The Mad Scientist of Golf

Have you ever met someone who you just knew had that little extra that you wish you had? That indescribable quality of brilliance, eccentricity, style, and a mild disdain for the rest of us mere mortals?

I have too. His name is Richard Helmstetter.

Helmstetter is a genius, for sure. If you’re into golf, he’s the man behind those gigantic drivers that changed the game when Callaway Golf introduced the aptly named Big Bertha. Since the creation of that particular club, drivers have become larger and larger and their design has changed from the humble persimmon woods in the heyday of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to the modern materials of titanium and carbon fiber that almost every professional and amateur golfer uses today.

So much of this entire transformation began with the vision of Richard Helmstetter.

I was assigned to photograph Helmstetter by Golf Digest for a monthly column called My Shot. The column was designed to be an exploration of a subject’s philosophies about golf, life and usually some quirky part of their history. The ideas for the pictures and the resulting images often focused on that last quality—quirkiness. The column was ultimately turned into a book of the same name and several of my portraits from the series are contained within it.

I photographed Helmstetter at the Callaway Golf headquarters in Carlsbad, CA in what can only be called a conference room—seemingly, one of my most frequent places to create a makeshift studio when I’m on location at a company. The room was small and filled with a variety of golf clubs and other golf-related material so it wasn’t what I’d call “roomy.”



Helping me out for the day was the amazing Shawn Cullen. Shawn had already worked with me on a number of other My Shot projects, but this one was probably the most prop-intensive and his help was incalculable considering all we had to do.

As is often the case, I had three shots in mind. The first image was going to portray Helmstetter as a mad scientist complete with lab coat, test tubes, gloves, signage and glowing cylinders that hopefully would turn a drab conference room into something a bit more interesting. I sourced all of the lab equipment from a prop rental house and hired a truck to transport it from Los Angeles to Carlsbad.

The second image was going to be completely different. Apparently, Helmstetter’s earlier life was as a pool cue designer—and pool shark. Since transporting a full size pool table was impractical, I found a miniature pool table at a billiard store, bought a trench coat and fedora hat to dress him in, and loaded all that into the truck as well.

The final image was going to be the safe one—a fallback image that could always be used if the first two were too far out there for the editors of the magazine. I chose to make that image just using an interesting skylight that was over the main atrium at Callaway.

Shawn and I arrived bright and early to setup the three sets. Since time is always the limiting factor, we built the mad scientist and pool table sets right next to each other in the conference room and set up the third set just 15 feet from the door of the conference room. The plan was to be completely ready to shoot all three images when Helmstetter arrived and spend less than 20 minutes completing all three.

The lighting for the first image was intended to be very dramatic and rich with color, so I placed a small Plume 100 out front in a very low position with a Lighttools fabric grid on the front of the soft box to more easily control where the light went. I decided to use two different background lights placed very low with magenta and yellow gels to add some color to the scene. There would already be lots of color in the set from the liquid in the beakers, the signage and the glowing tube that I’d rented, but I figured that a little yellow and magenta light that was carefully controlled using barn doors would wrap colored light around Helmstetter and add to the lab-theme of the shot. At the last minute, I decided to add a fourth light with a yellow gel specifically to light the side of Helmstetter’s face and lab coat which would accent him with some dramatic color. The final touch was to add a fisheye lens so that everything in the image would distort and look huge in the frame except for Helmstetter himself.


The image with the pool table also required four lights to produce the effect that I was after. The first was on a boom over the pool table and controlled with both a grid and barn doors so that the light would appear to be coming from a traditional lamp that might be hung directly over a pool table. The second light was a 10-degree grid that produced the main light on Helmstetter’s face. The grid is a wonderful tool in that allows me to place light exactly where I want it and just as importantly, help to keep it away from where I don’t want it. Even with a grid though, flags and scrims are sometimes necessary to have absolute precision. In this case, I used both so that most of the light would strike his face, but just a hint of light would strike his hand and the pool cue.

Light, to me, is all about control and every tool plays it’s part. In this case, the grid got me most of the way to where I wanted to go, but the flag and scrim allowed me to control the light in the exact way that I wanted. When you look at the image, his face is fully illuminated, but the pool cue and his hand with the chalk are barely receiving any light at all even though they are just inches apart. I added a 1/4 CTO gel to just warm up his face a little and also to compliment the cooler light that I planned to introduce in the hair light. For that light, I used a small Plume 75 box fitted with a fabric grid and a full CTB gel to give the illusion that some light was emanating from somewhere else such as a neon sign in a tavern. Finally, the background was created using a spot projector, a window pattern and a Rosco straw colored gel. I allowed some of the blue hair light to spill onto the background so that the colors would mix and give the illusion of a real mixed light environment and not some fluorescent lighted room at a golf club company. To force the perspective of the miniature pool table and direct the focus to Helmstetter’s face, I used a long telephoto lens set to the relatively wide aperture of f/ 5.6.


The final image was made with just a single medium soft box positioned to add light to only his face. The dramatic architecture of the skylight and the wide angle lens positioned close to him were all I really needed for this more conservative image. To make it just a little more interesting, I filtered the light to balance for tungsten which was what the camera was balanced to. This arrangement made the light “correct” on his face, but the sunlight coming through the skylight would turn blue because of the tungsten balance. I got the wide-angle lens in very close to him so that he would mostly fill the frame, but at the same time I could see the architecture over his head.

Helmstetter was really cool about the whole shoot and never hesitated to be a part of the wacky ideas.

So much of that kind of willingness is about trust. If the subject is convinced that you’re there to make an interesting image and not to make him look bad, he’ll play ball with you. For a portrait photographer, the ability to engender confidence and trust in your subjects is one of the most important tools a photographer can have in his bag.

Five ideas that helped make Richard Helmstetter a successful shoot:

  • Find the right props to support the concept.
  • Arrive at the location as early as you can so you can experiment.
  • Make it easy on the subject by keeping the locations close together.
  • Vary the lenses, the angle and the lighting for variety in the shots.
  • Always make a “safe” image for the editor.
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