Sports Illustrated’s 360° Shoot – with the USA womens 8s

‘Multi media’, ‘immersive’, ‘mixed content’, ‘360 VR’ are buzz words and phrases we hear increasingly.  These expressions mean different things to different people and it is interesting to see how clients do or don’t engage with ‘new media’ (yet another ambiguous expression we often hear). I am not going to run through the definitions of each term here – Wikipedia can do a much better job than I ever could. What I do want to do is talk about what it can mean to a working photographer who wants to take things a step further creatively, or to a client who wants to stay relevant to their readership/viewers.

For me as a photographer, these buzz words and expressions basically boil down to: choosing the right visual tools for the job. Recently I was assigned by ‘Sports Illustrated’ to shoot a multimedia project of The USA Olympic Team Women’s 8 before they travelled to Rio. They have just won their 3rd Gold medal in addition to their previous Gold medals from the London 2012 Olympics games and the Beijing Olympics in 2008. These are extraordinary women. And in order to do justice to these living and breathing world class talents, I had to create something spectacular. No mean feat.

Recently, I have been greatly inspired by Google’s excellent ‘Inside Abbey Road’ (click here to see this) and I came up with the idea of shooting a 360° project with video content within it. This idea was a unique, world first concept – an excellent way to showcase these incredible athletes. There is often too much emphasis on equipment but on this occasion, having exactly the right tool for the job was essential. I needed something small and lightweight, with superb still image quality and 4K video capabilities whilst being very user friendly. Enter the brand new Fuji XT-2, the successor to the highly popular and delightful Fuji XT-1.

Fuji XT2 setup

Let me just take a moment to get all technical and sing the praises of this superior piece of equipment. First off though, I need to write a disclaimer – I did not get paid by Fuji to write this, I am just a photographer geeking out about a really nice piece of kit! There are many really good cameras out there, but in my opinion none have the special ‘instantly at home’ feel for someone coming from a DSLR as Fujifilm does with its ‘X’ series cameras. I am baffled as to why Fujifilm is alone amongst digital camera manufacturers in having successfully taken the ‘soul’ from a film camera and transplanted it in a digital offering (incidentally this is not an opinion I have reached overnight, but a view I have held for some years now). I’m delighted to say that Fujifilm have been successful in carrying on this tradition with the Fuji XT-2, combining a truly intuitive user experience with superb performance on all fronts.

OK, so Fuji XT-2 is incredibly responsive and easy to use but what about the image quality? I am happy to report that the image quality in terms of resolution is a step forward over the XT-1 in that it delivers more detail. The dynamic range – though I have not had chance to test this back to back – seems to be better too. The XT-2 viewfinder is clearer and brighter than the XT-1 and I found it easy to manually focus. Just what I needed to create superior footage of eight Olympic gold medalists.  But that’s enough about the equipment, let’s get back to the job in hand. (You can read more about the project from a slightly more general perspective in our recent blog post here).

So how did it all work out?

The Portrait Shot

The first shoot of the day was a team portrait in the famous training lake at Princeton – Lake Carnegie. This was carefully calculated to coincide with sunrise (a time so early that you find difficulty in believing it will ever get light…). The still shot was actually far more difficult than it might first appear as there was only a limited area of hard standing in the water – after that you hit deep mud… which also smelled pretty bad. Taylor Ballentyne, who shot behind the scenes of the project, was kind enough to wade in (literally!) so we could establish where it would be safe for the athletes to stand.

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Then there was the lighting…

Let me rewind a little: I hired the Profoto B1 lights, along with all other kit, from one of the coolest rental houses in New York City – Scheimpflug (to quote Wikipedia: it takes its name from the Scheimpflug principle, which is a geometric rule that describes the orientation of the plane of focus of an optical system when the lens plane is not parallel to the image plane. Interesting.). The guys at Scheimpflug were incredibly helpful, highly professional and were more than happy to let me come along a couple of days before the shoot so I could test the gear and ensure it worked as it should (this might seem a bit extreme but this shoot was super special and I wanted to make sure I made no mistakes).

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Why Profoto B1 lights? Well, in my current opinion they are the simplest, most reliable location light out there. With not a cable in sight, this gives you unparalleled flexibility – it is a photographer’s license to put a light just about anywhere. I did not use the Profoto modifiers – I instead reverted to my softbox of choice: the Chimera medium softbox (with a white interior). I have been using the soft but highly directional Chimera modifiers exclusively for 20ish years. They give me exactly the look I want and you can do so many clever things with them – they are versatility personified.

