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Portraits Under Pressure

Lesson 18 of 28

The Importance of Being Prepared

Victoria Will

Portraits Under Pressure

Victoria Will

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Lesson Info

18. The Importance of Being Prepared
Portrait photographers often walk into a location blind -- but that doesn't make preparation any less essential. Walk through the process of preparing, learn how to scout locations if you can, and dive into the process of building flexible ideas pre-shoot. Learn the gear Victoria brings with her and more.

Lesson Info

The Importance of Being Prepared

You know, yesterday we talked about connection, of course, and we talked about having that point of view, and we'll continue to talk about that today, but we haven't talked too much about being prepared. And I'm into this situation blind, and so I'm gonna have to prepare as much as possible. And my favorite phrase which I say all the time is that luck favors the prepared. So when people look at some of my images, they will ask me, you know what, I have to change one thing up here. We're gonna do this, if it, 'cause I need to do the slide show, play? But I'm not seeing my notes. Slide show. Sorry about that, folks. Keynote and I are recent acquaintances. That's not gonna work. While you're doing that, while you're figuring that out, I wanted to remind everybody how it is that you can participate in our live event here. There are two different ways. One, you can, and Jamie, could we get some help over here? Yeah. Yeah? Workin' on it. Great, awesome, sorry. There are two differe...

