Portrait Photography: Giving Your Clients The Star Treatment

Next Thursday we’ll be hosting a live webinar with husband and wife photography team Larsen & Talbert. Michael Larsen and Tracy Talbert have been shooting celebrity portraiture in LA for the past ten years. They’ve built a reputation for their ability to create shall we say “forgiving” lighting effects for their famous clientele.

Their list of clients includes: TV Guide, InStyle, People, US, Good Housekeeping, SELF,
Parade, Marie Clare, Fox, ABC, Disney and Warner Bros TV.

photo by Larsen&Talbert

We caught up with the duo recently to ask them about shooting with the stars, running a husband/wife photo business while raising twins (yeah, twins) and what they had up their sleeves for the upcoming webinar.

Q: How’d you get started in Photography?

I got my first camera in Middle School. Shot almost everyday through High School and College. Started assisting out of college. Started shooting 7 years later.

Tracy:  I also got my first camera in Jr High School and had it with me all the time.  I loved dark room work but really just considered it more of a hobby, until a few years after college.  After spending time  in the corporate world, I realized that I needed something more creative.  I quit my job,  became a photo assistant and never looked back.

Q: I know there is a good story about how you two met shooting for the school paper?

Tracy:  Michael shot for the school yearbook and I shot for the school newspaper. We would see each other at the events and compare techniques and equipment. We were in direct competition and did everything we could to out shoot the other.

Q: How’d you get started shooting celebrities?

We both assisted celebrity shooters: Annie Liebovitz, Mark Seliger, Matthew Rolston, Andrew Eccles, George Lange.  So we naturally learned the ins and outs of the specialty and made contacts with publicists, magazines etc. Our first jobs were shooting events for T.V. Guide and In Style. We also did a lot of work for a local entertainment magazine called Venice.  As we started to fill our portfolio with more celebs, the celeb jobs came in more and more. We also enjoyed shooting food and lifestyle, but at some point we had to decide on a specialty. We were very fortunate to be able to enter and maintain this niche.

Q: Of all the photographers you assisted who do you consider to be most influential in forming your personal style? Why?

Michael: Matthew Rolston. He’s such a smart photographer. He’s got great technique and knows how to apply it to get the shots he wants. I learned from him that it really pays to be  prepared.  With Matthew nothing is left to chance, by the time the shoot happens he knows exactly what he wants and how he’s going to get it done quickly.

Q: How would you define your photographic style?

Michael: This is actually something Tracy and I sat down and discussed a few years ago. When assist people you are exposed to a lot of different styles and techniques. We had picked up enough technique to be able to do moody and dramatic or light and happy. But to build a brand we knew we needed people to associate us with a specific style that we could do really well, all the time. So we looked for the trends in our work that really defined our photographic style. We came up with 3 words: Colorful, Light and Fun. When an editor needs a shot that fits that description we want them to think of us.

photo by Larsen&Talbert

Q: The image where it looks likeShatner is coming in the window is great. Can you share the story behind that shot?

Michael: We didn’t have a lot of time for this shoot. Shatner was on his lunch break from the set of Boston Legal and had about an hour. So we knew we needed to be ready for him as soon as he came in.  We rented a room and a banquet hall at a nearby hotel and set up three different sets. Shatner just assumed that he would be coming in, standing in front of a backdrop and letting us snap 20 frames while he snacked on sushi, a specific request which we had obliged. 

When he got there he saw our set ups and realized we weren’t your average portrait shooters, and that this was going to be a little more involved, but he was totally into it as we went through our different set ups. So I went out on a limb and said “Why don’t we try to have you come through the sliding glass door. Then just move through the room like you are a secret agent scoping out the joint.” He lit up “That’s great!” he said. Sometimes actors really take to getting that extra bit of direction, it loosens them up and gives them something to do. You would think actors would be really comfortable being in front of the camera, but we find that sometimes they are more used to playing characters than themselves and can get very self conscious in front of the still camera.

