Guide to shooting world-class athletes by Sam Tsang: Ice Time with Elvis Stojko & Gladys Orozco
Today we have the pleasure to feature the complete photography guide to shooting world-class athletes. Written by Sam Tsang (website), we hope you enjoy with this story about sport portrait photography:
One of the most rewarding parts of my job is working with world-class athletes. Many photographers get caught up in working with high-profile clients–yes, the glitz and glam can be distracting–but when you strip away the fame, you get to reveal another side of your subject. Through the power of social media, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Elvis Stojko (three-time figure skating World champion, two-time Olympic silver medalist and seven-time Canadian champion), along with his wife, Gladys Orozco (two-time Mexican champion). I wanted to use this opportunity to create images that showcase who they really are.
There is a Chinese proverb that my father shared with me when I was a youngling, roughly translating to ”3 minutes of glory on stage, 10 years of hard work off stage.” Most people focus on an athlete’s podium moments, often forgetting their years of sweat and tears. My goal was to capture iconic images that would leave a lasting impression of their skating careers.
Through Elvis and Gladys, we were granted valuable ice time at Tom Graham Arena from the City of Richmond Hill. Two weeks before the actual shoot date, we scouted the location on three separate occasions, taking notes on logistics and lighting conditions. We also got to observe Elvis & Gladys’ private practice, which allowed us to analyze their movement, get to know them on a personal level, and brainstorm different ideas together.
Assembling a Team
Photography is teamwork; my team members are a direct reflection of me as a photographer and thus correspondingly send a message to my clients about what type of person I am and who I associate myself with.
The key to assembling a good team is investing in genuine, sincere relationships. Most of my team members are either my students or professionals who I have become close friends with. If you can be there for them during their times of need and provide valuable support, the ones that really should be on your team will be there for you in supporting your creative vision. Surround yourself with great people and you will continue to attract like-minded people, expanding your pool of talent.
Camera & Lens
Nikon D4s - It was the best camera choice before the D5 release.
70-200mm 2.8 VRII - It is still my favourite lens for both fitness and fashion work.
Thanks to Amplis Foto Inc., lighting advisors Dave Lemieux and Will Prentice gave me suggestions on different lighting equipment options, allowing me to concentrate on image creation. For sports imagery, the lights need to be able to keep up with the action. The Nikon D4s can shoot up to 11 fps–the Scoro pack has no problem keeping up with the camera with good refresh rate, power and colour temperature.
Broncolor Siros - Don’t let these entry-level lights fool you, it can hang with the flagship Scoro pack.
Scoro S, Scoro E - Simply the best lighting system on the planet–I can adjust flash duration, change colour temperature, and program the pack to fire in sequence. There is no competition, this pack is truly a class of its own.
Unilite - Small and lightweight, it was my first choice in pairing it with any large modifiers mounted at great height.
Pulso G - A powerful head with fast refresh rate, the adjustable knob on the side allows users to fine tune light tube protrusion.
Para 133 - Provides a 3D wrap-around light for full-length shots. The adjustable rod can turn a hardlight into a softlight, making this a very versatile modifier.
Octa 150 - A lightweight modifier that produces flattering softlight with great catchlights.
P70 Reflector + Grid - maximum light spread control when paired with a grid.
I wanted to create iconic pictures for Elvis and Gladys individually–not a typical profile shot, but light them in a way that showcases their strength and identity.
We placed one Broncolor Siros two feet behind a white bed sheet, draped and hung over a superboom. Bare bulb was fired at waist level, allowing the light to spread everywhere and wrap around their bodies from their backs to the front, outlining their sculpted arms, backs and legs. Since the image is mainly backlit, it created shadows that emphasized their muscle definition. The bed sheet acted as a giant light box, with the adjacent wall bouncing the light back to the subject, highlighting the sequin on their handmade costumes. We placed a second Siros with a P70 reflector + Grid for facial detail.
