Rangefinder Magazine Profile

Rangefinder Magazine Profile

July 25, 2006 By Joe Morahan

Rangefinder Magazine
Profile: Joe Morahan by Larry Brownstein

While the tree in this photo is only five feet high, the camera angle and lens choice make it look much larger.

Room service changed Joe Morahan’s life. No, he wasn’t vacationing at The Ritz, enjoying a luxury suite while waiting for a filet mignon dinner to be brought up to his room. Rather, he was working at a hotel in Littleton, Colorado, delivering room service meals to guests. One day he had an epiphany: He couldn’t go on like this forever. Before long, Morahan enrolled at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California—though he didn’t even know what an aperture was at that point. While his grade point average in high school had been an unremarkable 2.5, he graduated from Brooks magna cum laude in December 2005.

Morahan is currently very busy. Last week alone, he shot for four days. Since he feels he still has some catching up to do to approach the level of other working pros out there, his strategy includes shooting as much as he can. He uses models he finds through the Internet, in addition to shooting his two younger brothers and his friends. Morahan is so committed that he even uses himself as a model quite often!

Morahan self-portrait: “I can’t jump that high,” he says, “so I used a picnic bench just outside of the frame of the picture.”

One of my favorite images from his website—a dramatic shot of a basketball player leaping for a slam dunk—is one of the images where Morahan doubles as both model and photographer (see image on next page). He managed to capture himself with a dramatic backwards arch in his back, the ball poised high in the air, ready to be smashed down through the rim just beyond. I wondered how he did this all by himself, especially since doesn’t look tall enough to dunk.

Morahan explains that he positioned a four-foot high picnic table near the hoop. A Canon EOS-1D Mark II with a 15mm fisheye was positioned nearby, which he set to burst mode with a shutter speed of 1/8000 to freeze the motion. Morahan jumped off the picnic table 45 times, until his ankle hurt and he worried that he had broken it.

“This shot was taken is Solvang, CA,” says Morahan. “The exposure was f/8, and it was taken over a period of two hours. The ISO was 100, film was Fujifilm Provia 100.”

His dedication doesn’t stop there, though. He told me about a soccer shoot in which he wanted to capture the perfect bicycle kick; again, Morahan used himself as the model. Knowing that he would be landing on his back repeatedly, he chose a location with sand, hoping it would be better protection than a grass field. When the weather was right, he went out and set up the camera focus and composition, positioning a friend behind the camera to trigger the shutter to fire the camera at nine frames per second. A few dozen kicks and several hundred exposures later, he was finished with the shoot, having captured the perfect moment. Unfortunately, his shoulder was sore for two weeks after that shoot.

One of his Brooks professors, Chuck Place, gets credit for this relentless pursuit of the great shot. Morahan recalls receiving a positive critique for an assignment he had done, only to have Place talk to him privately and encourage him to reshoot, believing his student could do better. Morahan did as instructed, taking his time to find a better approach. The real lesson for Morahan was that taking time to plan a shoot pays off in the long run. “He told me that the only way to fail on a photo shoot was by not getting exactly what you want,” Morahan says. “It proved to be one of the most important lessons I ever learned as a photographer.”

“A shot of my brother’s soccer team, in Lehigh, PA.”

Morahan learned another fundamental from Brooks professor Ralph Clevenger. “He showed me the most incredible shot of a flower that I’d ever seen in my life,” Morahan recalls. “He told me that you don’t have to search for the perfect flower—that it is all in the composition and how you light it.” Still, Morahan expressed his doubts; his suspicion was that the shot was taken in an exotic location. “When he showed me the wide angle shot and I saw that there were just two flowers at the side of a gas station parking lot, it really changed my view. You don’t have to go to some crazy location; beauty is everywhere.”

One of Morahan’s favorite subjects is surfing, and he approaches it with characteristic zeal. He told me about going out with his friend early in the morning. Usually, he shoots with a 300mm lens and a 2X teleconverter on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II—which is equivalent to a 780mm lens. He’ll shoot hundreds of frames while the light is good, then spend the middle part of the day editing. Later in the day, when the light is good again, he’ll return and shoot more.

Daniel Jacobs shoot for Santa Barbara Fitness Magazine.

There was one image in his portfolio that was of particular interest to me because of the use of water blur around Morahan’s surfer subject. It turns out that he shot this one at 1/20 of a second while panning with the 780mm lens!

Morahan loves saturated color. One way he likes to attain it is by underexposing the background. The image of Morahan dunking the basketball with the orange background is a good example of this, as the background is about two stops underexposed.

Photographed at 780mm at 1/20 at f/22 to blur the action.

While sports action photography is his main focus, Morahan is also quite adept at sports portraiture—“sportraiture,” as he calls it on his website. His site contains a portfolio of beautifully lit portraits of surfers, soccer players, golfers, tennis players and other athletes.

Another love of this diverse photographer’s is travel and nature photography. He has made several trips to Africa and hopes that this body of work will culminate in a book. He likes to experiment with long exposure images that capture the movement of the sky. For instance, exposures lasting one to eight hours are effectively able to show the circular trail of the stars against the backdrop of night.

Getting the star trail image of the windmills outside of Palm Springs, California, (see image above) was particularly challenging. He recounts that, as he set up the shot and felt himself battered by a mighty gust of wind, it became clear why the windmills were placed at that specific spot in the desert near the San Jacinto Mountains. Morahan was afraid the wind would ruin the shot, especially because it was a long exposure, but since he was already there, he figured it was worth a try. He braced the tripod with rocks around each of the legs and pulled it off without any blur.

“This shot was taken on my way to Arizona, from California. I saw some windmills and pulled my car over and shot for a few hours. The exposure was f/5.6; the film was Fujichrome Velvia.”

Morahan is busy accumulating tear sheets. His photos are published regularly in Santa Barbara Fitness Magazine, including a recent cover. He is represented by New Sport Photo and he also shoots stock.

In addition, Brooks is running an ad featuring a Morahan photo. It’s a beautiful shot of a surfer going airborne with water splashing all around. The shot is backlit by the setting sun, which makes the spray look like shattered glass. The surfer seems to be breaking free from the ocean. The copy reads: “Focus. Commitment. Excellence”— what an apt description of Morahan himself. Visit www.joemorahan.com.

Larry Brownstein is the photographer and author of two books, Los Angeles, Where Anything is Possible and The Midnight Mission. His photos appear in numerous books, magazines, calendars, etc. His stock photography is represented by Getty Images. He has a growing wedding photography business. His work can be seen at www.larrybrownstein.com.

May 2007

Joe Morahan