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Despite having a good plan, I had a bit of a problem: if the team were on a limited hard(ish) standing area, where could I put the lights? I was restricted to putting the key lights at the edge of Lake Carnegie, which as you will see from my drawing, has all sorts of creatures swimming in it.

SI light plan v2

I needed a little more power and I ‘only’ had 4 lights – which sounds like a lot but when you are shooting a large group on location and you are aiming for an aperture of F8 or F11 to ensure everyone is in focus, it really is not a great deal of light. I was going to put a light in the water as a backlight but as the sun was a great celestial backlight it freed up one more Profoto B1 head. So, to get a little more ‘oomph’ to my light bank I took the unconventional route and put two heads in one softbox (though I believe you can get a speed ring which takes two heads for the Chimera soft box). So it was three Profoto B1 lights off to camera left, which worked very well but I needed to attach a little fill head, so I used my last Profoto B1 in a brolly.  Finally, the lights were set. The team entered the water and I had a very short period of time with them: merely 10-15 mins before they went training; so I had to get snap-happy pronto.

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Even though time was short I mounted the Fuji XT-2 on my Gitzo GT5562LTS tripod, giving me a locked down position, because if I needed to undertake any extensive post production (which I didn’t) it was going to be much easier – remember the tripod is your friend!

The Interactive 360° Picture

The second photo shoot was the 360° panorama. Here I needed to have clickable hotspots which would link to short video interviews with the team members. Link to interactive 360° still here. I really didn’t want to switch between multiple cameras for this, so the Fuji XT-2’s enhanced video capability came into play. Though we did not output the video in 4K we did shoot it in 4K because for most major projects everything has to be shot in 4K, so it seems like ‘short change’ to shoot in 1080p.  Moreover, it gives me the capability to crop into the video. As we were shooting with ‘just’ one camera this was a useful feature to have.

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While I am on the subject of video: I shot in the standard profile in 4K as Fuji’s F-Log, which ensures you get the maximum from a file as you shoot in a ‘flat’ profile setting. Even with the standard profile available to me on the day I was very pleased with the video output.

Some of the enhanced video features that were available to me on the day, including the ability to monitor audio via the headphone jack and the extended recording time (30 mins of 4K) came to me courtesy of the new VG-XT2 hand grip, which takes two batteries in addition to the standard camera battery. The 360° still shot itself was shot on the Fuji XT-2 with the excellent Zeiss Touit 12mm lens which I find to be a dream for 360° panoramas, and I used the Seitz Roundshot VR drive which I have come to rely on to deliver the goods day in day out without missing a beat. Ever.

For the audio my good friend Jonathan Zuck used a Rode NTG3 on a boom with the excellent and versatile Rycote Super-Softie windshield which my NTG3 tends to live in most of the time – it has excellent ‘acoustic transparency’ while having superb wind shielding properties.

When you are using a motorised VR head – sometimes with quite big lenses and battery packs – the weight does add up, so I use the Gitzo GT5562LTS which is a serious pro tripod which you can fit in your hand luggage. For the still 360° (and the still team shot in the lake) I used the Gitzo 5381SQR which is perfect for panoramas. It is worth noting that this tripod does take a full on video head too – one tripod which really does do it all.

You can see the final interactive 360° image here.

Final Thoughts

Speaking of something that ‘does it all’ it seems like a good place to round up with my thoughts on the Fuji XT-2. If you use an XT-1 and you are expecting a camera which is completely different from your current camera then think again. The XT-2 is more about evolution than revolution and it is all the better for it, with tweaks and enhancements which make it the most complete mirrorless camera to date that Fuji has yet produced – a consummate all rounder in stills and video. For me, this is the camera which takes the ‘X’ series into everyday pro territory for the first time. Until now, for me at least, the X cameras which I love with their charm and wonderful image quality have been been my ‘fun’ cameras and I have had to shoot the ‘big’ jobs on something else.  I am happy to report that is no longer the case. The mixed still/360° still and 4K video nature of this assignment was a serious challenge and one that the XT-2 rose to without any fuss or drama – excelling in every area without making my brain melt.

Whisper it. Fujifilm might, just might have, produced the best mirrorless camera to date: one that combines charm, image quality, capability and is a joy to use.

Written by: Drew Gardner

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