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Shooting Celebrities – A Beginner’s Guide.

Jonah Lomu in a small bath - Celebrities
Jonah Lomu in a small bath

Taking portraits of celebrities is not something every photographer ends up doing, or even aspires to end up doing, so this may be something of a specialised post. All the same, I feel that much of the advice I’m going to offer is relevant to any portrait shoot, as there’s so much common ground. These days, with the exception of absolute A-listers, I treat a celebrity shoot just the same as any other portrait job. That is to say that I approach all my jobs with the same level of professionalism, regardless of whether the subject has just released a new album, or if they’re the secretary of a golf club.

So I can validate some of what I’m saying, here’s a brief list of some famous folk I’ve shot over the years:

Richard Branson, Tim Westwood, Ian Woosnam, Colin Montgomerie, Ricky Hatton, Jean Claude Van-Damme, Dara O Briain, Darren Campbell, Dermot Murnaghan, Jerry Springer, Armand Assante, Jonah Lomu, Jodie Kidd, Bobby George, Danielle lloyd, John Reid, Tessa Jowell, Andrew Strauss, Sophie Wessex, Matt Dawson, Jimmy Carr, Darren Clarke, Retief Goosen, Devilfish, Victoria Coren, Eammon Holmes, Kyran Bracken, Sir Roger Bannister, Phil Hellmuth, Goldie Lookin’ Chain, Gilberto Silva

This is only an edited list (and it’s a pretty odd list when you look at it)- there’s several others, but I think I’ve made my point! All the links got to the relevant page on Wikipedia, just in case they’re not as famous as they think they are and you’ve never heard of them! There’s lots of others I could add from my assisting days, but since I wasn’t actually behind the camera I think that would be cheating.
Anyway, enough of blowing my own trumpet, how do you turn what could potentially be a very intimidating encounter into a memorable shot that keeps your client happy? Well, in one word: Preparation.

Be Prepared. (And yes, I was a boy scout once upon a time)

  1. At a really basic level, do your essential pre-production work. The link goes to a post that will give you more detail, but at the risk of repetition – know where you’re supposed to be, when, how to get there, what you’re taking, who you’re meeting, what facilities you can expect, how much time you’ll have, what sort of shot the client is after and so on. This is the same for any shoot, but celebrity shoots have a tendency to be very short and sweet, so you need to have everything ready. To give you some idea of how short and sweet, I photographed Jean Claude Van-Damme in 45 seconds, and Tessa Jowell in 12. Both of these were official shoots – not grabbed on the street or anything like that. That’s simply how much time they permitted me. It’s not the time to run out of batteries, or try out a new lighting technique. Mind you, I did spend all afternoon in the pub with Dara O’Briain earlier this year, so it’s not always like this.
  2. Do some background research on who you’re shooting. Primarily this is so you can get a grasp on who they are, what they’ve been up to lately and so on. This can give you ideas for shots to try and get, provide subjects for conversation (or subjects to avoid!), as well as preventing you from shooting something that’s already been shot. Some of this might seem daft – surely these people are famous and we all know what they’re up to? Well, I for one don’t watch the telly, and I hardly bother to read the papers either. I certainly have no idea what’s happening at the “tabloid” end of the market, and neither do I want to. Yes, I’m a cultural snob and proud of it! On a recent shoot I had to do the full monty and read up as much as I could about the subject I was photographing, as even though she’s been on the front page of the tabloids many times, I didn’t know her from Adam.
  3. Get your technical stuff well sorted in advance. Make sure every bit of gear is functioning properly, fully charged, cleaned and so on. If the opportunity to set the shot up beforehand is available – do it, and get someone to stand in (the art director, your assistant, a passing dog) for some test shots. Then once the real deal arrives simply slot them into place, and away you go. I’ve still got stacks of polaroids from my assisting days of me “sitting in” for people prior to them turning up on set. If you think you’ll be able to get (or have been requested to get) several set ups done, then prep as many of them as time permits. It’s at this point that the stuff you’ve been doing in No.1 above will tie-in nicely, as you’ll already have a good idea of the location and so on, so you should be able to set up and shoot accordingly.
  4. Have your ideas already sketched out and as ready to go as possible. Obviously your ideas will be tying closely in to the brief you’ve been given by your client, but at the same time it’s worth having a range of them. This is for two main reasons, the first is that you can never be sure which ones will work, or which ones the celeb will simply go “no” to, and the second is to try and present your client with something more than they were hoping for. The first of these is perhaps the most critical, and I tend to have a few “fallback” ideas in mind in case my hero shot doesn’t come off. Despite the impression given above of quite rigid sounding setups, the key thing is actually to be flexible. Lots can change on shoots like this – the subject can turn up late, refuse to be shot outdoors/indoors, the weather can change, they might refuse to take their shades off (it’s happened to me twice!) and so on. If you’ve got a range of ideas to play with, you can just roll with the punches on this one.
  5. Now is not the time to try a brand new lighting technique, or give some new equipment a test run. By all means, if you’ve got lots of time with the celeb, and they seem amenable to it, go ahead and muck about – you may get some fantastic results. However, your client is expecting something usable on their desk, and if all they get are lots of unprintable experiments there may be trouble ahead! If you’re keen to shoot something particularly interesting and arresting, brilliant, but make sure it’s something you’ve already perfected elsewhere. The other facet of this problem is that if you’re mucking about, and generally looking unsure of what you’re doing you will give off the impression that you don’t know what you’re doing to your subject. This can be a bad thing. At worst they may simply leave (no, really), and at best you’ll destroy any rapport you’ve managed to build up. This applies on both a creative level, with respect to the ideas you come up with, and a technical level, with regard to how you shoot and light something.
Sir Richard Branson - celebrities
Sir Richard Branson

So that’s the basics. Now onto something a little less tangible – the psychological side of things. I’d be the first to admit that if you’re just starting out, being asked to go and shoot someone famous can be more than a little intimidating. If you didn’t feel nervous, you wouldn’t be human. One of the best ways to build your confidence is by following the methods prescribed above. If you know that all your equipment works, that you’ve got lots of ideas to fall back on, that you’ve got lots to chat with the celebrity about, and you arrive nice and early with ample time to set up, then your confidence in yourself and your abilities will naturally rise as well.

