Robert Seale and the American Dream

Written by Ron Egatz on . Posted in Hot Photography, Instruction, Sports Photography

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Just about midway between Houston and Beaumont, Texas lies the little town of Anahuac, “which no one has ever heard of,” proclaims native Robert Seale. Anahuac sits on both massive Trinity Bay and smaller Lake Anahuac. I inform Seale I’ve driven through the area on Interstate 10. “When you get to the swampy area, that’s where I’m from,” he says, laughing. “It’s good for ducks and alligators, but not necessarily people.”

In many respects, Seale strove for and acquired the American Dream. He left the hometown he jokes about, and his photography has sent him around the country on assignment shooting athlete portraits. Seale also witnessed the dark side of the American Dream: shrinking budgets of news corporations and resultant layoffs. While in college, he had an internship at The Houston Chronicle. Convinced he wanted to be a newspaper photographer, he then worked in Augusta, Georgia until a job opened at The Houston Post. In a few years, during the frenzy of corporate mergers, the failing Post was absorbed by The Chronicle. Downsized, Seale became a freelancer until he found an unconventional position at The Austin American Statesman. It was 1995, and newspapers were doing even worse than they are now. Paper costs were high, and most of them hadn’t embraced the Internet as a delivery mechanism. Working 32 hours a week with no benefits, he stuck with it until everything changed in 1996 when he got a full-time position as one of just three staff photographers at The Sporting News, which relocated him to their base in St. Louis.

©Robert Seale

As a staff photographer with The Sporting News, Seale greatly expanded his skills over the course of twelve years. “It was great,” he recalls. “It was interesting because I got hired more for having portrait skills than having action skills. There are probably a lot of guys who could shoot action better than me at that time, but you had to be able to both since we were such a small staff.” Due to the small size of the photography staff, Seale found himself shooting covers, portraits, feature stories, and behind-the-scenes photos. This forced the young photographer to gain a wide skill set beyond shooting the action of professional games.

In December of 2006, Seale left the paper to turn full-time independent pro. Already taking on a lot of freelance work before leaving, he didn’t limit himself to only sports. Shooting annual reports and other corporate clients, he also started his informative and well-written blog. Always wishing to distance himself from the pack, Seale received many questions about lighting. Rather than make his blog a series of posts about recent work, he’s chosen to make it an informative resource for other photographers.

©Robert Seale

Since becoming a free agent, Seale has noticed an interesting shift in the way he does business. Previously, he was able to schedule his jobs with more flexibility. Now, especially when corporate work is done, terms are more frequently dictated to him, closing off much of the creative decisions he could make, such as location, concepts, and ever-critical time-of-day decisions. For the most part, his approach to portraits remains the same, whether it’s an athlete or a CEO with one caveat. “The main thing with CEO’s is you sometimes can’t get as dramatic with the lights as you can with an athlete. That’s probably the biggest change because you have to open things up. I call it moving the light closer to the center,” he says, referring to positioning lights closer to the camera. “With certain CEO’s, they just want the guy to look nice. They want it to be dynamic and interesting, but if you get too shadowy and too dramatic you may not get hired again because the guy may not like his picture.”

©Robert Seale

When I ask Seale about group portraits, he considers them one of his larger challenges. Due to the time constraints of corporate directors, Seale typically sets up lighting and uses stand-ins. When conditions are perfect, he brings in the actual subjects, starts shooting, and they’re free to leave in minutes. Finding locations for all employees to reach and feel comfortable in is also a challenge. “Most CEOs, their time crunch is such they are not willing to go out in the field and have their picture made next to an oil rig or something,” he says. “It’s much more interesting. It’s more dynamic to make those kind of pictures. Sometimes you just have to solve problems within their office, within a lobby, or whatever you’ve got to work with, and try to make an interesting picture there. There was one case where we did a group of oil company executives and we used a green screen and projected an old black and white photo of an oil field behind them.”

Regarding the athlete-work he’s most known for, Seale freely shares an answer to a common question he gets. “A lot of athletes are in motion, basketball players flying through the air, and stuff like that. People always ask about trampolines and there’s never been a trampoline in any of those pictures,” he says.

©Robert Seale

These shots are meticulously planned, focused and lit, with the athlete hitting a mark, then jumping. A shot like this which he’s particularly proud of is of LaDainian Tomlinson on the deck of an aircraft carrier. A simple but effective camera position gives Tomlinson some extra lift. “That’s just him jumping straight up in the air. I found if you put the camera all the way down on the ground—just absolutely on the ground—and you are laying on the ground, using a wide angle, having the guy leap straight up into the air, you can get that effect. People ask if that was rear flash sync. Actually, it was normal flash sync because the drop shadow is coming off of his leg and is actually him as he’s coming down. If you fire the flash right as someone is at their apex of their jump, then you’ll get that flash blur on the back edge of it. It looks like rear sync, even though it’s not.”

©Robert Seale

Shooting Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III cameras these days, Seale’s favorite lens is the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM. “When I used to shoot film with a Hasselblad, I shot with a 40, an 80, and a 120mm a lot,” he recalls. “That was kind of my range for portraiture. This lens kind of encompasses all those focal lengths.” Seale actively zooms during shoots in order to get the maximum range of shots while working within time constraints.

