3 Minutes Of Setup And 2 Shutter Clicks : The Reality Of Celebrity Portraiture

3 Minutes Of Setup And 2 Shutter Clicks : The Reality Of Celebrity Portraiture

Recently, I was hired by a corporate client to take the portrait of Rod Stewart here in New York City before a concert. After a day of pre-planning logistics, 4 cancellations/reschedules (same day), and 3 location changes, the shoot finally happened... and it took place in two shutter clicks. Now, this is not a complaint post or to prove what an intense shoot this was. This is merely the stark reality of what it's like to shoot celebrity portraits. You have to be ready for anything.

 

2 shutter clicks with my Phase One IQ140 and the new Schneider 75-150 Leaf Shutter lens and a single strobed octobox 2 shutter clicks with my Phase One IQ140 and the new Schneider 75-150 Leaf Shutter lens and a single strobed octobox

When I was a young shooter, fresh out of RIT with photo degree in hand nearly 10 years ago, all I wanted to do was shoot cars, rock stars, and celebrities and nothing else. Come to think of it, some of you that follow my various forms of social media may think that's all I seem to shoot, but it's definitely not. I learned that shooting celebrities has its entertainment value, so to speak, looks great in your portfolio (corporate clients love hiring the guy to shoot for them that also photographed Justin Bieber or interviewed Lady Gaga haha), but certainly isn't the most compelling work in my portfolio. Why? Because I only had 5 to ten minutes to do most of those shoots.

Put yourselves in the shoes of a celebrity music artist, for example. You've been on the road for weeks, haven't had a full night of sleep, and have people constantly bugging you, yelling, crying, laughing in your direction. You are constantly in the spotlight and crave some time to yourself. It's the day of a concert, for example, and before you entertain 10,000+ people for hours that night, you have to do various interviews, meetings, negotiations, phone calls, all while trying to juggle your personal life. Now here you are: in the midst of an insane day, you have to stop everything and pose in front of a camera and pretend to look cool/happy/intense (whatever your personal image and brand may be). For you as a busy artist, unless its a promo photoshoot for your album, this shoot probably isn't high on your priority list of your incredibly hectic day. You'd want to be out of there as soon as possible, and who would blame them considering the situation?

As a photographer, you have to keep all of this in mind. It may stink that you have been moved around a bunch of times, or even rescheduled, but this is how it is in this world. You have to keep your calm and be prepared to adapt. In fact, adaptation is a LARGE part of what keeps you hired to shoot celebrity portraits. Apple started hiring me to do celebrity portraits for itunes awhile back because they knew that no matter what, I could get a promo shoot done for them in 10 minutes or less. I mean, would I love more time to setup and shoot and connect with an artist? Of course, but again, schedules don't usually allow for this. You have to be the guy/girl that will get a nice clean sharp shot very fast and very efficiently.

You also have to keep in mind that a celebrity is under a lot of pressure and lives a fairly surreal high-pressure life constantly in the spotlight. Sure, I've had good and bad experiences with celebrities. Most have been really nice and some have been downright cruel to me and/or my crew. Again, it comes with the territory. You just have to keep your cool, but also know when to hold your ground.

DS_RodStewart
When planning out your portrait(s), try and keep things as simple as possible logistically. Like the Rod Stewart shoot I just did, you have to be prepared to up and move your setup fast in case their is a sudden last minute change. For my initial setup with Mr. Stewart, I had a three light configuration ready to shoot, but I used a large octobox as the main light in case I had to move last minute. I knew an octobox or large softbox could create a "safe" pleasing light, even if used just on its own due to a quick location switch. This is also a perfect reason for having a helper or assistant with you. I had two helpers on set that helped move lights and sandbags and hold my extra lenses in case I needed something right away.

The following is very important! You want to have your lights and exposure and camera settings ready by the time they walk onto set. If you're not ready, or have to do more than 1 test shot, you may lose their attention or lose them altogether because they will walk off set. Besides, time is money whether it is a celebrity or not. No need to waste anybody's time not being ready to shoot before your subject is in front of your camera.

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Again, let me reiterate, this is not a complaint post. I am happy to have these powerful people in my portfolio and have really great stories from my shoots that I hope to put in a book some day. To all of you aspiring celebrity shooters of all ages, I want you to know what's in store (the good and the bad) and how to be prepared before to walk on set.

Also, don't ask for autographs or photos with the artist or celebrity unless they seem completely game for it. In most cases, the minute you ask for an autograph, you shift from being a fellow professional doing their job to just another fan. That's just my personal opinion though. I have never asked for an autograph and only RARELY get a photo with an artist unless they verbally offer it.

