How would it feel to photograph Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen? How would you ever get to be able to shoot clients like these? How do you marry technical capability and develop your own style to deliver something unique? What if you could learn from someone doing this sort of work day in day out? Well, now you can, in this exclusive interview with Emily Shur.
Part of what I love doing on the Fstoppers team is speaking to the best people in the business, some of which are completely off the grid of the education circuit, and just getting them to open up about their love – and careers – of the craft.
Emily Shur, LA-based celebrity, fashion and fine art photographer, is one of the best in the business. While she shoots a lot of top celebrities, it would be disingenuous to label Emily as just a celebrity photographer, as she is far more multifaceted.
Her client list that is jaw dropping and she is a full time professional who built her name off the back of hard work, talent, perseverance and hard struggle to get to where she is. Fortunately for those of us who love her work and want to learn from her experiences, she is also wonderfully insightful and articulate, as you’ll see.
Emily is just one of a handful of world class photographers talking at the inaugural Stand Out Photographic Forum in Los Angeles on October 15th. The Forum is pulling some of the best and brightest stars of the industry together to help us all learn and be inspired by them and their talent.
(Side note - for a limited time, the organizers are hoping to give our Fstoppers community readers something for free, and have made all talks completely free for you guys – sign up using the promo code FSTOPPERS)
Emily has achieved an incredible amount in her relatively short career. Not only is she regularly photographing and making portraits of some of the biggest A listers around, but she has a remarkably consistent style that bridges between her fashion, portrait, landscape and fine art work.
She has a style born out of marrying something that could almost be considered “everyday” or bordering on the mundane, with something much insightful, humorous, and interesting. You get a sense of this on her site, where, in the “portrait” selection, you’ll find portraits of Will Ferrell, Don Cheadle, Elon Musk, and a food delivery guy, a businessman and a husband and wife, all intermixed. This interesting mix of well knowns and unknowns juxtapose two worlds, and are married with all with a coherent visual style that runs across all of the genres of work she covers.
With an insanely impressive roster of top tier clients, she kindly took time out of shooting personal work in Japan this week to provide us a small insight in this exclusive interview that scratches the surface of what she will be talking about at the Stand Out Photo forum next month
Fstoppers: do you think it’s a good idea for someone to go to school to receive a formal education in photography or to just get out there and start shooting?
Emily: I think every photographer could benefit from learning about the fundamentals of photography – how a camera works, how to make your images look the way you want them to look, what changes in camera do for one’s picture, and so on. It doesn’t have to be a formal education per se, but I do think it’s important for photographers to understand their choices and how they impact their images.
Fstoppers: How do you think you cultivated your particular vision or point of view that you bring to your work, and can you describe what this vision or aesthetic is and how it spans across different genres?
Emily: I would describe my aesthetic as classic. I’m most interested in what I consider to be the fundamentals of photography – composition, light, and feeling or emotion. My vision hasn’t changed drastically over time…I’ve just learned how to articulate it better.
The point of view is consistent throughout all of my work. I compose a landscape the same way I compose a portrait. I look at the whole frame and try to figure out what conveys what I want to say the best.
Fstoppers: Is celebrity portraiture what you imagined it would be? What has the journey taught you about your own artistic development and the process of realizing both your career goals as well as maintaining your passion for photography?
Emily: I think the biggest challenge of being a working photographer is balancing the business aspect of the job with the creative aspect. It’s a constant back and forth for me. I had no real idea what I was signing up for when I first started out, so I’ve had to learn as I go. The journey has taught me that the journey is never-ending. I used to always be in a rush to get to the finish line, but I realize now that I probably never will.
Fstoppers: what makes a “good” photograph good? What excites you enough to bring the camera to your eye when you see a scene you want to capture, or a moment during a shoot?
Emily: These are difficult things to put into words. This is where artistry comes into play. I only see things my way so I’m not making a conscious decision to make “my pictures”. Those are just the pictures I’ve always taken. In my opinion, a good photograph is the perfect balance of technique and emotion. One is helping elevate the other and make the image stronger because of the marriage of the two.
Fstoppers: How do you connect with your subject?
In celebrity portraiture especially, the photographer needs to have an elevated level of intuition. We have to be able to read people pretty much upon meeting them, feed off of their energy, and build trust. I’ve found that trust is built when the subject feels the photographer’s sincerity in their desire to make a great picture. I’ve had countless shoots where my perception of someone was not the reality, but I never try to force people to be a way that’s not genuine for them. I think it always shows in the picture when the subject is uncomfortable.
Fstoppers: How do you make room, or sense, the in-between or unexpected moments on a shoot.
I try to look through the camera as much as possible, even when we’re just casually talking. I preface that by letting the subject know that I’m just looking and not necessarily waiting for anything specific. I think this is one of those things that a photographer fine-tunes over time. It also helps to be familiar with your equipment so that you can shoot freely and not be slowed down by something not working the way you want.
Fstoppers: When things simply aren’t going to plan for whatever reason, how do you turn this stress into a positive outcome for your shoot?
I stop and think about what it is that I don’t like. Is it something technical – the light, the color, and so on – that I can change, or is it something regarding the mood or feeling of the image? It’s important to be able to articulate what you want to change about the picture. Just saying that you don’t like it is too vague. A lot of the time, the subject is looking to the photographer for confidence and decisiveness. If there’s something I want to change, I’ll ask them. They may not always agree, and there’s not much you can do about that sometimes. All I can do is try my best every time.
Fstoppers: How did you learn to trust in your gut or your instinct?
Emily: For me, trusting myself has been a product of experience and building confidence through that experience. However, while we have to be confident, we also have to be able to be honest and critical about our own work. When I haven’t been happy about how things are going, I try to be as honest with myself as possible and be pro-active about the changes I need to make. Just sitting around feeling sorry for myself will never change the current situation.
Fstoppers: Do you feel personal work has a role to play in helping your career and maintaining your passion for photography?
Emily: Personal work is very important to me, and I think should be important to every photographer. I take trips specifically to take my own pictures, to regroup and reconnect with photography. I can’t speak for anyone else, but doing that has been instrumental in maintaining my passion for photography, and I highly recommend it. As I write this I’m finishing up a two week trip specifically taken to make new personal work!
Fstoppers: Finally, is there one photographer above all others that you’ve looked up to or been inspired by?
Emily: I think I’d have to say Irving Penn, mostly for his ability to straddle different genres of photography and excel at all of them, always maintaining his point of view.
Special thanks to Emily for her time in providing these answers and her permission to use her images. If you’d like to hear her talk about how she balances the look and emotion of the images she creates, go check out her talk at the Stand Out Photographic Forum in LA on October 15th