Photographing Celebrities and VIPS

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.

John Mireles

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About johnmireles

Photographer, writer, thinker, climber, outrigger canoeist, bad guitar player and even worse singer.
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9 Responses to Photographing Celebrities and VIPS

  1. Pingback: Photographing Celebrities and VIPs tutorial

  2. John Goolsby says:

    Great information. I too have been rushed through celebrity interviews but every once in a while the limited time frame is reversed. When I arrived at the Beverly Hills Mansion of John Fogerty to interview him for a Love Story Documentary that I was filming to play at his vow renewal that I was filming in New Orleans, the publicist greets me at the door and tells me I can have the rock and roll legend for 15 minutes. Turns out John was an open book on his life and I was able to interview him and his wife for four and a half hours and got incredible interviews about his childhood, marriage, and his life as a rock star…the good and the bad. On a return visit, we spent two hours in their Game Room reviewing photos for the documentary when they announce they have to leave but I can stay and take what I need…Just close the door when I leave. Was it wrong of me to jump on their bed and take a bath in their tub? JK The Fogerty’s were wonderful down to earth people and I will always treasure that assignment as a highlight of my career of filming real people in 23 states and 12 countries.

    • johnmireles says:

      Hey John: Great to hear that you had such a great experience. You bring up the point that it’s different when the celebrity hires you to photograph them and/or their family. When they want you there, then the dynamic changes. Sure, some people will be rude no matter what (like the bride of the celebrity chef who during the course of a multi-day wedding in Italy continued to call out to her wedding photographer by shouting “photographer!”) but usually that’s when they let their guard down. It is their own money that they’re spending after all and they do want to look good in their own photos.

      John

  3. Stefan says:

    Enlightening!

    I’m not at the same point in my career but would like to get to your level. I value your advice. There are too few photogs that can give this level of info. While the technical aspects are important, at least half of the shoot is relationship psychology. This is perhaps more difficult to learn for those of us trying to break in to this industry.

    Again many thanks for giving.

  4. steve josifidis says:

    john, thanks for the helpfull advice. I’m a wedding photographer, and until you pointed out these “obstacles” that a photographer faces, i couldn’t ever think that they existed. Thanks again. Maybe some time soon you could write about brides & weddings. (experience & tips).

  5. Troy says:

    Great primer not only for photogs but directors too. So much of the technical work is done in preparation for the Shoot, not while it’s happening. The ability to improvise or be non-rigid helps when things go off-script but pre-planning is a large part of success. It brings to mind the diddy about Abraham Lincoln. He was asked, “If you were given an axe and had one hour to chop down a tree how would you spend your time?” He replied, “I’d spend 45 minutes sharpening the axe…”

    I’ve been in sales most of my career in one form or another and always successful. Not every skill and protocol in sales has a direct correlation to the points you’ve made for a lead photog but some do. The first rule is this – ALWAYS let the client/prospective client lead… up to a point. Ask questions when possible/appropriate, then listen. The “up to a point” transition, when you start to lead, will then feel seamless and natural ( and “leading” is key as a photog because it’s us that are the craftsmen in image making – otherwise, why did anyone call us?) because the effort (selling/buying, photo Shoot, etc.) is then a collaboration.

    Talking and listening show respect to the subject as a person, not just a Big Dog or what have you. Yes, I have “plans” and always scope out the lay of the land and light and logistics prior to The Shoot (when at all possible). That’s the technical side of it. But the Shoot, if it involves people, is always about the relationship first. So, talking/collaborating is key for me.

    I often shoot large groups, especially cosplayers. When I’m the lead photog the director of the Shoot and I sharpen our blades a good bit prior to the Shoots and scope the territory, sometimes a day or two ahead of time, and work out the director’s vision before any subjects arrive. Then, once I’ve been introduced as the photog/lead I give the group a way brief statement of what to expect as I shoot and how I go through the shots we’re attempting to get. I also state clearly that I know that their time and sweat are appreciated and that I get through my work as quickly as possible while still creating greatness. This sets expectations. They’ve at least heard from my mouth that I’m aware of their needs (time and keeping them engaged being primary).

    And then… I get to it. Banter during a Shoot keeps things moving quickly, get the laughs and time flowing, the fun factor goes up, and before we know it – the time is up. At that point I find some of the subjects are ready for more and asking for it. And then we put it to the group. With individuals it’s naturally a command decision by the star. Except for one Shoot I did, the subject/s say that their Shoot was the most fun they’ve ever had. And the images attest to it. If the subject plays along and you can carry your end… the game is won. By everyone.

    The fine point is the relationships. Don’t ever make it an open power struggle. Instant UN-FUN. I had one large group Shoot that was ruined before it began (will spare the details) but… one of the best, most fun, and creative Shoots I’ve ever had at a convention sprang from that. A sub-group of guys asked if I’d take a pic of them. We instantly hit it off and it turned into 45 minutes of blast time with just the four of them and myself. The banter was light, the ideas were flowing, and we collaborated.

    I know that “collaboration” as I’ve mentioned is not always possible but, when the “Rock Star/s” are treated as people rather than objects to be photographed, I’ve always had more success.

    Again, a great overview of challenges and preparations a pro photographer has either learned or should be prepared for. I just wanted to hit on the relationship aspect as that has carried me through Shoots, good and challenging, and almost always left me with new friends, not just a client.

  6. jlgphoto says:

    Great tips John. The VIP shoot is unpredictable. Keeping calm and confident is so important.
    Many times it is the VIP’s “handlers” that are the real problem.

    I recently had a train wreck of a shoot at a celebrity’s home:
    Shoot time was 11AM.
    I arrived at 10AM to set up for a simple portrait.
    The celebrity never came and said hello as we waited in their living room. No problem, I’m cool with that. Then,their assistant came and told me that the VIP was going to work out with a trainer and then take a shower and eat lunch.

    At 12:30 the VIP entered the living room and sat down in the make-up chair. They still never even looked at me. I went over and said hello. This is my second shoot with this person, and I was hired again because the first shoot went so smooth and the PR head shot was used for many years. The VIP grumbled hello. Make up took about an hour, then the VIP got up, walked over to my lighting set-up and said, “OK, Let’s get this F*ing thing over with.” We shot for about 30 minutes in 3 locations, and the VIP was on their phone for 1/2 of the shoot.
    Even the PR agency person in charge was taken back by the VIP’s cranky mood. I had many ideas for some funny creative shots that day, however, we decided to pull the plug after we got the new head shot that they really needed. This was one of my most uncomfortable shoots ever. We are scheduling another shoot to get some more stuff, however, I am insisting that it is later in the day, and I am bringing some alcohol to help take the edge of my subject.

  7. Troy says:

    jlgphoto – “… and I am bringing some alcohol to help take the edge off…” and I thought you were going to finish with “myself.”

    Hey, if the celeb won’t imbibe… why let it go to waste? Maybe the handler will throw down the hatch with you. They might need it worse than anyone.

    btw – I guess this is the antithesis to my “let’s collaborate” M.O..

  8. Jane Shauck says:

    Great write-up and I love the Alonzo shoot!

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