Shooting On-Location Portraits of Army Black Hawk Helicopter Pilots
A few weeks ago I got to do a photo shoot with a group of U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter pilots from an Army Reserve Medevac unit. During the shoot my 2nd assistant on the job, Chris Cox, looks at me and says, “Is there any place where you feel less like a man than when you’re a civilian at at Army base?” We both just cracked up (because it’s true!). We stuck out for sure, but this was just really cool! Black Hawks. Army Base. We’re guys. What’s not to like? (click on the photo above for a larger view).
Brad and I had already done a scouting trip to the base a week earlier (in fact, it was through Brad that I got this opportunity in the first place, as one of his friends is not only a Black Hawk pilot, but a Lieutenant at the base). I knew I wanted to do some shooting with the choppers on the flight line as my backdrop, which would put us all out in the sweltering August Florida heat, so on the day of the shoot, we went as early in the morning as we could.
My initial idea was to use a Lastolite 4 foot x 6 foot scrim overhead, suspended on two light stands—(as seen above), to diffuse the direct sunlight, but no sooner than we got it set up, a huge cloud cover moved over the entire area, and we wouldn’t see the sun again for the rest of the shoot. I took a few test shots with this set-up (which is what you see above—photo by Brad Moore), but it was so overcast that the light was flat and boring.
Luckily, we had brought along the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra two-head strobe kit you saw me talk about a few weeks earlier with Mark Astman from Bogen Imaging (here’s the link). This was our first in-field test, and I have to tell you—-it performed even better than I had hoped. In fact, it was working so well, I had to call my buddy Terry White (who was considering a set for himself) during the shoot and I told him to go ahead and place the order right now. It’s that good!). It was great not having to mess with any wireless issues (the wireless receivers are built right into the Quadra units, so all you need is the matchbox-sized transmitter that sits on your hotshoe).
We could see some pretty scary-looking storm clouds way off in the distance slowly heading our way, so we went right to work. We took down the Lastolite scrim, and we attached an Elinchrom 39″ softbox on one of the Ranger Quadra heads, and mounted it on a light stand to the left of our subject (Our main subject that day was Lieutenant Rob Ozburn, Brad’s friend, and just a tremendous guy all around. In fact, everybody we met at the base that day was just fantastic!).
As hot as it was, Rob put on his heavy flight gear, helmet and all, to pose for the shots. Brad and I are out there in short sleeves, and we’re sweating to death, but it didn’t phase Rob one bit. I found out why; their choppers don’t have air conditioning (except for back where the wounded are), and the cockpit temperature can often reach over 120 degrees.
Here’s a couple of the shots out from out on the flight line. I had been shooting with my 200mm f/2 (seen in the previous production shot), but I couldn’t fit enough of the choppers in the frame, so I switched to my 14-24mm f/2.8, and shot this one out at 24mm at f/13. No HDR—-just Camera Raw.
As we were shooting, we could see the storm getting closer, and the Lieutenant wanted to get a group shot of his Medevac team, so we switched to a larger softbox (a 53″ MidiOcta) and relocated at the other end of the field. In the shot above, I’m discussing where to place some of the pilots, but as it turned out, we wound up shooting at an entirely different chopper from a different angle.
The storm is almost here. It’s not raining yet, but we don’t have much time. The guys are gearing up and coming out, but it takes a while to get everybody out to the flight line, so we’re checking out angles and deciding how to light the group. Brad was really pushing for me to fire up the 2nd head to cover that large space, but time was short, and I really thought I could cover it with one by just moving it back behind me and cranking it up to full power, so we lit the group shot (which you see at the top), with just that one single Ranger Quadra head with that 53″ Octa.
I finally got everybody in place (I positioned them in little clusters of three and four guys, which works great for group shots), then I put my 14-24mm wide angle lens on, got down low, and I positioned myself so the chopper blade would appear right over my head (thanks to the 14mm). I did this group shot (you can see the final image at the top of this post), then set up in front of the chopper for individual portraits, but by now the storm was nearly on us.
