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|| News Item: Posted 2004-10-15

Leading Off: The Three Ps
By Robert Hanashiro, Sports Shooter

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Andre Ward photographed in front of the Parthenon in Athens. He went on to win a gold medal.
We all love challenges … don't we?

Little did I know when I was developing ideas for USA TODAY's Athens Olympic preview features that it would come down to the letter P.

As in: Patience. Practice. And Patience.

We all go through phases in our careers and photography when we want to "try something different" to sort of shake things up. Whether it's putting away the 16 - 35mm wide angle zoom for a while or using grid spots on your strobes instead of a softbox … we all strive for that little edge or SOMETHING that will kick-start our creative processes and thinking.

So when USA TODAY sports picture editor Michael Madrid and I started planning for a series of portraits of "10 To Watch" in Athens I threw on the table the idea of shooting the entire project on 4 x 5. And better (or for worse) on Polaroid type 55 positive/negative film.

I thought the retro/antique/historic look the type 55 "sloppy borders" gives photographs was a feel that was fitting with the return of the Olympics to its birthplace, Athens, Greece.

After shooting a test or two, Michael agreed and pitched the concept to the powers-that-be at USA TODAY.

On hindsight, that was the easy part.

Not having used a 4 x 5 since my college days, I set out to buy my own camera. After a couple of refresher lessons on 4 x 5 cameras from Sports Illustrated's Robert Beck and frantic emails to friends Walt Calahan, Matt Mendelsohn and Darren Carroll … all accomplished large format shooters … I was on my way.

Or so I thought

But how does a photographer who exclusively shot 35mm-based (film and digital) cameras for 20 - some years go backward to a world of dark slides, manual-cock shutters, ASA 25 and processing film in the bathroom?

Not as easily as I thought, that's for damned sure!

Rather than rent a large format camera, I was so excited about this project that I wanted to buy my own 4 x 5.

Robert Beck's work with 4 x 5 convinced me that the way for me to go was Speed … as in Speed Graphic cameras. After a little Internet research I decided that I needed to buy a Super Graphic, one of the last models produced and most importantly, has a rotating back.

After Samy's Camera in LA found me a fairly clean Super --- John in the used/collectable department assured me that it was previously owned by a little old lady in Pasadena who used it only on Sundays! ---I set off on my journey to photograph a dozen or more Olympic athletes. And photographic revitalization.

Photo by H. Darr Beiser / USA TODAY

Photo by H. Darr Beiser / USA TODAY

Hanashiro photographs boxer Andre Ward in front of the Parthenon in Athens. Ward went on to win a Gold Medal.
As I discovered when I began my first portrait with the Super … practice does NOT make perfect. No matter how many pieces of film you burn shooting your daughter in the front yard, it won't prepare (yet another P!) your for first REAL experience with a large format camera.

There is always something we auto-dependent-shooters will forget when using something seemingly simple as a Speed Graphic. Cock the shutter. Remember to pull the dark slide … but forgot to close the lens! And focus? Auto-focus on a 4 x 5 is that loupe dangling around your neck!

At one point I thought maybe I should have put a sticky note on the back of the Super Graphic to remind me what to do!

But what I think this showed me was how dependent I had become on my cameras doing the work for me. Sometimes (probably more than we think!) we just go on autopilot and lapse into being just button pushers.

When shooting large format, you had best be THINKING while you're composing, focusing, cocking the shutter, closing the lens down, pulling the dark slide and sure as hell before you press the shutter release. Because if you don't, it's several minutes before you get another frame … we ain't talking no 8 fps here!

Hindsight is 20/20 and if I had it to do over again, I would have taken the Super out on several practice assignments … self-assigned situations … so I could get comfortable with the camera and develop a real work rhythm

I can't even count the number of sheets of film littering the gym floor at the Olympic Training Center that morning of my first portrait shoot because I had screwed something up. Yes it is a learning process … heck life is a learning process … but this was getting ridiculous!

