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Portraits Under Pressure

Lesson 6 of 28

Victoria's Sundance Experience


Portraits Under Pressure

Lesson 6 of 28

Victoria's Sundance Experience


Lesson Info

Victoria's Sundance Experience

To show you sort of how I've stepped out of my comfort zone, I'm gonna show you the last few years that I've gone to Sundance, the film festival. Because it's what I consider my creative bootcamp. So, if you're not familiar with what Sundance is, other than, obviously, it's a film festival, but what it is on the creative side. Similar to those junkets that I described, photographers get asked to go to Sundance and set up a studio in a space similar to this. And during the year, they're other things. They're ski shops and they're t-shirt stores and they're restaurants and they're pet stores, because I actually shot in one that was, the rest of the year was a pet store, but during the film festival, they clear everything out and then they bring in Hollywood, basically. And I set up a studio and down the street is InStyle and, you know, down the street from there is The Hollywood Reporter, and so on and so on. So, the casts of the movies come from one to the other and you have your appoin...

tments and it's, I'm sure, to the talent, it feels a lot like Groundhog Day. It tends to feel like that as a photographer, as well. Because I'm here and they're just coming to me in these 15-minute intervals. In those 15 minutes, I have to shoot individuals of everybody, a group shot of the cast, and then occasionally, you know, the lead and the director. So sort of little bits of doubles. So if I have a cast of seven, I have to jam it in really fast. If I have a cast of two, then I have time to breathe. And I do this for five days, sometimes six. And through, halfway through the first day, I've shot 30 people. So I'm already visually getting bored with what I've set up. And it just starts to go from there. So I'll show you a couple years. This was the first year, in the lobby of a pet store. I decided, you know, a lot of photographers go out to Sundance and these other film festivals, Toronto and Cannes and whatnot, and they do these studios. And I, again, what's my contribution? How am I gonna make this different? So I thought, I thought I had a genius idea, I was going to make it more interactive and so I, this is a chalkboard that I made. And it was a really good idea, except that Kerry Washington is the only actress who could draw. The only actor. No fault of their own, they're really good at what they do, but, (laughing) I can't draw either. So we would collaborate and we'd come up with these great ideas and we couldn't really illustrate it, other than to make little devil horns or tails, you know, and people would step into it. And that worked. But when you have 200 people to do, it was a challenge. And if I did it again, and if you guys take this idea to use it, please do, hire a professional artist to draw things out and make it look really good, and then stick the, your subjects in it. So, here we are, the thing about the chalkboard was, the lesson I learned really was about collaborating and also, sometimes it's okay to put what you need on the subject, and say, do you have any ideas? Do you have a way that you wanna be shot? It doesn't have to be you thinking all the time and coming up with everything and doing all the heavy lifting. So I also shot a lot on Seamless that year. And I would bring, I had a whole bunch of rolls set up and depending on what people were wearing, I would say, go live on the green set, and we'd roll down the green, or go live on the gray, and we'd roll it up, up the green and down the gray. The next year, I decided I wanted much more colorful backgrounds. So I took V-flats and I taped and stapled fabric to them and then based on what people are wearing, I just slide in the backgrounds. I also had a white setup, essentially, in the studio right here, for just very straightforward, clean, and for group shots. But, as you can see, I'm working in a space that's about six feet by four feet. V-flats are four feet by eight, so. And here are some of those pictures. The third year, I wanted to do something a little bit more artful. And I decided on textured canvases. And so these are some of those. I'll go back to show you that room that we were in. There it is. In all its glory. It was a fun room, though. Again, you can make a beautiful portrait in any space. So, go forward. The next year, I decided to go rogue. I was still hired to shoot digital portraits and I was gonna do that. So I showed up at Sundance and set up my digital situation, but I also decided that this year, I really wanted to try something off the grid that nobody had done. So I decided I was gonna do tintypes. So I'd spent a lot of time, actually, from the previous year to then, learning how to do it. In theory. I hadn't actually physically done it. I had read books and talked to people and I had done, you know, I had watched tutorials. But I hadn't actually done it. But the thing was, is that I was there, I wasn't there to do it, so it was, you know, it was sort of a situation where it was like, you can go for broke, here. Because if it turns out and I come away with, you know, 10 plates, this is gonna be great, it's gonna be so fun. What a success. And if it doesn't turn out at all, then no big whoop. You know, no harm, no foul. So this was the studio space that year. During the rest of the year, this is where a ski company stores their skis. And this is the length of it. And here we would do the digital stuff. And in the very, the back, against that black door, was where I shot the tintypes, and that little room was our darkroom. So this was the darkroom. And I'm gonna go back to show you, this is the view of what it was like to be my subject. So you, I'm very close to the camera, that's my beauty dish, and then, of course, you can see behind Arthur there, that that was the space I was doing the digital images. So here are some of those. Now, learning that new process was really amazing. It was also a completely different way of shooting. So I would shoot these digital pictures