Alexis Cuarezma Explains the 'Whys' behind His Sports Illustrated World Cup Preview Issue

The last time I talked with Alexis, he was just trying out a technique of shooting two different lighting setups with the press of a button (be sure to check that article out for details on how the SpeedCycler feature of the Pocket Wizard MultiMax works).This time around, he managed to pull off five different looks (three at one time) – nabbing himself six pages and the cover of the World Cup preview issue of Sports Illustrated. His behind the-scenes-video gives a ton of insight into how he pulled this off, but I asked him to go even further than the video or what he already explained at his blog and explain the "whys" of it all.

Alexis Cuarezma is a detail-oriented guy. He plans his shoots with meticulous attention and this assignment was no different. The actual placement of lights didn’t vary much from his initial sketches where he planned three locations – the last of which had four different lighting looks established per shot. That’s where we’ll focus since his other two locations were scrapped due to time constraints and some initial technical difficulties.

Initial Planning

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Some might call this "light overkill" so I asked him to explain a bit about why he chose to get so complicated with this shoot when he had so many players to photograph. He immediately wanted to point out that qualifying his approach as overkill or complicated was a subjective way to look at what he did stating that, “the very reason I was photographing many players is why I chose to do multiple setups at once. I knew I would get to photograph every player on the USMNT, but I would only get about one minute with each player.” That doesn’t allow for much interaction with the players let alone moving them from one set to another so he knew he had to make the most of his time. Although most magazines just want simple clean images, Alexis feels that, “if you do only what's required of you, then you’re just doing a job and going through the motions, and editors notice when you only do just enough, or only what's required. So why even be a photographer? Just get a day job.” So, he prefers to deliver more than is asked of him. He makes sure to photograph what he needs to get as well as to attempt more creative images when he can – shots for himself, but also options for his editors.

It’s similar to back in the days of shooting film. Photographers had to make the choice to shoot black and white or color. Some photographers that shot large format would put B&W film on one side of their sheet holder, and color on the other. They would take one exposure and then quickly put the slide back in, flip it, and take another exposure to get both B&W & color from the same shoot.

I have to agree with his ideals to over-deliver, and I can’t argue with how cool it is to be able to get each different look he thought-out with one press of the shutter button. Though... I'd definitely have to up my insurance policy to rent the insane amount of gear that he rented. Seriously. Look at that itemized list of gear. He reccomends, "when working with magazines, you should always ask the editor what budget they have for expenses, and then you can decide what you can rent from there."

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The Shoot

Here’s the breakdown of everything we had going: 5 different looks in 1 set firing in succession with a burst of quick shots. The first look was just one light. The modifier I used is what Profoto calls a "Soft Light Reflector" otherwise known as a beauty dish, with a grid. The grid focuses the light more and lets everything else fall dark and gives harsh shadows. I had it up to give Rembrandt styled lighting. Here’s what they looked like.

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Portrait of Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson using the Profoto Soft Light Reflector with a Grid using Rembrandt lighting


The second look is one of my favorites. I love shooting with warm/cool tones. I normally use a snoot for this type of look but since we were on battery packs, I decided to use a narrow beam reflector which does a similar job. But instead of eating up power, it focuses the light. I had the narrow beam reflector over head giving the players butterfly lighting, and they were also up lit by the 2 soft boxes on the ground. All of those lights had a 1/4 CTO gel on them to give a slightly warm look. And for the back light, I had a Magnum reflector with a full CTB gel on to make everything it hits go blue. I normally just shoot this look with Full CTO’s plus a 1/4 CTO on top of my front lights at 2700 degrees Kelvin, but since I was shooting other looks, I couldn’t do that because it would make them all look blue.

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John Brooks & Jozy Altidore with the warm/cool look.


I also wanted to do another look that wasn’t as dramatic as the first. So for next look I used a soft box, on the opposite side, but still giving Rembrandt styled lighting. As you can see, it’s not as dark and the light hits the background more.

