I was checking one of my go to photography sites and Melissa Rodwell wrote this incredible story about shooting female pro athletics and her journey to capture great work with Annie Liebovitz! ALL PHOTOGRAPHS AND TEXT ARE COPYRIGHTED FROM MELISSA RODWELL ~!
I got a call from my agent, Jackie, on a Thursday evening in late February. A NY ad agency was interested in booking me for a Nike job that was shooting in 10 days. After signing a confidentiality agreement, the agency sent me the mood boards and we had a conference call between myself, my agent, the art directors in NY and the art buyers at Nike in Beaverton, Oregon. My agent worked out a budget with the ad agency, finally settling on a number and I was booked on the job. One week later, I was in Los Angeles shooting.
This job had 3 shoot days: Day One was product shots for Nike. Day Two: 4 our of 7 Pro Athletes were to be shot and Day Three: 3 Pro Athletes plus fitness model shots with Nike Fitness wear. The first two shoot days were in Los Angeles and our Third Shoot day was in NYC.
Day One shoot took place at Milk Studios in Los Angeles. We had roughly 34 product shots to capture. From everything to shoes, logos, seams and cuffs, Nike wanted detailed shots of the garments and shoes to show texture and color. Using the Nikon D3, we shot with a 105mm 2.8 macro lens. We kept the exposure the same: 1/250 at F14. For lighting, we used a beauty dish for the key and an octabank directly behind me for the fill and a light with a barn door for an edge light in the back. The reason I used this lighting is that Nike wanted the product shots to parallel the shots I was going to produce with the athletes and fitness model so I had to add a bit of edge/back light and use the beauty dish with the octabank as my main lighting sources, because that was the same lighting I was going to use on Day 2 and 3.
Our digitech was Travis from Milk Studios. This guy was the BOMB! If we could’ve, we would’ve taken him back home with us to NYC. We were lucky to have Travis on both day One and day Two of our Nike shoots. I have to say, a digitech is just as important a member of your crew, especially when you’ve got to keep color profiles and lighting consistent over several shoots that take several days to produce. I was a little nervous that we were taking the whole second day shoot set up and replicating it in NYC, but confident that we were also using one of NYC Milk Studio’s digitechs as well for day 3 in NYC.
But back to Day One. We were able to get all 34 shots done successfully in the first day. These shots were edited by the art directors immediately after the shoot and FTP’d back to NYC where my retouching team was waiting for them so they could begin retouching. We were working with a very tight deadline, so they needed to get started on them right away.
We had a day off between day One and day Two of the Nike shoot. Our day off, though, was hardly a “day off”. I wanted to see and test out our location shoot with the pro athletes before we started shooting them so I was able to go to the location with Tyler to see our set being built out. We shot day Two at Culver Studios in Culver City. Culver Studios is a movie studio site, there are a bunch of huge stages and I was in one stage, while Annie Liebovitz was two stages down. Annie was hired to do the advertising campaign for Nike. I was hired to shoot for the Look Book. But both Annie’s and my photographs were featured in the Look Book. The idea was to shoot the athletes at an authentic old-school type gym. But they built the gyms, instead of having us shoot at an actual gym. Annie’s set was washed in grays and darker hues while my set was completely white-washed. Our gyms matched in size and equipment. But the color hues were different. The night before Day Two’s shoot, I went in with a model to test out the lighting, get a feel for the space to determine which lenses to use, and just be totally prepared for Day Two. Because on Day Two I was given very limited time with each athlete to get “The Shot” and I didn’t have time to trouble shoot my lighting or take a lot of time figuring out angles, etc. So being prepared was the most important emphasis, at least for me, on this job.
Day Two. Call time was 8 AM but Tyler and I got there around 6:30. They were still finishing the set we were shooting on. I did some test pictures to show my client and Nike and we agreed the windows needed to be a different shade of white, so they were re-painted while we waited. I felt prepared, though, because I had done the small test the night before. Nothing was left to chance. Save for any last minute technical hiccups, I knew the set, had my lighting in place and was ready to start capturing the athletes once we got them on set. We waited. And waited. And waited some more. At 2 PM, I got my 15 minutes with Sofia Boutella.
The whole idea around the campaign was how these women athletes stay on top of their game. They are all examples of success and they all speak about how that success came to them through hard work, practice, focus and an obsessive-like determination. The campaign is to encourage women that you can make it if you want it. You can make it if you try hard enough. I can jump on that philosophy!!
