Luke Bryan, for Rolling Stone Magazine- Deconstructed

Rolling Stone just asked me to photograph country star, Luke Bryan, for the new issue of the magazine (with Justin Beiber on the cover). The shoot involved three scenarios- the first of which was to spend some time with Luke crafting a couple of backstage portraits, the second was to shoot the pre-show meet-and-greet, and finally, to shoot the live show. The general idea of the feature, as I understand it, was to introduce Luke to the Rolling Stone crowd, and show just how huge country music is (Luke is making the transition from arenas to stadiums, as we speak).

Initially, I was told that Luke’s management/publicists had set aside 30 minutes for our portrait session– which is impressive, and generally unheard of in my World.  Five minutes (or less) is more typical of what any major musician or celebrity gives the photographer. With that said, I was certain I wouldn’t get that full 30 minutes, and was hoping for 15, at best.

After being escorted around the venue, meeting with management, and scouting out a few locations, I got approval for three of the four I wanted to shoot.  Keep in mind that when I arrived, his manager pointed to one single dark room, asked if I bought flashes with me, and said I should shoot my portrait there.

As photographers on assignment, we often need to stand our ground (politely and professionally, of course), and push to make happen what needs to happen. To turn around one single portrait scenario in a mediocre room doesn’t always fly, nor necessarily make for a happy client. After explaining that I needed a bit more than that and showing them a couple of options, I quickly got his team on board with the idea, and they were happy to accommodate.

After getting approvals for each location, I had about twenty minutes to setup before Luke was going to arrive.  I had no assistant (though David, the writer from Rolling Stone, did a damn good job!), and knew I had to work fast to be completely set up by the time Luke walked in. Someone with a schedule as tight as his simply isn’t going to wait around while the photographer sets up, and you can’t blame them.

The first two locations were about fifteen feet apart, and I was able to set up and test each of those with one of the lighting guys on Luke’s crew…

I knew what door Luke would be walking in, and made the first setup the one closest to that door.  Sounds simple, but if all he has to do is walk in a straight line from one setup to the next, I just might be buying myself a few more minutes of his time.

When Luke arrived with his crew (manager, publicist, hair, stylist, makeup, etc.), we shook hands and chatted for a few, I told him where to sit, and started firing away. He’s a total pro, has obviously done this more times than any of us can count, and my job is exponentially at this point because of this.

He was incredibly gracious and easy to work with, but I knew my time was limited, so I kept it as short and sweet as possible. In twelve minutes I shot three portrait setups, each with their own feel, and as soon I felt like I nailed the third one, I wrapped the shoot.

It’s a constant balance of timing in a situation like this, and I’m surprised and very happy I had as long as I did to make a couple of frames.

Technical breakdown:

Cameras- Nikon D800 and Leica M (Type 240)

Light Modifier- Westcott 43” Apollo Orb Softbox w/40 degree grid

I knew I had to be able to work quickly, and be extremely mobile– making this a perfect small flash job. This was my first time using this softbox, and I was incredibly impressed by the speed of setup and quality of light. I wanted to make this as soft and creamy as possible, so reversed my flash heads to turn the softbox into an indirect light source, allowing the light to spread and soften before reaching my subject.

Lighting- three Nikon SB900’s triggered by Pocket Wizard Plus II’s

Though the flashes ended up being used at very low power (1/64th), and I could have gotten away with one, I don’t want to put all my trust in a single flash using four AA batteries…plus, SB900’s love to overheat and stop working whenever they feel like it. Using two or three not only breaks up the power load, but ensures dependability, and makes for almost non-existent recycle times- especially at such a low power.


13 responses to "Luke Bryan, for Rolling Stone Magazine- Deconstructed"

  1. AWESOME imagery Drew!

    3:26 pm - 12/03/2014 Reply

  2. Very well done, we can never be too prepared…

    11:52 pm - 12/03/2014 Reply

  3. Great images, Drew. But I really appreciate the breakdown of the setups, the timeline of events, and all the other sundry details. Far too often in the photo world, we see only a final image and rarely know the circumstance surrounding that 1/200th of a second. Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge with the photo community!

    1:04 pm - 13/03/2014 Reply

    • Thanks for reading Jon, and happy to help out anytime at all.

      12:18 pm - 14/03/2014 Reply

  4. Andrew

    Drew, Great work. I like the setup on the spiral stairs the best. Looking at the picture of the three Nikon strobes in the orb (at only 1/64th!) makes me wonder if the traditional big heads are going to be used for anything other than real specialty work in the future. Who is going to need them anymore? I enjoyed reading this post.

    2:51 am - 03/04/2014 Reply

    • Hey Andrew- Thanks for the comment, and it’s an interesting point. For the vast majority of my work, I don’t need a lot of flash power, as I tend to shoot in dark venues, or on the street at night. The last thing I want to do it overpower the scene with flash, as all I really want to do is find the perfect mix of flash and ambient.

      As for larger strobe units, there will always be studio and environmental shooters who need a ton of power. If I were to try and build a high-key full-length studio set with less than 5-7 small flashes, I’d struggle to get the same results as I would with studio strobes. Each have their own place to be sure.

      7:50 pm - 21/04/2014 Reply

  5. Wow, that is impressive. I too thank you for sharing the timeline and set up. I am a HUGE fan of Luke Bryan and always wondered how photographers get the chance to photograph him and what all is involved. Fantastic! 🙂

    4:15 pm - 28/07/2014 Reply

    • Hi Jessica, Thanks so much for the comment, and glad it was informative! Luke was great to work with, and very happy to have gotten that job.


      7:13 pm - 28/07/2014 Reply

  6. Tom

    Hi Drew,

    Found my way here from the Leica blog. Nice piece. We did speak very briefly when you came to London with Joe a few years back.

    Looking at the pictures, I assume you hauled your lights between the sets rather than having three of everything? That being the case, and given the need for speedy set up and low power, do you see continuous lighting ie LED as offering advantages over flash?

    6:53 pm - 11/08/2014 Reply

    • Hey Tom!

      So sorry for the slow response here, but wanted to finally get back to you..

      I did have to lug gear from set to set on that shoot, but I stuck with flash, as I usually do. The two main reasons are access to a huge variety of light shapers with flash that simply aren’t available with LED lights, and also having the power I *might* need. LEDs don’t give off that much power when it comes down to it, and though i’ve played with a few of them, I still do vastly prefer flash almost any day of the week.

      Thanks for saying hi, and keep in touch!

      9:34 pm - 15/09/2014 Reply

  7. Drew – Very cool breakdown of how that session happened. I came across your website & blog from McNally. I use Nikon Speedlights too and I love them, but am considering Profoto B1’s for situations of needing slightly more power and faster recycle times, while still maintaining some sense of portability. Just wondered your take on multipule speedlights vs Profoto B1’s. (I know the B1’s are SUPER expensive..!)

    I’m glad you didn’t listen to his manager who wanted you to shoot in an empty dark room. Take it from me, rock and roll managers should not be choosing portrait locations.

    6:11 am - 16/09/2014 Reply

    • Hey Murphy- Thanks for checking out the blog, and appreciate the feedback! Yes, the B1’s are expensive, but not if you consider that one of them has the same power as about five and a half speed lights, and when you see the amazing line of light shapers available. Their RFi line of soft boxes (which I use) are actually really affordable, and the quality is truly top notch.

      I think both have their place for sure, but I’m absolutely in love with the B1’s, and would highly recommend them.

      …and yes, never listen to the band manager 🙂

      3:41 pm - 16/09/2014 Reply

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