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Portrait of Nick Rimando and Geoff Cameron of USMNT for Sports-Illustrated


I also had one of my assistants hold a black board off to the side. I know this lighting can look great when shot from another angle. So I also did profiles of each player. I wanted a completely different look so that’s why I had my assistant hold a black background instead of gray or white. It gives a completely different look and feel.

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Shooting the profile of Matt Besler of the USMNT for Sports Illustrated

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The profile portrait of Kyle Beckerman was one of my favorite ones. The light from the narrow beam reflector looks great on his dreadlocks.

The final look I had was just a nice, simple bright look with 4 soft boxes going off and done with a single shot on my 5Dmk2. This was the look for Clint Dempsey for the cover. It was fairly a simple shot that was needed of him wearing the flag. I was going to get 10-15minutes with him so I had a handful of ideas to try and utilize every minute. The first thing I wanted to lock in were all the images needed for the cover. So I photographed him 3/4’s and full length. Facing straight forward and to the left (facing away from gutter of the magazine as Brad directed me).

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Portrait of Clint Dempsey of USMNT for Sports Illustrated


Sending It Off

Then I asked Alexis if he could talk a bit about the steps after the shoot and he explained that shooting for SI is a bit different than shooting for other magazines he has worked for because they want to see everything. To accommodate this, he shoots both raw and jpg files simultaneously and sends the jpg images to Sports Illustrated via FTP. From there, the editors make their selections and then request the raws. They also do all the post production. Alexis was told beforehand that the players would be cut out for the magazine spreads, and that’s why he shot the individual players on a simple background. The other looks were creative expressions for himself or for SI if they chose any.

Most photographers don’t like the idea of sending off their entire shoot (test shots, outtakes and all) for a magazine to choose and edit, but rather want the control of what gets seen and published. This is just Sports Illustrated’s method of working and he sees it more of a way of collaborating with the magazine telling me, “They are experienced editors and I trust them to make the right selection like they trust me to give me the assignment." After talking in great length with former Sports Illustrated NFL and Boxing editor, George Washington, Alexis took his advice and knowledge of sports photography to heart. It was extremely influential on Alexis’ approach because SI has worked with some of his favorite photographers as he told me, “It was better than any workshop because you're getting information straight from the source that you want to work with.” He further explained that Sports Illustrated likes to see the entire take from the day because they want to see what your thought process was – what you were thinking, what you were trying to do, and where you were going with the whole shoot. “The story can change and they may find use for an image that you didn't think would be used. For this shoot, they actually made several different request s for Clint's portrait after the initial selection," he let know.

Here is what the final issue looks like.

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I think Alexis crushed this assignment and I’m happy to see that Sports Illustrated chose the first lighting setup for the majority of the shots as I prefer edgier images with some contrast to them. You can take a look at ESPN’s short behind-the-scenes clip for even more about this whole production.

Make sure to also read through Alexis Cuarezma’s original blog post (if you already haven't) for a very detailed account of his thought process, and the gear and specs that went into this awesome World Cup shoot. There’s a wealth of information there!

Follow Alexis on Instagram and Twitter to stay in-the-know of what he's up to next!

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Justin Haugen's picture

There were so many people quick to look at the set of 10 lights and rashly decide "That's too many lights to use simultaneously!" on social media, instead of actually watching the video or reading the commentary lol.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Hi Justin, Yeah, people are sometimes quick to make a statement/comment. Thanks for the comment and checking out the article & video.

Justin Haugen's picture

I'm glad you haven't let it discourage you. Keep sharing, this stuff is valuable to the people who take the time to read and view what you're sharing.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Not discouraged at all. I've been getting some great feedback and appreciation from people [like you]. That's 10x more encouraging than the people who are quick to judge. Ultimately, the only opinions & feedback that truly matter to me are my own (whether I'm satisfied personally with the images & job I did) and the person who hired me. And in this case the director of photography at SI was happy and it was published. Everyone else is certainly entitled to their opinions.

