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On Assignment: Rory McIlroy for Golf Monthly

Here’s my definitive guide to working under pressure, and producing a lot of content in a short space of time. In this example we have half an hour with Rory McIlroy, for Golf Monthly magazine.

Rory Cover
One of the two cover shots we produced on the day.

Location: Hotel in London
Shoot Duration: 1/2 an hour shooting, but about 3 hours total
Personnel: Myself, 2 journalists (Neil and Tom), plus Rory, 2 folk from Nike, and Rory’s coach
Equipment: 4 Profoto lights, 2 camera bodies, several lenses, many stands, backdrops, laptop, video rig and microphones, beauty dish, strip softboxes, parabolic brolly, and a trolly to transport it all.
Date: 26/6/2016
Fee: Hundreds
Total Shots: 187 + Video interview

Back in June I worked with Rory McIlroy for the 4th time.  This time was no exception, in that he was friendly, charming, and very professional, as well as being easy to shoot and happy to take direction.  As is usual in these circumstances, our time with him was very limited. Nike manage these events very well, but there is a strict timetable to be adhered to so that everyone who has been promised some time with Rory gets their fair share. Last year’s event was a little rushed, and I think Nike had taken some of that on board this time round. We had our own meeting room, with a 9 foot colorama white background already set up waiting for us. Not something you normally see in hotels!

Rory Q+A
Double page spread from the Q+A feature

I say “us” because there were 3 of us – myself, and 2 gentlemen from Golf Monthly. Neil was there to interview Rory, and Tom was there to help us both out, and make sure that we got everything covered in half an hour. Since this would be the only chance to interview Rory this year, the magazine were keen to make the most out of it, and our shopping list for the day was:

  • Interview with Rory – pictures needed to cover this in the magazine
  • 2 x Cover Shots
  • “Facebook Live” filmed interview – will be turned into a Q+A in the magazine, for which more pics are needed
  • Video interview
  • Interview with his coach Steve – pics needed for this, as well as a shot of the two of them together.

That’s a lot to get through in half an hour. Helpfully, we’re able to interview and shoot Steve the coach first, so at least come the final 30 minutes we can just concentrate on Rory. The key to getting this much done in this time frame is lots of thorough preparation. Now there’s a surprise I hear you say, Tom talking about preparation? What? Really? I thought he would be advising us just to rock up with a cameraphone and some notes scribbled on the back of an old fag packet like he usually does!

Steve and Rory
Steve and Rory. It’s 2 shots, and we had to think very carefully about each person’s eyeline when we shot it – Steve’s quite tall!

I’d like to talk about 2 particular aspects of preparation in this shoot – using stand-ins, and having more than one setup. A stand in is pretty much vital if you’re doing a shoot where time is tight. All you do is get someone to “stand in” whilst you get the lighting set up how you want it, get the exposure right, and basically carry out a dress rehearsal for the real thing. In the olden days, these would often be done with the assistant standing in, and a few polaroids would be taken (check out my series on advice for assistants to see some amusing shots of a younger me standing in). Using a stand in successfully means that when the real subject arrives it should require nothing more than for them to step straight in, and you can start shooting. You might want to chimp the first shot, but otherwise you should be able to just get on with it.

Stand ins
Tom and Neil, standing in for Rory, and showing the world they’re not quite ready for the cover yet.

One quick word of advice – try and make your stand in as close to the “real deal” as possible. Someone of roughly the same height would be handy, as would someone with glasses if your subject wears glasses. Don’t panic if you can’t manage this, but I’m sure you can see the inherent problem in setting your lights up for someone 6′ 4″ tall without glasses, then having the subject step in and realising they’re 5′ 4″ and wearing specs. Your light may not now be doing the job it’s supposed to! This is also a good time to try out poses and ideas – basically to see if the ideas you scribbled down last night actually work on the day.

Rory Portrait
Portrait of Rory in Setup 2 – I’d already played around with this pose using Tom as a stand-in.

Having 2 (or more) setups is a bit of a luxury, but it’s something I find I’m increasingly doing. It’s really useful when time is tight, and whilst it may appear to be equipment intensive, it doesn’t have to be. You could easily have 1 flash setup, and 1 ambient light setup – something I’ve done dozens of times over the years as I’ve shot all round a studio or location. By the same token, you don’t have to OWN all this kit – you could own the basic bits, say one pack and head from a reputable brand, and then hire in extra kit for specific jobs.  Brands like Profoto are commonly available from rental houses, and should be fully compatible with your existing kit – not just things like light modifiers, but also across radio channels and the like.

Rory Steup
Room setup. Setup 1 against the white background, and setup 2 against the grey.

What I’ve done here is build 2 setups in the one room. The first is against the white backdrop, lit by a large parabolic umbrella camera right, and a strip softbox camera left. This is your fairly standard “white cut out” shot, suited to full length portraits of Rory and his coach. The second is against a 4ft grey colorama, lit by a beauty dish with a grid on the front, and a zoom reflector with 2 layers of frost on the front. This setup is much less versatile, and only works for close-in portraits – nothing wider than half length. The fall-off from the gridded beauty dish is so dramatic that if Rory were to stand up in this lighting, his feet would be in almost pitch darkness.

Rory Portrait
Portrait in setup 2 – note falloff of light.

The magic then happens when I switch between channels on the Profoto Air transmitter. The white background setup is on channel 1, and the grey on channel 2. They’ve both been thoroughly tested beforehand, so it takes only a couple of seconds to press a button, and move Rory round to the second setup.  All the flashes stay on, but only the ones on the selected channel are firing.  I’ve carefully adjusted the power outputs to ensure that I’m using a consistent aperture as well, so that’s one less thing to have to think about.  The whole stills session with Rory took just 9 minutes, according to the metadata on the camera.

Facebook Live
Neil and Rory in a Facebook Live interview. This is what a 21st century media day now looks like!

So that’s most of the stills done. Now Neil sits down with Rory to record a Facebook Live interview. For an old git like me, this is a bit freakish – watching someone being filmed on an iphone, streaming live to the interwebs, is just a bit odd, frankly, but I suppose it keeps the kids happy. Whilst Neil is doing this, I’m setting the D800 up for the “proper” video interview – quite quietly in the background I might add, as I don’t want the good people of facebookland to hear a photographer swearing as he tries to screw in a piece of camera rigging.

Video Interview
Rory during the video interview – note D800 on camera rig over Neil’s shoulder

As soon as the Facebook interview is done, Rory sits down in front of my D800, and I attach my wireless microphone to him. Neil now interviews him in a more old-fashioned way, and I leave the camera running, mounted sturdily on it’s tripod. During the interview I take the chance to snap some “talking heads” shots with the D4 and my 105mm macro. Always ask permission before doing this, as some people really object to having a camera snapping away whilst they’re talking. Always use as long a lens as you can, in order to give the subject a bit of space, and if your camera’s got one, I’d suggest switching to “quiet” mode.

Talking Head
“Talking Head” shot. Very useful thing to capture during an interview, as long as you don’t intrude on the questioning.

We wrapped up just before the half hour mark, Rory and the Nike team went on their way, and we all breathed a small sigh of relief, then felt that warm glow of satisfaction that comes from a complicated job done well. Nothing we did was particularly amazing, but there is some skill in extracting this much content from such a short session. It’s all perfectly possible though, as long as you prepare thoroughly. No surprises there really!


Interested in learning more about some of the lighting used in this shoot?  I have a full course right here that walks you through everything you need to know to understand lighting in photography.

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