The Sunrise Superman

They say that life is all about the connections we make. Those connections can define us, open doors for us, and help pave the way for where we are and where we want to go. This shoot started with nothing short of some amazing connections.

A few weeks prior to making my way out to the Left Coast, I had a photoshoot with Bi ‘Killer Bee’ Nguyen. During the shoot we talked about how the Holidays had been and what we had planned for 2019. I asked about her upcoming fights and traveling/training in Vietnam and she asked me about upcoming shoots. I told her I had been to the John Russo Workshop and how that had changed my perspective and trajectory for where I wanted to take my photography and where I wanted to land with it in the “celebrity” world. I was trying to tap into different connections and ping anybody and everybody I could in order to find something. I knew that Bi had been on a previous season of Survivor and asked her if she had any contacts she could point me towards. Her response was, “Well you know Jordan Sparks, right?” I looked at her and said, “Oh yeah, I’m personal friends with any celebrity you name, obviously…” with just a HINT of sarcasm. She gave me the finger and explained that she thought I might know Jordan and her husband Dana through our mutual friend, Terry Williams. Terry is an amazing trainer and owner of The League in Houston. I said I knew that they had worked out with Terry before, but I wasn’t that plugged into Terry’s gym in order to have ever met them. Bi, being Bi, whipped out her phone and showed me photos of Dana and explained he was a serious author, model, and athlete that would be awesome for me to photograph. Taking it a step further, she started DMing him almost instantly on Instagram and letting him know I was headed out to LA in the next few weeks. I couldn’t believe how quickly that conversation had taken a turn, but I was suddenly determined to try and make the shoot happen.

After the shoot with Bi, I was on the drive home and called up Terry to ask a favor for a friend. I asked to see if he could hook me up with Dana since they knew each other and he was more than happy to help. An hour later, I was on a three way message with Dana and the ball was rolling. He had already seen the message from Bi and my two friends and connections had suddenly opened me up to this incredible opportunity to get to meet a really awesome guy and insane model.

Fast forward two weeks and I had just finished my shoot with Jacob. I was back in my crummy little AirBnB apartment in Santa Monica and was looking through Peerspace for any gym in the area we could shoot at, checking weather conditions, and doing everything I could to prepare for the shoot with Dana the next day. He was running around pulling outfits with his one year old son in tow, and we were really excited and scrambling to turn an on-the-fly shoot into something awesome. I had been so inspired by the beach that I knew we needed to start out shooting there and move somewhere else after the sun got too high or we had exhausted the location. It was January so while it’s still sunny Southern Cali, it was colder than usual and hitting a brisk 50 degrees in the mornings. I knew it wasn’t going to be the most comfortable weather to shoot in, but we would see what we could get and play it by ear. I had also found a gym and put in a rental for the space for a few hours in the late morning timeframe before Dana had to turn around and head back out to Beverly Hills. After locking in the locations, it was studying everything I could find and consuming different ideas all evening while my gear charged up and I sorted through images from my shoot that morning.

The morning of the shoot arrived and it started out the same as the first day: slightly overcast. I was a little bummed because I wanted some sunlight to really pop into the images and it was kind of cold without any sun to warm up the ocean air. We met at a secluded spot a little further down the beach from where Jacob and I had started, and Dana showed up with plenty of gear in tow. He had kettle bells, battle ropes, different clothing ideas, and plenty of other stuff that I can’t even remember at this point. But, I knew I wanted to start out with the kettle bells and battle ropes on the beach. I’d seen some awesome work from Tim Tadder with ropes on the beach that I was in love with and wanted to draw some inspiration from that. As we were setting up, the sunlight had started to creep out of the clouds a bit and I was getting this really awesome, misty ambiance on the Phase One that I was really digging as I grabbed shots of Dana warming up a bit.