in a very similar way that you just saw and then I would say, I would put the camera down and say, well, if you don't mind, I think I have this, but would you mind coming to the back for a special treat? And people would walk in and smell the chemistry and they would, they'd go, oh, what's going on? I'd say, oh, my assistant's in the back making a plate. And he was back in the darkroom, working his magic, and I would show them some of the others that we made, and they were like, oh, this is really cool, so let's do it. And so I would sit them in front of that camera. And I had one chance to get it right with each person. Because it's a slower process, it's much more deliberate. So instead of walking, the way I had photographs there, and I was sort of asking her questions and getting her there and I was shooting the whole time, sort of shooting through the process, I didn't have that ability here. So I had to do all of that, without clicking the shutter. And so I'd look in the camera and I would really just, I'd have to think to myself, like, are we here, are we here, do we have it, do we have it? And I would talk to the subject about how they wanted to be photographed. Like, what do you, you know, it'd be definitely in collaboration. And some of them would say, oh, I wanna look like I'm a Civil War wife. And I would say, oh, great, okay. You know, they're actors, they're directors, they want, you know, they were role playing and it was really fun. But it also taught me to be a little bit more deliberate in certain situations, and to not press the shutter until I'm ready. There are, I took that, and I definitely, it definitely has affected the way I shoot some of my portraiture, particularly when I'm shooting with film, a medium format camera. I don't do, I don't necessarily have the opportunity to shoot through the process the way I did earlier. I'm also much more directive. I don't have the time, so I really articulate what I'm looking for and what I need. So this is just a couple more of this year. So, when I came back from Sundance, I got asked to make tintypes all the time. I was asked to shoot them at weddings, I was asked to shoot them at corporate events, and to do portraits for some magazines, but I didn't take any of them. Well, first of all, I think it's a great idea at a wedding. But I'm not the right person to do it. Because I'm not a tintypeist, I'm not a tintype photographer, I am a portrait photographer who chose to use tintype as a medium and chose to do wetplate for a specific project because I thought it fit. What I loved is that these are one of a kind and they're raw. These are recognizable faces that we've seen day in and day out. And this is no retouching, nothing, it's just, it is what it is, and there's something very special about that. And I'm not very interested in being a party favor at a wedding, particularly because I give the plates away. I'm making these things, they're really special to me, so that's why I don't do it, but I do think there is a great market out there for people if that is interesting to you and feels inspired. But I did get a call to do a story for the Huffington Post magazine about a set of Marines that suffered from something called moral injury. And I said, you know, doing tintypes, it's very labor-intensive, and I'm, where are these people and where am I gonna be going? But I didn't care, because it felt like the perfect medium to get a point, to get this point across. And the story was about how veterans struggle with moral and ethical ambiguities during war. They come home, and it's not PTSD, it's something else. And the article was a lot about how we treat PTSD, but we're not really treating this. So this is a story of one of the Marines who, when he was in Iraq, was looking through the scope of his gun, they were being shot at, and, you know, he's searching, trying to figure out where the gunfire's coming from. He finds it in the scope, and it's a young boy. And he has to make the decision. Do I shoot him and kill him for the safety of myself and my fellow Marines or do I not? And he did, he shot and killed the boy. And after his third tour, two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, I believe, I could have that backwards, he came back to the United States and had a really, really difficult time, struggling with the fact that he'd killed a child. Because you don't do that. Except, again, these ethical ambiguities of war. He ended up, as you can read in the article, which is fascinating, written by an author named David Wood, he turned to alcoholism to really deal with what he was struggling with and was dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps. And it's a very touching story. And that was an opportunity that I thought that this was the practical medium. And the reason I'm telling you this story is because there is a huge responsibility that comes along with our line of work. Portraiture is important and it's a very powerful thing. And that's what I'm gonna talk to you about now.

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.


  1. Class Introduction

    In the first lesson, meet Victoria and dip your toes into learning her creative process. See the portraits that Victoria has captured in windowless storage rooms and learn why a bad location is no excuse for a bad portrait. Discover why portraits are about preparation, point-of-view, and connection and learn what to expect from the class.

  2. Evaluating Location and Set-Up with Assistant

    Portrait shoots often mean walking into a location that you've never seen before. Walk through the process of evaluating the location and prepping for the shoot. Learn major essentials and smaller tips, like why portrait photographers should deliver multiple images with a consistent appearance but varying orientations.

  3. Editorial/Celebrity Style Shoot

    Think you can't get several great portraits in 15 minutes? Watch a live 15-minute portrait shoot, from communicating poses with the subject to helping the client feel comfortable in front of the camera. Learn how continuous changes help the client feel comfortable while creating variety in a short time frame.

