I’ve just finished wrapping up a large commercial shoot for a national account. It was fun, stressful, exciting and nerve-racking, all at the same time. This is one of the exciting things about this profession—the challenges of meeting client requirements while having fun on location. That fun must be felt and experienced across the entire set; the way a photographer carries himself will resonate among staff and talent.
Of course it also stands to reason that the professionalism of the models one is working with will also resonate in the scene. On this job I was incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to work with several seasoned actors who were well trained and experienced. When the talent walks on set, looks around at the lighting set-up and asks, “Is this your main light?” you know you’re going to be having one fun session.
The seasoned actor will know precisely how to portray a body language that takes best advantage of the established (or natural) lighting scenario by being astutely aware of the lens and main light locations.
Photography is all about creating illusions and, generally, the more skilled the talent, the more successful the illusion. The photographer also has to be aware that the photographer is not the star attraction. This is a time to park the ego train and realize that the talent in front of your lens can make the shoot successful or disastrous. With skilled talent, give them the scenario and let them work. Offer direction and instruction and just let them create the character—if the photographer has done his or her work well, the talent will reward the photographer with spectacular results.
I first learned the merits of working with actors as opposed to models on one of my very first assignments while moonlighting with a community newspaper in southwestern Nova Scotia—the Coast Guard. A schooner called The Ernestina had come alongside the previous night, and I convinced the editor it might make a good picture for the weekly. He sent me down to the wharf with instructions to get a portrait of the captain standing behind the wheel.
In typical Shelburne weather, it was an FDR day: Fog, Drizzle and Rain. To make matters worse, it was cold. As I gained permission to board the vessel, I was interested in trying to somehow show that vessel’s long history. The Ernestina was formerly the Effie M. Morrissey, a schooner that sailed out of Brigus, Newfoundland, with Captain Bob Bartlett as skipper. This vessel took Bartlett and his crew on many Arctic polar adventures in the 1920s and 30s.
But, back to the story: while I was positioning the skipper, Capt. Daniel Moreland, behind the wheel as instructed, I inadvertently struck a gentlemen standing behind me. I heard a grunt from the unfortunate fellow, but I was so concentrated on the task at hand that I was less than compassionate toward the person I bumped into. I think I might have hastily muttered a “Sorry.” I used my two minutes and got the picture as instructed, thanked the skipper, and we parted ways.
As I was coming off the brow, several crew members on the jetty were having a grand laugh. And, it turned out I was the subject of their amusement.
Not so amused, I asked what the hell was so funny? “Do you know who that was that you just elbowed?” was the answer. Curious if I was being set up as the local idiot, I responded, “No.”
As it turned out, I was most definitely the local idiot. The victim of my flailing elbows was none other than Christopher Reeve. Yes, the Christopher Reeve—Superman, himself!
Now this was a news story. I loaded a new roll of film in my camera and hunkered down to wait him out. He was, after all, on a 150-foot schooner and would eventually have to come topside from the skipper’s stateroom.
I waited about an hour before he came on deck, and I sheepishly and properly introduced myself, apologizing profusely for my less than professional conduct earlier. He instantly recognized me for what I was: a rank amateur that loved photography and was trying to establish himself in a small town with a community newspaper. This was a far cry from the Hollywood lights and big screen he was so familiar with.
He was one of the most gracious men I have had the opportunity to meet. He allowed that if I had the tenacity to wait in this weather he would be honoured to permit me to take his photograph for the community newspaper. I kid you not: his words were, “I would be honoured.”
He did have one proviso that I respect his and his family’s privacy by not releasing the photos until after he left on his yacht on Friday. I remember it was Friday because Thursday was “paper day” for the weekly, and I knew this was going to create a problem with the editor—and it did. However, the photos were not released until the following week’s edition.
Christopher Reeve actually took a very casual command of the scene by asking Captain Moreland to join him in the frame. I remember him asking if my lens was 50 mm, then looked skyward to see where the sun might be. As Reeve turned around he asked Moreland to remove his hat, as if knowing the skipper would scratch his head, and asked if I got it. I did. The entire shoot with Christopher Reeve was over in about 30 seconds, but the lessons learned have lasted a lifetime.
The point of this story is directed toward budding photographers: you are only as good as the talent in front of your lens. When building your portfolio work with professionals who know their stuff—their professionalism will make you look professional. Save your money and go directly to a casting agency that works in the film industry to get the best talent you can afford for that portfolio shot. You will be remembered for that one stellar shot that raises you above the masses, not the 10 mediocre images that will get lost within the crowd.