Celebrity Covershoot at Amazing Locations in Las Vegas You Need to See to Believe

Celebrity Covershoot at Amazing Locations in Las Vegas You Need to See to Believe

Late last year I was contacted by one of my magazine clients to shoot their upcoming cover with Panic At The Disco front man Brendon Urie and it had to take place across the country in Las Vegas in about a week (I am NYC-based by the way). I scrambled to find some cool locations in the region, knowing full well I did not want to shoot in some cramped hotel suite. Little did I know that with some good researching and shrewd negotiating, I would find some of the coolest locations I have ever photographed, and just moments from the Las Vegas strip.

The magazine ended up releasing 2 covers from this issue.

Many of you know Las Vegas for the famous "strip" in which some of the world's most famous casinos line up to wine and dine and take your money. Others may be familiar with the Nevada terrain with its Mars-like rock structures and color. Although before this shoot, I wasn't aware there were so many cool locations for unique portraits that you'll read about below.

There are some things to mention before I discuss the locations. The Nevada sky was uncharacteristically stormy-looking, which aided in the mood of these photos. Normally you would see a deep blue in the sky in this part of the country, which would have been cool as well. I shot this with my Phase One IQ140 medium format and mainly my 75-150 leaf shutter lens. The camera's dynamic range and use of on-location lighting allowed me to squeeze some incredible detail from my subject while also getting every bit of information out of that moody sky. If you're at all familiar with my portfolio, you'd know how much I love my moody skies when on-location.


Founded in 1996, the Neon Museum is a non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic and cultural enrichment. The Neon Museum campus includes the outdoor exhibition space known as the Neon Boneyard, a visitors’ center housed inside the former La Concha Motel lobby and the Neon Boneyard North Gallery which houses additional rescued signs...

This is one of those locations that you hear about but rarely get to shoot in. I had worked here once before five years ago when I did a band promo shoot (see the video below), but they have since extensively upgraded the museum facility and it is now very expensive to shoot there. The museum relies on those precious funds to upkeep their facility and restore the vintage Vegas Strip signs to their original luster, which are shockingly expensive to restore.

The museum is not open to the public and you have to actually book a guided tour if you even want to see the facility, let alone take a photo. If you want to shoot there, you have to send them a formal request and they come back with a fairly high price per hour. I believed I cried poverty because this was only a magazine shoot and talked the truly friendly staff down to something like $500 an hour (forgive my memory, it was around that price). Because of this, that means the budget only allowed us to shoot there for an hour or so and with limited gear and crew because everyone and everything had to be watched by the museum staff in order to protect the exhibits.

Before we walked into the gates, I already had shots roughly mapped out, although they had changed the layout of the museum since I had last been there. As a result, my plans had to be adjusted slightly but that wasn't a big deal. Since timing was tight, I only brought 2 lights on battery packs (didn't even want to TRY requesting to get a generator in there).

I was generally happy with the photos, but because we were so rushed, I missed certain things In the background that I found distracting (like the museum display lights) or a dark colored sign that could have been covered up by moving the subject a bit.

One of those moments that I wish the sign on the far left was all yellow, and not black on the background. I could have colored it in post, but decided to leave it as is.

On the ground, as my subjects and assistants are used to seeing me.

Below is a behind the scenes video from my 2009 photoshoot with the band Dirty Vegas at the Neon Museum (before its revamp). Forgive the amateur quality of this video:


Let me start this by saying that if you care about your significant other and want to take them to Vegas for a great time, do NOT take them to the motels on this strip. Found all sorts of health code violation signs up on motels that looked like they were shut down, but in fact were still in business. I'm pretty sure this is the part of town you go to get drugs or find the girlfriend of the hourly kind....or get MARRIED. There were actually wedding chapels built into these seedy scary motels. CRAZY! Anyway, these seedy motels were AWESOME if you wanted that old Vegas seedy vibe which make for fun photos.

Brendon brought this silver and black lounge-singer-esque feel to it and knew it was perfect for the pink motel we found. Funny enough, the pink motel was NOT our first choice. I had found the Holiday Motel via Google images and friends on social media, but when we got there, it had just been shut down by the health department. Thankfully, there were plenty of other seedy motel options on that street. I just had to go talk with the manager on duty at the front office and hand her a $100 to let us shoot there for an hour or two.

