let's talk Tigers Photo Day

photo by Samara Pearlstein

Photo Day! Not Roster Photo Day, those are the standardized shots that end up on MLB websites; Photo Day is when the team brings in a photographer to do proper studio portraits of the players. Sometimes they’re pretty straightforward, sometimes they are artsy and deranged. This spring, as it happens, the Red Sox and Tigers had the same photographer, and he used the same general concept for both teams.

It’s… um, interesting. Since RotT is ALL about the art and the photography, I reckon we’re gonna need to talk about it.

You can see the Tigers shots over here. They’re by a Getty Images photographer named Nick Laham. The first image that comes up on his personal site, at the moment, is Fernando Rodney, which in and of itself is good for a hearty chortle or several. If you poke around his site, or search for him on Getty, you’ll see that he has a lot of really nice work, so it’s obviously not like he doesn’t know how to handle studio lights or whatever.

I also feel obligated to point out that he’s responsible for this wholly amazing Braylon Edwards photoshoot (start there and click to the right), which is just… yes.

Ahem. Anyways. The Tigers photos! There are a few things going on.

First off, I’m not sure exactly what lens he’s using, but whatever it is, he’s shooting it WIDE open (my initial guess would be some sort of 50mm f/1.4 lens, but that’s probably my own bias talking– I love that lens like burning). The result is a wicked shallow depth of field.

What does that mean?

Check out this terrifying image of Miguel Cabrera. Ignore the horror of the chin pubes, if you’re able, because the only person we can blame those on is Miguel himself. Do you see how Miggy’s eyes are in sharp focus, but his nose is blurry, and his face falls off into blurriness as it recedes backwards from his eyes?

Imagine that Miggy’s face is divided up into vertical slices or planes. Some of them, like the slice containing the tip of his nose, are closer to the camera lens, and some of them, like the slice containing his ears, are farther away from the lens. A shallow depth of field means that only a very narrow group of slices are going to be in focus, and everything in front of and behind them will be out of focus to some degree– the farther away something is from the in-focus slice, the blurrier it will be.

A camera takes photos through a little opening in the lens. A photographer controls the size of this opening (aperture), making it bigger or smaller. A relatively big aperture (the lens ‘wide open’– at 1.4 or 2.8, for instance) will result in a shallow depth of field, while a relatively tiny aperture (the lens at 8 or 11, for instance– yes, it’s backwards, don’t ask) will have a deep depth of field, where foreground, mid-ground, and background will mostly be in focus together.

Shallow depth of field. See how blurry the background gets?

Broader depth of field. See how the foreground, mid-ground, and background are all mostly in focus?

Miggy’s eyes, eyebrows, the tops of his cheeks, and some of his (ugh) chin pubes are all on more or less the same plane, so they’re in focus. This isn’t actually bad– you’re usually ‘supposed’ to have your sharpest focus on the eyes, if you’re shooting a portrait, and that’s clearly happening here. But my personal preference, at least, is to try to avoid a big blur in the middle of the face. Mr. Laham did it with the high key shots (see how Miggy’s nose is blurry, but less blurry than before, and more of his face is in focus? I’d guess that the aperture isn’t quite as wide open, which means more depth of field– more slices are in focus at the same time), so you KNOW not doing it with the blue background shots was a deliberate choice. Harumph.

The other main issue here is the lighting. It’s not one of the standard portrait lighting set-ups, which is FINE– I went to art school, yanno, I LIKE when things are weird and different and ~*~edgy~*~. But this… this is something that was probably better as a concept than photographic reality.

Let’s use this shot of Granderson as an example, because it takes a special sort of WTF to make Curtis Granderson look less than perfect. You can see the depth of field shenanigans clearly here too, but ignore that and look at the lighting on Curtis’ face.

The main light sources are off to the sides, kinda angled in– you can actually see them reflected in Curtis’ eyes. Now, I don’t know if this rig consists of two lights, or a light and a reflector, or how many fill lights there are, or whatever, but the result is that every Tiger, to a greater or lesser degree, has a shadow line down the center of his face. It sounds like a cool concept, EXCEPT FOR THE PART WHERE IT MAKES THEM ALL LOOK CROSS-EYED.

You can see more examples of this problem in the Red Sox photo day shots, which, as noted above, were done by the same guy, with the same (or a very similar) lighting set-up. I said this elsewhere, but poor Michael Bowden barely even looks human, and Rocco Baldelli’s photo almost makes ME go cross-eyed in sympathy.

What’s going on?

This sort of side lighting doesn’t just draw a pretty shadow down the line of the nose: it also creates shadows on the inside halves of the eye sockets. You darken someone’s eyes where they’re close to the nose, and that person is going to look insane and cross-eyed. It’s that simple.

Since there’s plenty of evidence that Mr. Laham knows how to light a face so that this DOESN’T happen, I can only assume that it was intentional. So….

20 responses to “let's talk Tigers Photo Day

  1. I feel like this kind of portraiture is really “in” right now. A lot of kids at my school in the photo program play around with that kind of focus and lighting. And while I do like it, I don’t know if I like it for baseball photos.