  4. Culling Editorial/Celebrity Style Shoot

    After watching the shoot unfold, see the results as Victoria looks through the images from the 15-minute shoot. Get answers to questions posed from students like you, then watch an image critique.

  5. Victoria's Portrait Journey

    How did Victoria go from a photo of a croissant at a tabloid newspaper to photographing Brad Pitt? Victoria shares her photography journey and the certain events that led to her success. Gain insight into how she moved from her early works to her current portfolio and stunning photo collections.

  6. Victoria's Sundance Experience

    What's more under pressure than a 15-minute time-frame to shoot an entire cast? Victoria walks through her experience shooting celebrity portraits in temporary studios during the Sundance Film festival as a prime example of working under pressure.

  7. The Power of the Portrait

    Rule number one of portrait photography? Portraits are never about the photographer. Victoria walks through the power of the camera and portraits that have changed the national conversation.

  8. How to Connect with Your Subject

    Human nature means most people are uncomfortable in front of a camera -- but portraits aren't about cameras and lighting, it's about the person, Victoria says. Learn how to create a connection that will bring out the person in portrait photography.

  9. Shooting a Commercial Image Part 1

    Photographing people doesn't always fall strictly under a portrait category. Watch Victoria's process through a commercial shoot designed to sell jeans and see how the same portrait photo tips work for commercial work.

  10. Shooting a Commercial Image Part 2

    Continue the dive into commercial portraiture and move into more poses and deeper insight into the process.

  11. Culling the Commercial Shoot

    What do you look for when culling images from a commercial portrait session? Victoria walks through her process and why, when she chooses photos, it's not the always the obvious smiling photo that makes the cut.

  12. Marketing: Websites and Portfolios

    Victoria calls marketing the eye roll of the photography industry -- but it's an important part of working as a professional. Walk through online portfolio advice, marketing photo tips and more in this lesson.

  13. Social Media & Blogs

    Social media is an extension of marketing -- and an essential one. Dive into photo tips for marketing with social media and blogs as a portrait photography artist.

  14. Interview: Lacey Browne, Money Magazine Photo Editor

    Marketing to potential clients is one thing, but what about attracting the attention of a photo editor from a major magazine? Gain insight into what photo editors are looking for when they hire photographers.

  15. Wardrobe and Make-Up Best Practices

    Just like marketing, makeup and wardrobe is an essential subject that photographers don't always have a handle on. Victoria walks through the process of selecting clothing and makeup for the shoot, from making the subject feel comfortable to what colors work best.

  16. How to Work with Agents and Reps

    Portrait photography is not a solo career. Learn how to work on creative teams, starting with finding a rep to working with an agent.

  17. How to Work with Assistants: Skype Interview

    Assistants help portrait sessions move quickly while under pressure -- but shooting with an assistant can be intimidating. Victoria dives into working with assistants and building a relationship through an interview with photo assistant Tim Young.

  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.

  19. Shoot: Conquering Dark Tight Spaces

    Portrait photographers don't always get to pick epic locations. Learn how to create a studio space in a small, dark space and how to assess a tight spot to create multiple different types of portrait images.

  20. Culling Dark Tight Spaces Shoot

    See the result of working in a dark, tight space as Victoria culls and critiques the images from the challenge. Also, watch Victoria's initial reaction and thoughts on the "boring" location for the second shoot.

  21. Shoot: Conquering Boring Spaces

    Learn how to make create interesting, riveting portrait photography in boring spaces. Watch Victoria set up multiple shots in this quick shoot, from re-arranging furniture to adjusting lighting.

  22. Culling Boring Spaces Shoot

    Examine the results of the portrait session in a "boring" space. Watch Victoria critique her own work and see how she progressed from testing the light to developing comfortable poses.

  23. Shoot: Working with Groups - Part 1

    Groups increase the challenges to portrait photography, especially under pressure. Get a behind the scenes look at developing a group portrait, from building a relationship to working with harsh light.

  24. Shoot: Working with Groups - Part 2

    Continue working with group portrait sessions and watch Victoria create her own shade, direct poses, and channel high energy in a group setting.

  25. Culling Working with Groups Shoot

    Build a critical eye by critiquing the group shoot, looking for what works and what doesn't.

  26. Portfolio Best Practices

    Building a portfolio is essential to working as a portrait photography artist. Learn portfolio essentials from how to build your point of view to formatting options. Learn how to create distinctive features to make your work stand out and why a consistent appearance is important. See classical examples of portraiture in Victoria's own portfolio.

  27. Portfolio Best Practices Q&A

    Grab deep insight into the most common portfolio questions in this Q&A session with students in our Seatle studio.

  28. Portfolio Critique

    Listening to photography critiques helps you develop a critical eye for your own work. Learn the common protocol editors follow in a review of photo collections from distinguished artisans in the CreativeLive studio audience, and gain critical insight to use in your own 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!