A Gold Medal Gig: Kevin Jairaj Scores an Olympic Opportunity

By Jeff Kent

The 2012 Olympic Games may have concluded, but the victory celebrations are just beginning. As the U.S. Olympians make their way through the post-Olympics media blitz, many of the images representing them will be from Dallas-based photographer Kevin Jairaj.

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McKayla Maroney   ©Kevin Jairaj/US Presswire

Best known for his upscale wedding work, Jairaj has always loved sports photography. About a year ago, he submitted a portfolio to US Presswire for consideration as one of their freelance sports photographers in the Dallas area. He was accepted, which was a thrill, but the real excitement started when the U.S. Olympic Media Summit came to town this past May. The summit was a day-long press event during which American athletes were shuffled through a series of interviews, press conferences, and photo shoots. US Presswire contracted Jairaj to shoot images for a series of feature stories in USA Today that would run in issues leading up to the Olympic games.

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©Kevin Jairaj

Jairaj’s initial assignment was to photograph 10 pre-selected athletes for the USA Today features. However, as other athletes came through the summit, their handlers and media relations people would bring them to his on-location studio if they had time. By the end of a long day of shooting, he’d around 75 of America’s Olympians, from gymnast Gabby Douglas to soccer star Alex Morgan to swimmer Dana Vollmer.

“A lot of these athletes are amateurs, and weren’t well known at the time,” says Jairaj. “They didn’t have the big egos that you get with a lot of famous professional athletes. This was the first big media event they were doing for the Olympics, so it was very interesting to see them before they became international celebrities.”

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Alex Morgan   ©Kevin Jairaj/USPresswire

A day prior to the summit, Jairaj set up a temporary studio in a ballroom at the summit’s host hotel. He tested all of his lighting and pre-arranged his setups for the groups of athletes on his schedule. He built three different sets: a gray seamless, an American flag with dramatic lighting, and a “fun set” in which he rigged up a ring light along with some red, gold, and blue fabrics for interesting catch lights. In addition, Jairaj found a tucked-away swimming pool area right next to his shooting station. No one else was using it, so when he had an opportunity, he would take an athlete outside for some more casual, natural light shots on the pool deck.

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Aly Raisman   ©Kevin Jairaj/US Presswire

Jairaj had anywhere from 5 minutes to half an hour with his subjects, so everything had to be preset a ready to go before an athlete walked on set. For the gray seamless set, Jairaj used four Profoto D1 Air strobes, one with a 4x6-foot soft box, two with 1x6-foot strip lights, and one unmodified as a background accent light. He also employed a stand-up reflector for fill. The second set required two Profoto D1 Air strobes with grids. Jairaj set up one D1 Air to illuminate the flag and the other to light the athlete. He pulled in a third light for shots with more than one athlete. The third set employed one ring light plus two Profoto D1 Air strobes modified by 1x6-foot strip boxes for accent lights.

Jairaj found most of the athletes very personable and easy to work with. However, he wasn’t going to leave the success of his shoot up to chance. To get everyone in the right mood, he created a fun, relaxed atmosphere. He played music and tried to get his subjects excited about the process, instead of just going through the motions. “One mistake I’ve seen other photographers make is not clueing in their subjects to what they’re doing,” he says. “If your idea is just in your head, then your subjects don’t understand what’s going on. They can’t participate or get excited. You want to get them involved, especially if you’re trying something different. You want that buy-in. If you don’t, you lose their enthusiasm and you end up with boring, everyday images.”

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Gabby Douglas   ©Kevin Jairaj/US Presswire

To engage his subjects Jairaj explained his concepts, showed them his test images, and listened to their feedback. It became more collaboration, less dictation. “Being a wedding photographer, I’m a people person,” he says. “I am comfortable interacting with all kinds of people, and that helps my subjects relax. That’s very important at an event like this, when you have limited time to work with people who have been shuffled from one room to the next all day long. It’s exhausting for them, so I tried to make my room a nice little break. I think that made all the difference, and it really shows in the images.”

See more from Kevin Jairaj’s Olympic Media Summit shoot at thekjblog.com/for-photographers and thekjblog.com/sports. Follow him on Twitter @kevinjairaj. 

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