Ewan Burns: Continuous Lights Key to Capturing Athletes in Action for Reebok
November 3, 2015
One of the images Burns shot for Tough Mudder. His action-filled images, taken in the middle of an obstacle course, caught the attention of creatives at McGarry Bowen who hired Burns for the Reebok campaign.
Viktoria Wallner, Head of Global Communications; Tori Scott, Art Buyer
Jeremy Lamin and Frauke Tiemann, Creative Directors
Commercial photographer Ewan Burns says he loves “filling the frame with information.” He explains, “To do that you have to be surrounded by activity,” and then seek out whatever activity or arrangement piques you attention. It’s a process that typically requires some preparation, but once he begins shooting, Burns works intuitively and spontaneously. An assignment that exemplifies his style is a shoot he did in 2011 for Tough Mudder, which organizes competitive races over 10- to 12-mile obstacle courses. While other photographers were on the sidelines, using long lenses to photograph the competitors swinging on ropes or racing through muddy ditches, “I pretty much participated in the race,” the New York City-based photographer recalls. “I was getting into the mud, shooting really low so the lens was hovering over the mud.” Anywhere he turned, he could capture the action going on around him.
Burns compares his way of capturing moments in the midst of activity to “war photography without the war.” He has some familiarity with the genre. After serving in the British Army, Burns was looking for a new career. At the time, conflict and ethnic cleansing were raging in the former Yugoslavia, “and I thought it would be a good idea if I hitchhiked my way into the war.” After hitching rides across Europe, he talked his way onto a humanitarian flight heading into the midst of the conflict by claiming to be a photographer. On the ground, however, he quickly realized he didn’t have the mettle for conflict photography. “I have absolute respect for war photographers, and what it takes for a person to do that. I’m not that person.” He went back to school to study photography, then assisted commercial photographers in London and then Los Angeles, honing his skills at lighting, directing and meeting the needs of advertising clients.
Creatives at McGarry Bowen liked Burns’ Tough Mudder work, which he had licensed for stock usage and posted on his website.
The work convinced the agency he was the right photographer to shoot a Reebok campaign featuring Reebok-sponsored athletes during training sessions. Burns explains, “They liked the look of the caught moments I got, and the action all around.” Burns was given instructions not to use a tripod. “The athletes were always moving and I needed to be able to follow them like a social documentarian.” Burns warned the creatives that by relying on a run-and-gun shooting technique, “There would be a lot of failure” as well as a few shots that delivered the authentic intensity the client wanted.
During location scouting, Burns wanted to find a space that “looks interesting and artistic” and was big enough to accommodate the athletes’ training. The warehouse that was selected for the Los Angeles leg of the shoot had windows, but Burns was primarily shooting in the middle of the wide-open floor, so the natural light was insufficient to help him capture fast-moving action. “If you’re shooting live action you are shooting at a high shutter speed to cover action,” he explains. “The lights had to be enormous.”
During the shoot, the athletes, who had been chosen by Reebok, were taking their cues from their trainer, not from the photographer. “I guess the trickiest part of the shoot was when I realized I couldn’t direct anybody,” Burns recalls. He enjoys directing, and typically starts a shoot by building camaraderie and getting members of his crew and his subjects to work as a team. On the Reebok shoot, however, the athletes were absorbed in carrying out their training, and ignored Burns. “They were separate from me because they had their own trainer, so I felt like I was on the outside,” he says.
He also had little chance to set up shots. At one point, when the athletes were taking a break from training, he had a group of them fan out in a hallway lit by sun from a skylight. He lay down on a dolly and, as the athletes ran towards him, his assistants pulled him backwards, allowing him to photograph from the middle of the running pack. During the rest of the shoot, however, he was moving around the gym, trying to anticipate what action the trainer would have the athletes move to next: “I’d get on the floor to get a photo and the person would jump up to move away.”
Energies he might have put into directing went instead into keeping up with his subjects. Says Burns, “I trained for this job because I knew it would be exhausting physically.”
At one point, Burns managed to get close to an athlete as he was lifting weights, and capture his concentration. Burns notes, “He’s working his butt off, but I captured him at a moment when he’s almost dropping the bar.”
Burns made the shot of the weightlifter at high noon, so the Los Angeles sun is visible through the windows in the background. “What you can’t see is that there are HMIs behind me,” he says. Burns chose to use continuous lights to illuminate the entire floor at once: “I wanted to just be able to move and have light that always worked.”
He hired OTMFC, a lighting crew that brought a grip truck with a 500 amp generator and a variety of stands and lights. He set up a total of four Arri M18, 1800-watt HMIs on high rollers, so they could be easily moved as the action shifted. The lights were placed about eight feet off the floor, directed at a slight downward angle. He bounced the HMIs into 12-foot-wide square silks “to pour light into the area,” Burns says. He used a silver lame silk, “which gives a crisp, white light.”
He notes that another, more time-consuming option would have been to light the space from above, by affixing HMIs to the ceiling of the training area. “But that would have given us less flexibility.” By clamping the lights and silks to high rollers, his crew was able to turn or move the lights if needed when the athletes moved to new training stations.
Burns shot with a Canon EOS-1D X and a 24-70 mm EF series f/2.8 lens, shooting 1/500th of a second at f/5.6, ISO 3200 for most of the shots in the gym.
Unable to shoot tethered, he shot to card, and he let clients preview shots on the back of his camera and on his digital tech’s monitor. He notes, “I think I’m oblivious that there are 16 people on the set behind me, and music blaring.”
Burns estimates that from the eight-day shoot, he processed, color corrected and delivered roughly 4,000 images to the client, who then handled post-production.