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Best Seat in the House

Photography, sports and life as seen through the lens of Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar.

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October 30, 2007 12:28 PM

Sonics: Kevin Durant's Big Jump

Posted by Rod Mar

(Warning: This one's long. Hopefully it's informative...)

Last month, I had the opportunity to write about shooting the portraits that go with the preview sections we run before the start of each season.

On Monday, we ran a photo of Sonics rookie Kevin Durant that I had the privilege of shooting a couple of weeks ago.

The planning took weeks.

The shoot took about 15 minutes.

And, like much of my work, it was lining bird cages and wrapping fish by noon on the day it was published.

But that's life in the big leagues.

Shooting preview portraits is often more than just executing a simple photo of the person. Many different things are taken into account — who the player is and which team he plays for, but also we want the photo to tell the readers something about the person and why we think he's important.

With a much-heralded rookie like Durant, the number-two overall pick in the NBA draft, his importance is well-known.

So, I had to determine what it was that I wanted to communicate about him, other than that he's supposed to be a great player.

Some of the ideas I tossed around:

"What CAN'T Kevin Durant do?" As a basketball player, he's supposed to be the complete package — he can shoot, dribble, defend, run the floor and make plays. As well, he's supposed to be the savior of a franchise that has lost its way and might well be leaving the city.

Working with this theme, my ideas included (bear with me as I share with you my very raw brainstorming):

"Kevin Durant Can't Catch a Fish": A shot of Durant at Seattle's famous Pike Place Market, trying unsuccessfully to catch a thrown fish. Or, possibly better, trying to dunk a fish in front of the fish stand there.

Kevin Durant Can't Pour a Latte": Shot of Durant in uniform at a coffee stand, spilling latte foam all over the place.

Kevin Durant Can't Fix Seattle's Traffic: Shot of Durant up in the traffic control center at the top of Colombia Tower, again in uniform, examining traffic screens.

Kevin Durant Can't Fix the Monorail: Shot of Durant in uniform, standing beneath the Monorail, wearing a hardhat and carrrying a tool box, quizzical look on his face.

I know, those are LARGE reaches. But in the context of a full preview section, I thought it had the chance to be visual and funny, as well as making the point that as much as Kevin Durant is expected to bring to the Sonics and the city, there's only so much a 19-year old rookie can do.

Then I found out that we wouldn't be publishing an actual separate section, but rather would be running a series of preview stories within the daily sports section.

So, a series of four or five photos wouldn't work.

I then set about trying to find a way to create a single image that would be successful.

My first idea had to do with the themes of Durant and the Sonics' uncertain future.

I considered having Durant staring into a crystal ball that had Seattle's skyline in it.

Then, of course, I tried to make that better and had the idea of having former Sonic Slick Watts as the fortune teller with the crystal ball, and Durant, in uniform, trying to see the future.

Of course, that was way to complicated. But that didn't stop me from trying to find a crystal ball up until an hour before our scheduled shoot time. I found some, but they were too little to be very visible in a portrait. I actually considered using those psycodelic looking bowling balls, or those reflective garden globes that you can find in specialty gardening stores.

As usual, I digress. And as usual, simplicity won the day.

My final idea was to have Durant leaping over the Seattle skyline. The idea of a "big leap" made sense as this 19-year old wunderkind is making the leap from college to the pros after playing one season at Texas.

The idea SOUNDS way easier than it is to actually execute. First, I drove around the city scouting locations. I even got out of the car and made test frames at three or four different spots.

Nothing was really catching my eye.

I'd recently shot a friend's wedding at Kerry Park, Seattle's most famous viewpoint that looks back at downtown. Like most photojournalists in the city, I try to avoid using this popular destination for my photos unless I absolutely have to. It's just so...cliche.

In desperation, I took a drive up there right before meeting Durant at the team's practice facility. I took out some different lenses and made some test frames, but could only imagine what it might look like.

Then I headed down to meet Durant, his agents, and a member of the Sonics media relations staff.

Let me say right here that along with having a solid concept, it's equally important to have made prior contact with all parties.

The Sonics were good about finding a time for Durant to spend with me. In an email, I detailed EXACTLY what I wanted him to wear. This is an important piece of advice. If you don't detail everything, you can be sure that something will be forgotten.

I learned that lesson some years ago while watching another shooter working at baseball's Spring Training, who was shooting three pitchers on a day they weren't pitching. They showed up wearing shower slippers and didn't have their spikes because no one had specified spikes.

