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Behind the Photo: Brad Deel’s creative athlete portraits: Digital Photography Review

In the high school sports media space, Brad Deel of Brad Deel Photography has been creating memorable and inspirational shots for years. I can vouch for that. One day, a flaming tennis ball streaked across my phone thanks to him, and will be forever seared into my mind.

After all, unique photos and setups should make us stop in our tracks and say ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before!’ We reached out to Deel to dive into the elements behind that and some of his other startling photos found on his website.

Photo: Brad Deel

Q: The flaming tennis ball portrait is iconic to me! It did exactly what you want a photo to do: it caused me to stop my scrolling and ask ‘How did they do that?’ How many people were involved to make that a reality, and what sorts of logistical hurdles did you need to pull that off?

When I have an idea like lighting a tennis ball on fire I absolutely test it at home first. I simply drilled a small hole and used a metal rod to hold the ball in place. I then used a lighter to ignite the tennis ball – and it didn’t really want to burn at first. I then added some lighter fluid to the ball to see if that would help. It did indeed do the trick.

The ball will burn for quite some time, which makes for an excellent opportunity to take several images. As far as the number of people involved I am a one-man band for the most part. I’ll ask anyone around to assist, usually a parent, grandparent or sibling, even a custodian if they are available. Everyone seems eager to assist in these situations.

Q: How, and why, high school sports photography?

The way I got started was drone photography. I was probably one of the first licensed drone pilots in southwest Virginia, and began photographing the area. It’s very mountainous, very rural, very beautiful. I would sell calendars each year and made enough money to buy a camera.

Then, I had a lady reach out as her son did track and field and football. And the response was pretty overwhelming. I had a gentleman who ran a Little League baseball league, and he said he was tired of the same images, holding a bat over the shoulder. I decided ‘I’m going to show you pictures you’ve never seen before.’ I like to let them play. Let them do what they do. I want to try to give those kids a Nike or Under Armour style of shoot. The parents love it, the kids enjoy it. And it’s been really successful.

Q: How do you get buy-in from the students you photograph? Are they ever hesitant or do they jump right in?

These athletes seem eager to try anything that’s just a little different from the norm. I try to give each athlete something unique and to bring out their personality.

Kids see [my images] and they trust me. Whatever I want, they’re game. Once you show them that image on the back of your camera, you’ve got them hooked. In the beginning, I asked them what they wanted to do. And then I would say, ‘Alright, can we try this? Can we do that?’ You get them comfortable, then you slowly push that envelope until at the end you’ve got them screaming, yelling, [you’re] throwing water on them, lighting a ball on fire. It’s a gradual process in the beginning to slowly introduce [them] to what you want to get to. But now it’s whatever I want to do.

Photo: Brad Deel

Q: Say money and logistics weren’t involved. What would be your dream photoshoot setup that you would like to conquer?

I have always been fascinated with Roman architecture, [so to me it would be] having a photoshoot inside the Roman Colosseum with modern-day gladiators. Whether it’s MMA fighters, football, basketball or soccer players – that would be a dream come true.

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