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Photo by Nathan Rocky

Group Shots: A-List Country Artists for People Magazine

The Job
I was recently asked to shoot a group portrait for People Magazine showcasing the performers, presenters and executives of the ACM Honors broadcast at Ryman Auditorium. When I got the list of talent we’d be photographing I got quite excited; several artists I had worked with in the past, and it would be great seeing them again! But overall, just an A-List group of country music talent together in one room would be a thrill for any Nashvillian!

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Bottom Row (L to R): Miranda Lambert, Cam, Chris Young, Dierks Bentley, Cole Swindell, Luke Bryan, Dan + Shay Top Row: Thomas Rhett, The Band Perry, Keith Urban, Kelsea Ballerini, Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town

We would have 2.5hrs to pre-light and 30minutes to shoot. We had 3 phases of the groupings to get through, the Performers, the Performers and Presenters, and finally the Performers, Presenters and the ACM executives. A lofty task right out the gates, but I oddly enjoy shoots that have a time challenge aspect to them, it’s a bit of a rush.

I would be working with set designer Britt Johnson, who I had worked with on prior photo shoots, to start planning on how we would stage so many people. The room we were given to shoot in was a great size for just about anything you want to shoot, outside of a 40 person group shot! We spent a lot of time working out that specific issue over coffee and emails.

The Shoot
Doing a photo shoot alongside a television production means that things can be a bit chaotic. It isn’t normally anyones fault, more that there are multiple companies (venue, magazine, network, production company, etc..) all working their own agendas that at the end of the day end in the same place, but communication can get mixed up and difficult fairly easily.

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That being said, we were about a half hour late getting the grip truck unloaded and multiple loads of gear up the elevator. A great thing to keep in mind when working alongside productions like these is that you need to make bumper time for delays. It’s almost inevitable, and if you don’t consider them a possibility while scheduling your shoots setup, you may easily find yourself running behind.

I had my A-Team on set that day so the delays were no problem. To add to that, the talent was going to be late getting to set (supposed to be 6:15pm, ended up being 6:35pm).

Because we were the last stop before they went in for the show, we were on a VERY strict time frame and from first shot to last, we had talent and shot all 3 groups in 8min. Quiet the rush!

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The Set
As I said before, I was working with rockstar set designer and decorator Britt Johnson on this shoot, and the room we were working with was a bit smaller than we would have preferred. So, how do we give each of these large personalities the proper amount of space when space is one of our main issues? We decided to go the layering route with 2 different heights of risers from our rental house and chairs from the prop house.

We knew the main image People Mag was going to run would be the 1st grouping, 28 people, but that by the end of the shoot we would have about 40 people, so the set had to be a bit versatile. Can’t feel empty with 28, but needs to fit 40.

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The Lighting
I personally love the challenges that come with lighting people and groups. I can inch light stands around all day long till it’s perfect if you let me!

Large groups can be tricky when you’re trying to do a lot of light shaping in-camera. We had four key lights for this shot, and we viewed it as lighting in quarters. The difficult part is that every time you move a single key light, it affects the sections to the left and right to some degree. So we might have the first 2 sections lit well, but when we move the light for the 3rd section you’ll now have to got back to section 2 for tweaks. Quite a bit of small changes in light direction, a lot of back and forth.

For me, the important part was getting a good highlight on the face with a nice shadow to help shape facial features.
We did this by using medium Photek umbrellas as the key lights positioned well above the talent, up to the ceiling. We went with Photek because the ceiling height was an issue and, when horizontal, the umbrellas are fairly shallow. Once we started to position lights we gave most a strong angle and it still worked with the ceiling height.

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The Key lights were on mega booms which we launched from the fill lights. We needed to keep all stands and grip as far back from the set as possible:

1) Because when the talent poured in, the room was about 150 people deep and we needed room
2) With the angle and focal length we were working with, we had about 2 inches on either side of the frame of negative space before we saw grip. It was a very tight set so having those mega booms to keep stands away from the set was absolutely crucial.

In addition to our key lights we had three 74-inch Elinchrom Octas for fill light, positioned to the right and left of camera. I love a good fill light, really helps with large groups to pull out a lot of otherwise missed details.

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The Camera
Possibly my favorite part of this shoot, well at least for the inner detail nerd in me, was using the new Phase One XF 100MP system!

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The beefy files this bad boy puts out are truly amazing and fun to work on. For a shoot where head swapping in post was almost inevitable, being able to work with that type of resolution is a dream for compositing. We shot at 1/800s at f/12, ISO 200. That aperture gave us the ability to focus toward the center row of artists and have the ones in front and behind still fall into focus. Shooting at 1/800s made sure all those wiggling artists were nice and frozen in the frame.

If you aren’t familiar with medium format systems you might be asking how we can flash sync at 1/800th of a sec when your DSLR can only sync at 1/160-1/250. The Phase One cameras are made with leaf shutters that allow them to sync at speeds up to 1/1600th of a second. A lot of medium format cameras can’t shoot at high shutter speeds like 1/8000th the way DSLRs can, but for what I shoot I’d take that sync speed over shutter speed any day!

What makes the final image even more exciting is that it is made up of 2 separate images. A left frame and a right frame. All artists were present at the time of the shoot, but we would pan left and right to fit everyone in. The decision to shoot two frames goes back to dealing with the size of our room. We could have used a 24mm lens, but didn’t feel that it would give us the look we wanted. A 120mm lens would have been great, but I would have needed another 20ft of space to backup and shoot from, just not possible. So we shot at 80mm and doubled the image, which makes for some incredible detail when you stitch together two 100mp images into one.

Below is an example of the resolution power of the XF 100MP! Notice Charles Kelley’s face on the left side of the screen grab from Capture One; that’s at 100%. And at 100% there is every bit of detail you’d want to find and work with!
Bravo Phase One! This is one fantastic system!

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As wild as this shoot was, the controlled chaos of it all is why I love working with big names in high pressure situations. It puts you in a place where you have minutes, or sometimes less, to perform and get the job done or fail. It’s both a rush and a unique time of being extra focused and a grade A problem solver.

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One thing I feel like I relearn every time I have a shoot like this, and something you should always remember, is that when chaos is in the air and you have 100 people asking questions, keep your cool. As the photographer, it’s your set, you’re the captain and everyone is looking to you for direction. As long as in the chaos, or at least perceived chaos that those not in the know of things may see, you remain calm and un-flustered, giving strong direction (and maybe even with a smile), people will calm down, talent will trust you and a successful shoot will follow.

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You can see more of Robby’s work at RobbyKlein.com, and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

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