Elizabeth Krist, Senior Photo Editor at National Geographic, and the…
Jim Jordan is a widely sought-after fashion, celebrity, lifestyle, and kids photographer based out of Los Angeles and New York City. Some of his notable clients include Vogue, Elle, J.Crew, and Mercedes Benz. He’s also taken portraits for major celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Berrymore, and Charlize Theron.
We wanted to learn more about Jim’s creative process from start to finish – so I picked Jim’s brain and walked away with his top 5 tips on how to shoot killer portrait photography.
1. Have a vision
“When I’m preparing for a shoot, I have a set vision of what I want the finished product to look like,” says Jim. “I have all these ideas in my head prior to even photographing. So when it’s time to shoot, I need to get those ideas out of my head and onto the camera.”
The commitment to having a vision before he even gets on location is something that has drastically improved Jim’s work over the years. One of Jim’s strongest beliefs is that photographers are responsible for creating a photographic vision and then relaying it to the entire team – models, stylists, clients, and whoever else is involved in the shoot.
“Too many photographers expect all the work to come from the talent (i.e. models). They want their subject to go out on set do their ‘thing’. But the photographer needs to create the vision, communicate it to the talent, and let them fall into it – then they’ll naturally handle it from there,” he says.
To effectively communicate his vision, Jim creates story boards for each shoot. These are physical 11×14 inch foam core boards that have inspirational photos of what the shoot’s “story” should look like. Then he builds separate boards for ideas on location, poses, mood, hair, makeup, and styling. He pulls images from his archive, the Internet, magazines, old movies – anything that helps craft his vision.
Then Jim shares his boards with his team so that everyone knows what the shoot is going to look like. “Once the whole team is on board with my vision,” he says, “then everyone is connected and crystal clear on what’s expected.”
That’s not to say that Jim doesn’t believe in spur of the moment changes. “Of course things will unfold naturally,” he says. “But with good direction, the model can fall into character. By telling the story prior to the shoot, the talent gets to see what I want the character to look like. Then he or she can emulate that character and get comfortable with it. That’s when some of the best work comes out.”
2. Do your research
Putting together detailed story boards obviously takes a great deal of time and preparation, the majority of which is spent on research. Take this image below of a model in diamonds and white dress lying among white wolves.
In this case, Jim first met with the client, which was a leading diamond manufacturer. The client said that they wanted to feature natural environments and elements, so Jim started to research natural locations in the U.S. and came across White Sands, New Mexico, which he thought was perfect for a white-on-white concept that he had been envisioning to shoot a white diamond campaign. Then Jim put together a “location” board filled with stunning images of White Sands.
“Next I thought, ‘Who is this woman in diamonds on the sand dunes?’” says Jim. “She’s a goddess that lives out in the wild – she’s elegant, like an angel, and lives in the sand dunes with these white wolves. So then I created the prop board with beautiful pictures of white wolves, and then a style board of white clothing because I wanted it all to be white-on-white.”
“I originally did 5 or 6 different presentations,” he says, “but this is the one they ultimately chose.”
And it paid off – the client decided to not only do a print advertisement, but also a video commercial with Jim.
“Doing all the research beforehand is the most important part,” says Jim. “That’s what sets good photographers [in this field] apart. Instead of throwing in the stylist or makeup artist to do all the work, I show them what I want. The direction needs to come from the photographer so that it fits with their vision.”
Granted Jim worked in makeup and hair for fifteen years before getting into photography (which is probably not the norm among photographers), but the message remains the same: if you expect your finished product to look a certain way, you need to provide the direction.
3. Show them you care
When it comes to actually interacting with his subject or talent, Jim is all heart. Asked how he makes his subjects feel relaxed and comfortable on set, Jim says: “I give them lots of encouraging compliments, and tell them how excited I am to work with them. If it’s a model or actress, then I’ll compliment them on their work, let them know that I’m familiar with them, and thank them for coming.”
“A lot of models and other talent – mostly girls – walk onto the set and they’re anxious or intimidated,” says Jim. “So I start by telling them exactly what I have in mind for the shoot that day. I also get really personal, and tell them stories about me and my life. This helps them get to know me and become more comfortable working with me. I want them to know me like a friend.”
Jim’s number one goal is to convey to the people that he’s photographing that he sincerely cares about them. “I want to photograph them so that they look like no one has ever seen them before,” he says. “That sentiment comes from me and my heart. I always try to make a personal connection with everyone that I work with.”
The result is that Jim’s subjects leave feeling really positive about themselves and their experience with Jim. “I do my best to let any given model know that I want to see her looking her best, and that I’m not leaving it up to other people. I get in there and touch their hair and makeup, and make them feel beautiful.”
It’s that extra personal time and touch that puts Jim’s subjects into the right mindset to produce such strong work.
4. Get on their level
“I also just have fun with them!” laughs Jim, explaining how he gets his talent to feel at ease in front of the camera. “I’ll walk them on set and start showing them how I would do it,” he says. “I’ll pretend that I’m the model and pose for them, which always gets them laughing. But ultimately it also makes the model say, ‘OK, I get this’ and emulate what they saw me doing.”
From there, Jim lets his subjects transition into what they would naturally do. His purpose is just to get them started.
This is an approach that Jim takes for everyone, and it’s proven to be especially effective when working with kids. Jim has worked with American Girl for over fifteen years – a company that invites everyday “American” girls to go on location to places like Mount Hood, Oregon or the Bahamas for fun-filled shoots.
“I become a little kid,” says Jim. “I play games with the kids, get them laughing, play music and dance. It lets the kids relate to me. When we’re on set, I play ‘Simon Says’ with them – basically role-playing to get them to see how I want them to pose or run or jump in the shot.”
“Photographers just need to get on the same level as their subjects,” advises Jim.
5. Build connections
Jim’s 15-year client relationship with American Girl is just one example of the long-term connections that he’s made over the years. Models that he shot when they were eight years old now come back to him in their mid twenties to reminisce about how much fun they had on set with him as a kid. Jim also uses an online database — Adbase by Agency Access — to find new potential clients. This database offers contact information for art buyers and creative directors at some of the biggest retailers and advertising agencies in North America.
Jim has been using the same equipment brands for years: California Sunbounce for his reflectors, Wind-Killer, and Sun-Scrims; Tamrac for all his camera straps and carrying bags; and Broncolor for his heavy-duty umbrellas and strobes. Another product that he can’t live without is his Wacom Intuos4 Tablet, which lets him utilize a pen tool to retouch and edit his photos on location, then immediately upload to PhotoShelter for instant client access.
“My creative process works for me,” says Jim. “I’m not saying that if you don’t do it my way then you’re wrong. I’m just saying that this has been the best way for me to execute my vision and keep me on track.”