nt ways. One is you can join us in the chatroom, and you do that by clicking on On Air beneath the video that you're watching, and there is a chat box. You can then (laughs), you can then join the thousands of people who are joining us all over the world. We'd love for you to share ideas with each other, resources with each other. A lot of times, people are saying, "Wait, what was that name?" And you can go and ask each other. Hopefully someone can help you with that. We also have a space for you to ask questions that is directly for Victoria. That is in the Ask box, and that, again, is for questions about the content. We try to get to as many of those as we can. So are we all good? Yeah. Back over to you, Victoria. All good. So do you guys have classes on Keynote here at Creative Live? Yes, we do. Apparently I need to take one. So I talked to you guys. I'm gonna try to speed this up so that we can get to the shooting, but obviously, we you can prepare, you wanna scout the location, right? You wanna see the space that you're going into, and you most importantly want to check that space if you can at the same time of day that you're gonna be shooting, because that's gonna tell you a lot. If you're gonna be shooting at sunset, don't check it at 11 a.m. because it's different circumstances. And come up with ideas. I do think it's important to have sort of a plan A, a general idea of what you're trying to achieve, but when you walk into the room, you have to be willing to throw that all out the window. But most of the time, I think you're starting with A, and then you're building off of it, plan A, and you're building off of it. And willing to be flexible is really important. So I bring, I talked to you guys about it yesterday, and I've given you a list of gear that I tend to bring to these shoots where I don't know what I'm doing. I bring three to four lights, all batteries, stands for those, of course, and a bunch of modifiers, a beauty dish with a grid, a Photek Softlighter, probably a regular just small umbrella, just to have it, you never know, a strip light, a small strip light. I prefer the much smaller ones 'cause I like having more control. I bring that baby stand, the really small one. And in my cases, I'll have clamps and maybe some gels, just because, you never know when circumstances might call for it, gaff tape, of course, screwdriver. Assistants are really great at having actual physical tools. Sometimes I need to remove paintings from walls and things like that, so it's just sort of being able to think on the fly. And then, when you have these opportunities or when you're on set, you have to make your own opportunities, and I'm gonna talk a little bit more about that now. So just to recap, a lot of what we've been talking about preparation, when you're prepared, you have more confidence. When you have more confidence, you're able to connect. And it's all intertwined. And then lastly, which I've said a lot, is that when in doubt, when you're struggling, simplify. When I'm really having a hard time, I just, I'm like break it down, it's about the portrait, stop, stop what you're doing and make it about the image. So I'm gonna do, I have a couple examples, and I want to tell you just about how these pictures happened. One of the very first magazine assignments I got when I left the newspaper was to photograph President Clinton. No pressure. I was told I was gonna have a little bit of time after one of his speeches. He was gonna to up to his hotel room. He was gonna be interviewed by a reporter, and my job, what I was actually being hired to do, was photograph the president while he was being interviewed and that interaction. And I thought to myself, I will absolutely do that, but if I have the opportunity to photograph the president of the United States, I'm going to try and make a portrait. So I brought the lighting kit that I just described to you, I brought a seamless, and I brought an assistant because I couldn't carry all of it on my own. And this was right after I left, so I wasn't working with assistants as much then. We walked into the room, my assistant and I quickly put everything up, I ran over, I did what I was hired to do. I photographed the interview process and that conversation, and then before they were done, and they were sort of wrapping up, I said, excuse me, Mr. President, if you wouldn't mind, may I have three minutes of your undivided attention? And he said, "Absolutely." And this man likes to talk more than I do. So it was wonderful, and I actually think I had about five minutes, and then his body man tapped me on the shoulder and said, "He has a meeting with the president "of Azerbaijan in the next room." And I thought, probably more important than what we're doing here, but we had a great conversation. And one thing to note about this image is that when I first went through my edit, this image wasn't there. I thought that this was, it was an off moment, and I just kept going, looking for the very traditional headshot. And then I had a friend look through it with me, and she was, we were going through the contacts like I do with you guys, and she's like, "Stop! "What is this, why is this not in your edit?" And I'm like, well, because it's this in-between moment, and you can see all this nonsense. She's like, "That's what makes this so great." And it was a really good reminder for me that sometimes when I'm editing, my vision is so narrow. So another way to be prepared and to have that confidence for a shoot is to be able to ask for what you need. That's really important. Sometimes, this is Dave Grohl, we were supposed to photograph him in his dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater, he was going on Letterman later that night, and the dressing room was really small, very similar to the Brooke Shields photo that I showed you earlier, and I was sort of struggling with how I was gonna make the dressing room work. I wouldn't have shot him necessarily in front of the lights, I probably would have put up a seamless, but the room was so small, and I said, well, why don't we go up on the roof. A lot of times, people say no. Also, a publicist will say, "Well, we can go up on the roof, "but you only have 10 minutes, and getting to the roof "is part of your 10 minutes," and so you have to decide whether that makes sense. But he was all for it, and we went up on the roof, and we took some photos. And this particular one I love. I have a lot of him with eye contact and whatnot, but we only had 10 minutes up there. And what made it so nice is that I don't think that Dave Grohl can walk down the street very much in the middle of New York without being harassed or at least people coming up to him. Maybe harassed is too strong a word. But here he is on the roof of a building in the middle of Times Square essentially, and he's sort of at peace, and I thought that was a really nice moment. So my seven minutes in a hotel room with Brad Pitt. That was pretty fun, I can tell you the details later. No, I'm just kidding. I really had about seven minutes with him, and I showed up two hours early to prepare. And I was put into this room, it had four walls that were very ornate, sort of had almost a grandma feel to it, you can tell by the carpet. And I wasn't, I had no idea what he was gonna be wearing, and I wasn't sure what to do. So I made use of every wall in the room. I put seamless on one. There were windows on another, so I was using the window light there. And then on this wall, I wasn't sure what to do. So because I was there so early, I started going around to the other hotel rooms and knocking on the doors and asking people if they had any furniture I could borrow. People were like, "What, excuse me?" I'm like, do you mind, I'm like looking over their shoulder, do you mind if I, do you have, could I borrow that chaise lounge? And a woman was like, "Absolutely, go for it." And I brought it into our room, and this is how that photo was made. I'm standing on top of my Pelican, by the way, shooting down, and what's interesting about this is of course going back to having the confidence to