Celebrities are not like you and I. They’re special. Oh sure, you think they’re like everyone else, and on some level they are. You might meet Justin Bieber on the street and not treat him any differently than the guy who hauls your trash. But when you’re the guy hired to photograph him, everything changes and a whole new set of rules apply.
It’s not just celebrities but anyone in a position of wealth and power. The more of either, the more celebrity that comes along with and the more issues you’re likely to face. If you’ve never done a celebrity or VIP (Very Important Person) shoot, you may be wondering what possibly could go wrong. Actually, given the media coverage devoted to celebrity meltdowns you probably have some sort of idea. But before we go there, allow me to explain the underlying psychology that drives celebrity behavior during a shoot.
Powerful people are used to getting their way. They tell people what to do. They’ve got the money, the influence, the talent – whatever it is that other people want. So they get to be in control when dealing with people who are less powerful than they – which is just about everybody.
Enter the photographer. You’ve been hired by some magazine or company to come in and photograph this person. Unless you’re Annie Leibovitz, you’re essentially a nobody. Yet, when that subject steps in front of your camera, you’re now the boss. You’re dictating the action to someone who’s not accustomed to being dictated to. And that’s a problem.
What ensues, whether the photographer is aware of it or not, is a battle for control – that the photographer is not going to win. Period. There’s many ways that this desire for control may manifest itself. For example, the VIP may:
- Throw out your shoot concept, even if agreed to beforehand
- Decide on something new at the last minute
- Be generally uncooperative
- Show up late
- Cut the shoot short, often without notice
When a CEO looks at you two minutes into a shoot and says, “That’s enough” and walks out, what he’s really saying is, “I’m showing you who’s the boss here.” If you didn’t get the shot, that’s not his problem. That’s all on you.
Now you may not get the call to shoot Justin Bieber for the next cover of Rolling Stone, but if you stick around this business long enough, you’ll get called on to photograph someone who thinks they’re someone and you’ll be dealing with this dynamic – even if it’s on a smaller level. Here’s my suggestions for a successful celebrity or VIP shoot:
- Preplan and prepare. Scout your locations. Nail down your shot list. Work through your lighting. Leave nothing to chance! The battle is won or lost before it is even started. Careful planning will eliminate most problems before they have a chance to arise.
- Plan to work quickly. When your meticulously laid plans get tossed out the window, you’ve got to adapt quickly. Key to this is having a crew of dependable and experienced assistants working alongside you. The last thing you need to worry about is moving your gear around and setting things up. If you can, have a plan B that involves no lighting or setup. The ability to think and move fast is an asset that I can’t emphasize enough.
For example, in the magazine spread above with San Diego Padres first baseman Yonder Alonzo, after we finished with my lit shots in the gym, I quickly took him outside for some impromptu shots in the dugout. It only took a few minutes, but it allowed for more options for the magazine editor – which they always like.
- Don’t try anything new. All too often I see photographers on a forum that are so excited about their big shoot that they want to try some fancy lighting like they saw in a magazine. It’s reality check time here. If you don’t know what you’re doing inside and out, you will have your butt handed to you. There is absolutely no time for you to be monkeying with lights or a new camera when you have a short-fused subject right in front of you.
- Bring backup! Once, as I picked up my medium format Hasselblad during a high-budget shoot with a well-known client, my (far too expensive) digital back went flying off the camera and smashed on the tile floor. Without missing a beat, I called for my backup camera that was sitting nearby and we barely skipped a beat. (Though my insurance company wasn’t too happy about the claim that followed.)
- Make your first shot count; it may be the only one you get. Get what you need right off the bat. Once you’ve got the basics in the bag, then you can push things a little more.
- Involve your subject in the process. Show them the photos on the LCD. Give your VIP the feeling that they’re involved in the process so they regain that feeling of control.
- Well placed humor goes along way. If you can make your guy or girl laugh, it’s going to be harder for him/her to be rude or passive aggressive. While photographing one notoriously photographer unfriendly CEO, I joked with him about his reputation among photographers. He laughed. I got my shot.
- Don’t let them see you sweat. You may be nervous as hell, but you’ve got to take control, appear relaxed, be sociable, and help your subject to relax. (Your job is to take care of your subject not move lights around – this is another reason why you need assistants.) If your subject sees weakness on your part, he’ll think you’re a pushover and treat you accordingly. Celebrity work is not for the feint of heart.
- If you have multiple setups planned, everything should be laid out in advance. The waiting from shot to shot should be at an absolute minimum. Keep things moving. Wasting time is not an option. (Unfortunately, I hear from far too many people that the “other photographers” they’ve worked with are sloppy with their time.)
- Look the part. Don’t show up looking like a bum or a schmoe. You don’t have to wear a suit or dress all fancy – you are working after all – but you should look stylish. People notice this stuff and it gives you a lot of credibility. I had one billionaire client ask where my clothes came from. When I answered “Prada” she shot me a nod and a knowing look. Details matter.
- Make the client feel special; put on the dog and pony show. You may not have a chef on set like some Hollywood celebrity photographers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something out of the ordinary to make your person feel like the VIP that they are.
- Know your subject. You may have some fun shot in mind, but that’s not going to go over with your serious CEO. During my Yonder Alanzo shoot, the magazine publisher asked him if he’d take off his shirt. I cringed! I knew that there was no way that was going to happen and jumped in with a “No we don’t need that” just to take the pressure off the already reluctant ballplayer.
Finally, be prepared to be frustrated. You’re often dealing with layers of people – from your client to the VIP’s publicist to the personal assistant to the subject. Each has their own agenda – which rarely has anything to do with your desire to get a great shot. Being a successful pro is often about pulling out something amazing from a bad situation.