Many times a publicist or rep will review your images after a shoot and will delete or tell you that you can only use X amount of particular shots from your session. This is fairly normal. You sort of have to learn to accept this part of the business with celebrity work. You can complain all you want, but this won't get you hired to do another shoot anytime soon. When working for a magazine or corporate client (in comparison to a promo shoot of the artist for a music label or publicist), I often let my art directors handle the battle of what images are "approved" for use with the publicists or handlers. It's not your place to make demands as a photographer in this situation, but you can politely suggest some of your personal favorites from the shoot.

After photographing professionally for 10 years, my career goals have grown and changed and I learned that career joy does not come from celebrity portraits alone as I originally thought. Celebrity work is a great challenge and can be a lot of fun and very exciting. It looks good in your portfolio and it shows you can be trusted to handle yourself in high pressure situations with VIP's. In fact, these high pressure portraits have trained me to be a faster and more efficient shooter on set.

My celebrity work may not be my most compelling, but it has opened up doors to other endeavors and personal work where I can be more creative, have more control, and have a bit more TIME to work. As I mentioned above, people outside of entertainment often get excited to hire or work with a photographer that captured XYZ celebrity.

Below are some examples of quick celebrity shoots I've had to do. I would love for some of you to share your images and stories in the comments below! You can see more of my entertainment photos and my OTHER work on my website HERE. You can also see more behind the scenes of my celebrity shoots on my blog.

Justin Bieber: Shoot was less than 10 minutes total for 2 locations. This photo was 2 lights. One softbox and a ring light Justin Bieber: Shoot was less than 10 minutes total for 2 locations. This photo was 2 lights. One softbox and a ring light

 

 

Blink 182: 4 covers and 8 pages of inside magazine content on 3 different backdrops in less than 30 minutes Blink 182: 4 covers and 8 pages of inside magazine content on 3 different backdrops in less than 30 minutes. It was originally supposed to be 4 hours.

 

Note the variety of shots I had to get, and I only had one small room in the back of a recording studio to use Blink 182: Note the variety of shots I had to get, and I only had one small room in the back of a recording studio to use

 

travis_MG_0201 Blink 182: Note the variety of shots I had to get, and I only had one small room in the back of a recording studio to use

 

Lady Antebellum: Sweet people, but only 10 minutes for 3 separate locations indoors and outside. Lady Antebellum: Sweet people, but only 10 minutes for 3 separate locations indoors and outside.

 

Another from the Lady A shoot. I loved how these came out for such a fast shoot. I asked the stage tech to fog the stage to add some more ambient glow to the background Another from the Lady A shoot. I loved how these came out for such a fast shoot. I asked the stage tech to fog the stage to add some more ambient glow to the background

 

Usher: True pro, this guy. He made it easy, but 3 setups in 10 minutes indoors and out Usher: True pro, this guy. He made it easy, but 3 setups in 10 minutes indoors and out

 

Adrian Grenier (Entourage): 2 setups inside and outside in 10 minutes Adrian Grenier (Entourage): 2 setups inside and outside in 10 minutes

 

Selena Gomez: 10 minutes. This was a 6 light setup, but I had everything perfectly ready before she walked onto set Selena Gomez: 10 minutes. This was a 6 light setup, but I had everything perfectly ready before she walked onto set

 

Jessie J: 3 setups in 10 minutes. Thankfully I found this room of pianos in the building of the venue for a cool location. Jessie J: 3 setups in 10 minutes. Thankfully I found this room of pianos in the building of the venue for a cool location. 2 light setup that was easy to move around and adapt.

 

Another Jessie J shot. Same location, completely different setup Another Jessie J shot. Same location, completely different setup

 

Jessie J setup #3. Remember, all 3 setups done in about 10-15 minutes or so total Jessie J setup #3. Remember, all 3 setups done in about 10-15 minutes or so total

 

Flo Rida: 5 minutes Flo Rida: 5 minutes

 

Thomas Dolby: Magazine cover and interior portrait in less than 10 minutes. Setup a studio in the venue Thomas Dolby: Magazine cover and interior portrait in less than 10 minutes. Setup a studio in the venue

 

Kelly Rowland : 2 setups in about 10 minutes. This shot was a one light setup Kelly Rowland : 2 setups in about 10 minutes. This shot was a one light setup

 

If you enjoyed this post, make sure to check out my other articles on Fstoppers! http://fstoppers.com/author/douglas-sonders

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73 Comments

I care, I have much respect for those that can do it well.

I have had the pleasure of shooting Justin Bieber and got 2mins really 2 mins to shot a photo of him. I got a photo that ran and only took 5 photos actually, 2 work the other 3 the flash didnt fire. The art director told me ur lucky to have that much time, people where paying 200$ to see him for 30sec to minute. I have been on set with a few pros photog who melt under the pressure like you shoot in and u seem to excel. As well what u say is the truth it was a cold reality when I got an opportunity to shoot my frist celeb. I got hire back just based on i didn't bitch about time, location and I cam out with a good photo few few few.