So, I made sure to send an email to all parties specifying that I needed Durant in his home white uniform, with game socks, game shoes, and any wrist or headbands that he would wear during the season. Lastly, and very importantly, I also asked for an NBA basketball. Forget any of those things, and the shoot can go sideways before you even snap a frame.

The other important thing when working with athletes is to set a time frame and then to STICK TO IT. It seems that every media relations person and players I've worked with have stories of being kept long past the time promised.

This is important for two reasons. One, is that the players are busy, and have many obligations and even though it is in the team's best interest to have their players publicized in the newspaper, it's a reality that they don't have a lot of time. The other is that if you promise 15 minutes and can keep it to 15 minutes, the better chances you have to work with that athlete again.

These are not my secrets, but are pieces of advice I've been given by pros over the years that have really helped me do my job.

At the team's practice facility, I met with Durant, one of his agents and a member of the team's p.r. staff. I told them that I wanted to take him to Kerry Park, and that the shoot wouldn't take longer than 20 minutes.

They readily agreed, and we arranged to meet.

I arrived first, and set up a battery powered strobe pack with a single flash head on a sturdy light stand. I needed it to be portable enough to move around.

Kevin arrived, and fortunately, the park was fairly empty. I didn't want the shoot to turn into an autograph frenzy. I was fairly sure most Seattleites wouldn't recognize him, but in a uniform....

My idea was to shoot him appearing to leap over the skyline, lit by a flash combined with ambient daylight just a stop or two underexposed.

The day was one of those sunny/cloudy/windy days were the light changes almost by the minute. The upside was that it had the possibility of dramatic clouds, but also it could have changed with each frame.

As it was, I got really lucky with the light.

I showed Durant what I wanted him to do, which was to jump off of a small ledge to give him the needed height and then land on the ground a couple of feet below.

This was tricky. Asking an athlete to jump, run, etc, is always fraught with my fear of him injuring himself. I asked Kevin if he was confident doing it and he laughed and said it was no problem. I looked over at the Sonics' representative at hand, and he didn't have a problem with it either.

I used the first couple of frames to aim the light and to show Kevin what I wanted him to do. Because I was shooting digitally, it was easy for him to see the idea. This one was shot with a 24-70mm lens, just so I could see the effect before moving to a longer lens:



(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 24-70mm/f2.8 lens @ 42mm, ISO 100, 1/250th sec., f11 w/ strobe)

Once he saw the possibilities on the back of my camera, he was hooked and into it. We worked on finding a spot for him to start his jump so he would be leaping over the Space Needle. Still, I knew I needed to work quickly and limit the number of jumps I would ask him to do.

Quickly, he got the hang of it. However, the ball was in his left hand, which was where the strobe was coming from:



(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 70mm, ISO 100, 1/250th sec., f11 w/ strobe)

At this point, I was worried about the exposure, and changed my exposure to allow some overexposure. As I was shooting RAW files, I was pretty confident I'd be able to "hold" the whites of his jersey and shorts (that is, to lower the exposure as to keep the texture and shadows in his uniform visible), while also having proper exposure on his face.

Luckily, Mother Nature was cooperating at this point, and the cloudy sky was created a perfect backdrop.

I asked him if he could kick his back ala Michael Jordan, and he said he wasn't sure if he could. I wasn't sure if he was joking with me or not. So on the next frame, I pressed the shutter at what I thought was the peak of his jump:



(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 70mm, ISO 100, 1/250th sec., f11 w/ strobe)

However, I hadn't switched my motordrive from multi-shot to single-shot, and I accidently got a second frame, albeit without the strobe. As luck would have it, the second frame had the exact pose I was looking for. However, it wasn't lit:



(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 70mm, ISO 100, 1/250th sec., f11 w/ strobe)

So, I asked him to jump one more time, and to do the same exact pose. Because he's an elite athlete, he nailed it. Because I got lucky, I caught the exact moment I needed:



(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 70mm, ISO 100, 1/250th sec., f11 w/ strobe)

As you can see, the frame is overexposed so I could have proper exposure on his skin tones.

In the computer, I was able to adjust the exposure without harming the photo. RAW is a "lossless" way of recording images. It means that I can make changes without adding digital noise or otherwise reducing the quality of the image.

