Anatomy of a photo - Rocky Vll
I always loved Boxing, well maybe not "Actual" Boxing, more the romanticism of it. Real "Blood, sweat and tears" didn't appeal that much, hell! I was far too busy going climbing and getting into my own scrapes in the school yard to waste any excess energy i might have had being knocked round a canvas and rope ensemble down the local "Boys club"
Over the ensuing years i've been lucky enough to photograph some of the best Boxers on the planet, in fact my first foray into capturing the world of Pugilism was a 3 month assignment following the then world light-welterweight champion Ricky Hatton preparing for a title defense against the American Vince Phillips.
There were Boxing photographers out there that would've killed for that job, i know they told me in no uncertain terms "who the fuck hired you to shoot this" I had total access to one of the best pound for pound boxers at the time. I'd never photographed boxing before and my saving grace came in the shape of a guy called Mark Collins the writer assigned to the piece and a guy indredibly passionate about his chosen sport. With Mark also came the highest pedigree having worked with the likes of Ali. I took to Mark right from the off, a straight talking Mancunian lad who took it upon himself to educate me in all things boxing and as it would happen drinking!
I also loved the Rocky films, ocassionally i still do. Well the first few and the last one. In the middle they kind of lost there way a bit. It was obvously the stuff of dreams. No Hoper gets his shot at the world title, wins, looses it again, wins, looses, wins, looses, retires, opens a resteraunt and obviously gets the girl. Of course Rocky isn't the only great boxing movie out there, other favourites that immediately spring to mind are of course the celebrated 1980 classic Raging Bull starring Robert De Niro, a film based more on fact, the life of Jake La Motta than Rocky's fictional character and my current favourite Million Dollar Baby which got me thinking.............
When i got the call to shoot an advert for the boxing press i jumped at the chance to re-visit a world i'd enjoyed so much. The brief was brief! the usual kind of dark moody shot of a muscular bloke striking a few classic poses, glistening in a sheen of post warm up sweat taken in the gym. The photo needed to illustrate the gear the company were trying to flog, competition shorts, Gloves, Hand wraps, Gum shields and Head Gaurds. After we'd spoken a while and exchanged a few "back and forth" emails i had an idea, why don't we use a woman in the advert, do something a little different. They liked it, but went a step further. Not only use a woman, but dress her in Pink and make the whole shoot very girly indeed!
Essentially the complete opposite of what boxing in reality is about. We didn't however want to turn it into a "Glamour shoot" and use your average skinny model, so we had to be careful with the choice - ha! i knew just the girl (this happens a lot in the industry, someone knows someone who's just perfect) i'd only worked with her about six weeks before - don't you just love it when a plan comes together.
So to do it properly "Ladeez and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you, weighing in at One hundred and forty three pounds, boxing out of St.Albans, the unbeaten Carmen "Pretty in Pink" Knights" Unfortunately Carmen ain't no Boxer, more your Bodybuilder type really (IFBB Pro, British Champion etc) but none the less a great athlete and very game when it came to jumping around a ring and hitting things, i'm sure you'll agree she looks the part!
The first set up was pretty simple really, well they all were, i like working to the "simple stupid" rule, its a motto of mine - minimum amount of gear and people hopefully equates to a minimum amount of fuss! So its just me, the model Carmen, who came to the shoot "make-up ready" the equipment to be photographed and a minimum amount of gear which in this case consisted of a couple of full frame Nikon D700's, 4 x lenses - 85mm/f1.4, 14-24mm/f2.8, 24-70mm/f2.8 and a 70-200mm/f2.8. A couple of Nikon SB900's with some small floor stands and the main light a Profoto 7b pack and head coupled with a 2 x 3 Profoto softbox and a lightweight manfrotto stand.
The general plan - I always have at least a basic idea to work to, more than often i'll sketch something in a notebook so i can show the model (obviously if the client has already supplied "Mood Boards" then this isn't necessary) then its not just me who knows what the end result needs to be. I find a visual works better than just an explanation, especially for, dare i say it, the more complicated set-ups! So for the first shot i wanted my boxer looking straight at the camera, gloves on the ropes and mouth slightly open showing off the gumshield. Certainly not rocket science, but nicely showing off the shorts, gloves and headgaurd.
You can see from the lighting diagram the set up we used was 'basic" the idea is to place the light just to the left of the model and about head height and fire the flash through a softbox to diffuse the light. The light isn't pointed directly at the model, in fact the main "flash" misses the model altogether, its just the edge of the light that hits her and feathers out wrapping round the body and giving a nice from "light to dark" effect. I also used a small flash on the ground behind the model (SB900) to act as a rim light, this wasn't ideal it was too low, but provided at least a little light to give a more 3 dimensional feeling. In terms of lighting and exposure i usually start at about 125th of a second at around 5.6, this gives me a little "DOF" and is a good starting point. The Flash was set at half power.
I like the photo you can see above, its a good starting point ( i can't show you the one we're actually going to use for contractual reasons) you can however see some of the problems we encountered. Firstly i've cropped too tight on the second rope, it shows but i would have liked a bit more of it. Secondly, the left hand glove (as you look at it) is obviously the closest item to the flash and is in my opinion just a little too bright. Its still holding detail but the contrast with the right hand glove is just a little too much for my liking. This can be dealt with by masking off part of the softbox with some black card and gaffa tape. The third item is a missing "nipple" yep you read that right. Slightly too much light and the reflective nature of Carmens top, coupled with the angle the photo was taken from just mean its there but you can't see it! Again the black card and gaffa tape combo and just a tad less light easily rectified the problem and gave the courageous boxer her dignity back.
The days second set up came about entirely by accident and just goes to show, not only is it good to come prepared but at the same time be flexible and open to ideas that present themselves to you during the shoot. While i was setting up for the first shot Carmen was trying on the gear. She'd never put on a head gaurd before and found the buckle quite "fiddly" to do up, so she went over to the mirror for a little visual aid. i watched her do this and immediately thought it would make a great image, something a little different.
The main light was set up to the models right and just angled to miss her. This time because it was almost shooting into my lens i had a small square black (as to not reflect light back into the shot) board between the light and my camera. This prevents any stray light from entering the lens. An SB900 was placed on the floor to act as a rim light behind and to the left. I really like this shot, but again look at it for any length of time and things just start to "niggle" at you. For me its the bloody great flourescent tube in the roof and try as we might to find a light switch or find someone who knew the whereabouts of the light switch we failed miserably so it will be taken out in post production.The backround is also just a little too bright for my taste, it needs dropping by about 2 stops, that way it'll still hold detail but won't detract from the main subject - again this could be done in post, but its nice to do it in the camera if you can.
As is usual in the case of a shoot like this its not just about the photographer pressing the shutter to capture a great image. Thats just one of the sum parts which contribute, so without further ado i'd like to just make a few "shout outs" to all those other people involved. Firstly to the model Carmen Knights for metamorphising into the Million Dollar Baby. The Monster Gym for hiring out there excellent boxing facilities at short notice. Gear by the legendary gear manufacturer Lonsdale and a very special thanks to Jamie at Boxfit for sorting out the competition shorts at such short notice, thanks mate.