I can't tell you how many times I must have called my buddy Bob Deutsch on the phone after a particularly frustrating day and telling him: "If I EVER come up with an idea like this again just shoot me dead on the spot. It'll save me time!"

But as I went along, I got better and better with the 4 x 5 because I was more comfortable with it.

One thing that these initial experiences taught me was to try to disengage the autopilot when I went back to using my usual digital 8-fps-auto-focus-auto-white balance-auto-exposure SLRs. Cameras don't really "think", they just react to situations in front of it … the photographer is supposed to think.

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Kerri Walsh and Misty May, pose on the sands of Huntington Beach, CA.
The first thing you learn when dealing with large format cameras is you cannot rush.

After shooting a couple of portraits, it brought to mind something I read in an Elvis Cole book: "We hurry but we do not rush."

When you hurry you make mistakes. You forget things. You take the easy way out. You start to develop bad habits. And let time dictate the shoot rather than the creative process.

As time went on and I got more of these portraits completed, I discovered that usually when I was told that my subject had very little time for the shoot, after they saw the 4 x 5 camera and looked over the sample prints I brought with me THEY wanted to be patient and put more time into it.

As Rulon Gardner said when I kept apologizing for taking so much time, he said "It's a cool photo. I got all the time in the world for that!"

Patience … as well as honesty with your subject … builds trust and more often than not, translates into more time to make a nice photograph.

Another thing my Olympic Portrait Project taught me was to wait for the good light.

I don't know about you, but people (especially P.R. people, coaches and agents) don't consider which direction the light is falling or that 4 pm is not as good a time to shoot a portrait in June as 6 pm when scheduling.

I learned … or relearned … a stalling tactic I used a couple of times for shoots scheduled just outside the "sweet light" time. Fiddling and fussing around with the 4 x 5 appears pretty normal to the uninitiated but it also helps to have an assistant like Max Morse "chatting up" the two volleyball players I was shooting on Huntington Beach as I waited for the sun to get a little lower in the sky.

For eventual beach volleyball Gold Medal winners Misty May and Kerri Walsh, standing on the sand at the edge of the Pacific Ocean might appear to be a normal thing … but dressed in Greek costumes?

These days with wiz-bang TTL strobes and higher quality digital cameras, we tend to be satisfied with the light (and situations) that we're presented with. Shooting balanced fill - flash even outdoors (the good photographers at least use an off-camera cord!) has become pretty simple and, well, brainless.

But NOTHING is a substitute for the light you get 45 minutes before sunset on the beach. TTL or no TTL.

Though Max and I hauled a lighting kit out to the beach for the shoot, I really had no intention of using them. As long as I could stall for an hour for the "right light".

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Rulon Gardner gave Hanashiro enough time to make his portrait in Colorado Springs.
Ask anyone about why shoot type 55 film and invariably it comes down those "sloppy" borders. But to get them, you have to "process" the neg that the film pack produces.

This is so much of a big deal because it doesn't have to be done a dark room and all you're doing is soaking the neg in a sodium sulfide solution to clear off the gunk.

But it ended up a huge pain because I shot so much film during most of these portrait sessions because I was so paranoid … I couldn't "chimp" to see what the images looked like!

(For those who wonder "He's shooting Polaroid film why didn't he just look at the print?" If you are shooting type 55 for the purpose of getting the negative, you have to wait to pull the film pack through the holder with the process lever thrown until you're able to actually process the neg. I became quite adept at pushing the film pack out of the 4 x 5 holder without the process lever thrown … this adds a couple of minutes to changing film, adding to your --- and the subject's ---patience.)

I ran into David Burnett on several of these portrait shoots, he was doing a similar thing for TIME magazine. I was able to watch David work after I had completed my portrait shoot of World # 1 fencer Sada Jacobson in Dunwoody, GA.

Now Dave is a true master of the 4 x 5 Polaroid shoot … using only a handful of film for each pose. While he would shoot 4 or 5 sheets … I might have gone through 10 because I was shooting "chimp-less".

