Typically every snowboard season I like to create some kind of photographic experiment or concept to execute. Always wanting to push the envelope, I find it an exercise that refreshes my creative juices. Challenging oneself is an essential piece to progression in one’s craft.
Last season I created, Snow Silho. The main objective: to feature the true style of each snowboarder on each obstacle with all the distractions (backgrounds, trees, snow, sky, colors, etc.) stripped away by making the portrait a silhouette.
The idea originated when I saw an old snowboard photo that Trevor Graves had shot of a rider against a red background but lit like it was shot in the studio. I thought to myself, what if you were able to shoot snowboarding silhouettes as if they were in the studio, but you incorp- orated the environment on location into them? Then I got to work, brainstorming different situations in snowboarding where I could do this. The key elements I kept in mind were texture, line and shadow. Once I had the different scenarios of snowboarding mapped out, I wanted to shoot the silhouettes, but the next step was to figure out how.
I initially tried setting up a white seamless backdrop on top of a quarter pipe, and I had the snowboarder do a “hand plant” in front of it, a move in skateboarding or snowboarding where the board is held to the feet with one hand while the skateboarder performs a handstand on a ramp or obstacle with the other. However, bringing studio tools out into the raw environment such as a windy mountaintop had quite the adverse effect of adding a few more variables to the puzzle, the most challenging one being the wind. The wind kept tearing through the paper, so I had to have two guys hold the paper from behind. We were able to achieve the first shot, but I knew that for the rest we would need to better prepare.
To do that, I went next to grip houses in Hollywood to find new tools for the job. There I was educated in the use of 20′ x 20′ white canvas backgrounds. I bought two, giving me the option of having 800 square feet of white background to shoot against, a definite improvement over paper. The next step was to build frames to hold these canvases, large metal ones that could withstand the harsh conditions of cold, wind and snow. I went to Home Depot for the necessary materials and built the frames in the parking lot of the shoot in Mammoth Mountain, CA.
We shot for five nights in a row, each night only focusing on one setup, as each one took quite a bit of manpower and labor. I worked tightly with the mountain operations team and the snowboarders to be clear about what we were trying to execute. Once all the snow was moved and built for each feature, it was time to bring the background in and the lighting.
The setup went as follows on each one: the rail or obstacle was set; on one side was the white 20′ x 20′ background and on the opposite side of the rail/obstacle the camera was set up. The lighting consisted of six Profoto heads behind each 20ft background. The lights overlapped, so I achieved an even illumination across the background. Then I opened up the lens two stops to make it white.
Each setup was a little different, and once I nailed the main shot, I pushed it even further. On one of the shots I actually pulled back and showed a puddle in the foreground to give it a bit more of the essence of the environment. On a separate shot I pulled way back, so you could see more of the mountain that we were shoot- ing on. To push it even further, I added the effect of light streaks by having my assistant drive my truck through the frame. Additionally, to push it on one or two shots, I added the slightest amount of fill to the rider instead of making it a full silhouette. I made it my first priority to nail the silhouette shot to add to the series, but I wanted to add the fill light to give the shot another feel. This made it really seem like a studio shot with a proper white background and a selected fill on the subject. I also shot in two mediums, both digital and film, allowing me to have options in the final selections.
I created six different shots involving snowboarding for Snow Silho. Each one was entirely different than the others, focusing on different athletes, obstacles, textures and feel. However, they all carried the same silhouette theme.
After Snow Silho was completed, it ran on the cover and as a photo essay in the January Photo Annual issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding Magazine. After that I brainstormed featuring other sports, then specifically certain scenarios for each silhouette with each sport. Then I lined up the talent, locations and lighting with Reel Sessions out of LA to push the series further.
We worked with four additional sports (soccer, basketball, tennis and fencing). The setup for all the variables was the same (background, frames, lighting). The only variables that changed were the sports, environments and people. The key factor I kept in mind when making compositions of each sport was that the images needed to be CLEAN. I wanted each shot to be very sharp and unique. My intent was to not allow anything that did not geometrically flow. However, on each shot I tried to add an element of texture. For basketball, we shot in an outdoor caged court, so I was able to use linked fence as a repetitive ingredient. I have always believed that repercussion of any elements in a photograph will draw the human eye into the composition more. I wanted to take this theory and add it with some action to produce a combination of texture and movement.
In soccer, I was able to use the net as I photographed from behind it, shooting directly at the striker. The interesting part about this shot was the fall-off from the white back- ground. It projected enough light to illuminate the grass just in front of it, creating a vibrantly thin green line, which ideally made the image a bit different.
I still want to continue this series with other sports, as there are many more possibilities. I hope that someday, when all are completed, I will be able to have the entire Sports Silho portfolio hanging in a gallery space. Then they will be able to be viewed together, large, up close and personal.
Pushing the envelope is something I hope to always have in my mind when shooting.
Product Resources: Cameras: Hasselblad 501cm, Canon 1DS Mark II; Lenses: Canon 80mm f/2.8, 120mm f/4, 50mm f/1.4, 70-200mm f/2.8; Film: Kodak Tri-X 400; Lighting: Pocketwizards 6-12, Profoto heads, Profoto 7a kits, Profoto 7b kits, C-stands, Light stands; Tripod: Manfrotto; Other: 2- 20′x 20′ white canvas backgrounds, 2-20′x 20′ handmade metal frames out of 10′ galvanized pipes.