Seale stresses how critical it is to be prepared and not stop the action during a shoot. “I always found if you went to change lenses and you’ve got somebody famous in front of you, or even a CEO who has very little time for you, anytime you stop to do anything the shoot is potentially over,” he says. “The athlete gets tired of you and he’s going to walk away. It depends on how nice they are and how much time they have. When I shot Hasselblads, I would have two or three bodies, and I would have six backs preloaded with 24 exposure film, 220 film, and had lenses on them ready to go. I could have one put in my hands and keep shooting. The assistant could change one camera while I was shooting with the other one. We just never stopped. Anytime you stop, they look around and they’re like ‘Okay, we’re done.'” Digital media and the zoom helps prevent this break in action for him. He finds sports figures more apt to abruptly leave a shoot than CEOs.

©Robert Seale

Seale’s other gear includes a Sekonic L-758DR and multiple PocketWizard MultiMAX units. “I probably have eight of those,” he reports. “When we shot basketball action, we would use the MultiMaxes to equalize cameras to the same strobe flash. We would have multiple cameras going off at the same time with one set of strobes. It was interesting because a colleague of mine eventually figured out how to do that. They were very useful.”

For lighting, Seale relies on Profoto. “I own Pro-7b’s that I use,” he says. “I don’t own any 7a’s but I’ve rented them. Most of what I do is with 7b’s, I’d say. I can’t say enough good things about 7b’s. I’ve just used them like crazy and shipped them everywhere and never had a problem.” The oldest Profoto unit he owns is eight years old. I ask him if it’s still running. “Oh, yeah. Just flawless, other than replacing batteries, that sort of thing. Even the batteries lasted forever on them, though. I’m not one of these people who trickle charge them each day either. I pretty much abused them as far as the charging went.”

©Robert Seale

Working from an interesting starting point, Seale outlines one of his main approaches to lighting. “I’ve told students at workshops if you can start with a silhouette of a person and then add your light from there, you’re much better off. If I can put somebody in the shade or put them in the time of day when they’re backlit, it makes my job a lot easier. I see a lot of photographers take people out at high noon and the sun’s coming high from the left side and they put a strobe on the right side and they wonder why it doesn’t look like it’s lit. They’re not canceling everything out to start with. I like to start zeroed out.”

©Robert Seale

From this point, Seale then adjusts accordingly, working from light meter readings. “If you start with that silhouette and add light,” he says, “either you put a Scrim Jim over them to shade them if it’s the wrong time of day, or you put them under an awning or inside a building looking out. Whatever it is, you start with that outside on location shots. I treat the sky just like it’s a piece of background paper. Meter it like it’s anything else. I don’t get intimidated by what’s out there, or the fact it’s a sunset or a blue sky or clouds or whatever it happens to be.”

This is Seale’s fundamental approach to shooting outside. After starting with a silhouette, he adds light. First, he meters the background and lights the subject to match the background. Then he can change the shutter speed and do variations to make the background lighter or darker. He then adjusts according to what’s looking good. Art direction might call for a blown out background, or dark and moody background. This is done via shutter speed.

Seale isn’t a fan of currently-popular blown out, lifestyle shots. “It’s an ugly, ugly look,” he says. “I don’t care how hot the model is, nobody looks good that way. Years ago there was a photographer named Jeffrey Salter who was a Miami Herald photographer. He said to me when I was a young newspaper photographer, ‘Saw the hot shoe off your camera.’ I think that’s a good philosophy. He said, ‘The light almost always looks better coming from anywhere other than head on.’ So, it gives shape to things when you move the camera, the flash off camera, and now I’m doing more bringing it back to the center, but I’m doing it with big, huge modifiers and stuff so it’s still flattering and it’s still above the camera.”

It’s not easy for every artist to sum up a philosophy of how they approach their craft. I ask Robert Seale to do this, and he thinks for a moment. “I’ve always really admired Gregory Heisler and Frank Ockenfels 3, people who have a huge toolbox of lighting skills, and are able to light their portraits appropriate to the subject they are dealing with. I’ve tried hard not to be a one-trick-pony—someone with one lighting shtick they keep doing over and over.  Despite the difficulty marketing this approach, I enjoy the variety of subjects and assignments it generates. I’m able to shoot CEO’s one day, athletes another, and a rapper, or a rural cowboy the next—all with appropriate lighting that tells their story in a visually interesting way.”

©Robert Seale

Although starting off in sports photography, Robert Seale is comfortable shooting almost any kind of portrait. His signature lighting has proven his skills for diverse photo editors who’ve come to rely on him to deliver. Leaving the security of a staff photographer’s job has vastly increased his audience. Looks like the American Dream, albeit a little harder to find, is still out there, and achievable.

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Comments (3)

  • August Miller


    I too am not a fan of the current blown-out lifestyle shots that are popular among portrait and wedding photographers. Robert Seale has it right, nobody looks good lit that way. Good photography is about being able to use the proper lighting techniques for each situation. That’s why photographers like Robert Seale will be shooting successful and classic portraits long after current fads come and go.


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