Depth of field takes on a new meaning for L.A. Rams wide receiver, Brandin Cooks, as he explores various genres of photography, from landscapes to portraiture. Finding inspiration in renowned entertainment/portraiture photographer and friend Brian Bowen Smith, one of the first to use the Leica M10 Monochrom, Cooks shares his visual language without the distraction of color – told through the lens of the SL2 and new M10 Monochrom. Explore the conversation between Brandin Cooks and Brian Bowen Smith as they discuss their own approach to black and white photography.
Q. Brian, tell us how you became involved with photography.
A. Brian: Herb Ritts shot me for a Gap campaign, and I became very close with him and just asked him if I could come help out on shoots. I was lucky enough when he said yes (I know right?!). I was just helping him clean and put equipment away. Eventually, they started hiring me when I learned how to use and set up equipment. I was in no means a first assistant but definitely learned a ton, and it opened up the world of photography for me. He also gave me my first camera. After that, I basically self-taught myself, reading books and just experimenting.
Q. Brandin, what about your experience with photography?
A. Brandin: My photography interest sparked from all the traveling I did early on through sports. I wanted to be able to capture all those moments and know that when I’m older or when I have kids I can always share those moments with those who are closest to me. My actual photography journey started a few years after I became a professional football player and needed an outlet for all of the on-field pressure I put on myself. I picked up a camera one day thinking it would be nice distraction, but it became much more than that very quickly.
Q. Do you think there are similarities between shooting photography and playing on the field then?
A. Brandin: To continue what I was saying above, photography became so much more than a distraction. It actually became a primary source of self-identity, self-reflection and perspective. Things are happening so quickly on the field that it’s easy to get caught up and not fully process your next move. Photography has helped me slow down those thoughts, maintain my composure and give me the perspective to quickly know that this ONE play is not going to define me.
It’s also helped me be a better teammate in some regards…. I’d like to believe that maintaining my composure and perspective in high pressure situations sets a good tone for everyone around me. I also feel more approachable; my teammates can come to me for guidance or to talk, and I feel more confident in what kind of advice I can give them.
Q. Building off of that, what motivates you to photograph and compose in black & white vs. color?
A. Brandin: There is an awesome quote that defines black and white photography and color so well.
“ When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes, but when you photograph people in black and white you photograph their soul.” – Ted Grant.
For me, most of the time black and white is for people, and I use color more so for landscape and even then sometimes I’ll go black and white to set a particular mood.
Q. Brandin, what started with you being the subject of a portrait series quickly blossomed into a strong friendship. What sparked the connection to Brian and his approach to photography?
A. Brandin: After meeting Brian, I knew right there this was a guy who genuinely loved what he does. Not only that but he’s someone who finds joy in helping others perfect their craft. When you find that in a person, those are the type of people you want to grow in life with. On top of that, he has such an amazing family, so for my wife and I having people outside of football is always important. For those who know Brian, his swag is on a million, so it is hard not to want to be his friend.
Q. It seems like you and Brian have become incredibly close friends in such a short amount of time. Brian, what do you think sparked your connection to Brandin?
A. Brian: Brandin and I have a very similar infatuation with photography. I see myself in him in so many ways when I was starting out. He is a lot farther in the sense that he knows his camera inside and out can maneuver through it very quickly to get results. Whenever you have someone else that loves what you love as much as you do you have an instant connection. I have seen photography bring people together very quickly. This is the exact case with me and Brandin. He is willing to put in the work and learn. He knows that getting a couple good pictures doesn’t make you a photographer he wants to dig deep in and know everything about it. Just like myself, I think athletes understand what dedication and hard work really is. We both approach our craft as photographers in the same way. It’s not going to happen overnight, and the harder you work the better the results. And being competitive never hurt. I believe I have found a life time friend in Brandin through photography. God bless this.
Q. What does a typical photo shoot look like when Brandin’s at your studio?
A. Brian: On a typical day of shooting, we generally use natural light with reflectors and white and black backdrops. Learning different types of natural light side light open shade, etc. We may add one or two Profoto B10 plus heads with beauty dishes or soft boxes. I try to teach people techniques on how majority of the picture comes from the subject. The technical part should be natural and easy flowing, so you can pull the essence out of the subjects to make the picture have its magic. If you spend too much time being technical, I think that magic gets lost in translation. We also talk about post-production because sometimes, if you know you’re going do certain things to an image, you have to shoot a certain way so when you do your technique it matches and works.
Q. Since you try to maximize natural light in your work, what camera gear and set up do you both use during test sessions?
A. Brandin: For me, I use my SL2 majority of the time, along with my 50mm Noctilux. Over time, I can see myself building and getting some more gear. I think what Brian has taught me, keep it as simple as possible. For the most of our shoots we have done together, he has been teaching me how to use natural light.
A. Brian: My set up includes my Leica M10 Monochrom with 90mm, 35mm, and 28mm Summicron lenses along with my Leica SL2 and 50mm Noctilux, Profoto b10 plus heads, and Profoto beauty dishes and soft boxes.
Q. With over years of experience in your field, Brian, what advice would you give to Brandin as it relates to his work behind the camera?
A. Brian: The good thing about Brandin is I don’t have much advice for him. He’s a very smart enthusiastic shooter. He is literally like a sponge; if I tell him one thing, he understands it instantly. I can see his mind working without having to ask him what he’s thinking. Watching him grow and get out of the shell has been extremely exciting for me. Knowledge is power in this industry, and the more you shoot the more you gain confidence and learn what you really want to do. I can show Brandin one million things, but eventually he is going to develop his own style and shoot how he feels in his heart and mind. Learning a couple of techniques definitely gets the ball rolling. Then, the rest are happy accidents and remembering what you do. He definitely has the bug with astonishing, natural skills that can’t be taught. We learn from each other; there isn’t going to be any point in my career that I won’t continue to learn from others and myself this is the key.
Q. Brandin, as one of the country’s most sought out wide receivers, what advice would you give to Brian as it relates to his football skills?
A. Brandin: Whatever he does, make sure to keep his head on a swivel; it Is a dangerous world out there on that field!
Q. As a result from shooting with Brian and your general experiences, how would you describe your photography now vs. when you first began?
A. Brandin: Everyday, I am learning something new. When I first started vs. now, I realized what can sometime be so beautiful to the eye (landscape), in particular, sometimes doesn’t show the same in camera. Learning that has kept me focused on how to compose better of the years and what to look for.
Q. With that being said, what are some tips and techniques you can offer photographers on how to capture black and white images?
A. Brandin: Biggest tip I can give when it comes to shooting landscape is, don’t be afraid to really dive into the elements that surround you. If you want that great shot, nine out of ten times you will have to get in a uncomfortable position, but it is all worth it.