About a year and a half ago, I was walking on a local beach and realized that for a few weeks of the year, the sun would set in a perfect line of sight down the beach. I thought it might be a fun photographic challenge to create a super telephoto picture with a body builder "holding" the sun in an Atlas style pose. In my mind, the entire scene would be lit rather than have a typical sun silhouette image. Little did I realize how much work I was getting myself into.
When I first had the idea, I shared it with the guys at the Fstoppers office and both Lee Morris and Patrick Hall expressed their skepticism that the image I described would even be possible to capture considering how many things could go wrong. Even if I did capture it, they thought it probably wouldn't look very good and would be much easier to do in Photoshop. Despite their concerns, I decided this was a creative project I wanted to pursue.
The first big challenge to make this image work was finding a focal length long enough to make the sun as big in my frame as I wanted the subject to be. Tamron just released a new telephoto to super telephoto lens, the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 that worked perfectly. This lens is one of the few out there that exceeds a 400mm focal length. It comes with vibration control and some neat little locking mechanisms that keep the lens steady when shooting at 600mm. Most photographers would use this lens for sports or wildlife, but I was mostly interested in how much it could help me zoom in to my subject. Despite being able to go all the way to 600mm, this was not enough zoom for my shot. I added a Tamron SP AF 2X Pro Teleconverter to take my focal length to 1200mm.
The second challenge was getting the proper perspective of my subject. In order to compress the subject and the sun to a similar size, I had to move about 500 feet away from my subject. If you're unfamiliar how this kind of compression works, Lee Morris wrote a great article about it a little while ago explaining it. For the image to look good so far away from the subject, I had to find a flat area of beach with a completely clear line of sight in between us. I also wanted the complete form of my subject to be outlined by only the sky. This presented my next challenge.
As you can see from this test shot I took, there is a tree line miles away that cuts off my subject from the sky. In order to compensate for this, I dug a hole into the ground and got my camera as low as possible. However, this didn't completely solve my problem as the trees still cut off my subject. To raise my subject above the tree line completely, I had to build up a small dune. The wide perspective shot below gives you a good idea of just how far away the tree line actually was. The hole for the tripod was easy enough to dig but the dune probably took me a total of three hours just to raise my subject 20 inches.
Building the dune might have been challenging but placing it perfectly was even more challenging and had to be done on the exact day of the shoot. Every day the sun sets in slightly different locations along the horizon due to the orbit of the earth around the sun. To calculate the exact location of the sun set with respect to my subject and camera, I used a handy app called "The Photographers Ephemeris." This tool lets you pick a point using your phone's GPS and view the angle of the sun at any given point during the day. While this sounds simple enough to plan for, the sun also sets at an angle. In order to plan for the exact moment my model would "hold" the sun, taking the model's height into consideration, I did a test shoot with a group of light stands. I measured different heights of the light stands and then created a somewhat complicated photoshop document to try and map out the perfect positioning of my subject at any given time during the sunset.
To give you a sense of the amount of relative movement the sun has to my subject within the frame, the center three light stands were placed two feet apart. Each day, the sun moved one foot to the left. This gave me very little room for error when building my dune, digging my hole, and placing my subject. In addition, the sun set at about one inch per second down the light stands. This meant that I would have less than 30 seconds to perfectly nail the perfect pose with my subject.
Since my timing window to nail the perfect pose was so short, I used my Photoshop document to measure and build a life sized version of the sun for how big it would appear in the frame. I then used this to help my model practice with the angle of his arms and hands so that he would be holding the correct pose when the sun moved into position.
Another tricky aspect of the shoot that you can see from my Photoshop planning image is the weather. In order to make this shot work, the horizon had to be perfectly clear, which was difficult to plan for. Even on clear sunny days, there are sometimes single clouds on the horizon that block the sun slightly. In my area, there are usually only two to four days each month where the horizon remains cloudless. Luckily, we ended up having two days in a row to practice the shot and then execute the final shot with the model.
If this shoot wasn't complicated enough already, I decided to make it more complicated by adding lights. The original vision for this shot was to have some detail in the sky, sun, and on the model. Unfortunately, the day I tested to camera settings to see if this was possible, the sky was extremely hazy which threw off the lighting calculations for the sun in my final shot. Based on those calculations, I figured I could light the subject well using four Profoto D1's. As you may know, these lights require a power source which meant I had to bring out a generator and plenty of extension cords.
Another layer of complication that came with adding these lights was triggering them. I recently compared the Profoto triggering system to the Venture TTL 600 and showed that Profoto lights are very capable of being triggered from over 900 feet away. What I didn't realize was that this range is limited to a normal standing height. When I dropped my camera into my hole at ground level, the lights would not trigger. In order to overcome this, I had to put the Profoto trigger on a light stand and run an extension cable from it to my camera's hot shoe.
The Test Shoot
After working through all the components to make this image work, the weather cleared up for a couple days and I convinced Lee and Patrick to come out with me and film a test shoot. I thought it would be fun to be the model and have some interesting images of myself before using a body builder. I set up the camera for Lee and left him to shoot and direct me while I tried to nail the pose
We first tried to set up the lights with two back lights on either side. However, we quickly realized that the settings would need to be much brighter than I anticipated and so we put all four lights to one side of me to give my body some definition. Despite the many distractions that came through the scene, which can be seen in the video, we managed to get a few frames with decent poses. Unfortunately, the lighting on me was not as accentuated as I had hoped and the sun was much more blown out than what I planned for.
Lee and Patrick didn't believe the images could be improved much beyond what we captured and decided the image wasn't worth pursuing further. I figured I would go ahead and finish what I had put so much work into and come out with the model.
The Final Shot
After the test shoot, I realized to get my subject brighter, my only option would be to bring the lights closer to my subject. However, I wanted to keep everything in camera which meant I would need to somehow zoom in tighter to my subject. I decided to put the camera in DX mode and turn the camera to make the image vertical. This gave me a few feet to bring in my lights a little closer but also required the positioning of the model to be much more precise. I ended up putting three lights on one side of the model and one light on the other to give the model's entire outline some detail. Luckily, we nailed a perfect pose on the second shot.
My positioning and framing ended up being about a foot or two off, so I cropped in the final image.
As you hopefully have picked up by now, this shoot was extremely complicated to execute. I thought about it for over a year and probably ended up spending a weeks worth of total time planning and coordinating everything for both shoots. I'm fairly happy with the final outcome and I'm happy I put for the effort to pursue something creatively.
Throughout the planning and execution of this shoot, I have maintained a discussion with Lee about whether or not all the effort I put for into this shot, considering the final outcome, was worth it. Lee maintains his original argument that even though the image might look cool enough for an incredible profile picture, there were probably a lot easier ways to accomplish it. The shot could have been taken in a much easier location like the side of a hill or building that wouldn't have people and boats going through the frame. Plus, at the end of the day, it looks like a guy holding a giant orb of light, something that could easily be done in Photoshop much quicker with a better looking final outcome. I've maintained that the effort I put into this shot has been worth it. I think that using Photoshop to composite in the sun would cheapen the image and make it look unrealistic.
So, we'd like to call on you to help settle our bet. After you've seen all the work that went into this and see the final shot, what are your thoughts? Did I spend too much time on a mediocre image? Do you love the image? Help us settle our bet and leave your thoughts in the comments or sign in with an Fstoppers profile and rate the photo here.