Here's what the original looked liked in the software:


And here's what it looked like when I darkened the image in order to "recover" the detail in his uniform:


After that, I isolated the uniform and lightened the rest of the frame back to the original exposure, corrected the color a bit, cropped the frame slightly and had a finished product:



(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 70mm, ISO 100, 1/250th sec., f11 w/ strobe)

Finally, and thanks to you that have made it to the end of this post. Here is the published page:


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Posted by kendrick

1:32 PM, Oct 30, 2007

Great shot!

Posted by Mikkel

1:56 PM, Oct 30, 2007

Nice shot, and informative write up.

However, maybe it's just me but I don't like the missing left leg. He looks like a Paralympic athlete. Maybe a shot a bit more from the side would have taken care of that problem.

Anyway, cool idea and nicely done.

Posted by Mikkel

1:56 PM, Oct 30, 2007

Nice shot, and informative write up.

However, maybe it's just me but I don't like the missing left leg. He looks like a Paralympic athlete. Maybe a shot a bit more from the side would have taken care of that problem.

Anyway, cool idea and nicely done.

Posted by Phil

4:40 PM, Oct 30, 2007

Great shot and thanks for another informative write up.

Posted by tim

5:57 PM, Oct 30, 2007

I'll be honest, I got pretty excited when I opened the newspaper and saw that picture. Thanks for the write-up.

Posted by David Hobby

6:48 PM, Oct 30, 2007

Rod-

Nice post! I am David Hobby, a BaltSun shooter (on leave for a year to blog on Strobist) and I am blogging you on Weds. Just got back from doing a lighting seminar in Seattle, actually, and one of my attendees turned me onto this post.

Thanks for the detail on the whole process.

-DH

Posted by Matt Lutton

8:13 PM, Oct 30, 2007

Hey Rod --
Just had to let you know that I actually got an email from my Mother with a link to this picture.. she loved it! Definitely cool man.

Posted by Alan

8:17 PM, Oct 30, 2007

Great shot, thanks for the detailed write-up, as an amateur photographer I really enjoy all your blog posts. I learn at least one new thing, if not many, from each of your posts.

Posted by R. J. Kern at kern-photo.com

9:06 PM, Oct 30, 2007

Rod,

Great work, teach! I enjoyed the background descriptions and your brainstorming strategies. Great to see what work can be done with a single light! Kudos on the fine work.

Kind Regards,

R. J.

Posted by Greg

10:42 PM, Oct 30, 2007

Excellent post. There are so many bloggers handing out terrible advice. Your preparation was flawless. And thankfully, unlike too many photographers on the Web, you actually KNOW how you're supposed to expose Raw files for maximum quality.

While I live in Seattle, I heard about this post from Strobist as well. Congratulations on being linked from that respected site. And keep up the good work for my town.

Posted by Mr. Michael

11:24 PM, Oct 30, 2007

Rod, thanks for addressing the issue of editing in Photoshop. I always wondered what all was allowed in the news format, whether 'touching up' was allowed and what-not. I, too, really appreciate the walk-throughs!

Posted by WES

12:30 AM, Oct 31, 2007

Wonderful image and thanks for the info...
It's nice to read how other creative minds work.

Keep up the good work

Wes
wesleynulens.blogspot.com/

Posted by Miguel Pereira

4:48 AM, Oct 31, 2007

Great picture, and thanks for sharing this to the world (literaly, i´m a portuguese photographer looking my way in the business. And there are things that you just can´t get in school classes). Thank you once again!

Posted by Dan

5:04 AM, Oct 31, 2007

Rod,

Terrific shot. Thank you for the great post. I loved it all, even the digression. Very informative. Even though I wouldn't have been able to come up with that shot on my own, your detailed description of the process involved in creating it will certainly help me be more creative in my amatuer photography.

I found this via Strobist as have some of the others who commented.

Dan

Posted by Richard Melanson

6:35 AM, Oct 31, 2007

Very nice concept and shot. Good work. (seen on Strobist)

Posted by Seshu

7:54 AM, Oct 31, 2007

Rod - you are a rock star. Love this blog. Keep it coming.

Posted by Rodney Hays

8:42 AM, Oct 31, 2007

I love this shot. What a great day for shooting: the clouds, the lighting, the view. And thanks for taking the time to put the behind the scenes in words

Posted by Neil

9:45 AM, Oct 31, 2007

Shot sir.

Thankyou for the writeup and advice.

Posted by Kevin

10:15 AM, Oct 31, 2007

Rod - Great shot and post. I am definitely going to addd this blog to my must see list.

btw - got here from Strobist.

Thx for the great work and explanation.

