Sustainability and success as a photographer is built upon small flashes of opportunities. On occasion, the opportunities come at a cost, but no matter the risk, most chances are always worth seizing.
My friends in King Sixteen had been working tirelessly with Fossil and Crosley on an event in Nashville, Tennessee to celebrate their new collaborative watch. My team was contracted to provide coverage of the event and capture a few portraits of key influencers that had been promoting the event and watch on social media. I was there to manage my staff and simply have a good time. With our experience with Kentucky Derby, I knew this activation would be a breeze and trusted my team to capture the shot list on my behalf.
Time and time again the name “KJ” kept coming to light, without explanation of who this person was and what their role involved. What was previously a simple shot of KJ on a step-and-repeat turned into a full blown portrait that my staff was responsible for capturing.
I didn’t know who KJ Apa was, and you may not either. It wasn’t until I was casually chatting about this “KJ guy” with my girlfriend, Alexandra, the day of the event. We simply assumed he was an influencer or another country musician. But, it was that moment where everything clicked for her and was met with a shocking scream. “YOU MEAN KJ APA!?”
After a quick Google search, I realized this “KJ guy” is a legit celebrity. KJ is a 21 year-old kiwi with a casual 15 million followers and a star of the show “Riverdale” and the Netflix film The Last Summer.
Boom. A flash of opportunity that I had to snatch, despite previously having no intention of picking up a camera, I had every intention of making this everything it could be. Fortunately, my staff had prepared for something like this to happen and we had all the necessary equipment for a bona fide celebrity portrait shoot. But, from my experience, a celebrity portrait is less about equipment more about pace, efficiency and speed.
As a portrait 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.
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.
While I didn’t have much common ground with KJ, other than music, I had a few ideas on how to build the bridge quickly. But, first we had to get the location locked in and a detailed plan of how we were actually going to pull this all off. At first, I had planned to photograph KJ throughout the music venue, The Listening Room, which hosted the event, but the venue adorned all black walls and ceilings; a light-sucking negative space. Luckily, Fossil had setup a crazy cool Airstream trailer near the entrance of the venue as apart of their activation. Space was very limited, but I knew this was our only option.
Although, I was told we would have nearly 20 minutes with KJ, I knew that was fairly unrealistic timeline for a celebrity. Therefore, we planned for 5 minutes. Along with my assistants, we developed a detailed process and map of how we were to photograph KJ.
Set 1: KJ to lean on the trailer, assistant hand hold a Profoto B10 at 4.5 Power modified with a 39" Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octabox.
Set 2: Drop the modifier, use Profoto A1 for direct flash, at 4.5 Power, no modification.
Set 3: Open door, KJ to sit on couch at the end of the trailer, assistant hand hold a Profoto B10 at 4.5 Power modified with a 39" Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octabox.
Set 4: Drop the modifier, use Profoto A1 for direct flash, at 4.5 Power, no modification.
Set 5: KJ to move to opposite end of the trailer, lean on table. Assistant hand hold a Profoto A1 at 4.5 Power, no modification, direct flash.
Set 6: KJ to move to record player, detail shot of hand and watch. Assistant hand hold a Profoto A1 at 4.5 Power, no modification, bounce into the ceiling.
The set list was ambitious, but we rehearsed the movement and lighting over and over for a completely seamless time with KJ. With nearly 10 frames per set, we clocked in at just over 5 minutes. This was very run and gun for a celebrity portrait, but since space was so limited in the trailer my assistant would simply hand hold everything, rather than setup staging.
Showtime. KJ arrived promptly at 8:00pm and security moved in to push back any people that had wandered into the trailer or were lingering near the entrance. I introduced myself and briefly chatted, as planned as we quickly walked through what we had planned. His expectations were a quick shot near the entrance, but we had turned this into a legitimate shoot. He was seemed surprised at first, but was totally game.
Set 1: quick, 10 frames.
Set 2: scrap. KJ understandably felt a little uncomfortable with everyone staring at him outside the trailer.
Set 3: beautiful. Drop camera, quick chat about music while we transition.
Set 4: awesome, 5 frames.
Set 5: amazing. KJ knows what he is doing, naturally!
Set 6: quick, 6 frames. Wrap!
KJ was a real professional and so gracious. He was the first celebrity I’ve worked with to actually slow everything down and ask if we needed anything else. Although I was tempted to work in another impromptu set, I shook his hand and thanked him for his time. I reviewed the 60 photographs and was so excited I showed KJ a few on the back of my camera(no time for tethering) and he loved them. I stood by his side a bit, while the Fossil social media team did a series of Instagram stories and videos.
Fossil and I agreed to have a workstation on-site so I could edit and color a few selections to be delivered the same evening. I headed to our staging area and made a small selection of the best of the best. Colored and delivered. KJ and his team loved the photography and made a post on Instagram the same evening with my image. That post now has over 1.2 million likes.
The rest of the evening was filled with great bourbon, great music and a lot of fun. But, I felt a sense of relief when it was all over. What was first a casual event turned into a beautiful opportunity and photography that will surely be a staple in my portfolio forever.
Thank you to Jordan Hartley, Sean Reagan, Joseph Hart and the team a Fossil, Crosley Records and King Sixteen.