Barrio Viejo and the Big 7

A few months ago an editorial client asked me to shoot 24-year-old running sensation Craig Curley. Curley grew up herding sheep on the Navajo Reservation but today lives and trains far to the south in Tucson, Arizona. Years ago, I lived for a year on the Res, not too far from Craig’s hometown of Kinlichee. So he and I had a lot to talk about.

Curley’s a national talent sponsored by Mizuno; however, according to what he told me, his family doesn’t know that he runs professionally. He wants to save that news for a big breakthrough. Like maybe the day he qualifies for the Olympic marathon.

Over the years, I’ve shot a number or world- and national-class athletes who live or train in Tucson, including Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard who competed in the 1996 Atlanta Games at age 14, where she won two silvers and a gold. Fourteen years old, three Olympic medals. Swimming in three subsequent Olympics, Beard won a total of seven Olympic medals. She’s a big deal.

I shot Amada for Lighthouse, an agency in Atlanta working with Athena bottled water. With Amanda, we shot in the historic Flandreau House, a private residence that’s now part of the Arizona Inn. The hotel catered lunch and I remember beef tenderloin was on the menu. So there’s definitely an upside to shooting at the Arizona Inn.

But a favorite location of mine in Tucson, or anywhere for that matter, is Barrio Viejo, a very old neighborhood immediately south of Tucson’s modest downtown. It’s the place I shot Craig Curley, and it’s perhaps the best example of 19th Century adobe in the United States. I love this place for a lot of reasons.

First, it’s got texture. A lot of the houses here were built in the 1800s and their melted walls sit right up next to the curbs.

A favorite set up of mine for portraits is the Profoto Big 7. The Big 7 is basically a giant, 7-foot umbrella, and it’s particularly well-suited to shooting subjects on walls. I often get excited when I see a nice wall, and the walls in Barrio Viejo are the best.

The Barrio is urban, yet it’s a sleepy little corner of town. I like to work the Big 7 on a Matthews Medium Roller, and for ballast and power I hang a Profoto 7B on a J-hook. It’s a very simple, very mobile set up. And on the Barrio’s quiet, narrow streets, it’s easy to knock off a lot of different looks in a short period of time.

Efficiency like this really helps when you’re working with athletes. I shot four-time World triathlon champion Leanda Cave in Barrio Viejo a year or two back and I think we hit five different walls in well under an hour.

The Big 7 is a versatile modifier; I like to use it both tight and pulled back. For the tight shots, I stand inside of it with my head directly in front of the strobe head, which points away from talent and bounces light around the curve of the umbrella.

With this set up, the subject is just a few feet away and somewhat within a subtle dead spot created by my position. If the wall is white, the light wraps us both and then bounces back of the wall. All of which creates a subtle rim around the jaw, shoulders and any other exposed skin.

Sometimes, I place a big black floppy just out of frame on either side of the subject to absorb some light. The whole thing is fort-like and intimate; it’s best for short focal lengths, and really connects you to the subject. See the Beard shot that follows. There’s not much post processing with this use of the Big 7. It’s a really great, clean look.

Pulled back the look is much different. See the Curley shot. Here muted walls are best and with the RAW conversions, I like to remove saturation and add a little clarity. Where the tighter set up places the light just a few feet away, here it’s pulled back perhaps 15 or 20 feet, elevated and angled a bit down. I like the subtle shadows on these shots.

The Big 7 isn’t cheap. It’s about $2K just for the umbrella. The flash head is another $2K. Toss in the grip and, depending on your flash generator, the most expensive piece of the equation, you’re rolling a $10,000 light around the Barrio. But like a lot of big outlays, it can become one of those things in your kit that pays for itself many times over. Particularly after you’ve used it a few times and come to know its strengths.