IMP Blog

Cyber School Graduation Photo Story

Three months ago I get a call from a Soldier who says he has a special request for a group photo.  That this group photo will be historic because it’s the first of its kind.  Was my interest piqued?  You bet

I began to ask the Soldier more details about this photo he envisioned.  It turns out this shot would be no easy task.  I didn’t quite understand until I scheduled time to see exactly what he was talking about.  He told me to meet him at Signal Tower located in Fort Gordon, GA.  I’ve heard about Signal Tower many times and I had imagined security would be as tight as it goes. 

Upon my arrival, I checked myself into the lobby where I waited to be escorted inside.  Within a few minutes I was greeted by the Soldier and building security.  I was escorted to the 10th floor and shown the balcony.  “Here is where the shot needs to take place” the Soldier said.  What I saw was no more than 5-7 feet from the balcony rails to a wall of windows.  I immediately got nervous, as you can imagine. “How many students will be in the shot?” I asked.  His reply….21 Sir. 

I began taking test shots with my iPhone, which is equivalent to a 35mm lens, or so that’s what I've read.  I knew from the start that I would need to use my 24mm lens, but would that even be enough?  It had to be this location, no other you see.  The Soldier’s mind was made up and this is where it had to be -- no ifs, ands or buts.  Suddenly, the security guard who had followed us all the way up had a fantastic idea that I wished I had thought of myself!  Only windows separated the balcony where the shot had to take place and the elevator waiting area.  The security guard suggested I setup and take the photo from inside the windows looking out toward the balcony.  I thought at first, this might work.  The Soldier said he would even try to lift the window up on the day of the shoot.  But I knew I could not count on that so I started to think about how would I take the shot through the window and defeat reflection?  When I got home that day the solution of how to defeat reflection popped into my head like a bullet.  I could use a polarizer!


The morning of the shoot

 The night before the group shot, I did a thorough check of all my equipment and of course a prayer that all things would go well!  I had to be at the Signal Tower at 6:30am to take the photo by 7:00am.  Timing was everything because the sun would start to peek through the balcony and cast sunlight on the students' faces.  When I got to the security desk I saw all 21 cyber students waiting on me.  We marched ourselves to the 10th floor.  I bought along two soft boxes to which I attached my 600 ex-rt flashes.  What I didn’t account for was wind.  I didn’t bring any sand bags or weights to hold those soft boxes down.  I was now praying the wind outside would not cause them to fall down.  As I began setting up outside I saw the students could not raise the window as it was locked by a bar holding it down.  Luckily, I had thought to bring some good ol' Windex and microfiber cloths.  I actually had the nerve to ask a First Sergeant to clean the window!  As he cleaned the window he said he would be putting this in his new job description with the Army -- I chuckled.  So, as I feared at this point, the soft boxes were falling with the little wind that was coming through.  The 1SG and captain escorting the students to the balcony were kind enough to be my assistants to hold the soft boxes -- how awesome is that!  The students were all in position for me to take the shot and the sun was not waiting on me.  It would be just a matter of minutes before that sun would make its presence known.  Now, I knew from talking with the Soldier who hired me to do this that getting some of the background in the shot was preferred.  So I knew I had to use the soft boxes to cast light on their faces but underexpose my shot to get the background.  I of course shot RAW like I always do.  I knew I would be able to get back more detail this way, especially if I were to underexpose the shots.

I had my MacBook Pro tethered to my camera, so that I could see how the shots were panning out.  I wanted to make sure the images were tack sharp.  I felt as though I had my shot, but I wouldn’t be 100% certain until I could work on the photo in Adobe Lightroom.  To my shock, the students who did see some of the photos from my laptop LOVED what they saw.  I mean, I couldn’t believe it because the shots were definitely underexposed.  But, I’ll admit it took my nerves down a few notches.  I got home and began work on the photos immediately.  This had the highest priority since it needed to get its way onto a plaque that will eventually be on display at the Army Cyber School.  The final product -- the shot you see above -- was the most challenging post-processed job I have ever done.  If I only showed you the original shot I am sure your jaws would drop.  But I won’t show that image!  Hahaha.  Just take my word for it!

I couldn’t be more proud of an image that I took.  Everything I have been working for in terms of my art, my photography has led me to this point.  I am honored to have taken a photo that has lasting importance for a noble organization.  I finally get a small glimpse into what great photographers like Neil Leifer felt when capturing a historic photo that transcends time.  

As for what the photo on the plaque looks like?  Take a look for yourself!