You could hear a pin drop when he entered the studio. Six feet, two inches. Two hundred-plus pounds. All muscle. No expression. “We were like, Oh my god,” says Hernan Rodriguez. It was his first session photographing former pro boxer Evander Holyfield. “He’s like this wall,” says Rodriquez. “He’s very stoic. So he’s very intimidating.”
The first 40 minutes of the session were sweat-inducing for Rodriguez, who couldn’t seem to break the ice with his steely subject. “I’m like, Evander, just lean forward and put your hand here and give me that look. And he is like, What look?” He just wasn’t having it," says Rodriguez. It seemed there was no making a cover model out of a four-time world heavyweight champion.
Then Rodriguez remembered something. Before the session, Holyfield’s wife had told Rodriguez, “Whatever you do, make sure you have fresh fruit on the table and make sure you have Motown.” The fruit was laid out, but Rodriguez and his team had blanked on the music. He paused the session for Holyfield to make a wardrobe change, and when the boxer returned, the Motown music was cued up. After that, the mood completely changed, Rodriguez says. Holyfield was dancing, smiling ear to ear, making conversation. “I swear after that, the next five hours were magical. Everything was perfect. It took the music to get him on the same page.”
After the session, a friendship blossomed between Rodriguez and Holyfield, who hired Rodriguez on as his personal photographer. Over the past 10 years, Rodriguez has made Holyfield’s marketing images and family photos, photographed his 50th birthday party, and even made images of Holyfield carrying Mohammed Ali into the boxing ring at Ali’s 70th birthday party.
It’s crazy to think that the partnership was sparked by a cold call. Rodriguez, who specializes in celebrity portrait photography, was watching a boxing match one day when he had the idea to send Holyfield an email asking if he needed a photographer. Four months later he got a phone call from Holyfield’s wife saying they wanted to take Rodriquez up on the offer. When it comes to prospecting, a lot of it has to do with timing, he says. And it just happened Holyfield was in need of new marketing images at the time Rodriguez reached out.
Like many photographers, Rodriguez began his career by experimenting with many types of photography—family portraits, beauty, advertising. But his dream was to make portraits of celebrities, so he began moving toward that niche. He offers the following tips for photographers hoping to blaze a similar trail:
Find a mentor. If you want advice, you might as well start at the top. Rodriguez wasn’t shy about cold calling established celebrity portrait photographers for guidance on everything from techniques to pricing. “You don’t know everything, so it’s good to associate yourself with people who have gone through that pursuit,” he says. For example, if he saw an image he liked but couldn’t figure out how it was made, he’d email the photographer directly to see if they would share specifics on the lighting, techniques, and equipment. You’d be surprised how often he got replies. “It’s an industry that is competitive but also really open to helping other people out,” he says.
Design your website to reflect your specialty. Once you’ve decided on your ideal niche, strip everything else from your website. And display only your absolute gems; never pad your site with so-so work. “You are better having 10 strong images than 40 images of everything,” Rodriguez says. Make sure the site is easy to navigate and updated regularly. “I see [some] photographers’ websites [and they’re] so complicated that I bug off after 20 seconds,” he says. Rodriguez uses a simple Wordpress template so he can easily update his site without the help of a contractor.
Do complimentary sessions when it makes sense. The Catch-22 of committing to the celebrity portrait niche is that you can’t get the work until your portfolio reflects it, but you can’t build a portfolio without celebrity clients. Especially when you’re starting out, you might get a long-term payoff by investing your time in a complimentary portrait session for a celebrity whose images will legitimize your portfolio or a well-connected agent who will contact you for future paid assignments.
Network in the right circle of influence. Put your work in front of celebrities’ agents you’re targeting, whether that’s musicians, actors, or athletes.
Don’t be afraid to prospect. As evidenced by Rodriguez’s longtime partnership with Holyfield, you never know when a cold call or cold email will land you an amazing gig. Even though his business is now largely fueled by referrals, Rodriguez still occasionally prospects for new clients to expand his network.
Any portrait session can be challenging, but when a celebrity is your subject, the stakes may seem higher. Here’s Rodriguez’s advice on how to ensure a smooth session:
Determine the intent of the portrait. Before the session, send an email to the client (typically the celebrity’s agent) to get a clear understanding about the purpose for the images. The last thing you want to do, for example, is create bright lifestyle portraits for a client who wants an intimate, cinematic look.
Build trust with your subject. Without trust, Rodriguez can’t capture the genuine expression he desires. So to prepare for each session, he first researches the celebrity to get a feel for the images they like, their work, and their personality. “A session is an interaction that is really conversational,” he says, so excellent people skills are a must. When he first began photographing celebrities, Rodriguez wasn’t confident in his people skills, so to compensate he hired an assistant with an outgoing personality whose sole job was to chat and joke with his subjects while Rodriguez and his lighting assistant made photos. Over time, that assistant’s skills rubbed off on Rodriguez, and he now feels confident filling the role himself.
Let the subject guide the tone of the session. Some subjects want instruction; others don’t. An introverted actress, for example, may expect the kind of close direction she receives on a movie set, while a comedian is more comfortable cracking jokes than striking guided poses. “I have photographed three iconic comedians and the more I dictated the session, the worse it got,” says Rodriguez. “So I learned to release. When somebody comes in with a strong personality, I let them lead and I just follow. … That is fine to take a backseat and let them direct. The worst thing you can do is be an opposing factor.”
With a family portrait or wedding photography business, the session is typically a flat rate, with the bulk of money earned via the sale of prints and albums. With celebrity portrait photography, earning a living is a bit more nuanced, explains Rodriguez. In some cases, he invests time in a complimentary session with a celebrity because he knows it will strengthen his network and his portfolio. He’ll also own the rights to the images and can shop them around after the session. For example, in one year he made $9,000 from one Holyfield image created during a private session that he sold to several different buyers.
In other cases, Rodriguez is hired by a magazine or a commercial account for a session with a celebrity and paid a flat rate. For example, for a two and a half hour session with one celebrity for a line of workout clothing, Rodriguez made $3,500. The downside is that images created for a specific brand obviously can’t be sold to another.
Though the photographer always owns the rights to images, those rights can be bought out if the photographer agrees to it. Two years after Rodriguez shot a session with comedian Eddie Griffin, Showtime wanted to buy the rights to one of the images to use in its advertising. You never know how many times or in how many ways that image will be used—digital ads, print ads, billboards, notes Rodriguez. So it’s wise to charge a significant markup when you give up the rights. One client wanted a buyout of 15 retouched print-ready images made during a three-day portrait session. Rodriguez charged a flat rate of $15,000 to $20,000 for the buyout. He also always asks for permission to use the images on his website. “Nine times out of 10 that would be a yes.”
Though he’s happy to take flat-rate commercial and magazine assignments, Rodriguez thinks private celebrity portrait sessions are ideal. “I would rather have full control of where my images go and what I do with them. It’s more beneficial to the photographer.”
But more rewarding than the money he earns photographing celebrities are the experiences he has spending time with them. “The camera for me is a huge enabler,” says Rodriguez. Without it, he wouldn’t have attended Muhammed Ali’s 70th birthday party or met Neil Armstrong or forged a friendship with Holyfield while listening to Motown.
“All these places I have been and these people I have been involved with—these really nice events and traveling the world—it’s not for Hernan. It’s for Hernan with a camera. We capture moments. That is all we do.” But it’s the ticket to so much more.
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Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.