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Big Bang, Big Prize

Dr. James Peebles, winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics. Princeton, NJ. November, 2019.

This past fall I had the honor of photographing Dr. James Peebles, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics (shared with Dr. Michel Mayor and Dr. Didier Queloz.) I was commissioned by McKim Communications Group of Winnipeg, Canada, with the purpose of creating images for a national ad campaign for their client, the University of Manitoba.

University of Manitoba campaign featuring Nobel prize winner, Dr. James Peebles. December, 2019.

In describing their award to Dr. Peebles, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said, “James Peebles took on the cosmos, with its billions of galaxies and galaxy clusters. His theoretical framework, developed over two decades, is the foundation of our modern understanding of the universe’s history, from the Big Bang to the present day.”

Dr. James Peebles, 2019 Nobel Prize winner. Princeton, NJ. November, 2019.


BTS of the Dr. James Peebles, Nobel Prize/U Manitoba/McKim Communications Group project. Princeton, NJ. November, 2019.

This was a relatively straightforward portrait shoot. We needed to light so that Dr. Peebles could be standing or sitting and so that we could vary the key light’s direction and quality on the fly. What we settled on was a Profoto XL Umbrella Deep with the diffuser (~5.5′ in diameter) and a Profoto Softlight Beauty Dish, also with a diffuser.

With this setup the key could be either light with the other being the fill. If the key was the large umbrella it would have a relatively soft look with a good amount of wrap around the subject. If the key was the beauty dish it would have a stronger directional feel to it with better demarcated and stronger shadows.

In terms of standing vs. sitting, the lights could be raised or lowered as needed.

Reverse view: BTS of the Dr. James Peebles, Nobel Prize/U Manitoba/McKim Communications Group project. Princeton, NJ. November, 2019.

To round things out, we used a third light with a small Chimera Softbox and egg crate grid as a backlight on the subject and then a fourth and fifth light lit the backdrop via small Photek Umbrellas. A couple of strips of Cinefoil were tapped to flag the backdrop lights from hitting Dr. Peebles.

Every project has its unique challenge and this one’s was communications. The University of Manitoba had a representative on site in Princeton during the shoot but McKim Communication Group’s Creative Director, Ron Sawchuk, could not attend. He was back in Winnipeg. So, in order for him to participate in real time I needed to feed him images as they were shot along with Ron having the ability to provide feedback during the session. *The solution to this was twofold.

One: Feeding tethered images to Canada. I normally shoot tethered in Capture One Pro and this project was no exception. To provide Ron with a current feed of images we opened a Skype line on the laptop while we were prelighting and from then on fed Ron and his assistant a screen view of the tethering laptop while we worked (this was visuals only, the audio was muted to avoid any confusion on set).

Two: Ron’s feedback. In order for Ron and I to interact verbally during the session with Dr. Peebles we also opened an audio only call via FaceTime. This was simpler than having Skype handle the audio on top of it doing the screen share. To facilitate this I wore one earbud from Apple AirPods Pro pair, allowing me to hear and speak with Ron as I worked. Then with my other ear uncluttered, I could hear and carry on a conversation with Dr. Peebles and my crew.

This was a first for me. I have a few clients in the UK and I often provide them with initial images or clips while we set up. Once the subject arrives though I cut that communication and concentrate on the work at hand. That said – this setup with Ron and McKim Communication Group worked very well and Ron’s live input was integral to my getting him what he needed.

*The twofold screen share/audio solution was tested/vetted with the client during the week prior to the shoot.

Dr. James Peebles, 2019 Nobel Prize winner, looks out and see the history of the universe. I photograph and hear voices in my head. :-) Princeton, NJ. November, 2019.

The lights for the project were my Profoto B10 Pluses. Camera and lenses were Canon EOS Rs with two prime lenses, the Canon 24mm f/1.4L II and the 35mm f/1.4L II.

Thanks to: Gary Gobeil and Ron Sawchuk, McKim Communications Group; the University of Manitoba; Jessica Romano, Makeup Artist; Chris Flanegan; and Princeton University.