Olympic Gold: Drew Gardner on lighting VR, Video and Stills of the Women’s 8 Row Team for Sports Illustrated

On a recent Sports Illustrated project documenting the three-time Gold-winning Women’s 8 Olympic Rowing Team as they trained for the Rio games, still photographer and multimedia artist Drew Gardner was facing not only a difficult still photography setup in the middle of a lake, but also a three-day shoot that would ultimately include video interviews as well as virtual reality content destined to accompany a long-form article on the SI.com website. Relying almost entirely on Kino Flos and Chimera medium lightbanks coupled with Profoto B1 high-powered flashes, the goal for Gardner and his team would be to capture several editorial stills to be coupled with clickable content that would unlock easter-egg video interviews with the women athletes about their responsibilities as a team member and Olympian.

“It’s about trying to push the whole story to the limit while trying to tell the same story different ways.”

The whole shoot was to be anchored by a high quality group shot on the final day that would gather the Women’s 8 on the bank of Lake Carnegie, where they train intensely each morning. “So we have this group shot,” explains Gardner, “and we have the 360-degree still image, which also has video embedded inside of it, and thirdly, we have a premium 360-degree VR video that has been shot right from the boat as the Women’s 8 were training on Lake Carnegie.”

Gardner explains that one of the most exciting aspects of projects like this for him is the convergence of so many storytelling mediums. He says that regardless as to whether or not you consider yourself to be on the cutting edge of tech, multimedia is the future for still photography. “To stay relevant as a photographer,” he explains, “you have to move on, you have to feel what’s coming next, you have to embrace it and you have to be part of it. For me, it’s about trying to push the whole story to the limit while trying to tell the same story different ways by using different mediums.”

Gardner’s precocious beginning in the world of multimedia started at the age of 15 when he had a photograph published in the local newspaper. The company was so impressed by his tenacity that they also hired him to help around the office. From there, it was a natural progression into photojournalism where he says that even as a boy he was greatly influenced by the stark works of news shooters like Don McCullin and David Hume Kennerly.

“I decided I would try to be a photographer and change the world,” he laughs, “so I started to photograph local issues.” Now, more than thirty years later, he has moved on to advertising, editorial and high concept commercial photography which he balances out with video and VR work. With an impressive client list that includes L’Oreal, Louis Vuitton, Rolls Royce, Microsoft and Suzuki, Gardner was no stranger to producing tailored content for top shelf commercial clients, and as he has been working with still panoramics and 360 degree content for several years now, as well, it was a no-brainer to approach his friends at Sports Illustrated on the technology.

Lake Carnegie in New Jersey is the famous training ground for the female and male US Olympics rowing teams as well as nearby Princeton University. The historic C. Bernard Shea Rowing Center boathouse was planned as the backdrop for the interactive 360 degree panorama still, with a shot of each athlete that led to a video interview captured at the same location. The lake itself would serve as background for the wading teammates in the group shot as well as the setting for an immersive VR experience of the rowers as they practiced taken as if experiencing the situation from their perspectives.

The athletes were literal good sports and they were also very clearly used to working in water, so they were happy to wade in, especially as Gardner and his crew made sure to check the sediment for rocks by traipsing around in sandals to see where it was safe. Breaking any bones for the shot would be a very bad thing. “If you’re dealing with people that have worked really hard to reach this point where they’ve been selected for the Olympics,” he points out, “you really wouldn’t want to do anything which compromises them in anyway, shape or form, so it’s important that you take care of them. I was really fortunate enough to have spent a couple of days with them, so I was already tuned in with them. By the time that they were in the water for the shot, I thought I had their confidence. They were up for it and off we went!”

“By the time that they were in the water for the shot, I thought I had their confidence. They were up for it and off we went!”

With the setting sun and an overall look of defiance, the mood Gardner and his team found in this composition is definitely one of strength, particularly suited to a team of Olympians. That may have quite a bit to do with Gardner’s heavy contrast ratio of 3:1 with key-to-fill. He had placed two Chimera medium softboxes to his left, which actually mounted three rather than two Profoto B1 heads; one in the leftmost Chimera and two in the Chimera medium lightbank that was just next to the camera. At a stop lower in output, he also filled from a Profoto B1 with white umbrella reflector from his right.

“I like to light from one side,” he says. “Normally I like the right, because that is just my tendency, but on this occasion, in a lake, it was more about lighting from where we could put the camera and put the lights. It was a real challenge.” The sun added a nice natural backlight and, more importantly to Gardner, it helped to add separation between each member as they stood in the water. Although he ran with it when he saw the rim light effect, the plan initially was to shoot much earlier in the day and to backlight from the rear jetty with a strobe at full force sans modifier.

Instead, he was lucky enough with the positioning of the sun to rely on the warmth of the back glow and reflected ambient lighting from the lake for rear ambience, hair rim and backlight. This gave him an extra Profoto B1 to shoot from the front, which came in handy as Gardner was shooting between f/8 and f/11 to keep the whole team in focus during the early morning light. (He had roughly fifteen minutes for the shot before the women had to begin practice.)

Gardner anchored the Profoto B1 strobes high on Manfrotto wind-up double-stands, which enabled him to light the front and also the back row of athletes from the same efficient angle. He says he was alright with the small differentials in contrast between each subject and the shot ultimately required little extra work in post. “Very minimal,” he says. “I brought some areas up and I brought some areas down, but it’s right out of the can! There’s no cloning or anything like that.”

Gardner also used the Chimera medium lightbanks and Profotos to light for the 360 degree still, where they would underexpose the ambient light so that the camera, which was on a motorized rig, the Seitz Roundshot VR drive, would then be able to capture each snapshot quadrant and each subject with evenly controlled exposures regardless of the extreme difference in light levels between the open boathouse doors and the very dark interiors. Ultimately, he was pretty happy that he chose the Profoto B1 flashes for the project.

“There are very few limitations,” he says. “The whole thing is wireless and it’s simplicity itself. You just need to put the light wherever you want. There are no limits to imagination or positioning.” He’s equally as excited about his Chimera lighting modifiers, which he has been working with for more than half of his career. He says he’s able to configure his lightbanks in a variety of ways simply by playing with the shape and quality of the softbox system. His favored setup, the medium lightbank with white interior baffle, provides him with the full range of needed light: hard contrast, soft diffusion and even a beauty dish spread when used open-face. “It’s my rider,” he says, “I don’t leave for a shoot without a Chimera medium lightbank.”

Gardner explains that they’re not only incredibly versatile, but also extensively durable. “It’s the swiss-army knife of lighting modifiers for me, you can do anything with it and it’s worth every penny. I’ve traveled with it all over the world and it’s served me so well. I’ve had mine run over by cars. They’ve been up mountains. And been urinated on by animals.. and I still have my first Chimera medium softbox. It’s twenty years old. It’s nearly on its last legs, and I thought that last year it was going to breathe it’s last, because it is wearing a little bit thin in places, but in fact no, it’s still going strong and I’ve got it packed for my next nature assignment.”