  2. Samara Pearlstein

    Thing is, if you look at the high key shots this guy took (the ones on the white background), they’re not as bad. The focus and lighting is similar, but less… exaggerated, I guess. So while Bondo still looks like a zombie and Miggy looks high and Inge looks 100 years old, at least they’re more in focus and not as ZOMG CROSS-EYED, you know? Ballplayers looking high in their photo day shots is practically tradition anyways.
    But the shots with the blue background, which seem to be the base shots (just look at the Red Sox), wow, yeah, no, it’s a mess.
    And, like, I GET that it’s kinda tricky to light a face properly when it’s under a baseball hat, the brim messes with the lighting, but this was not the answer. There’s edgy and then there’s trendy and then there’s making Rocco Baldelli look like he’s struggling to see a Magic Eye picture.

  3. this guy did the yankees photos too. i thought the style was quite nice for them, considering i can remember some babe ruth shots like this.

  4. Samara Pearlstein

    The Yankee ones I’m seeing are all like the high key Tigers ones– which weren’t as ZOMG NO as the ones with the dark backgrounds. Certainly the cross-eye issue is a little less pronounced, just ’cause there’s more light overall. But even those… dude, Edwar Ramirez looks like an alien. The only one I think it really works for is CC, and that’s ’cause he’s got the awesome smirk goin’ on.

  5. Miggy looks SO STONED in the high key shot.

  6. Outstanding cats!

  7. These photos have tripped the web page blocker where I work (perhaps that web site hosts some more risque photos as well?), but anything that makes Inge, who normally appears to be about 9 years old, look like he’s 100… THIS, I’ve got to see.

  8. I think this set-up only works with people who have really hard, gritty faces – look at varitek, lowell, and even leyland. the guys who have some lines and always look ready to rip your head off work well with this treatment, while the baby faced just come off looking dumb.

  9. I think it worked for Willis — probably for the same reason it worked for CC — but otherwise, eek, god, no. He went way askew. I prefer when they get the players posing in fun ways with props, not necessarily the traditional baseball bat or ball either. For awhile, the A’s always seemed to have great, funny photos taken of them. I wish the Tigers would have that just once.

  10. When I saw them zoomed out and layed out, I thought the Boston pics looked better than the Tigers’. When you see them up close, it’s just so unflattering. You see every little detail and imperfection in their face. I don’t. Artsy + baseball = cool only sometimes, I guess.

  11. I think he confused the boys with a selection of welsh coal miners from oh, about 1902.

  12. I’m so glad we don’t have to stare at those photos all season long. I was worrying that they were the profile ones that go next to all the stats for the next year and the organization had thought it would be cool to go for an “arthouse” look this year. Welsh coal miners indeed.

  13. Samara Pearlstein

    ivan, I KNOW– a number of them seemed to have the half-closed eyes thing going on. But that’s par for the course when it comes to ballplayer portraits, so it’s hard to fault the photographer there.
    Leshnock, :)
    Jeff, I’m referring to this shot; Inge actually looks more or less his age in the dark background photo, but something about all that white light just killed him.
    pkuszmaul, you’re definitely onto something there. The more interior lines for shadows to fall in, the less weird it looks? Still doesn’t excuse the depth of field issues, alas.
    Kurt, the only thing is that I think Dontrelle ended up looking pretty cross-eyed in that light. At least he looked more alert and present than, say, Miggy. And I remember those A’s photos– was it last year or two years ago where they were all spitting sunflower seeds at the camera? Those were hilarious.
    Anaaki, right, like… I am a fan of sharp focus, but do I REALLY need to see the bags under Josh Beckett’s eyes that sharply delineated? I probably could have got along quite happily without that…
    Emil, no no, then it would be GRRRRRRRRRITTY black and white! :P
    heitk1le, yeah, regular profile photos aren’t out yet. When they do come out we will be having the Return of Fun with Roster Photos.

  14. Inge’s eyes are soulless voids. :/

  15. My goodness, that’s an aweful dark background photo of Magglio Ordonez–makes him look like he’s about 500 pounds . . .

  16. You wouldn’t happen to have a link to those A’s-spitting-sunflower-seeds photos would you? I miss ye good olde days when I didn’t have to worry about them moving to some bush-league city and leaving my Coliseum. (Sorry, Oakland’s my 2nd fave team, lol).

  17. Samara Pearlstein

    Rea, yeah, for some reason he’s leaning back, so it’s like LOOM LOOM LOOMING.
    Colt, the ’07 ones are here (those are watermarked though). And hey, last I saw, they had given up on moving the A’s

  18. OMG, that Inge shot… I can hear the “Hey, kids, get off of my lawn!”

  19. i’m more offended at the angle of the camera and how they all look like they just got their wisdom teeth out. Head pose FAIL.

  20. Samara Pearlstein

    “Get off my lawn! I shake my bat weakly at you!” OH NO BRANDON I DIDN’T MEAN IT
    Tiff, especially Maggs– I dunno why, but he was extra tilted or something.

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