The flare in the background of the image below is from a second light. The Phase One did a great job capturing those subtle otherwise grey flat clouds in the sky. I wish the other cars weren't there in the background, but I don't find them terribly distracting.


This was a great location to wrap the shoot. If you drive near Nellis Air Force Base and start to leave Vegas via 147, you start to discover these great rolling hills and long mostly-empty roads... and also a lot of drug needles, broken champagne bottles, and condom wrappers on the side of the road. Vegas, you truly are a magical and romantic place. In my head, I imagined all of the drug and sex paraphernalia were left behind by the happily married couples leaving the wedding chapels near the Stratosphere.

As you can see the clouds were really coming in and started to look CRAZY. Also, never pose your subject in the middle of a road without proper traffic control and safety officials. Most of these portraits below were shot with only one or two lights, the main light being a medium to large octobox or beauty dish, as I had been using the rest of the day.

In post production, you can probably see that I slightly desaturated the images to match the moody sky and old Vegas feel I was hoping to evoke.

Natural light

All of the photos from this angle were cool because if you wanted, you could have Las Vegas in the background on the hill below

Location in the hills of Las Vegas


Have any questions about this shoot? Feel free to ask below!

More of my photography: http://www.sondersphotography.com/

See my BTS videos: http://www.sondersphotography.com/Behind-The-Scenes/

There are other great locations if you have time to leave the Vegas Strip, such as Nelson Nevada, Red Rock Canyon, and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Below is a short BTS video from a shoot I did in Nelson:


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Spencer Lefevre's picture

So Douglas, did you hire people to stop traffic or safety control? How do you go about this legally?

Douglas Sonders's picture

If you wanted to do something like this, I would suggest calling your local/applicable to the shoot location film permit office to arrange.

Spencer, here in Las Vegas, it's not all that simple.. LEGALLY! The City of Las Vegas, Clark County, State of Nevada, BLM, Red Rock Conservation Area, the National Park System, Fremont Street Experience LLC and all hotel/casino properties require that you have at least $1 million in liability insurance, request a Permit, name each entity as co-insured, including the Las Vegas Clark County Fire Dept. and Police in some cases, When shooting commercially on Fremont Street you need TWO permits. That is if you are shooting commercially or PROFESSIONALLY as I have found out the hard way. Regarding Las Vegas and Nevada shoots, I created the following INFO for friends and fellow Vegas shooters... you are welcome to check it out. http://dizeman.com/insurance_permits/

Just FYI

Christian Berens's picture

Love the Douglas Sonders BTS videos, even if they are old! :P

I need to keep track of some of your lighting plans, they're always spot on! Thanks for the video as usual!!

Ryan MacKenzie's picture

Cool locations! Thanks for the info.

Lee Morris's picture

Killer shots and location

Douglas Sonders's picture

Thanks Lee!

Regarding the Dry Lake Beds, Eldorado Dry Lake, the one on US 93 between Boulder City, NV and Searchlight, NV is indeed BLM and will require a permit to be legally access, they do issue permits for a fee, generally around $50 as per the BLM Photo Permit information on the BLM website. Jean/Roach Dry Lake however is considered by the BLM to be an OPEN area, which does not require a permit. In fact, unless something has changed since January 2014, which I don't think anything has... it is the only OPEN BLM land in Nevada, the other BLM land is restricted.

This is definitely one of the destinations on my bucket list.
Great inspiration!

Douglas Sonders's picture

glad to hear! thank you

Anthony Tripoli's picture

What Doug, no photo credit for my amazing iPhone BTS shots? Hahaha JK! Miss you buddy!

Douglas Sonders's picture

miss you too! i think ill be there soon again

Anthony Tripoli's picture

If you need a place to crash, hit me up. If you need an assistant again, hit me up. If you want to rage, definitely hit me up.

Barb Davids's picture

What a fun article! Thanks for sharing. It is rare to get the clouds so yay for timing! :)