The look and tones were nice, but I wanted to really push the ‘movement’ aspect of the shoot and it was time to start putting things to the test. After talking to Dana I told him what I was thinking. I wanted to see if he could go down into a plank position with the ropes and do a plyo push-up (push yourself off the ground and go airborne) while whipping the ropes. It’s an actual exercise that athletes do and it photographs cool as hell! He immediately smiled at the challenge and I went about moving things around to make sure the light was set up to catch his face. I used the same lighting setup I had been using – the Profoto B1 with an Elinchrom 39” Rotalux Octabox with the front diffusion removed – but dropped it much lower to the ground. The positioning was so that it looked like the sun was creating all of the light, and powered up just enough to add a little pop onto Dana’s face and body as he launched himself in the air. I used the I knew that I would be shooting all day and wanted to preserve as much battery as possible, so I kept my shutter speed around 1/200th of a second knowing that I would get a little movement in his hands, but that he would be fairly still at the top of the movement where I wanted to catch up. I kept my aperture fairly open since I was using the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 II lens and the wide angle would add a lot of depth into the image inherently.

Having everything set and positioned, I lay down in the sand for a dynamic angle and gave Dana the go ahead. Amazingly, we nailed the shot on the first frame, but I had Dana’s arms going straight out in front of him and his face/head was slightly blocked due to the angle. I looked at what we had captured on the back of the screen and asked him if he thought he could do it flinging his arms out like the Iron Cross in gymnastics rather than straight ahead of him. He kind of laughed at me a little bit but went back down into an altered push up (one knee down just to give himself a little more power coming up into the move) and shoved off. I clicked the frame and was already pumped at what I thought the image HAD to look like. His position had been perfect and I knew I had hit the height of him jump like I’d hoped. When I saw the back of the screen I could barely keep from whooping out loud and just let a big grin spread across my face as I got up to show him. It was one of those moments where you know you’ve absolutely nailed the shot and no matter what else happens in the shoot from that point forwards, the day is already a winner. Not to mention, that is not an easy movement and I knew I only had a few really great launches before I was pushing Dana (who is in INSANE shape) to the limits.

It was an awesome feeling and moment to know I’d nailed this shot with a dude who has more followers and celebrity status than anybody I had ever come close to working with. The only thing I could think to say was, “Do you think you could do it again with your shirt off to give a different look?” He obliged and we nailed it again. Three frames, three different looks, and I was so stoked about where we went next.

I mentioned in my blog with Jacob that I was working with Stacy to help round out my portfolio, so I wanted to really try and move in and out on some shots and grab details and different aspects of the scene rather than just the hero shot. That’s tough to do when Dana is flying through the air, so we switched it up, I grabbed my Phase One again, and he started doing some curls and push-ups with the kettle bells. I had him face towards the dimming sun this time and used just a little bit of the 39” Elinchrom/Profoto setup I had been using for the flying shots. I tried to allow the Phase One enough bandwidth in the images to really capture some great detail in Dana’s skin, muscles, and tattoos and got some awesome shots to go alongside the more dynamic ones we captured at the beginning. Some stillness in the crazy…

After wrapping that up and letting Dana get his shirt on and warm up a bit again. we headed off to the gym for the second part of the shoot. Now, I wish I had been able to get into and see the gym in person before we shot there because it was not quite as open or picturesque as I had hoped and determined from the Peerspace images, but I knew we could still get some images that were cool and different from the ones in the morning. And, on a normal day I probably would have been thrilled with what we captured, but those beach photos were just too tough to beat out.

Dana changed and I set up my lights again to get ready for a couple of different ideas. We had some stuff that works and some stuff that didn’t, but my favorite shots in the gym ended up being the ones where Dana worked with a sled they had, and hitting a heavy bag that was set up towards the front of the gym. We had to work around some people that were at the gym training (I didn’t realize we weren’t going to have the whole gym to ourselves when I first signed up for the space…) but all-in-all we were able to get some cool stuff. I mixture of portraits, movement, rest, and details.

To finish things off, we headed back outside where the sun had finally come out and got some shots in the alley of Dana swinging the hammer and finishing off the little workout he’d put himself through over the course of the morning. It was a cool ending to an amazing morning, but I have to say that my favorite part was the taco truck we hit up for lunch before calling it a wrap.

I love getting to shoot and work with amazing people – and I know I say this every single time – but the friendships and relationships that develop out of the shoots are my favorite part. Sitting and just chatting about being new dads and how similar our boys are was an awesome time to connect with Dana and had fostered into a friendship that I can say with certainty would  not have happened if I hadn’t asked a few connections to make some calls. So, thank you to Bi and Terry for hooking up this entire shoot and a huge shout out to Dana for just being one awesome dude and amazing author. You can check out his book A Higher Calling: Claiming God’s Best for Your Life on Amazon and I definitely suggest giving it a read!

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