Posted by Terrence Randell

10:30 AM, Oct 31, 2007

Thank you for the behind-the-scenes look at your creative and technical process. It's great to see seasoned pros sharing with the photography community.

Posted by soniak

12:55 PM, Oct 31, 2007

Really enjoyed the photo and the write up. I too was referred to your blog from Strobist.com

My favorite part was when you confessed to having had an 'oops' moment with the multi-shot/single-shot problem, and even showing the result. I loved the other ideas you had too.

I'll be looking for young Kevin Durant in this season's games! and I hope you submit your photo to upcoming NPPA, APA, ASMP, etc competitions!

Posted by Andrew

1:10 PM, Oct 31, 2007

Great shot! As first, I was thinking green screen, or something similar. Being totally in camera though is very impressive.

Posted by Finn Brose

2:32 PM, Oct 31, 2007

Great write up and interesting to see your examples - thanks for taking the time to do this.

(Seen on strobist)

Cheers,
Finn / Denmark

Posted by Branko Arsov

5:53 PM, Oct 31, 2007

I absolutely enjoyed reading your post.
I stumbled on it by accident.
Do you keep journals like this often ?
If you do where can I read them ?
It's so encouraging, especially from a guy who does not hide his "oops" moments.
Thank you.

Branko Arsov from Detroit

Posted by -Nelson

7:40 PM, Oct 31, 2007

Excellent work as usual Rod. You do realize of course that you've just created the new "my-friends/family-are-in-town-hey-lets-go-to-Kerry-Park-and-make-a-picture-like-we-saw-in-the-paper-with-that-guy-from-the-Sonics!" Seattle tourist photo op locale, right?

Posted by David Amberson

7:54 PM, Oct 31, 2007

Good stuff Rod. Nice to know what goes on in the mind of a Pro. I'm still trying to figure out how you "Isolated" the uniform though. Thanks for the info.

Posted by Scott Browne

8:28 PM, Oct 31, 2007

Fantastic!!

Its good to see someone going out of their way to explain how they have achieved something.

Thanks to strobist.blogspot.com for putting me onto this article.

Scott
Sydney, Australia

Posted by Quentin Guillory

8:28 PM, Oct 31, 2007

Great images... Best of luck to Kevin. See ya when you play Houston... Go Rockets!!!!

Posted by Sean Ryan

6:37 AM, Nov 01, 2007

Rod, Great blog, as always.

Posted by Albertas

6:47 AM, Nov 01, 2007

Great post! Thanks for sharing!

Posted by boone in portland

9:19 AM, Nov 01, 2007

thanks for taking the time to write this article. i appreciate it.

Posted by HonuPhoto

11:09 AM, Nov 01, 2007

Fantastic shot and fascinating back story. I've always been impressed by the work photojournalists turn out, and these insights are great.

Keep sharing and encourage your colleagues to do so!

Paul
(Seen on Strobist)

Posted by Tuffer

9:23 AM, Nov 02, 2007

love the detailed thought process. Incredibly helpful.
(got hear from strobist, but as a Seattlite, I should have been checking this out already!)

Posted by Matt Dial

6:05 PM, Nov 03, 2007

Rod -- thanks for the great post. I've enjoyed reading it since someone turned me onto the blog.

Posted by Rod Mar

11:10 PM, Nov 03, 2007

Thanks to all who read the post and took the time to share your thoughts.

I really appreciate it!

I'll keep learning, firing and misfiring, and I'll keep sharing the results.

Thanks again,

rod

Posted by Paul in Ireland

7:34 AM, Nov 13, 2007

Thank you for sharing the info, the thought process and the knowledge so freely. I like it.

Posted by Brendan in Stuttgart, Germany

2:43 PM, Nov 14, 2007

Hi, I found this through an Irish photographers webite. Great write up and cool shot in the short amount of time you had.
Love the idea behind it. Keep up the good work!

Posted by Kenny Blankenship

7:52 AM, Dec 13, 2007

Nice shot but the Seattle tower spike shot so close to his Crotch really bugs me.

Posted by Kenny Blankenship

7:53 AM, Dec 13, 2007

Nice shot but the Tower being so close to his crotch really bugs me.

Posted by John N

11:04 AM, Dec 13, 2007

Nice write up. I am a photography student in LA and have a question regarding your choice of lens. You shot the final with the 70mm end of a 70-200mm lens, however, shot the test with a 24-70mm lens. Any specific reason why you shot with the short end of a 70-200 rather than the long end of a 24-70?

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