Jeff Lewis; The Knack for Taking Big Risks at The Right Times

Many times in a creative’s life, there will be a period when you look back on what you’ve been doing and make a choice to pivot into a new chapter. For Jeff Lewis, there has been a few over the years – some very notable ones to say the least. Lewis grew up eating, sleeping & breathing football, although his creative side shown through in his oil paintings. However, it wasn’t until he was in college on the football field that his true calling occurred to him.

A lot of times, when you see photographers working with high-end clients, they rarely get the real time needed to develop rapport and connect with your clients. However, for a lot of the companies / magazines / agencies / PR firms hiring shooters for such jobs, they really don’t care and that’s fine — we’re all professionals with a job to do. This shoot with Beckham was no different — Lewis was hired to shoot the whole LA Galaxy Team with only 1-2 minutes with each player. To get the shot he needed, he opted for his trusty 3-light setup: the main light used was a 3ft OctaPlus Lightbank + two strip lightbanks due to space constraints with shooting in a hallway.

One practice while running through plays, he witnessed a teammate catch such a beautiful pass that he envisioned the shot being taken and knew he had to pick up a camera. Mind you Jeff may have had the eye of a NFL scout, as he saw the magic ability in none other than Keyshawn Johnson – you may have heard of him. That moment on the field was one of the major turning points for Jeff.

After college, Jeff actually worked as an elementary school teacher, teaching English & History to the 6th grade. However, the yearn of his creative side was still alive and well, so Lewis started shooting Little League baseball under a veteran shooter in all his spare time learning as much as he could about his craft. Yet, like most careers there came another pivot and it came in a big way where Jeff took one of the biggest risks of his career up until that point.

Jeff was contacted by a Canadian company who liked his sports work and wanted to hire him to shoot the 2004 Olympic Swim Trials. The pay wasn’t great, but it was his chance to shoot the biggest event of his career so Lewis said yes and took a big leap – knowing his current setup wouldn’t hold up, he invested in a Canon 1Dx Mk II for the job. However, he quickly realized it was perfect timing when he noticed who he’d be photographing at the event: Michael Phelps. This was in 2004 when Phelps was about to have this coming out party making him a household name and go on to become the most decorated Olympian of all time. Lewis, it would seem, was developing a knack for taking big risks at just the right moments.

One thing Jeff always knew was the need to invest in one’s self & career, so such risks were necessary for his growth. Early on in his career he did a portfolio review with Sports Illustrated photographer, Peter Reed Miller, who gave him advice that put him down another path in his photographic career – portraiture. Shooting sports was one thing, but he had to learn more about taking impactful photographs of the athletes themselves. Like many his early gear consisted of Elinchrom lights paired with PhotoFlex softboxes, but quickly he knew he needed to invest in a more reliable kit so Chimera became his go-to choice using their strip lightbanks on almost every shoot.  Shooting with professional athletes you need to have gear you can count on the same way they’re expecting to perform every time they step out into the arena.

One of the biggest things any photographer can attest to learning over the years as a pro is simply put; learning to pick the right tool for the shot. Whether that be a camera system, grip gear, or most importantly which light modifier to use.

For this commercial shoot for a big client, Lewis was tasked with making a lasting image showcasing the harsh elements NFL players are often expected to perform in. Opting for a rain look, Lewis used a rain truck as well as a 10 ft soft box with continuous light to be able to shoot the players playing in real time, as time is crucial when directing a large set and a rented rain truck [hint: they’re not cheap]. Now, in order to nail the dramatic look of the rain falling, Jeff went with a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second.

The portfolio quickly became a who’s who of professional sports from the NFL, Major League Baseball, swimming, and the NBA with names like Ray Lewis, Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter, Eli Manning, David Beckham, and LeBron James. Lewis photographed NBA Championships, Super Bowls, and countless playoff games that crowned champions and secured dynasties. This portfolio of elite caliber professional athletes were all thanks to his trusty strip banks to help elicit a certain mood that makes every person look like a Hall of Famer. One of the biggest things any photographer can attest to learning over the years as a pro is simply put; learning to pick the right tool for the shot. Whether that be a camera system, grip gear, or most importantly which light modifier to use. There’s no doubt, that lighting does the most for the overall mood of a shot – hard/soft, flat/wrapping, overhead/underneath; all have a direct effect on how a shot looks and the mood it conveys. For Lewis, strip banks are a great way to get the kicker highlights across a whole person’s frame adding a high-end element to the photo, a way that simply can’t be done with one light setups or high-key all around lighting.

For this shot, Lewis wanted to play with color temps in an impactful way. So for his main light he used a 5ft OctaPlus Lightbank with a warming gel and two strip lightbanks. He then had two assistants behind Trumaine spraying water in the air, to add to the effect. Now, the end result you’ll notice was from turning his WB down to 3700k

Once the bright lights go dim, however, is when most players struggle and fight the hardest battle of their lives. The transition from professional athlete superstar to ordinary citizen is often a rough one, especially for average players whose career lasts only a few seasons. These rough transitions often lead to players going broke, struggling to adjust to new lifestyles, and having limited options on how to get out of it. Seeing this firsthand with many of his peers and old teammates, Lewis knew there had to be something he could do. It was then that Playmaker Publishing was born – a service providing photoshoots for athletes in various settings on and off the field to help them develop a portfolio of images to help younger athletes gain sponsorship attention as well as give veterans an archive of images to use for memorabilia sales. Lewis saw it as his small part in helping his fellow athletes to have a fulfilling life off the field once the jerseys come off and get hung up for good.

What is an on location shoot without some hurdles & unexpected difficulties. The shoot with Lionel was no exception, with the final set picked being on the actual boxing ring, which if you never noticed is usually about 3-5 feet off the ground. This present some unique challenges, mainly how to setup the lights safely to get the look needed. On the stands raised all the way up was a 4 light setup – 2 strip boxes, a soft box for main, and one with barn doors for hair light. Lewis then had Davis punch towards the camera, with a 24-70 at 24mm to get the effect he wanted; you in the ring for a round with the monster bruiser, Davis.

When asked about creatives that inspire him, Lewis is quick to acknowledge the up-and-coming photographers shooting street portraits with whatever gear they have. Perhaps paying homage to his previous career of shaping young students into young adults, realizing nowadays that those same young eager talented individuals have as much to teach him as he does to them. One of the biggest things Jeff acknowledges is the importance of paying it forward – always help someone who asks, for at one point or another we all were the ones looking for any advice or guidance in our careers.

Our thanks to Jeff for the inside look at what goes into making his images! Make sure to see more of his work on his website or Playmaker Images, and follow him on Facebook and Instagram!