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On Assignment: Kai-Huei Yau's Football Previews

Growth as a photographer is, for me, long periods of muddy struggle punctuated by moments of clarity. Sometimes the moments break new ground. But other times the moments solidify things you already knew —but didn't know know.

Photographer Kai-Huei Yau's shot of a high school football lineman is a great example of the latter.

The Idea is King

This is a lighting blog, so we put a lot of emphasis on that. And while lighting is a great tool to make your photos look the way you pre-visualize them in your mind's eye, it's still just a tool.

What is far more important is the idea. What is the concept of your photo? What does it mean, or explain, or connote, or feel? That trumps lighting every time.

As a 20+ year newspaper shooter, I photographed my share of high school football previews. Football is a staple of American life in the fall. And football previews herald the changing of the seasons.

When you are doing them every year, the sticking point is always the concept. Or, more accurately, are you going to put enough time and effort into it to have a concept? (Or are you just going to show up and shoot the players who are being featured.)

Yau, 30, has been a photographer at the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Washington for five years. When he arrived in 2008, he did so with an idea to shoot the football previews in an election theme, with the players standing in a politicians.

As he puts it, "It didn't fly that year."

Even worse, he got the assignment one day before the shoot, with the players not even knowing about the preview until he showed up. The players weren't even wearing game uniforms for the photos.

"That type of organization was typical back then," Yau says, "and my proposal for a themed series was not so much shot down as ignored."

It is to his credit that he did what any good photographer would and should do in a tight-budget (time and money) newspaper environment. He studied his craft (a long-time reader of Strobist,) and built both his skills and his lighting gear.

"In hindsight, that was a blessing in disguise. Though at the time I stewed like Sideshow Bob, thinking, 'You'll live to regret this!,'" he said. "I didn't have the skills or equipment to properly execute a series like I envisioned, and being ignored as the new kid gave me time to develop."

He studied the work of other newspaper shooters like Corey Perrine and (my friend and fellow Patuxent alum) Matt Roth, who both have pushed the envelope with their work on prep sports.

Five years on, things are different. And the football previews are far better as a result.

That's not to say that there haven't been hiccups along the way. Like the watermelon flecks on the studio ceiling from his 2010 "Summer's Over" football preview, as a result of photos like this:

But now football previews have grown to be a thing, which for a photographer is both a blessing and a curse. It's great in that you get to develop a concept and execute it. It's scary in that people are always expecting you to raise the bar. And there never seems to be any time or money in the budget.

For 2013, Yau's concept was, "Industrial Strength," with the cover photo seen here:

Having an overall concept (not to mention a cool visual setup in the form of a cover shot) drives the whole process, and allows you a theme on which to riff.

Still, the moment I saw his shot of Richland Hich School lineman Jake Ellis, (seen at top) it struck me as perhaps the perfect shot of a lineman, ever.

A lineman's job on the football field is to move shit. And putting him in front of a bulldozer is an instant visual metaphor. You don't need to know much about football to get that photo in a heartbeat. Hell, you almost don't even need to know what football is. Or speak English, for that matter.

Armed with an idea like this, Yau's execution (and yes, lighting) becomes merely the icing on the cake. Here's a setup shot, showing the light:

He used an Einstein in a silver dish as the key — great for soft(-ish) light and pretty wind-proof for outdoors. The speedlight at left is providing fill, and the two-pack of speedlights on the right are painting highlights on the bulldozer's blade.

The separation light is of course the sun, at back right.

The special sauce for the photo was the dust and dirt suspended in the air. It gives the photo both dimension and a "moment," as if there is action involved.

In true small-paper fashion, there is no budget for wind machines. The dirt is courtesy a family friend. And there was a bit of a learning curve:

This is creative thinking, bootstrap photography and teamwork — with no budget — coming together. Yau's wonderfully detailed behind-the-scenes post on his blog for the 2013 Industrial Strength football preview is very much worth your read.

And this stuff applies not only to his fellow news shooters (who should most definitely be following his Behind the Fold blog and/or his Twitter) but also to weekend photographers who want to learn how to do some cool, conceptual stuff on a shoestring.

I have seen a pattern among newspaper shooters who go on to make a name for themselves as successful independent photographers. And that pattern is, they are usually doing stuff like this at a newspaper early in their careers.

By all indications Yau is a persistently creative photographer. Even if that is something he has to fold in and supplement with his day-in, day-out assignments. What foundered in 2008 — the election concept — was revisited in 2012. But this time Yau had more experience and credibility under his belt:

You can see the results of that themed preview, here.

He is clearly having a lot of fun using the newspaper as his platform to grow as a photographer.

All photos ©Kai-Huei Yau/Tri-City Herald, except photo of Kai-Huei, which is by Ian-Huei Yau.


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