Gotta work solo but want a nice light? This may help.

I got a call from the editor of Muscular Development to see if I would be interested in shooting a day in the life of champion pro bodybuilder Jay Cutler, a four-time Mr. Olympia and fan favorite. Hell yes! 

The editor was introducing me to the magazine as a new photographer, and he’d nicely laid his reputation out on them hiring me. Like many magazines these days, budget was a concern, and I would have to do this one sans assistant. 

I’ve shot these kind of stories before, and many times I will just go available light, to be able to get closer, and more “fly-on-the wall” with the subject. We all learn from our best shoots and our worst shoots, and although the available light thing worked for me on a few of these kinds of stories, it failed however whenever I found myself in situations of extreme exposures. Cutler’s home base of Vegas is all about that. It’s bright as hell outside and inversely dark inside. Balancing that would be easy if I had my assistant and time to make adjustments, so how could I solve this without? I needed to be able to move fast, anticipate things and not interrupt the natural flow of the story. Of course I knew I could just do flash on camera, I have a few modifiers that would make it at least a little more interesting. Or Flash on a cord, but that has seemingly gone out of style with digital and the telephoto lenses that are more popular than fixed lenses, and more versatile on stories like this. Or of course I could use a Stroboframe, or even a magic arm I have with a camera mount. But weight and limitations from past assignments were turning me off to that,  I would have liked to had an assistant with a light on a stick ala Larry Fink, but instead it would be on my shoulders to do something more than just shoot available light. So I decided to do just that…

I thought if I could rig a Photoflex OctoDome nxt extra small light modifier with a Canon 580ex flash to a hiking backpack I’d have more freedom to shoot without being cord-tangled. The frames are light, usually hollow aluminum, so I was thinking with a superclamp and pin, or a magic arm, I could rig the light above me, maybe hang it out to the side.

I was in Minneapolis that week for a shoot, and just happened by a camping store, so I checked out what they had, $150+ or more was certainly not worth it for a backpack with or without a frame, and something I’d likely not use again but once in a blue moon. I checked online with some army-navy surplus, and they had some nice options for $35 or so for just a frame, but then I realized that I’d need to be able to carry some gear, and although I could probably get away with a couple LowePro S&F Series Pouches on a belt for that, maybe there was a better way.

I then jumped on the LowePro site, and almost immediately found the Scope Porter 200 AW. Made primarily for bird-watchers who want to carry a scope and fully opened tripod out into the field with ease this could be modified to be the perfect bag. I called up a contact of mine there, and mentioned what I was thinking…prefacing that it was a bit odd…he laughed, and said, “yes I think that could work…let me see what the guys think.” Within a matter of minutes I had a text message with a picture of the guys in California with a stand rigged to the bag, and that same Photoflex OctoDome attached. Lock it in.  

I had the bag a few days later, and it could not have been more perfect. Ergonomic as it gets, which means the comfort level would be high, and the accessory pockets on the side would hold all my extras, batteries, cards, lenses, and slap on the S&F Water Bottle Pouch and Cell Phone case attached to the waist straps, and I had everything within reach. I was pleasantly surprised to find the bottom of the center tunnel has a velcro-adjustable flap, (my guess it to be able to store something under the scope one would normally carry there), but for me, that meant I could avoid an unnecessary stand, which was my original plan to use. Now I could put a simple floor plate at anywhere from bottom to about 1-5” off the bottom of the bag, attach a Photoflex Extension arm, (actually it’s a LiteStand without the base), instead of a stand with cumbersome legs and now travel even lighter. The ability to move that velcro pad turned out to be crucial, as I could keep a few things under it, but also use it to raise the floor plate up a little, giving me a little more options with the height of the extension arm. As well, the coincidentally perfectly placed opening to the bag was just the right spot for my Turbo battery. The top of the bag had a sliplock strap (again, perfectly placed as if I had asked for one there), and I used that to help keep the extension arm perpendicular to the ground. 

From there I attached a Photoflex Umbrella Bracket and with the OctoDome’s adjustable shoemount hardware, I slid on a Pocket Wizard TT5 unit and my 580EX. Note I have the TT5 and flash facing backwards, this I had to do as the TT5 is too large, and I wanted the 580EX inside the dome. I could have used a regular Pocket Wizard and show mount, but the advantage with the TT5 when coupled with the Mini tt1 unit is that I could now shoot TTL! Showing up to Jay’s door looking like an idiot with an octabank hovering over my head would surely be, well, interesting…

Freedom is an understatement, I could shoot vertical and horizontal without any cords getting in the way, any brackets to flip, and within minutes, I even knew how to twist my back a little bit when I was juxtaposing my subject to the left or right, but still wanted that light coming from straight on. The height of the dome, about 3-5” above my noggin was perfect. Jay has deep-set eyes, and with the double baffles in the OctoDome I was able to keep the shadows to a minimum, but still get really nice shape to the light, as well as consistency through the use of the TTL feature of the tt1-TT5 units. As well, for a few shots, I wanted to get the key light off my back and I was able to quickly remove the Extension arm and have someone hold it then pop it right back into place in the bag. Very little effort to do so, meant I could be quick. We were moving to many locations, and I got a lot of looks and a few chuckles, but didn’t matter to me, I was comfortable and knew I was getting great shots with the added light.

Here I am doing that twist to keep the light on Jay. (photo by Sean Andros/Muscular Development)

Stay tuned for the June issue of Muscular Development for the Day in the Life Feature with Jay Cutler.

Special thanks on this one to Josh Semolik/Lowepro, Sean Andros/Muscular Development, and Photoflex