Great article Doug! I too have found that simple setups, and less shutter action is the way to get to the soul of the person (famous or not). I just recently shot every person at the company where I work, that was laid off, or effected by the lay offs. Each portrait done with no more thank 5 shots. I spent my time talking to each person for a minute, and shooting as I spoke to them. Often, just having them look for something on my desk in my office where I had my single light setup. I personally feel that more conversation, and less camera-to-face in a 3 minute span produces amazing moments to capture.

my celebrity work is exactly as you describe. While most are friends, and give me more time, a few were setups with bare light-bulbs and my ipad as a catch light. When they see the images after processing, they are mind blown that it turned out the way it did. To back up what you say.. the faster, the better.. and BOY do they appreciate it! My Conan portrait was a single shot. Warwick was 5 clicks within 2 minutes of talking about his Segway.

have a look, let me know what you think! I love a good critique.. since it's what i do all day is critique, it's refreshing to hear from others. Your work is great! love the simplicity of all your portraits!! And you are so right.. these quick portraits are what bring the all day shoots later on.

www.joelaron.com

Todd Douglas's picture

Took a quick look at your site and really enjoyed your imagery. Seems like a lot of people laid off at your company!

thanks todd. yes.. we were hit hard. i shot in the span of 3 weeks, 470 portraits...of them, about 425 have been laid off.

Todd Douglas's picture

Geez! (to both the amount of portraits and those laid off)

Hey Joel, saw the article about Lucasarts on Kotaku (I think it was kotaku), along with the portraits you did. Great stuff man. I've been in the video game industry for the past 16 years and the industry is suffering like I've never seen it before. Good luck to everyone laid off and keep up the good work.

Wow, shooting celebrities,...that's so cool, how'd you get your start? (wink).....
.........So proud of YOU Doug, you have worked you tail off, well done, well deserved!!!

Douglas Sonders's picture

thank you Ron!

Photography by Steve's picture

Nice pics, fab lights! Lot´s of hard work! Eyecandy as sweet as it gets, but the dust spec down in the right corner of the Selena Gomez shot made my day! Hurray to specs!

Douglas Sonders's picture

nice catch! i dont think the final made it onto my website or to the client. this was an old file that had a logo on it already that i could post

I love this article. This is why Fstoppers exists. Informative and educational. I have only shot a couple of minor celebrities (not on your level yet) and for me, I think I put more pressure on myself than the subject did. For example, I just shot japanese band Boris, and they have only done a few shoots ever as they don't like doing shoots. That knowledge added with my huge lvd of their music intimidating the crap out of me. I had 11 minutes to shoot them to get this shot- http://blog.nickfancher.com/post/50276113418/boris

Ralph Hightower's picture

Douglas,

Great article about photographing in the high-pressure of celebrity shooting. There's only one music artist that I recognize in that article: Rod Stewart; okay, there's the Bieb since he seems to be on every supermarket checkout stand since he is the 2010's equivalent of what Donny Osmond was in the 60's (I had a younger sister infatuated with him).

But, Selena Gomez? She is hot! Stunning photo!

Great read here! Doug you should do an IAMA because we have so many questions for you :)

Douglas Sonders's picture

whats IAMA? forgive my stupidity

"I Am A ____, ask me anything" - it's a Reddit thing: http://www.reddit.com/r/iama

Douglas Sonders's picture

The International Academy of Medical Acupuncture Inc.?

Karl Filip Karlsson's picture

how is your retouch work? :)

Douglas Sonders's picture

huh? I mean, im pretty good at retouching I would guess. I am an instructor at Photoshop World

frank nazario's picture

ROFLMAO!! Guess??... yeah I guess that would definitively qualify you as a kick ass retoucher :0) LOL!!!

Awesome article and images, have you ever done a celebrity shoot where they let you take as long you like or are they all rushed?

I can kind of empathize shooting weddings, but yikes you are under a lot more pressure. NICE WORK!!

HI, i was wondering wich kind of exposure do you usually use with this portraits? Thanks!

Douglas Sonders's picture

varies depending on the shoot and setup

Inspiration in under 10 mins, Read this article in 5 mins and learned something in a minute. Staying in awe of your work ethic and quality of photos here ... Sticking to me til the end of my time. Thanks for sharing your story and giving us the real scoop.

Douglas Sonders's picture

glad to help

Brian Wright's picture

High school football is king in Texas! This is the big game of the season and because of that I was forced to my knees during this play. The running back was coming right at me and landed next to me. I expected to be like the guys on NFL films getting plowed over!

RIT Represent! Stellar work, Doug. When you move the lights between locations, I assume you have 1-2 assistants who know how to place them just so, so you don't have to do any test shots? I would half expect you have in your memory bank certain strobe power settings, distance and f-stops memorized, such that you could get it 'close enough' in those 5-10 minutes.

Nice feature. I've never got the celebrity 'all done inside 3 minutes' thing. The vast majority spent huge amounts of time sat on their backsides doing zero, and we all know how important their image is. I can't make the connection between that and no effort.

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