U.S. Army’s PEO Soldier for GX: The Guard Experience

Every once in a while, an assignment comes along that makes you fall in love with what you do all over again.  The concept is something that you dream about getting the opportunity to photograph one day.  The creative team is filled with some of the nicest people you’ll ever work with who are also incredible at what they do.  And on top of all of that, your client trusts your vision and gives you complete control of the styling and final look of the shoot.  This was one of those assignments.

Dustin McNeal and Mallorie Bruce at GX: The Guard Experience got in touch with me about the possibility of pulling off a large production cover/feature shoot for their upcoming issue.  I’ve been shooting a lot for Dustin and Mallorie recently, so I was pretty excited that they were wanting to work with me for this larger project of theirs.  Luck would have it that during a very short time period that was quickly approaching, several high-tech pieces of military equipment would be available to photograph at PEO Soldier at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.  The idea was to show up, photograph as many and whatever was made available to us, and to photograph an actual soldier completely geared up with the equipment.

Once everything was lined up, Dustin and I started talking about how we wanted everything to look.  The equipment was to be shot on plain black and white backgrounds where text would later be dropped in.  The night prior to the shoot, I kept thinking that I really wanted to do something more than just simply light the equipment on plain backgrounds.  The things we’d be photographing were pretty impressive, and I just felt like they deserved something really eye-catching.

Truth is, I’m a huge video game nerd.  I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto V a lot lately, but I absolutely love Battlefield 4.  While laying awake in bed at night with excitement, it dawned on me.  To bring a bit of life to the equipment, I’d hit them with a CTO gel inspired by Battlefield 4’s game art.  Adding more to the images, I thought using plexiglass for some of the shots would give a nice touch while suspending some of the other equipment with fishing line.  Dustin flew in for the shoot and when he arrived at my door at 7:00AM, I passed my ideas by him and he was all for it.

PEO Soldier was incredibly accommodating.  After arriving on the base, we were taken to an actual photography studio where we would be working for the day.  After a quick breakfast, my assistant, Rich Kessler, and the rest of the team started getting things set up while Dustin and I planned out the day.  We started working on the black background, which was my favorite setup of the day.  I love how the CTO gel worked with the darker colored equipment.  Throwing in the plexiglass and fishing line suspension really added to the shots too.  As the shots were coming in on the monitor, things looked great and we could easily make any adjustments to the lighting and composition.  Out of all of the equipment shots, the one below of the M26 12-Guage Modular Accessory Shotgun System (MASS) is my absolute favorite.  It turned out just how I had imagined it in my mind.

After the first three pieces of equipment, we switched things up and broke out the white background.  We continued with the CTO gel to keep the look throughout the entire project.  The one noticeable difference with these shots though is the shadows.  I love how the shadows work with the equipment and add shapes and angles to the overall image.  One interesting thing to note.  The helmet was extremely difficult to suspend because it was so heavy.  Balancing it in the air required fishing line to be attached at several points of the helmet.  Running out of time, we had about five minutes to get the shot, while most of the suspended shots took much longer to pull off.  Somehow, we made it happen thanks to some awesome teamwork that you’ll see below.

Once we wrapped up with the helmet, that was it for the individual pieces of equipment.  SSG Jackee Hutton Jr. of the DC National Guard, arrived on set and would be holding and wearing some of the equipment that we photographed earlier for the issue’s cover.  While he was getting geared up, Dustin and I talked about how we wanted the cover to look.  We shot a handful of different poses with and without some of the equipment.  A huge thanks to SSG Hutton for taking my direction so well and for putting up with me calling him “Bud”, which got some good laughs from everyone on-set.  He gave us some great looks to work with, making it difficult to pick a favorite.

With any project, a solid team is what can really make all the difference in the world, especially with a something of this size.  Sure I’m the photographer there and the one taking the photographs, but without the people you see pictured below, a lot of these images wouldn’t look like they do.  My assistant, Rich, was crucial for this project.  Getting breakfast, moving lights, and tying fishing line are just a few of the things that he did to help things run smoothly.  Having Dustin fly in for the shoot was really beneficial too.  With him watching images come in on the computer, he was able to spot anything that needed fine tuned and even went the extra mile with helping set up some of the shots, especially with the helmet.  And of course I cannot go without mentioning the dedicated staff at PEO Soldier.  They were there working right along with us for the entire day making sure that we had everything we needed and lending a hand when it was needed.  So to everyone involved from the early concept stages to the final wrap, thank you for all of your hard work and helping make this what it turned out to be. 

PEO Soldier Staff, Assistant Rich Kessler, and Art Director Dustin McNeal keeping the helmet suspended with fishing line.

Lastly, there are two special things worth noting about this project.  This was my first cover shoot, and I couldn’t be more excited about how it all turned out.  On top of that, the team at GX: The Guard Experience decided that they would like to feature me as a contributor in the same issue.  Sometimes I still can’t believe that I get to call this “work”.

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