Yoga on Santa Monica Beach

I have stated that 2019 was a year of change for me and that change began in December, was solidified in January, and strengthened with my first trip to Los Angeles at the end of January. I knew that when I made the decision to do this I needed to usher in the ability to work on the coasts. I couldn’t be a celebrity portrait photographer in Houston, TX. There are very few celebrities and I can’t see myself being a professional headshot photographer which is what you are if you do this in Houston. Nothing against it, it just is what it is. BUT, there is a serious positive to living in Houston: you’re in the middle of the country. Whether you need to be in NYC or LA, it’s a 3 hour trip and – at most – a 2 hour time difference. It’s a major hub for United and Southwest, and getting to either city in a matter of hours is doable. Not to mention, it is a hell of a lot cheaper!

A photo of Jacob from our initial shoot during the John Russo Workshop.

But, I needed to show that I worked there before I was going to be hired to work there. So, I planned my first trip to LA for the last week in January of 2019. I needed to plan the trip, arrangements, book talent, come up with ideas and mood boards, contact agencies, and book places to shoot in a matter of a few weeks. It was a challenge, but it was doable. Fortunately, I had a good place to start. When I was in Hollywood for John’s workshop, I had the opportunity to work with model and actor Jacob Anton. He was one of the workshop’s models for shoots, and we made a connection through talking about Yoga. He is a huge proponent and practitioner of Yoga and I told him I shot a lot of yoga for companies like Lululemon and DYI. We immediately wanted to connect the next time we were in the same city, so he was a great place to kick off the search for talent. Fortunately, he was down to shoot as soon as I got in and that’s basically how it happened.

We decided to start on Santa Monica beach and since I had another shoot that I was looking at doing in the same area, I stayed in an incredibly small and cheap AirBnB right off of the beach and about 2 miles from the pier. I had to teach Confirmation (I’m the youth director at our local church and love mentoring Jr. High and High School students!) on the Sunday before I flew out, so I didn’t end up getting in until around 11pm with a call time of 5:45am for a sunrise shoot with Jacob that Monday. Even driving in at night, I was floored by the sight of the beach and what it opened up in me creatively for the shoots over the next few days. I could barely sleep and I was getting sick at the time, but after popping some Dayquil and Afrin, it was go time.

Our agreed meeting spot was the Santa Monica Pier first thing in the morning to start out by shooting at the outdoor gym area with the parallel bars, the rings, and anything else we could find and think of close by. I was also working with the amazingly talented Stacy Swiderski to help update and round out my portfolio. She had given me some tips as well to help strengthen some areas I was weak in and I gladly accepted the constructive feedback to better me as a marketable photographer. We were going to mix in some portraits with the workout and shoot it as real and fully documented as possible.

We kicked off with him going through his warmups just as he would in any given workout. Due to some traffic (LA…) Jacob was a little late making it to the beach so the sun was higher than I had hoped at the time. Not to worry, I pulled out my Profoto B1 and put the 39” Elinchrom Octabox on it with the front diffusion removed for a little punchier light that mixed well with the climbing sun.

After warm ups, Jacob moved into the parallel bars and I set the light up almost completely opposite from the sun to create a really punchy and obviously lit look that has an advertorial look to it. Shooting from various angles and heights, we captured some different movements that highlighted Jacob’s physicality as an athlete.

A few minutes into shooting some pretty challenging movements, Jacob jumped down from the bars for a quick breather. He had his Airpods in and was just walking and breathing in the sunlight. Remembering what John had told me about not being afraid to use harsh light to my advantage, I switched my settings around for the sun as a natural light and captured a couple of real portraits of Jacob just waiting for me to tell him to jump back up on the rings. I used a longer lens I already had on my Canon 5D Mark IV and created some really nice depth of field to isolate and highlight Jacob in the image. What caught me in the moment was the realness of the image mixed with the awesome tones present between Jacob’s skin and the sands of Santa Monica stretching out behind him. Using the long lens was an obvious choice to really compress that background and create a really clean backdrop for Jacob to stand out on.

After the breather, we moved to the rings. I will confess I was incredibly excited about using the rings and getting some really dope shots with them, but when we actually started shooting I had a lot of trouble envisioning how we were going to actually create those shots I had in my mind. Most of it had to do with really busy backdrops and distance to the subject. I couldn’t get the clean background I wanted and saw in my head, and Photoshopping everything away was going to make it feel faked in the long run. The biggest issue though, was that I had not had time to fully scout the area and come up with an executable plan. If I had, I would have realized there were a lot of different sets of rings and I could have created the images I wanted if I had just moved a little further down the beach. But, I also knew when to abandon an idea and move on. The rings we were using were incredibly close to the ground and didn’t give the “awe” factor I wanted in the images no matter how wide a lens I used and how low I got in the sand.