My first professional athlete was Sofia Boutella, a dancer who started out dancing in Paris in a mall to touring with International performing stars and starring in pop legends’ videos. Read: Madonna, Rihanna, Michael Jackson! Sofia’s line: “I pay attention to every detail and strive for perfection even though I know it doesn’t exist” really fit her personality. She twisted and contorted her body into incredible shapes for my lens and was happy to do it again to make it look even better. After viewing the first 100 shots on the monitor she asked me if she could do a couple of the contortions again because she believed she could make them better. I was impressed with her diligence and her willingness to keep doing something until she felt right about it. That makes any photographer’s job so much easier because we do the same. We take many shots to get that one that speaks loudest. That one that communicates exactly what we are trying to say.
My second athlete was Tennis Star Maria Sharapova. Maria is as nice as she is beautiful. Maria’s catch phrase: “To achieve something great takes sacrifice.” You see, we can all learn something from these pro athletes! I had a lot of fun capturing Maria because she really pushed herself to get the perfect shot as well. After checking out her images, she asked to go back in the set and do it again which was so great for me! I like the way the light worked with her movement, too.
Third athlete was Li Na, another Tennis Star. “Winning takes confidence and a clear goal. You have to fight for it.” These words from Li translate on the court: she’s determined to succeed and doing it, actually. Li had translators with her which I thought was going to make it more difficult to communicate with her when I was directing her. But she actually understood more English than I originally thought she did and we were able to capture her shots in under 10 minutes.
Fourth and final athlete in Los Angeles was Allyson Felix, Track and Field Star and wow, just an incredible girl! She was running, jumping, throwing herself around this set which was probably around 20’ X 20’. Not uber-small, but certainly not track field size. She leapt through the air as if there were no walls in front of her. I was on the floor and moving around the set to get her in action. It was a lot of fun. Her line was: “My competitors don’t take the day off so I can’t either. Every day I’m obsessed with getting the absolute most out of my body that I can.”, and I can attest that she absolutely believes in her own words!
We wrapped day two around 6 PM. I was exhausted but it’s that kind of exhausted I get after a shoot: I’m tired but I’m wired. Can’t sleep, totally in the zone, amped up and high, but physically wiped out. I love the feeling, actually. We had dinner with some of the art directors after wards in a restaurant near our hotels on the Sunset Strip. Then it was off to bed because we had to get back on a plane to go home to NYC the next morning. Yeah, it felt a little odd flying into LA for a job and then flying home to NYC. But I was excited to get back to NYC. : )
Exactly one week later found us in Brooklyn at Broadway Stages in Stage One. Our set in Los Angeles was packed up and shipped to NY. Which means one thing: my lighting had to stay the same, right? We had our notes, our pictures and we knew how to replicate it exactly in NY as we had it in LA. Broadway Stage was a big raw space, much like Culver Studios. We arrived at 6 AM to see our set being set up by the NY crew.
Day Three of my Nike job had me doing two things: capturing 3 more pro athletes and also shooting Nike fashion on a model. So in between the athlete shots, I had about 20 fashion shots to get done that day
First athlete I shot was Hope Solo. “I’m determined and grew up knowing what I wanted. I’ve never taken my eye off it.” I pretty much can say the same thing about my own work, although we’re talking about totally different things. Hope is beautiful. And limber. She’s a soccer champion whose hard work paid off in 2008 at the Summer Olympics in Beijing as well as being recognized as one of the best keepers in the world.
19 year old surfer, Laura Enever, was our second athlete on day 3 Nike shoot. She’s adorable and sweet as can be. Claiming that being in the ocean is different than playing on a field or a court because every wave, every beach is different. “I work daily to get stronger and learn to trust myself and my body” is her motto. She’s limber as heck, doing somersaults and handstands, having to hold them for the camera for a bit. And she did so with grace and perfection! She was a real joy to shoot.
Our 3rd and final athlete was Perri Shakes-Drayton, track and field star. “I am just me. I don’t change for anybody. What got me to where I am today is pure determination and hard work.” Perri is known for her infectious self-confidence and it showed while shooting her. No idea was too crazy for her, even jumping a hurdle with no running start. She did take after take until my client was happy with the shot. And she would have done more to get it if needed. I really loved her personality and yeah, her self-confidence was infectious.
My fashion shots were in the same set as the athlete shots. And the lighting stayed the same as well. I mentioned earlier, Nike had the vision of the white-washed gym and wanted the shots, whether they be of the athletes or the products, to stay consistent in look and feel. So my fashion shots were shot right there on the same set with the lighting. I used the Nikon D3 on these as well but mostly with the 85mm. I shot some close up shots with the 105mm 2.8 macro lens but for the rest I used my 85mm lens.
The biggest thing I took away with me after shooting this job was the realization that it doesn’t matter if you’re training to be in the Olympics or trying to become a better photographer: training, doing something over and over and over again to get it right is key to becoming a better “fill in the blank”. All 7 athletes had fierce determination, rock solid self-confidence and razor sharp focus on their goals. The same assets are needed to become a professional photographer! If I can emphasize anything in this post it is this! You MUST work at it to become great!