Sunday’s Best: Focus on the photo shoot

After readers reached out about the photos in the Roberto Mantovani feature, I decided to provide a behind the scenes look at the shoot.

Fighter, baller, Roberto Mantovani. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

This past Monday, a number of readers reached out to me about the photos used in Matt Welch’s standout feature about former fighter and current ballerRoberto Mantovani, and I wanted to take a chance to talk about the photo process. Everything you need to know about Mantovani is in that piece, so I’ll skip that here. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to enjoy a fine story.

Matt started his work on this more than two months ago when it was at most a possible story idea, and my role in it came just days later. Once I heard about Mantovani, I immediately imagined using this as a chance for us to do something unique — something magazine-like. So, the next time Matt and I worked a Robert Morris game together, I shot the idea out to Jim Duzyk, Robert Morris’ sports information director for the team. He loved the the prospect of it, made Mantovani aware of the idea, and we waited, and waited, for the stars to align. They did, and I’m here to give you a behind the scenes look at how the photo shoot went down.

Matt Welch poses for a test photo. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

“Hey! You said this was a photo shoot of that basketball guy. Why is DK Pittsburgh Sports staffer, part-time model, Matt Welch the first face I see, then?”

Great question. Going into this shoot, I knew we were going to get Mantovani for the photo shoot and for some one-on-one interview time after practice. In order to do this the right way, though, and to not waste anyone’s time, we arrived as practice began and Matt was a huge part of the behind the scenes process.

The image used to lead Matt’s piece. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Upon arrival, we scoped out a site to shoot, I got my equipment set up, and then we shot some test images until I felt we could drop Mantovani in and shoot so he could be on his way. When it came to the background, I didn’t want to shoot against a Robert Morris logo, and the style of this man doesn’t quite fit a white seamless background. The choice was to shoot him in a way that provided a black background, or find a spot with enough grunge to accessorize the bearded, tough subject.

As you can see in the photos, we found the perfect spot. I couldn’t have spilled white paint on the blue wall myself and had it turn out better for what I was looking for.

Two Alien Bee B800s with Glow 12″ x 36″ strip softboxes. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The equipment you see here is a pair of Paul C. Buff Alien Bee B800’s, a Canon 430ex ii speedlite, two Glow 12″ x 36″ strip softboxes and two Manfrotto light stands. I wanted to use strip banks for this shoot because they modify a more controlled light typically used to light the sides and edges of a subject. When using these as main, key light sources, you get a bit of a grungier, less even, less full light that maintains some shadow and contour.

The described setup in action. — MATT WELCH / DKPS

I set the Alien Bees up on either side of Matt to start, and I positioned the speedlite to kick up the wall, lighting the blue paint and the white drips. I didn’t want to add too much light here, though — just enough to separate the subject from the wall and keep the image from looking flat. I try to avoid mixing the speedlite in as a primary light source with strobes. It provides a slightly different color, and it doesn’t have the same power. It’s perfect in these situations, though, where I need something behind the subject for some kick.

Canon 1Dx, PocketWizard TT1 Mini, Canon 85mm f/1.8. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

For the camera, I shot with my trusty Canon 1Dx as usual (I would shoot this kind of stuff with a 5D mk iii or iv if I had one. Both are superior portrait bodies.). The lens legwork was done via a Canon 85mm f/1.8. This lens can be had in the $300 range, and shoots dynamite portraits on any modern Canon camera body. Seriously — this thing is the go-to for a ton of pros. If you are into photography at the amateur or ‘prosumer’ levels, and people/faces is your thing, buy this beauty.

My radio setup to trigger my strobes and the speedlite is a mixture of PocketWizard remotes. I use the MiniTT1 on my camera body. It’s generally my go-to trigger unless I need some serious range. The FlexTT5 houses my speedlite since it has a hotshoe mount (can trigger the speedlite sans cable), and my two strobes are triggered by the PlusX model. The TT line is one of the most advanced remote trigger lines in existence, and the PlusX is arguably the simplest. The great thing about working with PocketWizards is the way they work seamlessly together — forever… or until Skynet. Whatever.

An ‘edgier’ photo not used in the original post. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

For some of the photos, I positioned the strip banks several inches in front of the subject. This allowed more spill light across the face, and a more evenly lit image, even with the controlled light. For others, I had the strobes even with the shoulder so the light was edgier and most of the face was buried in shadow. Using the same setup, I was even able to have Mantovani step backward, hold the basketball between the strobes to light it, and have him fall away in a shallow depth of field. To do the latter, I had to dial back the power on the Alien Bees (photos taken with the strobes set between 1/32 power to 1/8 power for varying effects) so that I could shoot with an aperture of f/3.2ish and achieve a noticeable depth of field difference from the basketball to Mantovani’s face.

The ‘depth of field’ basketball shot setup. — MATT WELCH / DKPS

That aperture is pretty open for artificially lit portraiture. A lot of times, I shoot portraits, especially headshots, at f/10. There’s not normally much reason for a studio portrait to contain varying depths of field, but — again — I didn’t want to treat this like a standard portrait. So, my aperture for the photos from this session fell between f/2 and f/5.6.

Another outtake, this one showing a wider aperture for a shallower depth of field. — MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The shutter speed is always pretty slow because the strobes are freezing the scene. A lot of times, I shoot at 1/60 as if it were a religious commandment, but I shot these at 1/125 to let less ambient light into the photograph. ISO 160 is considered a “sweet spot” for Canon bodies, but these were done at ISO 100 for the same reasons stated above — less ambient light, and availability of a shallower depth of field.

Making sure that everything above was set up and tested, I was able to make every image I needed with Mantovani in less than 10 minutes. Doing something like this, you have to prepare like a professional, act like a professional and execute like a professional. It doesn’t matter if this is for Ben Roethlisberger, a Robert Morris athlete or a high school ‘kid,’ people know when you are wasting their time. I can’t stress preparation enough if you venture into this form of photography. It’s something I don’t get the chance to do as much as I’d like, but arriving with a plan made this an experience that hopefully benefitted all parties.

Behind the scenes images mixed with finished portraits. — MATT SUNDAY, MATT WELCH / DKPS

I know that I did that whole ‘photo nerd’ thing in this post — much more than typically — so be sure to ask any questions about the process or the gear. If you want to learn more about it, I’m happy to oblige, and if you already know this thing, I’m excited to chat and hopefully learn a thing or two in the process. See you guys in the comments.