Justin Haugen's picture

I think you found a good landing spot with FStoppers running this article.

By the way, how did your work initially get in front of SI's dp? I take it this isn't your first session of this type. Do you have an agent or did you cold call dp's with marketing collateral?

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Aaron Brown did a great job on asking further questions on top of what I had already written. A lot credit needs to go to him for digging deeper.

I first met Brad (the SI DP) in NY at a workshop called Barnstorm aka The Eddie Adams Workshop. He was the editor in my group & was the Senior Editor at the NY TIMES during that time. In that the workshop, he liked the work I did during the assignment they give us & also he also liked my portfolio. I stood in touch with him & he also hired me for a few assignment at the NY TIMES. He then became the DOP at SI. I talk about it in the start of this blog post:

and here's also another post that mentions him and is also about working on your portfolio. I talk about removing an image that he really liked & when he saw it, said "we'll definitely be doing work together".

Justin Haugen's picture

You really have gone above and beyond with your responses here. Thank you very much for sharing!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

You welcome bro. It's my pleasure.

Michael Kormos's picture

Great pics! Not sure why it was shot outdoors with midday sun, but I'm sure he had his reason. Loving the blue gel, really frames the face quite neatly.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Hi Michael, essentially we don't have control when the players are available. We're on their schedule. Also, the location was selected because it was where it would be the easiest to gather all the players for the shoot. I talk about this in more detail in my original blog post. Here's an excerpt:

"When I scouted the location with him, there were many great options. However, he asked me if I was going to need time to setup which I did...
...and [I] also needed to be near the SI film crew that would be interviewing the players after we photographed them, we were put in the middle of nowhere by the restrooms and locker room where the referees get ready. This was the best location because it was also near the locker room for the players and it would be easier to gather all of them."

Thanks for the comment. Cheers!

....aaaaaand then the graphic designer throws nonsensical drop shadows on the page layout. Way to use the great material that's given you buddy.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Hi TS, I was told prior to the shoot that the plan was to cut them out and they would be pasted into another background. That's almost essential as they have to find a way to put all 23 players in print and space/page count is limited costly. Thank you for checking out the post & the comment.


I wish the link between photographer and designer where more closely integrated on more projects. I feel in many applications people take an assembly line mind sent. The photographer clicks, the designer snips, the client picks and everyone looses a little bit of respect for each other's role. All part of the game for sure but if each person better understood the process before and after him then the whole project would come together more smoothly. I myself am a designer, not a photographer and my disappoint is with the graphic designer in that one layout. The customer only sees the end result and anything I do as a designer that gives the impression of unprofessionalism in any of the links before me is a failure on my behalf. The more I learn of photography the more I appreciate the craft and want to preserve its artistry in the work I make from it. I think if that designer had a bit more respect for direction of light he would have better represented both your work and the integrity of the publication as well. But then again I'm trained nit-picking details like that. It's a reminder that we all have a lot to learn from each other.
Love your work here. You've captured the players as exemplary humans rather than over the top super-heros if you know what I mean and it works great! Thanks for the reply, keep up the great work!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

T S, thanks so much for feedback. And yes, I actually wish I could work more closely with the design team. But since SI is a weekly magazine, I'm sure they are under crazy deadlines and it's best for them to just go with what they had planned. Also, keep in my mind that the photos I posted are fully retouched be me, and they get the RAW files so that in itself can take the image a completely different direction.

Also, funny you say I captured as humans rather than over the top super-heros! that's usually what I always do with people I photograph! ha!

Randy Gentry's picture

Was there a makeup / wardrobe person for this? Perhaps there was no time. It's for SI, how do they not see that it was important enough to put more time devoted to this?

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Hi Randy, thanks for the comment. There was no MUA or stylist for this. We photographed them before & after their practice. Their schedule is made the day before and that's why there was many time changes to the start time. As the schedule is released, the PR person does their best to fit us into the day as they already have a full plate on their hands of things to do.


