Portraits of Heroes


by Robert Ray

After a 30 year career as an Engineering executive, and transitioning to retirement, I chased my life-long passion for photography. The first couple years were focused on high-volume contract shoots in small businesses for their web-presence. A few years ago, I more actively pursued portraits and working with aspiring models to help them build their portfolios – and mine. I also started my charity project to capture and share inspiring images of first responders – Portraits Of Heroes.

The idea for the project came on a sad day in 2018 when Dallas Firefighter Brian McDaniel was killed in a helicopter crash in New York City. The primary image that was going around all the networks was of him in what looked like his lower bunker gear with a dog. Although this image was touching, my thought was “It is too bad they didn’t have a ‘hero’ shot of him as a Firefighter.” As I was starting to plan out my concept, a magazine that I do freelance work for (Cross Timbers Lifestyle) wanted to do an article on individuals who weren’t able to be home for the holidays. So, I suggested using the Highland Village Fire Department in my home town as one of the subjects.

We used Highland Village, in addition to an individual in Dallas Fire Rescue and a Nurse at one of our local hospitals. Through my connections with HVFD, I scheduled time to shoot “Class A” and “Bunker Gear” hero portraits of each firefighter over a three day period that covered three shifts. I made all the images freely available to the subjects and created the website “PortraitsOfHeroes.org,” while using Facebook and Instagram to showcase these amazing heroes to the community. At the “Santa at the Fire Station” event that year, I lost track of the number of spouses who came up and thanked me for giving them something they never had before – a set of images they can cherish for generations. That one day easily made it worth the time and effort.

After that, I began reaching out to other departments in my immediate area and, so far, have created Hero images for the Double Oak Volunteer Fire Department and the Double Oak Police Department. Images were used to create custom calendars for the departments that were either ordered for themselves or sold as a fund-raiser. Although a fallen Fire Fighter was the genesis of this project, I hope that none of my images will ever have to be used for that purpose.

One of the long-time HVFD Fire Fighters was diagnosed with cancer and there was significant fund-raising last year to help with his medical expenses. To support this effort, I created imagery of the Mayor and City Council with the Fire Fighters to produce a custom calendar that generated over $1200 for this charity. The HVFD has embraced the imagery and they now invite me to their training, events at the station, and community events to help them get the word (and picture) out about their amazing work.

All of the Hero portraits are taken at the stations. For the black background series, I use a collapsible black backdrop clamped to a C-stand.
Two large strip boxes with egg-crates are placed pointing at each other a couple of feet in front of the backdrop and the subject is placed in between them. The location is usually not very dark, so I crank up the 2 AD600’s and stop down the lens. My gear is a Sony A7rIII with the Zeiss 55mm f1.8, usually at f14 and all lighting is Godox.

For the “truck” series, I use the same camera/lens and have a speedlight with a Lightsphere on a camera-mounted bracket. When quickly moving around the equipment, and sometimes getting in, this setup provides flexibility and doesn’t hinder movement. For training and 911 calls, I am usually running and shooting with 2 cameras – an A7rII with the Sony 24-105mm f4 and the A7rIII with a Sony 70-200mm f4. The Sony equipment allows me to capture dramatic, usable images at 64000 ISO.

Working with these amazing Heroes is incredibly rewarding and has brought me additional opportunities including “Climb For A Calling” (Fort Worth tower climb to commemorate 9/11). These projects have been personally rewarding and are very much appreciated by our first responders and the communities they serve.

Robert Ray, of Highland Village, Texas, has been providing complete photography solutions for over 5 years. For 30 years prior to that, he was a Registered Professional Engineer and a Certified Management Professional. Learn more about Robert and his imagery at RobertRayPhotography.com