The greatest thing about being a photographer is you never know what you're going to be asked to do. Most of the time, requests are pretty straight forward... but recently I received a pretty unique request. A Creative Director from Gotham Publishing called to ask if it was possible to photograph someone being punched in the face. He went on to tell me about the book Tapped Out which chronicles the year long journey of author Matthew Polly as he trains for his first Mixed Martial Arts fight. The author thought the most authentic image for the book cover would be of himself being punched in the face!
An absolutely crazy concept...but I couldn't refuse! The truth of the matter is, when I first received the phone call, I had no idea how I was going to execute the concept, but in this case, I had to say YES to the assignment then figure it out.
As soon as I hung up the phone, I went to work figuring it out!
There were several factors to consider:
1---The author agreed to take 5-8 full force punches to the face... so we only had a few chances to "get the shot".
2---The moment of contact happens in a 1/1000th of a second so our timing had to be dead on or we would miss it!
3---The image had to be sharp with a good depth of field of F8 or deeper, contrasty lighting, with sweat flying off of the subject.
The biggest hurdle was how to actually catch the moment of impact. I called Cliff Hausner, my contact at Profoto to learn more about the Pro 8 power packs packs which had recently come on the market. The Pro 8 was boasting it could fire strobes at 20 frames per second with a 12,000th of a second flash duration.
Flash duration is critical when photographing something that moves! Flash duration is the amount of time it takes for a flash to fire. Flash duration typically varies from about 1/1000 to 1/20,000 of a second. If your flash duration is too long your images will be blurry around the edges. A perfect example is trying to shoot a basketball game with an on camera flash. The subject is usually moving faster than the flash duration. The movement while the light is still "strobing" causes the streaks or blurry edges. When shooting moving subject, the shorter the flash duration, the sharper the image.
Even though the Pro 8 can fire at 20 frames per second, The fastest cameras on the market can only shoot 10 frames per second, so we still had the issue of not being fast enough to catch a punch in the face! The only way to get faster was to add multiple cameras! Ultimately, we decided to set up four Canon Mark V cameras, with each camera on it's own set of strobes. We had 12 strobes total... each camera had 3 strobes.
We then had an elaborate pocket wizard system which fired each camera on a delay. Meaning each camera was firing at a different time. Ultimately, we were able to achieve very close to 40 frames per second on strobe! This would greatly increase our chances of catching the moment of contact.
We did a test shoot to make sure we could get everything to sync up. We found that even with the short flash duration there were 1-3 frames that had a double strobe, or partial double strobe. By shooting RAW we were able to compensate. We didn't encounter the double strobe frames with three cameras. Ultimately we decided 4 cameras was better than three because we were still gaining a lot more frames per second even if a couple of them weren't perfectly exposed.
I had one pocket wizard in my hand that would fire all the cameras & strobes. We would count down the "punch" and started firing the lights a split second before the moment of impact.
IT was quite a rush to see all the lights firing! It was literally an explosion of light! It was also amazing to watch Matt get punched in the face!! He was a good sport and I admire his courage! I never in a million years thought this would be my job!
Special thanks to: Matthew Polly for having the gonads to come up with this idea! To Ray Lundgren of Gotham Publishing for giving me the call! To Cliff Hausner for all his help with the Profoto and Pocketwizard gear. To Andrew Montanez our subject for the Test shoot (and a hellva MMA fighter!) To my kick ass assistants Kim Nicholas & Michelle Talan. To Ab Sesay (aka Big Sexy) for the behind the scene video! To Noho Studios... sorry about the electric bill!