Taking portraits of celebrities is something many photographers aspire to — the shots look great in the portfolio, and it adds a bit of excitement. I’ve been lucky enough to work with lots of celebrities over the years, and here are a few lessons I’ve learned from experience.
Preparation is always important, but it becomes all the more acute when shooting famous types, as you’ll often have VERY little time to play with. You’ll be stunned at how little time you get with some celebrities, even on shoots that are planned and scheduled. I’ve shot Jean-Claude Van Damme in 45 seconds, Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers in less than 30 seconds, and many other celebs in mere minutes. If you’re planning on getting several different shots, set them all up in advance, providing you’ve got enough equipment to do so. Then, when you get the green light, you can smoothly move from one setup to another in a very short amount of time.
Before a shoot, do a bit of research on the person in question. Ten minutes on the web can tell you all you need to know. A quick search can provide information for a conversation starter, as well as help you know which subjects to avoid. It can also get you thinking about ideas for shots to do with them and illustrate how they’ve been photographed before.
Next, ask the basic pre-production questions for the shoot. You should find out as much as possible about where you’re shooting, how long you’ll have, what sort of shots the client needs, whether there’s budget to hire in equipment/extra personnel, and so on. This sort of thing is standard on all professional shoots, so I don’t need to stress it too much.
Now make sure all your kit is working properly, that you’ve got everything you need to get the shots you want, and that you’ve got spares or backups (you do own a spare body don’t you? No? Go to the back of the class and face away from all the other children!) Shoots with a very small time window are not the places for a kit to break down on you!
Next you can do the nice bit and start to come up with ideas for shots you’d like to get. There’s a decent chance your client will already know what they want, and it’ll be your job to get these shots. However, it’s well worth turning up with a few ideas of your own in your proverbial “back pocket” so you can add something extra to the shoot, or even bag a shot for your portfolio.
Lastly, don’t forget that these sorts of shoots are not the ideal places to be experimenting with new techniques or unfamiliar equipment. Stick to the tried and trusted methods, and, if necessary, test stuff out beforehand so you can be sure it works. Whilst it would be great to come home with a truly amazing creative image, your client is expecting something usable from the shoot, and if all they get are lots of very confusing shots where you were playing with your lighting, you may find they don’t call you too often. Whilst you’re on the shoot, mucking about with things, fiddling with settings, forever chimping off the back of your camera and generally looking like you don’t know what you’re doing won’t make the celeb feel very confident in you, and that’s a bad thing…
Egos, Entourages and Experience
Now we come to the more esoteric bit — dealing with the psychological side of shooting famous people. Of the many famous people I’ve worked with over the years, I can fairly say that 10% of them were very difficult, rude, or unprofessional and hard to work with, 10% were simply amazing and left me with a warm glow and renewed faith in humanity as a whole, and 80% were simply polite, professional and got the job done. Pretty much everyone in the public eye understands that part of their job involves having their picture taken quite often, or appearing at sponsors’ events when they’d rather be sitting by the pool. As part of this, they expect you to behave like it’s part of your job too, rather than: “Oh-my-god-it’s-a-celebrity-and-they-just-shook-my-hand-I’ll-never-wash-again.”
Obviously, getting over this problem improves with time, as the novelty wears off. The way to get better at behaving normally is simply to build confidence in yourself as a photographer, and you do that by getting better at your craft and practicing stuff until you can do it easily and quickly under pressure.
Don’t be surprised when a celeb turns up with several people in tow — some celeb shoots can become very crowded once you factor in people from your side (an assistant, your client, hair and make-up, a stylist and so on) and their side (agents, managers, friends, family). Try not to let this distract you, and remember the golden rule of photographing people: There’s only room for one ego on set, and that’s the one in FRONT of the camera. Leave yours at the door. Be prepared to flatter, but not simper. One of the best approaches I’ve always found is to talk about what they’re doing, rather than simply saying: “I loved you in that film; you were really cool.” Ask intelligent questions about their work (you did do your research about them, didn’t you?), and if you’re able to, bring something in from your own experience — you may have worked with someone they know well, or your Mum might be their biggest fan and has always wanted to know x, y or z. Above all, remain professional, and make sure this extends to your crew, your appearance, and your kit (no cereal packet reflectors on celeb shoots, please).
I’ve had some wonderful experiences with celebs in my time, and my mates are very bored from hearing all the stories. But the reason I keep being asked to shoot them is because, above all, I behave professionally and treat them with respect and politeness without groveling at their feet! Practice your craft, fight the urge to bear hug them, lick their face, or wet yourself when you meet them, and should have no problems either!
Bonus: If you want to learn more about photography and taking better photos, try a photography course from NYIP today!