We packed up and moved on. I was rolling the entire trip as light as possible, so I had two lights, two stands, 3 modifiers, and two camera systems all with me in my F-Stop Tilopa bag. It weighed a good 65-70lbs when fully loaded, but it gives me the freedom to move easily while still allowing me to bring a lot of crap with me on site. Anyway, I’ll rephrase that last statement of “walking” to trudging through the sand with my backpack on and we found more rings. One set was so desolate and dystopian looking I couldn’t pass it up. There was just nothing around them and the entire crossbar was loaded with pigeons from end to end. I tried to get Jacob to sneak up and get on the rings without disturbing them, but another patron of the beach ran by and through a football scaring half of them away before I was able to get the shot I wanted. I was bummed, but y’all can see the cool, desolate look I was going for in the images below. Just imagine the other side full of birds too! (Yes, I know I could fix this in Photoshop but the repeating birds would have been too noticeable…)

A short way further we stopped at another set of rings that were higher off of the ground! But, the background still kind of sucked for the side shot I was going for and I didn’t have a ladder to get to the height I wanted to achieve in order to frame the shot I had in mind. Moving around though and checking angles, I had this cool shot from a wall that was a little further off of the beach if I used my Canon 70-200mm lens and zoomed in on Jacob moving back and forth through the rings. Jacob just had a blast hanging out (ha!) and swinging back and forth like a kid at the playground and he made it look effortless – the mark of any good model! The clouds had moved in so I shot with natural light only, but I was starting to struggle with the needs of a faster shutter speed to stop the action and a high ISO setting. I hate going about 1600 if I don’t have to, so we shut down the speedy movements and settled into some post-workout yoga on the beach.

This is when – for me – the magic really kicked in. The cloudy sky and cooler temps drove everybody else away from the beach leaving a scene that encapsulates what Yoga means to me as a photographer and sometimes practitioner. It’s a moment of solitude and silence. Focusing on the breath and the beauty of the world while letting everything else fall away. It’s like a physical prayer in a sense and I felt like this moment and setting with Jacob conveyed that message. We talked about what Yoga meant to each of us and found a commonality in that description which informed the poses we wanted to shoot. Calm. Stillness. Strength.

With the sun being almost completely gone behind the clouds, I didn’t want to blast Jacob with light so I changed up my modifiers a little bit. I still used a light because if I hadn’t the photos would have been completely flat with the cloud cover, and this subtle and soft lighting would – hopefully – achieve the look of some sun poking through the clouds to light Jacob and the beach up to an extent. I use the Profoto B1 as my main light again on the Manfrotto Aircushion stand (no C-stands while I’m backpacking it all around!). I put the Elinchrom 69” Octa on and used my backpack as a sandbag to keep it upright with the slight gusts coming in off of the Pacific. After looking at the light I felt like it was a little one-dimensional, so I opted to set up my first and only two-light setup for the day. I put a Profoto B2 on another stand and set it up more or less in front of Jacob and about 9 feet away with the Profoto Collapsible Beauty Dish on it. If I can, I prefer to have the regular beauty dish, but when you’re traveling, you use what you have to use and the collapsible is perfect for a traveling photographer! That light acted as just a little bit of a kicker onto Jacob’s face while the main light acted as a fill against the light filtering in through the clouds behind Jacob. Overall, it gave a balanced and muted tonality for the image that I thought was really conveying the feeling of the morning. From there, I told Jacob to just work through a Vinyasa movement like I wasn’t even there. That was the only direction I gave for the next 5-6 minutes and stayed quiet so Jacob could really move through what he was doing and create something genuine to the moment. At the end of the flow he looked at me and I gave some direction on sitting down for a meditative moment and captured some more portraits in and around that stillness. It was a perfect way to wrap the shoot up.

What I gathered from this whole shoot was that genuine portraits create compelling portraits. Genuine moments create genuine moments. I know that all sounds like something we all know and say as photographers and artists all the time, but until you really take it to heart and experience it, its all just bull**** we say. When you experience it, it becomes something real that you want to capture again and again. So, thank you again to Jacob. He’s such an amazing model and an even better human being and the time and conversations we had that morning are the parts of a photoshoot that I really cherish. It was an awesome way to kick off shooting in LA and set the tone for the entire week to come.

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