ask what you need for, ask what you need, he was fine with this. I asked him to sit in the chaise lounge and scoot down, and it was fine, he was totally willing, he loves photography, he shoots a lot on his own. I don't know if you've ever seen, W Magazine published a portfolio of images that he shot of his family, of Angelina at home, and they're beautiful and very intimate images. So we talked a lot about cameras. And a couple weeks later, I was asked to shoot Ryan, not Ryan McGinley, Ryan McGinley's a wonderful photographer. No, not Ryan Reynolds. Who's the other really handsome Ryan? Yes! (snaps fingers) Thank you, that's the one! A couple weeks later, I was-- Gosling. Ryan Gosling, yes, I was asked to shoot Ryan Gosling in the exact room, in this room. And how do you reinvent the wheel again, you know? And in that case, I had something a little bit similar, and Ryan walked in and wasn't feelin' it and didn't wanna sit there, and that was fine, so we just moved on. So sometimes people will say no. That's literally the worst-case scenario, and sometimes if people say no, you can't be offended, you just have to say, "Okay, well then let's try something over here," or "What way do you like to be photographed?" That's a really important thing. In this case, and I'll talk about that a couple photos down, in this case, Janelle Monae is really known for wearing black and white, it's sort of her thing, and it works really, and when she came in wearing this sort of classic outfit, we did some photos in the hotel room, and it was great, and then I realized having scouted the room before when I arrived that the shower had this really awesome tile. So I asked her if she would get in the shower with me, and she said yes. This, just be quick, here I put this photo in because I was asked to shoot her, I'm gonna make this story very fast, I was asked to shoot her in a hotel room, so I go there and set up, they call me and they say, "Actually, she's finishing a photo shoot down the road, "and I don't think we're gonna have time. "Can you come to us?" I say, just great, pack everything up, get in the car, go down the road, I walk in, it's this giant photo studio, and she's finishing up an ad campaign for her perfume, and there's a very well-known photographer that I really admire there shooting, and I was like really intimidated and wasn't sure how I was gonna handle it. And I'd put up two seamlesses on a wall, and he had this enormous set, and as I stood there watching him and watching them shoot, I realized that there were, I felt like there were 50 lights up, there were probably 20 lights. But when I was watching them shoot, two lights were firing, and that's when I really started to realize, like a lot of it can be a dog and pony show. So don't get intimidated by it, and don't get caught up in that. So after I saw that, I was like, well, he's using two lights, I'm gonna use one. (laughs) Which is what I did. This is just a beauty dish. And here's just an example, again, I was supposed to shoot her in her office. It was a really generic office. This is Ivanka Trump. So I got there really early and started running around the floors of Trump Towers, and I ended up on the 25th floor which was completely under construction. And the reason why this worked so well is because the story was about how she was building a new hotel in Soho. So I went back upstairs, and I asked her if I set up a light downstairs, this is one large octabank, by the way, would you mind coming down? She said, "No problem" and came down, and it worked out perfectly. I didn't prop a single thing. She just walked in, and she stood there, and everything was hanging the way it was. So the last two or three photos are just quick stories again about preparation and when in doubt, ask the subject how they wanna be photographed, because that really makes it much more of a collaboration. When I photographed Jamie, he started talking about a time that he had been photographed by Annie Leibovitz who'd come to his house, and it was the third or fourth photo shoot in a row where when the photographer got there, they said, "We want you in a wet T-shirt." And he was like, "Why does everybody "want me in a wet T-shirt? "How come no one ever asks me how I wanna be shot?" And I was like, (snaps fingers) ah, that's a great question, and I will do that. And a lot times people say, "Oh, well, I'd love "to be photographed naked with a python down me," which is making reference to an Avedon image, and I'm like, I would love to do that if you have a python. Otherwise, that might be for a later date. But you start to see where their brain is and where they are. Lastly, just another collaboration. I walked in, this is an artist named Terence Koh. His entire house was painted white, so I thought, he was wearing just a regular outfit, typical probably jeans and a white shirt which would have worked, that would work in this room. But I happened to have the courage to ask him, do you have anything that's all black? And he said, "Actually, I'll be right back." And he walked upstairs, and he came down in this coat which was one of his sort of art pieces, and it's made entirely of human hair. So finally, I'm gonna fly through this. This will be in the PDF that you guys have access to. I was at the Toronto Film Festival, and I wanna share with you a situation where I had to think on the fly and where things weren't going as planned. I had to shoot in this hotel room. You can see the space, the window, and this table. I had made a very similar image with a man, with Tom Hiddleston, sipping coffee on a table, and so I was trying, I was really working the situation. This is the other side of the room, by the way, so you can see how large it is. The ceilings are low, and by large, I'm being facetious, not large at all. They're over there, and I am shooting in this area, and I was really struggling to make this work. And I was photographing a director and an actor. So I'm photographing, and I don't know who's coming first. So I have two people, and I'm trying to make this situation work, how am I gonna come up with options. Well, this is where I decided. I was struggling so much with that table because it looked very similar to the image and I had just the day before, and I just wasn't feeling it, and I started with one light. Before I knew it, I had five lights up, and I still didn't like what I was doing, and the director and the actor were on their way, and so I just said, forget it. I put a beauty dish behind me, I had it there, and I just said, all right, simplify, because I'm getting really lost. And I sort of had to follow my own rule, you know, don't get caught up in the photography. So in walks the director Cary, this was for the film Beast of No Nation, and he also did True Detective. If you guys have seen either of those, they're beautifully shot, very, very artistic mind. And so I was again, you know, I'm in the presence of someone who really knows what they're doing. And I loved the gray, so I just sat him on my Pelican, as you can see, next to this table. So I moved the table over quickly, and I just thought on the fly, and I just sat him down, and I have a little bit of fill coming behind me, and you can see that there is this reflector here, so he's getting a little bit of fill from there, it's balancing from the window. Took a few frames, this is the one I love. Next thing I know (snaps fingers), in walks the actor Idris Elba. So I sit him down in the same spot. It's not workin' for me, this isn't before. This image is so much more successful just because of everything about it. The colors, the tones, his expression. Here, I'm a little tighter, it's not working, the blue isn't picking up the room the same way. So I was like, this, I, ah! It's not working! So I just like simplify, all right. So this is what I did, I went back here, I moved my Pelican, I saw him in front of my reflector, I used only the window light, and I made this image. So the moral of the story, don't get too caught up in it, and when in doubt, just simplify.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.


