Portrait: Isaiah Taylor for Sports Illustrated

March 17th, 2015  |  Published in Basketball, Behind the Scenes, Front Page, Portraits, Technique, Texas Longhorns

 (Darren Carroll)

The assignment: Photograph Isaiah Taylor of the Texas Longhorns men’s basketball team, airborne and at the peak of an athletic, acrobatic aerial move, for the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 2014 College Basketball Preview. Even though I knew, from conversations with S.I. basketball photo editor Marguerite Schropp-Lucarelli, that Taylor was going to be silhouetted out by the imaging department and placed into a pre-designed background, I always try to create an image in-camera that can stand on its own as a portrait. The men’s basketball practice gym at the University of Texas at Austin posed a bit of a challenge in that regard because, well, it’s a gym—that is to say, it’s big, flatly-lit, relatively dark, and rather boring.

The only direction we had from the magazine in terms of the “look” of the photo was that Taylor had to be executing a maneuver that gave the impression that the basket was behind him–i.e., no dunks, layups, or anything indicating a forward movement toward the net. And we had to shoot it in the team’s practice gym, not in a studio. After taking a few minutes to scout out the location, my assistant, Andrew Loehman, and I decided the best course of action, rather than make the gym as a whole an essential part of the image, would be to remove all of the light in the room, and add back into it only that which helped to emphasize the subject and his environment.

NCAA Mens Basketball:  CBK Portrait of University of Texas Isaiah Taylor Portrait University of Texas/Austin, TX, USA 10/23/2014 X158862 TK1 Credit: Darren Carroll (Darren Carroll/Sports Illustrated)

A slightly different version of the cover photo, but my favorite from the shoot. Even when I know the end use is going to be a silhouette and the background theoretically shouldn't matter, I like to try and create a portrait that can stand on its own.

So we shut off all the ambient light sources in the gym, and unpacked the strobes. We used a combination of Profoto Pro 7A and Acute packs and heads. This was primarily due to budget consderations–these are lean times in the editorial world, and part of my job as a photographer is to try and deliver to the client a shot that works, but can also stay within budgetary parameters. Normally I would love to blow out a shoot like this with a slew of 7A or even 8A packs, but economic times being what they are at Time, Inc. these days, I needed to keep things in perspective.

So here was the question: Stopping the action was an absolute must, so renting some 7A packs and a bi-tube head, for their incredibly short full-power duration, was a necessity. But how to maximize the economy of the shoot without compromising the rest of the lighting scheme? The answer lay in using my personal set of Acute packs and heads for the remaining lighting, and even with those, squeezing as much versatility out of them as possible. The main light, at camera right, was a Profoto Pro 7 bi-tube head attached to a Pro 7a pack modified with an Elinchrom Rotalux 39-inch “deep octa” soft box, to which we also attached a LightTools 30-degree egg crate fabric grid to control the spread of the light a bit. For fill on the other side, we placed another Pro 7 head attached to another Pro 7a pack, backed off several feet from the subject and encased in an Elinchrom Rotalux 29” Octabank, which I chose because of the relatively small light-to-subject size ratio it, and the subsequent crisp, hard light, would provide. Its exposure value was set to 1-stop below the main light. Behind Taylor, offset by about 45-degrees and pointed back toward the camera, we placed two of the Acute heads, each on their own 2400 w/s pack, and attached a Profoto Magnum reflector to each. This enabled us to split the packs symmetrically and cut the power in each head’s channel down to 1/4, while still maintaining a light output of 1/2 stop over the main. It also allowed us to run another Acute head out of the B channel of one of the packs, with a standard reflector on the floor pointing straight up at the basket along the back wall. We wrapped the each of these reflectors with black foil to prevent their lights from flaring into the frame. In testing we discovered that the spillover from our fills and back light was just enough to illuminate the white Texas Longhorn logo on the wall (as well as some white lettering to the right of that, which was simply burned in — no, really, I used the old-school burn tool in Photoshop).

Exposure was at 1/160 (to allow for full-open shutter when triggering via a PocktWizard radio) at f11. The camera was a Canon 1DX with a 70-200mm f2.8 IS L-II set to about 150mm, resting on the floor and pointed up to give an increased feeling of height to the airborne subject.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of using a bi-tube head as the main light on our subject. Having worked with many, many different types of strobes from various manufacturers over the past 20 years, I knew right away that the Profoto “A” series would be essential to pulling off this picture because of its remarkably short flash duration. For starters, we were shooting digital, and due to the sensitivity of the sensor on the 1DX, there tends to be more ghosting than you would “normally” expect to see when, say, shooting film and trying to stop action. Second, in order to trigger everything with a radio remote as we intended, the shutter speed would have to be dropped to compensate for a little bit of lag in syncing with the PocketWizards, to 1/160th of a second, resulting in even more opportunity for motion blur by allowing in additional ambient light. Third, the camera would be stationary, positioned to keep the net at the lower left and the Texas Longhorn logo at top middle fixed at a specific position in the frame. And finally—and not least of all—to make the picture that I had in mind work, I would be asking Taylor to take a running start and then jump upon hitting a mark on the floor; when he subsequently reached the point where he struck the needed pose with his legs spread and the ball down beneath them, he would be not only airborne, but moving laterally through the frame at a high rate of speed. The Profoto ‘A” series, coupled with a bi-tube head, is the only system I know of that I could confidently predict would be able to freeze the action in the frame given those combined challenges.

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