I only had time for about two frames each, and the base commander sent word out that there were lightning strikes in the area, so we headed right for the hanger. The hanger was only about 100 yards (90 meters) away; I had turned off my camera and we’re rolling the lightstand and strobe back to the hanger. We’re about half way there, and all of sudden the strobe fires—-then a second later CRACK!!!!! The lightning had triggered the flash and then a split-second later—BOOM!!!!! We raced inside, and within 60 seconds it was absolutely pouring!!!!
Since it was pouring outside; we set up inside. From my scouting the previous week, I knew I wanted to get a shot of Rob beisde a Black Hawk in the hanger, but also using the huge American Flag as a backdrop. I got down low and had the Lieutenant look up over me. I used that same single Quadra strobe but we switched to a 39″ square softbox, up high, to his left aiming down.
Same thing here for post processing. No HDR—-just Camera Raw (well, if you want to be technical, the Develop Module of Lightroom, which is Camera Raw).
After I got the shot with the flag, I set up to do individual portraits of each pilot, but rather than do the regular dark dramatic background, I took a cue from Tim Mantoani’s fantastic portraits of this year’s top NFL draft picks, and shot them on a white background (using a Lastolite HiLite background), and I used hard edge rim lighting from behind to skim each side of their face.
I used one of the heads from my Ranger Quadra to light the HiLite background, and then one as my main light the left of my camera position. We had to flag-off the two back rimlights (which are Elinchrom BXRIs powered by that Innovatronix Explorer XT battery pack I talked about back in June, and in Vol. 3 of my Digital Photography Book. So, I use four lights in all: 1 Quadra as a main light, one to light the HiLite, then the two Elinchrom BXRI’s to do the rim lighting on Rob. By the way; the 2nd boom stand extending into the Hi-light is just to steady to the Hi-lite—there’s no light attached.
By the way; do you see my laptop stand? I know what you’re thinking; “but where’s the laptop?” That’s coming up in a moment.
Here’s one of those shots on the white Hi-Lite background. They don’t compare with what Tim did on any level, but I’m glad I tried something different than I normally would. Again, no HDR, but like the other images here, it’s a single-image process I call EDP “Expanded Definition Processing.” I’m teaching a special tutorial on this for the NAPP member website, where I’ll use the same images you see here and take members through the process from start to finish.
Now to the “missing laptop” question. It died on the gig. Once we got inside the hanger, it started storming like I couldn’t believe (I learned later it was one of the worst thunderstorms we’ve had in years), and all of a sudden the wind changed, and the rain started blowing in on our equipment.
While I was shooting the flag portrait of Rob; Brad and Chris were quickly pulling the gear further inside—away from the rain. My laptop was on the tripod’s laptop stand, and while Brad was moving the whole rig by himself (and navigating through all the gear on the floor), he tipped the stand too much and my laptop fell right off onto the concrete floor. It was dead. It wouldn’t boot at all. Brad felt terrible, but I wasn’t upset at all. Brad was trying to help me out and protect my gear, which I really appreciated, but he still took it pretty hard.
Luckily, two things happened. From my experience in Denver earlier this year (and at the instance of my friend Terry White), I had a bootable backup of my laptop with me, so I was able to work immediately off that external drive. After we got back to the office, my IT guys got me a replacement hard drive; popped it in and it worked just fine (thanks Paul and Keith).
When I got home that night, I set my Apple Time Machine wireless backup device to restore my files (it had backed me up at 6:08 am that morning), and when I woke up the next morning, it was as if nothing had happened. Everything was back just as it was. I love Time Machine!
Here’s the last shot of the day (and one of my favorites), taken in natural light. I had Rob walk out of the hangar about half a dozen times, carrying his helmet, at various speeds, until I got the frame I wanted (seen above).
Then I overexposed the shot a bit in Camera Raw, and used Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro to make the black and white conversion you see here (by the way; Silver Efex Pro is absolutely fantastic!!!!! If you’re into Black & White—get this plug-in!!!! Also, if you’re a NAPP member don’t forget to use your discount).
Despite the weather and laptop smashfest, we had a really great shoot. But beyond that, I really want to thank Lieutenant Rob Ozburn, and the men of F Co 5-159th AVN REGT who put their lives on the line in service to our country. It was a true honor to get to photograph these brave men.