  • Leverage new techniques for choosing the light and locations for a successful portrait
  • Know how to build a rapport and utilize clear communication with your subjects
  • Set up a developed concept as well as how to light on the fly
  • Use successful strategies for marketing yourself as a photographer and how to get your work in front of editors


Portraits require more than just great lighting and equipment. Sometimes a shoot doesn’t go as planned. The location is drab, the client isn’t in the best mood, or you forget to charge your camera batteries. Great portrait photography artists are able to think on their feet, connect with their subjects -- and capture great images under pressure. The best portraits often come from portrait sessions that didn't go exactly as planned, when challenges turn into assets.

Celebrity portrait photographer Victoria Will shows you how to use your environment to capture a unique, sharp image that reflects the person in the portrait. She’ll also highlight how to quickly evaluate a less than perfect situation and make it work for you and your subject. Take your portraits from amateur to near Mona Lisa gallery worthy by learning how to shoot portraits under pressure.

You’ll watch Victoria photograph real people in limited settings, discovering multiple opportunities in a limited space. Learn her three portrait musts for preparation, point-of-view, and connection. Gain insight into how to make every frame count and how to get the shots the editor requested, as well as those that speak to your vision. Learn how to make your subject feel comfortable in only a few moments while capturing exquisite photo collections in Portraits Under Pressure.


The photographer looking to improve their portraiture through thoughtful lighting, creative techniques and leveraging the environment around you to get a consistent appearance.


Victoria Will’s background as an American photojournalist and celebrity photographer has helped her to develop techniques on editorial assignments to quickly connect with a subject. Her career began as a photojournalist for the New York Post and grew into a sharp portrait photography focus that opened opportunities to photograph celebrities. She continues to work in New York as an artist specializing in portraits and commercial work.


Helena Sung

This was a great class and I learned a ton! It was amazing to watch Victoria Will in action -- shooting portraits under pressure. I learned a lot watching her walk into an unknown situation -- not knowing the location, what the natural lighting situation would be, and only knowing she had 15 minutes for the shoot. I loved watching her problem solve on the spot with lightning and tight, dark spaces. She also taught a lot about how she interacts with her subjects -- always putting them at ease (like you're the host at a dinner party -- gem!) It's much easier for a photographer to take pictures in their studio, but this course was not about that. This was watching a photographer handle real world situations under time pressure and think on her feet. Loved it! I also loved the parts where she culled her photos afterwards and picked out the ones that caught her eye. In most instances, I found myself agreeing with her!! When she gets subjects to stand up and sit back down, it is the in-between moments she is looking for, or the moment right afterwards -- genius!! Oh, lastly, I loved how she went through stunning images she shot of celebrities like Brad Pitt and Janelle Monae and gave us the backstory of how she creatively problem-solved to get the shot! Hello, showing up two hours before a shoot and knocking on random hotel room doors for furniture?!! Of course she could do that because she has a lovely, warm personality! Oh, and by the way, the bits she shares about her early career path is very inspiring!

Robert Negrin

Great course! And the best part was the honesty. I was an executive in a fortune 500 company and what the critics watching this course missed is that there are a lot of talented photographers, actors, singers, accountants and even landscapers, but there are very few that are successful and accomplished. Yes, part of it may involve a certain degree of luck, but most of it is the drive and desire to suceed. It is obvious you have both. I used to beleive that a true image could only be captured by styling the shot, metering light and controlling the subject. (Yes, I shot film...complete with developing and printing all my images) Then, one day I realized that, if deliberate-shooting was the right way, why then most of the great images I have were the result of quick, rather than deliberate reactions. I get it Victoria. Love your style and how you get there. Three things I learned today are that the conditions... even the background, do not have to be perfect if the image is strong enough to carry the message. Second, setting up to capture the perfect image, misses all the imperfect, epic moments. Third, I disagreed with almost every image you picked until they were isolated from the rest. Then they made perfect sense. Well done. :) Robert Gabriel

Meredith Zinner Photography

I really love Victoria and her work. She's something suuuuper special and showed me a fab new way to look at portraits. I love her openness, honesty, the whole 'you're at my dinner party' intimacy, care and respect for her clients and am SO impressed at how quickly and reliably she's able to transform any location to suit her needs. She's super impressive, professional and inspiring thank you!