In January of this year I was given the opportunity to photograph Simone Biles for one of the largest manufacturers of gymnastics equipment in the world. Simone has won the last three world championships in the all-around completion and just won the US Women’s Gymnastics trials to lead the women’s team to the Rio Olympics. This shoot with Simone fit perfectly with my work as a portrait and lifestyle photographer. The client needed mostly portraits of Simone but also wanted a couple of action shots as well. The client had just signed her to endorse their product and asked her dad to recommended a local photographer. I had recently photographed Simone and her family for an editorial shoot and based on that experience, he was happy to pass my name on for the job.
During our first phone conversation, the client knew we would need three shots of Simone for their product catalog. There was a possibility that three more shots would be needed depending on an additional product line endorsement agreement that was in the works with her. I covered the laundry list of questions needed for production. We determined there wasn’t room in the budget for a producer or a digi tech. I had worked as a tech for a number of years and was very comfortable shooting tethered on my own, as long as the client understood that it would inhibit our ability to go over the shots during the shoot. Catering wasn’t needed we only had the morning to shoot and would have to wrap before lunch anyway. Simone and the client would handle wardrobe and props. Given the size of the production I had no problem producing this one on my own. We worked out two estimates to cover both shot lists and licensing contingencies then proceeded with creative planning.
A few days before the shoot, the product line deal came through which meant that our shot list had now doubled. Awesome. The client then announced that we had the same hour and a half with the talent. So instead of 30 minutes per shot we now had an average of 15 minutes per shot. I asked if more time would be an option but with her training schedule and numerous other commitments, Simone had no more time. No problem, that’s the way our industry works and I’m used to solving problems to make everything work, no matter what is thrown our way. The client understood that we were under tight time constraints and we worked well together to plan how best to use the time we had with Simone.
During our preproduction conversations I worked with the client to finalize our shot list. We worked together to create a mood board for the creative direction then we worked to prioritize the shot list. Given the tight time constraints on this production, having clear priorities on the shots was extremely important. The client and I were on the same page going into the shoot on which shots we could cut if needed.
The evening before the shoot the client, my first assistant for this job, Michael Klein, and I did a walk through of Simone’s gym. This gave us time to work out any kinks and miscommunications in our plans. We were also able to rearrange a lot of the gym equipment so that we could easily move our gear in for the very early call time the next morning. Having that prepro day was essential for the smooth operation of the shoot.
Even with all the prep from the night before the day of the shoot was on of those fast paced, barely-any-time-to-think kind of days I thrive on. Klien and Brandon Chessher, my two assistants, were amazing. They worked hard to get multiple sets up and ready while Devon Harvey of VCI Artists did a stellar job with Simone’s hair and makeup. We all worked fast to move through the shot list. When it came to the action shot of Simone performing a back handspring on the balance beam, I nailed the timing on the third frame, the client saw it on the computer, signed off on it and we moved on to the next shot. Being able to move quickly through shots like that gave us extra time to concentrate on other shots.
Simone was a total pro through all of it. I know she had a crazy schedule leading up to the US Olympic team’s February media cutoff for all of the athletes competing to go to Rio this summer. Given all of her endorsement deals and training schedule I’m not sure how she managed everything. Even so, she was one of the sweetest individuals with whom I have had the pleasure of photographing. With her ever ready winning smile and ability to hit any mark on command, we cruised through all six shots on the list with enough time to spare that we pulled off an extra shot for the client at the end of the shoot. When we wrapped we covered seven shots in an hour and a half and had Simone out right on time.
After every shoot I ask my crew and, if possible the client, these three questions: What went well? What went poorly? And what could we do better next time?
From this production I would say that our planning went very well which was essential to the success of the shoot. I felt like there was clear communication with the client and my team. My biggest complaint about the shoot was that we had a messy set. Given the amount of work and time constraints I can’t fault my assistants for that one. To do it better next time I’d push harder for a PA or third assistant. By the end of the shoot I knew I was dragging. I’m not sure I had taken time to eat or even drink anything for 4-5 hours. Like I said, we moved fast. Having an extra set of hands to help tidy up the set and make sure everyone stayed hydrated and fed from the craft services table would have been ideal.
All in all, I am pleased with how the project turned out. My crew was outstanding and Simone was a joy to work with again. The client was extremely happy with the shoot and the images we produced. That seventh shot we worked in at the end has gotten a lot of use in their marketing materials so I’m thankful everything went smoothly to get it for them. We’re all looking forward to working together again soon.
Check out my Instagram feed for more behind the scenes shots. Good luck to Simone and all of our Olympic hopefuls in Rio!