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Poise, Power, and Projectiles

Aaron Anderson photographs javelin champ Kara Patterson Winger with his Tamron SP 24-70mm VC and SP 70-200mm VC G2 lenses.

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By Jenn Gidman
Images by Aaron Anderson

Aaron Anderson's adventures in photography started not with his own camera, but one he purchased for his wife. "I kind of stole it from her after I bought it," the Colorado photographer laughs. From that simple start with just a camera and a speedlight nearly a decade ago, merged with his education from San Francisco's Academy of Art and a background in retouching, Aaron has since evolved into an in-demand commercial and editorial photographer, with a client list that includes Oracle, Dragon Alliance, and Scholastic, among others.

The types of images he strives to create are "ones people want to stare at, even if they don't know why," as he notes on his website. "Focusing on my subject's experience as a person has also been huge for me," he says. "Of course I need my lighting to be perfect and other setup details in place, but I'm always looking to tell some aspect of my subject's story that perhaps hasn't been seen before."

That's the approach he took during a recent shoot with Olympic track and field star Kara Patterson Winger, the current women's US record-holder in the javelin throw. "When I first talked to Kara, she told me, 'I've stood in a million fields and held a million javelins during photo shoots,'" Aaron recalls. "I wanted to do something a little different and tell more of her story, all while showing off her power and strength."

Aaron tapped into two of his Tamron lenses for Kara's session: the SP 24-70mm VC and the new SP 70-200mm VC G2. "I love my 24-70, but I also tend to gravitate toward longer lenses when I'm doing portraits, just to avoid the distortion that wide-angle lenses can sometimes exhibit," he says. "This was only my third time using the 70-200, but I was so impressed with its clarity and how fast it focused. These two lenses together offered me exactly what I needed to present Kara's narrative."

Lighting is critical when it comes to creating a mood or emphasizing an athlete's physique, as is making sure the poses are both appealing to the eye and believable to the athlete. "It's a real collaboration between myself and my subjects, because I need their input into what looks genuine for their particular sport," Aaron explains. "With Kara, for instance, I would have her demonstrate a movement, then say, 'Would it be realistic for you to move a bit and then do the same thing again?' or 'Would it be proper or technically sound to do it this way?' We eventually find that happy spot where they're comfortable in their form, yet the photo looks authentic and pleasing."

To start off the session, Aaron thought it was important to showcase her role on Team USA—so he had her stand on a makeshift "medal platform" in the middle of the warehouse where they were shooting. "It helped there was all of this broken debris around her, as if she'd destroyed the place," he says. "It really added to the effect. I also wanted her to look regal and royal, which I think we achieved with this pose. I had two smoke machines going and a generator to power them, which is where all of that haze comes from. I also had a 53-inch Octobox on camera right lighting her. I wanted the light to fall off on her left side so you could see her cheekbones and her neck."

© Aaron Anderson
24-70mm at 48mm, F/6.3, 1/40th sec., ISO 200

By just having her slightly change her stance—this time looking directly into the camera, and intertwining the javelin with her arms—Aaron was able to offer a completely new perspective from the same stage. "She's such a fit person, and I wanted to show that in a different way," he says. "There's a reason she's a US record-holder. I wanted to use her pose and wingspan to show how incredibly strong she is."

© Aaron Anderson
24-70mm at 56mm, F/5.6, 1/40th sec., ISO 200

One photo Aaron definitely wanted to capture: the simulation of a javelin throw. "This goes back to what I was saying earlier, in that you want a natural flow to whatever they're presenting," he says. "So you need to get the athlete to break down the movement, as if you were teaching it to somebody. I usually try to break it down into five or so steps, so we can work through each part nice and slow. That gives you a photo like the one you see here, where you witness the flex, tone, and precision of every part of her body. It's my responsibility as the photographer to make those facets apparent to everyone who views this image."

© Aaron Anderson
24-70mm at 24mm, F/6.3, 1/60th sec., ISO 200

For some of his more pensive photos, Aaron capitalizes on something many athletes are already pros at pulling off. "They're experts at visualization," he explains. "I can have someone friendly and bubbly, like Kara, and then ask her: 'Can you visualize getting into the mindset of throwing a javelin, what it will look like when you actually start to move to throw it?'" Then, as the athletes suddenly stop and focus, that's when Aaron is able to capture a photo like the one shown here, Kara's face the picture of concentration. "Now she's dead serious," he says. "Of course, there may be a little coaching here or there to get the best body angles. But generally it's just incredibly cool to watch as their body language and faces evolve, and to capture them in that moment."

© Aaron Anderson
24-70mm at 44mm, F/5.6, 1/40th sec., ISO 200

For one of his final two images, showing a cross-armed Kara staring directly into the camera, Aaron deviated from his usual lighting approach. "I'd been messing around with some flash, but I didn't like the way it was turning out, so I broke form and used all natural light," he says. "I really wanted to push the 70-200 and see what it could do in this low-light situation. I'm a huge fan of trying to use the tools you have to create the vision you have in your mind, and this came out even better than I expected—I love how you can see the shape of her back, the subtle form of her arms. And by shooting at F/2.8, I was able to harness the light I was working with to capture just the look I wanted."

© Aaron Anderson
70-200mm at 95mm, F/2.8, 1/40th sec. ISO 1000

Aaron's final shot of Kara: showing her in more formal attire. "She's worked really hard to get where she is today, so I wanted to convey her strength and beauty all in one image," he says. And while it can sometimes be challenging to inspire a relaxed pose when the athlete isn't decked out in his or her typical uniform, or in the usual surroundings, all Aaron has to do after a couple of snaps is show his subjects the images to instill confidence. "They realize how terrific they look, and that's empowering," he says. "That streamlines the rest of the shoot, and you leave with a happy athlete."

© Aaron Anderson
70-200mm at 170mm, F/7.1, 1/40th sec., ISO 200

To see more of Aaron Anderson's work, go to www.aaronandersonphoto.com Watch the video of the set-up and Aaron using the Tamron lenses for this photo shoot.

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