I caught up with my Photojournalist friend, Rick Friedman, at the New England Camera Council Conference. Rick showed me images he took of Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots for Sports Illustrated. Rick is best known for photographing Presidential races—he started in the 70’s photographing Jimmy Carter and Ronald Regan—but he’s also a talented portrait photographer and lighting expert. I asked him how he lit the shot. Intrigued with his story, I asked if I could share it with our Photofocus readers. There are lots of great tips and lessons in his story.

Gronk Assignment for Sports Illustrated

I had a great assignment on New Year’s day photographing Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots for Sports Illustrated at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Planning for a 15 minute shoot

When arrived at the stadium, there were still some questions about where the shoot would take place. What I did know was that I was going to have about 15 minutes to photograph Gronk and it was going to be somewhere at the facility. We were hoping to photograph him in a weight room and, with the help of the Patriots communications department, that’s the space we were given. My assistant and I started moving equipment to the weight room. Once in the room I had to quickly determine what I wanted for my photographs, remembering the 15 minutes allotted for the shoot. I determined I could get 4 different photographs in my 15 minutes. That meant less than 4 minutes per shot, including any adjustments of lights or make up. The key to getting this done is to preset all the lights, test them, then re-test them. We did 2 different lighting setups. One on the weight machine and the mirror behind it and another complete set of lights for the photographs on a backdrop. When we moved from the weight machine and mirror photographs to the backdrop, no lights had to be moved. Both Nikon cameras and all 4 Dynalite strobes had Pocket Wizards connected—all on the same channel. You want to minimize any chance of something going wrong (not that it ever would on a photo shoot). On a shoot like this I always have backup equipment; I didn’t need it, but it’s there, just in case. All of the lighting tests had been done ahead of time using my assistant, who is about 1/3 Gronk’s size, as the stand in. We rehearsed how the shoot was going to flow. I put pieces of tape on the floor as a mark for Rob to stand on. I also marked where the back-light on stage right had to be moved between the 2nd and 3rd shot.

When working with mirrors, watch for your reflection

After the standing and sitting shots at the weight machine and while I explained to Rob what I wanted for the shot with the mirror, my assistant moved the Chimera strip light on the left side back 2 feet and turned the strip light on the right about 20 degrees toward the mirror. The beauty dish never moved from the first setup to the mirror setup and we lost no time during the quick change from one photograph to another or when we moved from the weight machine to the backdrop. When working with mirrors, watch for your reflection and the reflection of the strobes. This was shot on a Nikon D800 with a Nikon 24-70 f2.8 lens at 55mm ISO 100 at 1/200 f5.6.

The lighting on the standing and sitting shots were a Dynalite Baja 400WS battery operated strobe with a 30″ Chimera Octa Beauty Dish with an Egg Crate at a 45-degree angle for the front light. For the back lights I used a Dynalite Uni 400WS strobe with a medium Chimera Strip light on camera left. This is first soft box I owned and I’ve had it for over 30 years. I think I’ve gotten my money’s worth out it. On the right side I used a second Dynalite Uni with a small Chimera Strip Bank. I had a Pocket Wizard Plus III on camera and on each strobe. The 4th light in this photograph was a Nikon SB 900 Flash with a Rosco #83 Medium Blue gel. It was behind Gronk on the bench, pointed at him. This flash was set on manual and fired using the SU-4 setting in the custom functions.

For the shot of Gronk in the mirror, the strip light on the left was moved toward the wall so it became the backlight. The small trip light was turned about 20 degrees towards the mirror and the beauty dish was not moved. All of my settings remained the same. This was shot with a Nikon 17-35mm lens set at 17mm.

Photo gear

The lighting on this photograph was a Dynalite Roadmax 800 power pack with 2 heads. The front light was a Chimera 5′ Octaplus lightbank on a Dynalite head. Opposite my main light is a Sunbounce Sunmover silver and gold, zebra-pattern reflector. The hairline light was a Dynalite head with an extension tube, a grid holder with a 20-degree grid and a Rosco 1/2 CTO filter to warm up the light. This was shot with Nikon D800 with a Nikon 70-200 f2.8 lens at 1/250 of a second, f5, ISO 100. I used a Sekonic L-478DR light meter to determine exposures and a Hoodman Loupe to check my focus. All the equipment was moved in ThinkTank cases. I recently got a ThinkTank Production Manager case. It is perfect for this type of shoot.

How to keep the set in harmony

Last, but not the least, when you are on a shoot like this, be nice to everyone: not just your subject, but the publicist and PR people. They can make or break your shoot.

When I am working on creating a portrait, once I have an image I like, I’ll show it to the subject and ask “What do you think of the photograph we are creating?” The subject and I are creating the photograph together—I can’t do it without them. So many photographers think it’s about them as a photographer. It’s not! It’s all about the subject, that is why you are there! I find that when I share the photograph with the subject, they now feel more involved in the photograph, often making suggestions and quite often giving me a few more minutes to create the image. I gained an additional 5 minutes to my 15 minutes on this shoot, because it was a pleasant experience, Many photographers do not see this, but it is very important.