The Anatomy of a fun summer project.

Poor Ben.  He's going to be a junior in high school next year and he was looking forward to a few more days of sleeping in until cross country practice started again.  But around the headquarters of the Visual Science Lab it just doesn't play out that way.  I roused him at 7 am this morning because I was on a vital mission and I needed his help.  Today was the day we photographed 140 members of the dynamic, Rollingwood Waves Summer League Swim Team.  Our mission was to make a portrait of each swimmer individually, with the pool in the background, and then to make group shots of each age group: 6 and under,  7 and 8,  9 and 10, and the elusive 11 and overs.

I'd spent days planning our strategy.  We created a sign up form and asked everyone to be sure and pay on the day of the shoot.  The sign-up form had the swimmers name big across the top and then asked for all the pertinent information.  In a nod to the digital age and endless sharing, we also asked for an e-mail address to which we will send a digital copy of each swimmer's portrait for their family to use.

Ben and I ate microwaved breakfast tacos made by our good friends at H.E.B. We brushed our teeth, patted the dog on the head, said goodbye to Belinda and headed out to put the last few bags into the extreme performance Honda Element (I'm okay with leaving stands and sandbags and even lights in the car overnight but not the cameras.  Not the really good stuff) and we headed to the pool.  The drive felt strangely familiar until I reminded myself that I'd done this drive six days a week for the last 15 years..

I decided to set up two different "stations" a few yards apart at the pool.  One station would be for the individual portraits and one station would be for the overall age group shots.  Our portrait station was lit with an Elinchrom Ranger RX AS battery powered strobe system.  I used an 18 inch beauty dish on one head and a 28 inch beauty dish on the other head.  The pack was set to a little more than half power with the distribution being 66% to the main light (22 inch) on the left and 33% into the fill light (28 inch) just over my right shoulder and up.  Both modifiers were covered with white diffusion covers we call, "socks."  The metered exposure was 1/250th of a second @f8 with sunlight in the background and an ISO of 100.

Each age group practices at a specific time.  We knew from our own experience of Ben having been on the Rollingwood Waves that the youngest swimmers, who swim first, would start arriving around 8:15 am, and we'd need to do their group shot right at 8:55 before they hopped into the crystal clear, eighty degree water and started working like Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin.

Ben and a parent volunteer took the filled in forms from the parents and checked off payment info.  Ben was strict with anyone who forgot to bring their forms and payment.  He's learning the lessons of capitalism early on.  The kids would line up and when it was their turn to be photographed they would hold their form up, with their name emblazoned big across the top, for the first shot.  This gave me a reference frame for each child so I'll be able to deliver their images to the right folder a week from now.

I took as many photographs as it took to get a nice smile from each of the kids.  Ben kept a close watch to make sure the flashes were firing and also ran interference between me and parents who had pressing questions.

Once we hit 8:55 we gathered all of the kids for the big age group shot, which also includes the coaches.  We arranged them all over a long picnic table, along the bench which faced the camera and, when necessary we added a row sitting cross-legged in the front.  We lit this set up with one Profoto Acute 600b pack at full power, blasting happy photons through an Elinchrom modifier called a large Varistar.  Fancy name for a 41 inch shoot through umbrella with a black on the outside/silver on the inside backing.  It's a fast and easy to use modifier.

I used Flash Wave 2 radio triggers on both stations so all I needed to do was walk between the two stations, set up the kids and coaches and make the images.  Last year I only brought one lighting system and I spent the morning moving it, and two sandbags, back and forth between the two shooting stations.  That always necessitates a couple of test frames at each location.  And it's a pain in the butt to hoist the stand and two twenty  pound sandbags and move them around.

Ben was on his game today. He headed down the big hill to the basketball courts and volleyball court a couple minutes before each group shot to round up "strays" and make sure everyone got into the shots.  He whisked all the paper work and checks into folders and got them into the car before he came back to help tear down gear and he was great with all of the kids.

I shot everything with one camera and one lens.  No.  It was not an OMD.  It was a Sony a77 with the 16-50mm kit lens on the front.  It's sharp and sassy, and the electronic viewfinder is amazing.  It's fun to watch the in-camera lens correction straighten and de-vignette each image as it comes up for review in the finder.  I could also tell immediately each time we lost a frame to a blink.  No need to put the camera down from my face and chimp it.  Seeing the boo-boo in the finder meant I could keep on shooting till we got the right look.  If you stop to chimp at waist level the kids think they're done with their part and they start to wander off.  Fun when technology makes my job easier.

We finished up the project with a group shot of the oldest kids and Ben was about to start breaking stuff down when I stopped him.  "Let's give it ten minutes.  There's always some parent that come screaming in late asking if we can't please include their kiddo."  And sure enough, a small crop of them filtered in, breathless in the next ten minutes to see if we could accomodate them.  We were pleased to.  Customer service always seems to be appreciated.

When I got back to the studio and finished meeting with the plumber I downloaded the card and sequestered it's 900 images onto two hard drives and two sets of DVD's.  Now I need to go thru and pick the best individual shot of each swimmer and the best group shot of each age group, have them printed and then stuck into presentation folders.  We'll deliver them back to the pool next week.

Not the most glamorous job in the world but pretty fun and very satisfying.  After Ben and I packed everything up in the car we headed for our favorite Chinese restaurant, Lotus Hunan and had a well deserved lunch.  First thing out of Ben's mouth?  "Dad, I thought of a few things we could try next year to make this run better..."  I listened.

Now comes the back end of the job.  But once I saw that we had great stuff on every swimmer and we had four backups in place I kicked back and took a break. I love it when stuff works out.

Kirk's Website.