Olympic team. He’s very focused, and my images would have to show this determination and aspiration. We met Sir in Denver at his training gym, where we unloaded the Elinchrom Rangers and Octa light banks to use on the shoot.
What we encountered at the location was a gym with lots of mirrors and pictures on the wall. The good news was that the gym was bright, which meant easy focusing. The bad news, however, was the busy walls: The posters would make the background too cluttered, and the mirrors would reflect our lights in the final shot. To create a better background, we took down a couple of flags and hung them on a clean wall in the gym. I love the symbolism of the American flag—I could already see Sir standing on the medal podium in Brazil with an American flag draped around him!
To create a dramatic shot, I eliminated most of the ambient light by choosing ISO 50, 1/160 at f/8 on my D800. (Darkening the gym also reduced some of the distracting elements on the walls.) The first images using the overhead Deep Octa looked good, but the flag in the background was hard to see. To solve this problem, we set up a second light—Elinchrom Ranger A Head—and put a 30° grid on the light to narrow the beam. This light illuminated the flags separately behind Sir, creating more depth in the scene and establishing symbolism in the shot. To trigger my strobes, I used an EL-Skyport Transmitter, which allows independent control of power settings on the Rangers—very convenient for changing power ratio quickly on my lights.
Going into a shoot, I always have an idea of how to light the shot; however, sometimes the location, subject, or pose changes my original lighting concept. Two lights—one on the background and one on my subject—were creating a nice portrait, but I decided that I could add more drama to the shot by adding a third light, a 14×36″ Elinchrom strip bank, to highlight Sir’s right side. I also adjusted the main overhead light to illuminate Sir from his left side, creating a cross lighting angle between the lights.
These three lights brought the portrait to life, and we tried a number of poses, including having Sir do a jump kick. The flash duration of my lights was very fast, so I had no problem freezing Sir in the air doing his kick. Cool stuff, but I couldn’t get that American flag out of my mind.
To change things up, we decided to eliminate the flag in the background; instead, Sir would hold the flag stretched out behind him. To light this shot, we set up a second strip bank. Now the lighting consisted of two 14×36″ strip banks on either side of Sir, and one overhead 27.5″ Deep Octa. The Deep Octa produces light similar to a beauty dish: fairly strong shadows, but not as edgy as a standard reflector.
Although the dark background wasn’t distracting, it also didn’t add anything to the image. I wanted this shot to say “determination, drive, grit,” and I happened to have a perfect background in my car for this concept. I use Lastolite Urban Collapsible Backgrounds for many portraits, and one of my favorites is the metal background. These backgrounds pop open, and you can hang them off one light stand in seconds.
Now the shot was coming together nicely. Sir was posing several different ways using the flag, and the lighting looked good. One challenge, however, was lining up Sir with the metal background. Even though these backgrounds are large (5×7′), parts of the image went off the background. One easy way to extend a background is to use the Content Aware tool in Photoshop: Select the corner that doesn’t have your background in it, add fill using Content Aware, and watch the magic happen. Generally, Photoshop will use the background nearby and seamlessly extend your background right over the dark corners.
Assistants are a great help in photo shoots because they see details I miss. And this shoot was no different. My assistant (my wife, who is also a photographer) noticed that Sir was holding the flag backward. Whoops! Big problem. And then she remarked that Sir didn’t look like he was working out. Out came the water bottle to give Sir some sweat.
Our lighting setup continued using the same three lights: two strips and one overhead Octa. I adjusted output on the Ranger packs using my Skyport transmitter. The overhead was set very low to add fill light, while most of the light was coming from the strip banks on the side.
To add a little more grit to my favorite shots, I used Topaz Labs Adjust 5 and the Portrait Drama Action at about 50% strength. In my book, Sir looks ready for the Olympics.