In order to create an intimate portrait of the couple, we first turned off the Siros with P70+Grid in the front, taking away the “spotlight” and allowing our subjects to be in the moment. I requested that they face and hold each other close while gazing into each other’s eyes. As Gladys proceeded to adjust Elvis’s collar, I knew the moment was near. The way they looked at each other revealed mutual love and trust. Elvis’s face was filled by the bounced light from the adjacent wall and the bed sheet produced a great catchlight. Soft light lit from waist-level highlighted Gladys’s chin, nose and earring, creating an “angelic” look. Following the light, the strongest light ray peeks through Elvis’s deltoid, highlighting his strength as an athlete and family man. To the left, the same emphasis is placed on Glady’s skates as a reminder to viewers that their relationship originated on ice. Light rays continue to wrap around Glady’s trapezius muscle, revealing years of dedication to her sport.
We proceeded with our shoot on ice. This time we wanted to light the couple yet give them more freedom to move about. We used a Broncolor Scoro S + Unilite + Octa 150, raised high on a superboom, angled slightly forward. The Octa acted as a soft stage light, illuminating our subject from above, while the surroundings remained dark to create the impression that they are on ice as performers. As Elvis and Gladys went through different moves, I paid attention to their interaction with each other. When they performed the “dip”, the look on Elvis’s face revealed how much he adores Gladys, who in turn was relaxed, focusing on her graceful movement with complete trust in her partner’s hands.
We continued to use the Scoro S + Unilite + Octa 150 combination for Gladys’s jump shot. Since her costume was colourful with fringes and rhinestones, we adjusted the Scoro’s flash to the shortest flash duration, allowing me to freeze the fringes of her costume and capture chunks of ice from her powerful jump. This showcases her strength and power as a figure skater. The key to this shot was providing her with a perimeter within which to jump and capturing her at the apex. Timing is crucial, along with capturing her joyous expression as a performer.
Elvis’s costume on the other hand was bright yellow, but his pants absorbed light like a black hole. If we continued to shoot him with the same setup, his pants simply would have disappeared into the darkness, so we added a second Scoro E + Pulso G head + Para 133 in the defocused position. This setup throws a punchy hard light; our goal was to provide enough rim light to separate his pants from the background. After a few tries, we fine tuned the light to shine within his projected flight path. Instead of freezing action like we did for Gladys, I wanted the image to have a hint of motion blur to his feet, depicting a sense of speed. Being a world class performer, Elvis worked the camera and knew exactly where to look, delivering an effortless expression during mid-flight.
We continued to use the Scoro S + Pulso G Head + Para 133 in the defocused position as our main light. For rim lights, we brought back the Siros + P70 + Gels. One assistant focused on controlling the smoke amount, another aimed the smoke to spread it across the background, while a third assistant fanned the smoke away from Elvis and Gladys’ faces using a handheld reflector. For this shot, I wanted the viewer to know the history of our figure skaters: green represented Gladys’ Mexican roots and red paid tribute to Elvis’s Canadian heritage.
1. Time management - The city of Richmond Hill gave us access to the rink for a limited time, meaning that the entire crew must work efficiently. It is always better to have more hands than none.
2. Temperature - We were shooting in a hockey rink, which is often kept at -4c, a lower temperature than a regular figure skating rink. It was crucial to keep all parties warm. I was shooting on top of a roll of carpet the entire time, protecting me from the cold. Temperature is also a reason why I forwent battery-powered lighting solutions: the performance of all batteries drops drastically at low temperatures. Misfiring is not an option on action shoots.
3. Light control - The staff at Tom Graham Arena was very helpful in turning off most overhead lights for us, however, we were limited in shooting directions due to other light sources such as fire exit signs, clocks, vending machines, and our own strobe’s reflection from the rink’s plexiglass. My recommendation is to hang several 10X20 black Duvetyn; that should keep the background nice and clean.
4. Fog Machine - I had completely forgotten about how low temperature would affect fog. Due to the cold temperature, fog would linger and not dissipate for a very long time. Just ask the Zamboni driver :p
Elvis Stojko & Gladys Orozco
MUA & Grooming
Amplis Foto Inc
City of Richmond Hill - Tom Graham Arena
This article and all the images were originally published on Sam Tsang´s blog (here) and shared with his permission