Tips for Photographing Celebrities

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This is a guest post about photographing celebrities by photographer Clay Cook.

Showtime. Shortly before the hour I found myself pacing back and forth, waiting for Academy Award winning actress Jennifer Lawrence to walk around the corner and step in front of my lens.

The bath of anxiety wasn’t caused by the fact that this was the most popular celebrity I’ve ever photographed, but more because I just wanted it to honor Jennifer.

I wanted the photography to align with her brand and the brand of my client: The Jennifer Lawrence Foundation.

As Jennifer walked towards the set, I gave her a gentle hug, asked her take a breath and sit next to a posing table we had staged hours beforehand.

She was quiet and slightly distracted by her entourage, which included Frances Lawrence, Director of the Hunger Games film franchise.

After a 10-second spew of small talk, I picked up the Phase One IQ3 Medium Format Camera, provided by my friends at Digital Transitions, focused, and snapped the shutter.

With one sudden pulse of the flash all the anxiety went away and I felt a rush of adrenaline. Swiftly, we blazed through various positions I had pre-set and thought out.

While Jennifer needed little direction, the smallest ideas helped her provide the expression I was seeking.

Just 10 minutes and 20 frames later, Jennifer and her entire crew were off to the next engagement. I set the camera down, stepped back and exhaled a burst of air.

While I had photographed several celebrities of various stature and profession, Jennifer was a standout.

Throughout my years of photographing people, I’ve learned a few tactics to achieve better instinct and efficiency and dramatically maximize my time with the talent, which in most cases is very short.

Tip #1 | Do your research

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Clay Cook cracking jokes with Jennifer Lawrence and Francis Lawrence (Director, Hunger Games) | Canon 5D Mark III w/ Canon 24-70mm f/2.8

As business owners and entrepreneurs, relationships are important. As a celebrity photographer, relationships are bonded in just a small moment of time. Therefore, it’s important to do homework.

Before every editorial portrait and project with the central focus on a single person or group, my first objective is to research their online presence and dig into who they really are.

All celebrities and people of importance have plenty of online content to browse through.

I tend to view old photographs, read through past articles, and screen as many online videos as possible to get a sense of their personality on and off camera.

When the subject walks onto the set, I tend to know more about them than they might even remember in that moment.

It provides me the leverage to build a bridge and emphasize our similarities in a matter of seconds.

The more comfortable I can make the subject feel on set, under all the lights, the better. I use the knowledge to develop common ground and create a warm space devoid of awkwardness. Actors & actresses make that easy.

Many can instantly transition their demeanor into a third-party character, offering a beautiful set of expressions with little guidance. However, it’s my goal to break through the character to see a bit more of the real person within the performance.

Fortunately, Jennifer and I had common ground before showtime. We were both raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and were neighbors for most of our childhood.

While that wasn’t the connection that brought us together for this project, it was the first conversation which instantly built a connection. Small world.

I used this common ground to fortify the set and provide a space of relaxation within the few short minutes I had with her.

Tip #2 | Get the lighting right the first time

Lighting Test

Clay Cook’s Assistant Testing Light | Canon 5D Mark III w/ Canon 24-70mm f/2.8

I often preach that technical details come second to subject. While that’s completely true, it’s also very important to understand the human shape and how to light it.

In photography, light is everything. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a few of my photography idols, and on occasion share a seminar stage.

The one piece of advice that has stuck with me throughout the years has been this: “Know light; be obsessed with light.”

I have to constantly wake myself up from a half-dream stare when analyzing the sun. Light is fascinating to me; its ability to cut through muddy water or cast colorful shades of violet on mountain rock.

The better you understand the sun, the better you will understand the art of lighting a photograph.

The best photographers I know tend to speak of light as a paintbrush. It can change the entire mood with a subtle stroke.

A strong grasp of lighting comes with experimentation and practice. Never stop analyzing, never stop playing with light.

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Clay Cook photographing Jennifer Lawrence | Canon 5D Mark III w/ Canon 24-70mm f/2.8

It’s important to plan out the lighting, staging, and positioning and to strategize the photograph you desire.

In many cases, you don’t have time to change the light once the talent is on set, so if you want to use multiple lighting scenarios you have to build those scenarios in a separate space.

If you don’t have the equipment, you’ll have to rent the equipment. If you don’t have an assistant, hire one.

With Jennifer Lawrence, I wanted to provide plenty of breathing room. Our set was situated right in the middle of a fundraising event and I wanted her to feel as comfortable as possible without sacrificing the quality of light.

We went big and soft. As a key light, we used a Profoto D1 modified with a 51” Large Profoto Deep White Umbrella and a 1.5 stop Profoto Umbrella Diffuser.

As a fill light, we used a Profoto D1 modified with a 65” Extra Large Profoto Deep White Umbrella with a 1.5 stop Profoto Umbrella Diffuser.

We feathered the key light to soften shadows and offer a more natural light. The background was a beautifully painted custom canvas from Sarah Oliphant and Oliphant Studios.

Tip #3 | Remember that Time is money

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Jennifer Lawrence photographed by Clay Cook | Phase One IQ3 80MP XF Medium Format Camera w/ Schneider Kreuznach 40-80mm LS f/4.0-5.6 Lens | 1/200 f/8 ISO 100

Less time on set means more time the subject has to make revenue via other avenues. A swift, efficient photographer and crew are vital to the success of a celebrity photoshoot.

If you build a strategy for success beforehand, you’ll mitigate the risk of issues with equipment, issues with lighting, or awkward posing, all of which are time wasted.

When you only have a few short minutes with the subject, seconds matter. The ideal session is fast-paced, with a calm nuance resulting in a small shutter count, a happy client and beautiful photographs.

I managed to work with Jennifer Lawrence twice over a period of two days and both sessions were extremely quick. The first session was under 5 minutes and the second was under 10 minutes.

My team and I had to be prepared for any variable. Luckily, Jennifer delivered exactly what I needed, without batting an eye.

As a professional photographer, it’s my job to make this process easy and quick.

Despite having been in hundreds of campaigns, dozens of films and on nearly every major magazine cover in the world, Jennifer and her team relied on my professionalism, intuition and eye.

She trusted me to produce something special.

Often, a project like this will simply fall in your lap when you aren’t expecting it. It’s best to be armed and ready. Before you ask yourself “how”, search for the “why” and do your best to construct a blueprint beforehand for the win.

Disclaimer: The products in this post may contain affiliate links.

1 Comment

  1. Clay Cook on March 15, 2019 at 10:13 am

    If anyone has any questions, don’t be afraid to ask! Would love to help!

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