He came in and started moving through the room in that signature Shatner style. We had to do it a few times to get the light right, but it turned out to be something we were all pretty happy with.

Q: What are the essentials that you always carry in your bag?

Gum, mints and a call sheet

Q: What do you shoot with?

Unless it’s advertising, we shoot with Canon 5Ds with 24-70 2.8 and 70-200 2.8. We have two bodies with lenses and battery grips always attached. We have a little minolta 4F meter, 10 flash cards, ND filters, pocket drive, macbook pro, PS4 & Bridge

Q: It must get annoying people always asking you for the gossip from your celebrity shoots… So who was the biggest diva on set? (Ha ha, couldn’t resist)

Tracy: Part of surviving as a celebrity photographer is discretion. We never “dish” in public. Now get us one on one with a nice martini and we’ll tawk! 99% of the subjects we work with are super nice, professional, regular people who happen to be in the spotlight. The problems come when people buy into their own celebrity.

Q: How have recent changes in the publishing industry effected what you do?

Magazines have been dropping like flies. That translates into fewer jobs. Also, budgets have gotten tighter and tighter. The mantra from many magazines is “more for less”. Many have turned to the “flat rate” to have more control over their budgets. Our attitude is simple. Give our clients the best work for the best value possible. We have also been promoting a lot more, but that has a lot to do with the advent of social media and internet-based promotional tools.

photo by Larsen&Talbert

Q: I know you’re shooting more lifestyle these days, do you find you can use similar techniques from your celebrity portraiture? How’s it different?

Tracy: The main technique we bring to lifestyle is speed. We like to come prepared and work very quickly. This allows us to cover a lot of ground and get a lot of material. The main difference is that we don’t have the pressure from the subjects or publicists to show them in a certain way. With that pressure off, we can be more creative and relaxed.

Q: You mention dealing with publicists on set. Who do you find you have the most contact to leading up to the shoot?

Michael: We still have the most contact with the photo editor. But in shooting celebrities, you also deal with a lot of publicists. They are usually behind the scenes before the shoot and are most likely on set the day of. It’s their job to make sure that their client looks good. Publicists have a lot of say in who the magazine uses. So it’s important to learn to work with them and build good relationships. It’s easy to piss off a publicist and suddenly not get booked to shoot any of their clients. It’s important to know who your decision makers are in whatever niche you shoot and to create good relationships with them as well as the photo editors and art directors.

Q: Has the increase in online celebrity gossip and paparazzi fueled sites changed your role as a celebrity portrait shooter?

Michael: First of all, publicists are taking advantage of those media channels as much those outlets are portrayed as taking advantage of celebrities. It’s all part of the publicity machine. In our line of work, there have always been PR agreements with celebrity clients that state we won’t sell any images without their prior approval to protect against unflattering images ending up in those kinds of publications.

But recently, before a shoot I was presented with a document that said we couldn’t post any of the images to social media sites or even our own website for our own promotional purposes. We didn’t sign that agreement. It’s important to respect your clients’ wishes, but it is also important to protect your rights to promote your images and make a living from your work.

Q: Being married and working together seems like it could be a challenge at times. How do you balance work and family life?

One of the big advantages is that WE decide how the balance occurs. For the past 5 years, we decided to free up Tracy to be a full time Mom while our twins are young and before school begins. Many families don’t have or don’t feel like that have that choice. For us, Family comes 1st.

Join Michael and Tracy and your PhotoShelter host, CEO Allen Murabayashi for this special Live Webinar and find out how to shoot your next portrait client feel and look like a celebrity whether you’re dealing with big budgets and big egos, or you’ve got 5 minutes and a sliding glass door.

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This article was written by

PhotoShelter CEO. Follow on Twitter: @awfingerman and Instagram: @awfinger

There are 4 comments for this article
  1. Eddie at 3:06 am

    I’m so glad you are putting this together again. I was super bummed when the original “in-person” workshop was canceled. I’m looking forward to it!

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