Sergio Tello's picture

The Kyle Beckerman profile looks incredible.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Thanks Sergio, that's one of my favorites!

Aaron Brown's picture

Mine too!

Great images and great solution to a time constrained shoot. I have done similar things (way less ambitious) and totally relate to the time and venue challenges. "You have five minutes, we need 40 shots and change from a twenty dollar bill".

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Mark, "and change from a twenty dollar bill", that's a winner! ha!!

Craig Mitchell's picture

Great article and video! I am really impressed with the planning, execution and time management. Images turned out great!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Hi Craig,
Not matter how much you plan, you can always count on something going wrong. I'm really happy everything turned out okay. So glad to hear you like the article & video, thanks!

Adam T's picture

Love the pics

Really cool and very impressive but was it all worth it only to have the magazine photoshop out the background.

I read one of your comments saying that you knew they were going to cut them out, then why did you bother with all of this type of set up, couldn't you have used a white canopy, treat that a giant softbox/ reflector and a quarter of the lighting?

Did you even read the article? Here, I'll spoon-feed you the answer:

'Although most magazines just want simple clean images, Alexis feels that, “if you do only what's required of you, then you’re just doing a job and going through the motions, and editors notice when you only do just enough, or only what's required. So why even be a photographer? Just get a day job.” '

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Mo, "spoon-feed you the answer:" that made me laugh, lol. Cheers!

Adam T's picture

Perhaps I should of paragraphed the question on use of time over value vs personal value.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Hi Adam,

Thanks for the comment. I always try shooting for myself and will go to great length to create just one image I'm personally happy with even if it's not published or what the client needs. But I always make sure I do what is required too.

I could have easily just kept this to one light & reflector and given the magazine just that one look. But like I said, I always try to shoot for myself. And when you know your going to be crunched for time, you can either accept that or find a solution to shoot what's needed plus what you want.

I love shooting dark, with harsh shadows. For the most part magazine's don't like that. I also love shooting with warm/cool tones, but that also can give a dark feeling to the images. So I did those looks for me and also what the magazine needed. I didn't want to be locked into just one look. I wanted creative variety for me personally and the editors would get that too.


Adam T's picture

So would say say that the other third of the images where personal portfolio pieces?
If so don't magazines lock you into standard rates, was all the additive gear off of your rate or did you take a cut on the normal back end.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

@Adam T One of the reason I like to draw & plan everything out is so I can explain everything to the people I'm working with. As stated on the follow up question @Aaron asked for the interview:

"He [Alexis] reccomends, "when working with magazines, you should always ask the editor what budget they have for expenses, and then you can decide what you can rent from there."'

I got the budget approved for everything. Even if it's not approved I would still consider strongly doing what I had envisioned. Photographers sometimes put in A LOT more into a shoot than what they are getting back from the magazine money wise if a great opportunity presents itself.

No, I would not say at all that a third of the images were for personal portfolio pieces. The client has access to all of them. I did shoot them for myself & own personal vision but it also gives them more options.

For example, in another shoot I did for them I did 2 looks. The one they wanted plus one personally for me. They ended up publishing a 2 page spread of the look I shot personally for me. You can read about that shoot here:

In regards to your statement "don't magazines lock you into standard rates"... yes, you don't get paid by the hour. I would have gotten the same amount of money had I used 1 light or no lights and spent zero to no time planning everything. But then in my opinion I would have gotten mediocre images and not what I had envision.

I truly believe that if you come up with an idea/concept/look in your mind, that it's something really sacred and important. And you should do everything in your powers to execute that vision/idea.

You can also certainly have the mindset of "I'm locked into a standard rate" so I'll only do certain amount of work or just enough. But to me, as I said before that's just doing a job & going through the motions. Thanks for your comment. Hope that answers your questions.


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