Jimmy Kimmel is smart. And funny. And really, really busy. But, he is also very gracious and willing to be a part of a photograph that he thinks might be fun.
I was assigned to photograph Jimmy Kimmel to illustrate a magazine feature on celebrity golfers. As is usually the case with a very busy subject, the time he’d be in front of my camera would be extremely limited. So, all the preparation had to be completed before he arrived and there would be no opportunity to beg for more time. Whatever I was going to get had to be done in ten minutes or less. Even though that sounds like a very small window to shoot, it’s really the prep time that often makes the difference between success and failure. While I always love to have unlimited time with a subject, I’d actually prefer unlimited prep time beforehand because that’s often where the shoot evolves into a success by getting everything right before the subject arrives and the clock starts ticking.
This was a very typical situation where at least two portraits needed to be made in less than ten minutes and it had to be shot where the subject actually was rather than in an environment of my choosing. Because of time constraints, it couldn’t be done at some amazingly visual location or at a time when the light might be perfect. Instead, it had to be done in a building attached to the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood where Kimmel shoots his show so that he could continue working while we were setting up the portraits. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to get to use any of the amazing architecture of the old 1926 building or the stage where Jimmy Kimmel Live! is actually produced. Instead, my only choice was to shoot in the basement of the building.
In so many ways, this was a fortunate restriction. The basement was private, it was secure, it had power, it was spacious, and it was very close to where Kimmel would actually be rehearsing his show. Our shoot time wasn’t until 2PM, but we arrived a little after 9am to begin the process of working out the timing and setting up the shots. We’d only have Kimmel for ten minutes, so everything had to be set and ready to go when he arrived at 2pm.
The basement was also the staging area, or green room, where the guests on Jimmy Kimmel Live! waited until it was their turn to appear on the show. Since it was early in the day, the room was completely empty and perfect as a makeshift photo studio. One of the first things I noticed at the back of the room was the fully equipped bar that I imagined might occasionally have been a late night comedy writer’s watering hole. It was private, it was cozy and it was stocked with lots and lots to drink—Red Bull, especially. It was also incredibly well situated to allow me to light it in such a way that I hopefully could make it look like a real bar at 2am.
When I’m doing the pre-production work on a shoot like this, one of the first considerations is who will be the assistant on the project. Great assistants are like a familiar and comfortable old friend. They know your habits, your strengths, your weaknesses and they make you better than you could ever be on your own. To me, the mark of a great assistant is when they regularly anticipate what’s needed and get it taken care of efficiently. For example, when the assistant is handing me a meter at about the time I begin to go looking for it, I know it’s going to be a great shoot and I’m going to be able to focus on the pictures and not on the gear. For this shoot, I had the great Shawn Cullen along to help with the setup and to keep me moving in the right direction.
The ultimate goal when I’m assigned to shoot someone like Jimmy Kimmel is to produce at least two—and often three—completely different portraits that I can offer to the client because I want to be able to give them some choices and not restrict them in any way when it comes to laying out the pages of the magazine. I also want to give myself as many opportunities as possible to have my pictures used. My strategy is that if I give an editor a vertical, a horizontal and an image that works at a small size, I have a good shot at a cover, a spread, a table of contents page image—or all three—which is what I’m really after.
The best thing that can happen to my pictures is that they get used.
And the more pictures that I deliver that show my subject in different and creative ways, the greater my chance of getting good picture placement. Of course, more picture usage usually also means more money in the way of space rates. So, it’s to everyone’s benefit to hit a home run and not just a single when it comes to making more than one great image.
The first portrait that I needed to make was what the editor had specifically requested to illustrate the story. It was a portrait of Kimmel eating a bowl of golf balls and he played along gamely—even somehow forcing several into his mouth until he looked downright frightening.
But, it was the second portrait that used the bar as an environment that I thought might yield a nice image of Kimmel in a more visually interesting way. Fortunately, the bar was constructed mostly out of white plexiglass which made it very conducive to dramatic strobe placement. I worked to make the light quiet and moody by using very controlled sources with grids for most of the light on Kimmel and only one medium soft box used for minimal fill light. I used a bare head with a blue gel behind the bar to give it a moody glow and placed a flag over the top of the head to keep the light from spilling all over the room. I also hung black fabric behind the bar to create a dark background and also to help reduce light spill from behind the bar. My goal was to make it appear that Kimmel was sitting alone in a real bar at 2am instead of under the fluorescent lights of a guest holding area at two in the afternoon.
When my ten minutes with Kimmel was up I had my two portraits and both he and his publicist left happy. Oh, and that beer he’s holding? It was real…and empty, by the time he left.
Five ideas to increase your success behind the camera at a shoot like Jimmy Kimmel:
- Arrive early in order to have time to experiment.
- Work with the environment you have.
- Thank the subject for the time they’ve spent in front of your camera.
- Work with an intelligent and insightful assistant.
- Give the editor or client multiple choices.
Joey Terrill is a Los Angeles-based photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Red Bull, and Sports Illustrated. He teaches workshops and speaks at seminars including the Summit Series Workshops, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, World in Focus, and Nikon School.