When I would arrive into town for my shoots, I would turn my hotel bathroom into a small processing room, using Tupperware containers to soak and wash the negs. Because of the volume of film I needed to process, scratches became a HUGE problem while processing the film.

Finally I took the advice of Darren Carroll and cut small 5 x 7 pieces of paper towel to put between each sheet of film. end of problem!

I would spend several hours after each shoot running the film packs back through the film holder and then processing them in the hotel bathroom.

But what a mess this whole operation caused! From Bellingham to Knoxville, there are about 8 Courtyard Marriotts that I polluted.

* * *

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Kerri Walsh, Bert and Misty May clown around during a shoot on Huntington Beach.
My Olympic Portrait Project took me to 12 different cities in 8 different states, including the final shoot done at the Parthenon in Athens, Greece about a week before Opening Ceremony.

Besides forcing me to re-think my photography, these assignments gave me the opportunity to meet several athletes that prepared and competed out of the limelight that many others basked in.

While I did photograph high profile athletes like Carly Patterson, Paul Hamm and Rulon Gardner, getting to know triathlete Barb Lindquist, water polo player Tony Azevedo and boxer Andre Ward made the huge amount of travel and time away from home worthwhile.

The highlight had to be talking our way up to the Acropolis for Andre's shoot in front of the Parthenon. After officials initially denied us access, we were able to get the photo venue manager to get us clearance … and then it was just battling the heat, hundreds of tourists and hand-carrying all of my gear to the top.

(Thank GOD for my colleague H. Darr Beiser who hurriedly took the train to the Acropolis to assist me!)

I thought when we came up with the idea to dress the athletes in tradition-looking Greek robes that I would meet with some resistance, and honestly we had only one person balk. Fencer Sada Jacobson was unsure that the look was right for her. But after I convinced her to try the gown on for one test Polaroid, her mom exclaimed "She looks like a Greek goddess!" after seeing the print.

The portrait of Sada is one of my favorites of the 14 athletes I photographed.

When I journeyed to Knoxville to photograph decathlete Tom Pappas, my assistant Wes Hope and I took what was by now my usual 60 - 90 minutes for the shoot. I had been warned by an SI photographer that Tom was difficult to shoot, but I found that to be the opposite. When I was about to end the shoot (because I was down to 4 sheets of film!) I asked him why he didn't like to have his photograph made and he replied "Oh I don't mind it at all. I think this is all part of what we have to do. But I hope you're going to be done in a few minutes because my coach will be here soon … if he sees me in this costume he's gonna go nuts!"

We only had one athlete that gave us problems … sprinter Maurice Greene didn't show up for his shoot. However I was able to make some nice frames of USA TODAY contract photographer Dan MacMedan wearing a laurel wreath, crouched in the start position to show editors at the paper what the portrait WOULD have looked like!

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

USA TODAY contract photographer Dan MacMedan stands in for sprinter Maurice Greene, who was a no-show.
I viewed this project as my own personal Summer Olympic Games and the final medal count for the wonderful athletes that I did shoot was:

6 Golds (Gymnasts Carly Patterson and Paul Hamm; Swimmer Natalie Coughlin; Beach Volleyball Misty May & Kerri Walsh; Softball Jennie Finch and Boxing Andre Ward)

2 Silvers (Patterson and Hamm)

4 Bronze (Coughlin; Fencer Sada Jacobson; Wrestlers Rulon Gardner and Patricia Miranda)

* * *

Sports Shooter v. 71 features another interesting look at alternative cameras as Walter Calahan writes about his adventures with pinhole cameras.

Gary Bogdon writes about his experiences covering the recent hurricanes in Florida. USA TODAY's Bob Deutsch runs down the latest version of digital editing mainstay Photo Mechanic. Vincent Laforet of The New York Times warns that contests sometime Byte and you should always read the fine print.

Robert Dall tells us about a trip to Bogotá, Columbia and student Ben Burgeson writes an opus on his experience at the Athens Summer Olympic Games.

So sit back, adjust the volume on that iPod and enjoy Sports Shooter v. 71.

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