Part of this nervousness seems to develop because in our current culture we seem to think of people who’ve gained some level of fame as superhuman, when of course in reality they’re pretty much the same as you and me. Admittedly they might earn a bit more, and get recognised on the street, but they still have good days and bad days, and in my experience the best way to behave around them is to act normal. Just be friendly and polite – though not too friendly! Out of all the celebrities I’ve worked with down the years, the vast majority have been polite, down-to-earth, and businesslike. From their point of view, things like photoshoots are part of the job, and although they may get tired of being asked to jump through the same hoops over and over again, they all understand that part of their fame is based upon working and collaborating with us in the media.

That’s not to say I haven’t seen my fair share of tantrums now and again, or had to deal with someone who got out of bed on the wrong side that morning. For reasons that should be blatantly obvious, I will not be going in any details about those!

As far as the shoot itself goes, one thing that will always help is trying to establish some sort of connection or rapport with them as soon as possible. This is where some of your background research can come in handy, as it can give you something to talk about. Beware of being sycophantic – it won’t get you anywhere. The best trick I’ve found is when discussing something they’ve done, talk ABOUT it rather than going “oh my god, you were brilliant in that film, I loved that stunt you did!” This way you can appear interested without being awestruck, though I must admit it has happened to me once. Try also to keep your chatter to a polite minimum, don’t overwhelm them with your own stories/problems etc, and it’s here that I want to bring in the one golden rule I’ve not mentioned so far – there’s only room for one ego on a shoot, and it should be that of the person in FRONT of the camera. The reasons for this should be self-explanatory.

Bear in mind also, that there may be a lot of personnel around on shoots like these, the star may have brought their own entourage with them, you may have your own people (assistants, make-up etc), and the client may have a presence as well, and all this will create it’s own atmosphere and something of a performance, as well as an opportunity for egos to flourish. I well remember in my early days of assisting, looking round the studio and going:

“OK, he’s the photographer, that’s the celeb, there’s the stylist, that’s the make-up artist, that’s the journalist to do the interview – who are those other 5 people?”

Celebrities can turn up with any number of people in tow – agents, publicists, friends, their own personal make-up artists/stylists, pets, family – the list is endless. 99% of the time these people will have no bearing on a shoot, though agents particularly can be a touch overbearing now and again. On a recent shoot the celeb I was shooting got so pissed off with the agent moaning at him to keep the sponsor’s label visible, that he removed it from his shirt and stuck it over his mouth! I of course, was more than happy to photograph him like this. As always, a calm confident air around these people is all that’s required, many of them are actually there because it’s preferable to a day in the office, and who can blame them? If you’re working with an assistant, then one of their jobs should be to keep this crowd off your back so you can concentrate on taking the picture.

Devilfish cover
Devilfish cover

One last thought, as this has already rambled on longer than I’d planned. With respect to equipment, I’ve already pointed out that it should be in proper working order and so on, but what I haven’t mentioned is that it should also look the part. I’m in grave danger here of sounding like an equipment snob, which I’m most certainly not, but if you’ll indulge me a moment I’ll try and explain why. Put yourself in the shoes of the celeb you may be photographing. They walk off a film or TV set where everything is hugely expensive and lavishly produced, and waiting for them in the green room to do a quick portrait is you, with your tiny little camera, your cardboard and silver foil reflector and your cheap plastic tripod. This appearance may reflect badly on you, and similarly the client you are representing, and anything that undermines your confidence is a bad thing!

This not to say that you need a full set of Profoto flashes, a Hasselblad with a P45 back and so on, but a little investment here and there can work wonders. Buy a grip for your DSLR, and instantly it looks bigger and more professional, get some monoblocs rather than hand-held flashes and so on. None of this costs the earth, and helps to create the right impression. Along the same lines try and dress appropriately – not necessarily your wedding suit, but looking like you just rolled out of bed might not give the correct professional impression! I hate to sound like I’m cow-towing to celeb’s ego’s here – but effective;y that’s exactly what I’m doing. At this sort of level a lot of stuff is actually about show, performance and looking the part (sad but true). It’s quite a holistic thing, and as part of the whole picture your confidence will count for far more than a fancy camera, but it’s best not overlook the details.

At a glance lots of this may seem very “celeb specific”, and of no interest or use to those who shoot Joe Public. However, I firmly believe that the fundamental principles are exactly the same whomever you’re taking pictures of. Being properly prepared at every level, and ensuring that the person in front of the camera is the only one in the room with an ego will serve you well whether you’re shooting your mates or the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan. Though it is particularly useful when you’ve only got 45 seconds with Jean Claude Van-Damme!

P.S. I just know that the only comments I get are going to be about my last statement about equipment. Ah well, so be it.

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