How I Got That Shot: Gary Land’s Dramatic Action

June 18, 2015

By Holly Stuart Hughes


To edge light both sides of the athlete’s body, Land used strobes with Magnum reflectors on high stands. More illumination came from lights with smaller reflectors and a beauty dish on a boom.  

Client: HeadOn
Agency: StrawberryFrog
Creative Directors: Shayne Millington and Tim Kang
Art director: Craig Love

To introduce the sports drink HeadOn, creatives at the ad agency StrawberryFrog wanted to show believable images of athletes in moments of intense exertion, rather than highlighting celebrity endorsements from star players. They wanted to show athletes in peak action, says commercial photographer and director Gary Land, whos known for his gritty, dark sports imagery. He submitted an estimate for the job and wrote a treatment explaining how he would capture the look and convey the message the creatives wanted. Writing a successful treatment, he says, is about demonstrating an understanding of the clients idea, then writing about how I plan to execute it. His treatment landed him the assignment, and his estimate convinced the client to focus on just four sports: soccer, football, basketball and CrossFit. 

The creatives had referenced images in Lands portfolio that they liked that were in the style he describes as augmented reality. Based on the references, he says, I knew they wanted the key light to be behind the subject. He also suggested bringing in a hazer to create a mist in the background of each shot: It helps add drama to the scene. It is especially nice when your lights shine through it.


Land, who is based near Boston, had suggested doing all the shots in a sports complex in Hanover, Massachusetts, with 40-foot-high ceilings and no sources of natural light: The facility has multiple basketball courts, soccer pitches and a small gym. Land always budgets a day for tech scouting. For the HeadOn shoot, he worked with a crew of ten, including a hair and makeup person, a wardrobe stylist, a digital tech, a producer, production assistants, his long-time gaffer Jeff Douglass and two other assistants. Lands production company, GLP Creative, owns a grip truck equipped with all the lights he needs for both film and still productions. 

To cast the shots, Land suggested some athletes he had worked with on previous shoots, including a soccer player from Brandeis who had been in a Coca-Cola commercial that Land directed, and a woman who works out at the same gym Land goes to. Before he hires real athletes, he always does video casting. Ive been burned many times when someone has said, Oh sure, I can run.’” 

When hes directing sports shots and needs to get peak performance out of his models, Land notes, Before the shoot, Ill have a little pep talk with people and say, This is why you were chosen out of 300 people. I need you to bring it.’” 


Land says that when he set up the lights for the shoot, the first shot provided the template he followed to keep the look consistent throughout the campaign. He starts by setting up the key lights, then moves on to the fill, he says. In this case, considering we were shooting sports in action, we decided on using harder lights, such as Magnums, 7-inch reflectors and dishes.

Land uses Profoto Pro-8 packs. I use those because they have fast flash duration and recycle times, he says. He typically uses bi-tubes for extra power when I have to stop action. His preferred light modifier is a Profoto Magnum, a large strobe reflector with a 50-degree-angle beam spread, because he likes the control it gives him. Its great for sports, and for re-creating sun. To give him the freedom to move his lights around from set to set, or to adjust to an athletes movements, he set most of his lights on medium rollers. The rollers are sturdier than C-stands, and Land uses them often on film productions, or when he needs flexibility. 

For one of his shots of a basketball player driving towards the net, he set up his camera under the basket. Land wanted to backlight the athlete to match the rest of the shots in the campaign. He also wanted edge lights on both sides of the players body, to make sure he stood out dramatically from the black background. Land had one Magnum on a medium roller set at its maximum heightabout 15 feet high. To the left he had another Magnum high on a medium roller to rim-light the athlete. Lower on the rollers stand, he also had a second light with a 7-inch reflector. Set at lower power, this smaller reflector hit the players legs and feet. The DF-50 hazer was placed on the floor between the rollers, casting a mist over the back of the hall. 

At camera right, he had another 7-inch reflector at the top of a medium roller. This added additional edge lighting, and also shone through the mist from the hazer. Behind the camera, he had a silver beauty dish with a grid to provide some fill. The dish was attached to a medium roller by a mega boom. As Land changed angles, looking for the perfect positioning of the athlete in the air, he could move the beauty dish, keeping it behind the camera. 

Land continued his use of backlighting in his photo of a woman doing pull ups in a dark gym, where the gaffer attached one light and Magnum to a beam on the back wall, and another on a highboy stand. For his front lighting, Land diffused the light by setting up a silk and using strobes with 7-inch reflectors behind her and to camera right, to light her lower back. 


Land shot with a Hasselblad H4X with a 28mm f/4 lens and a Leaf Credo 50 digital back. I shot pretty much at 1/500th of a second at f/9, and was usually shooting at ISO 400. Land adds, The good thing about the digital back is that its awesome with low light now. Shooting at a low angle, with the camera on sandbags or on a low tripod, Land shot tethered to his digital techs iMac, which has a 27-inch monitor. The digital tech, Max Gordon, also screen-shares the images to a MacBook Pro that Land places near his camera as he shoots, so he can check that hes captured the action he wants. While Gordon reviewed the shots in CaptureOne software, zooming in on details, clients flagged the shots they liked. Land notes, Thats the other thing about the camera: Not only is the file size huge, but the dynamic range is incredible.



Lands retouching is handled by Trident Post Production, which he owns and which operates out of his studio. A member of the Trident team came to the shoot and was on hand when the client signed off on the look and images they wanted. After a hard drive is delivered to Trident, Land likes to check the retouching and color correction, he says, like a director being involved in the film-editing process.

Related: End Frame: Why Shooting Personal Work Pays Off

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