How I Got That Shot: A Downton Abbey Group Portrait, In Camera

April 20, 2016

By Interview David Walker

CLIENT: The New York Times


Individual celebrity portraits are difficult, but Jesse Dittmar’s assignment to shoot a group portrait of Downton Abbey cast members and producers for The New York Times took the difficulties to another level. Dittmar had a limited budget, a challenging location, and about five minutes to wrangle 11 subjects at once.

“They hear ‘newspaper photographer’ and they don’t think ‘grand, beautifully lit group shot,’ so I’m battling against [lower] expectations,” Dittmar says. Moreover, the Times’ ethics code precludes fixing mistakes in post-production. “That really ups the ante. I need to have 11 peoples’ eyes open, posed correctly, and the lighting needs to be on point.”

Dittmar isn’t a fan of Downton Abbey, so his first order of business was to get up to speed on the story lines and characters. He looked at photographs of cast members, noting body types in order to start thinking about how to position each subject. He also memorized their names. “It’s an act of respect to know everyone’s name so you can address them personally” on set, he explains.


Newspaper assignments such as this one are loss leaders for photographers, who are usually paid a day rate but are also expected to cover expenses. “I do whatever I have to do, within reason, to get a good portrait. The access to the subjects is what matters over the monetary cost,” Dittmar says.

The shoot was scheduled to take place at New York’s Millennium Hotel, where the cast was gathering for an event promoting the show’s final season. Dittmar had to shoot in a banquet room with a low ceiling. He wasn’t able to set up until three hours before the shoot, although he was able look at the room in advance.

“It was frankly ugly,” he says. So he rented an 18-by-28-foot cloth backdrop, which was less expensive than a rolled backdrop, he notes. To speed the set-up, he brought a crew of five, including two photo assistants, his studio manager/producer, a prop stylist and a groomer.

Jolie Ruben, photo editor at the Times’ Arts & Leisure section, worked with Dittmar on the shoot. She advised the publicists that any cast member arriving late might be excluded because everyone’s schedule was tight. With no time (or budget) for wardrobe, “We pushed everyone hard to dress well and wear black,” Dittmar says. “We said we’re trying to do a beautiful portrait, for the cover of the Arts section—something that’s going to look good if you show up dressed sharply.”

During set-up, Dittmar’s major concerns were composition, and making sure all 11 subjects would be lit correctly and consistently across the set. “It helps that I’ve done five or six group shots like this,” he says.

He’s also studied how Renaissance painters—and photographers including Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger—compose and light group portraits.

“I’ve been downloading poses to my brain, and observing things like, What’s the difference between putting a big person on a stool versus putting a small person on a stool? Or a man lying on the ground [versus] a woman lying on the ground?”

One trick of group shots, he says, is “getting people on different levels of height, to make the image more dynamic.” So Dittmar brought stools and apple boxes, and the hotel provided a platform for standing, as well as additional stools. Because the furniture didn’t match, he decided to put it all under the backdrop “like Irving Penn used to do it,” he says.

Then, with his crew serving as stand-ins for the cast, he says, “I just went through my brain: OK, I’m going to have Hugh here, and Michelle here, and Elizabeth there and Kevin there…” When he was satisfied with the composition, he marked each spot with the names of cast members.


Dittmar also used his crew as stand-ins to tweak the lighting. They had set up five strobes with Profoto Acute power packs, and modifiers that included a medium strip box, a medium softbox, and three 60-inch Photek Softlighter umbrellas. “The goal [in a group shot] is to try and get a similar feel on everyone’s faces. I wanted it to feel like one light source even though we were using five lights.”

Dittmar explains that he used the larger of the two softboxes as his primary light, raking from above camera right on the five actors at the right side of the photograph. “Then we built out from there to try and keep it even,” he says. He put up a net fabric flag to cut some of the light falling on Phyllis Logan and Allen Leech, who were closest to the primary light and would have otherwise been overexposed.

To make it look as if the same light was on the producers in the rear left of the photograph, Dittmar suspended the medium strip box on a boom over the head of Hugh Bonneville, the actor posed front and center in the photograph. Dittmar directed the light by putting a grid in front of it, and orienting it in the same direction as the primary light.

Finally, he used one of the 60-inch umbrellas to light Michelle Dockery, shown reclining on the left; another umbrella to light Kevin Doyle, who is seated on the far left behind Dockery; and the third umbrella “to fill up the scene in general,” Dittmar says.


Dittmar had a secondary set to the side of the main set, for shooting individual portraits of cast members as they arrived. That gave him a couple of minutes to build rapport with the cast members, “which helped a lot” when it came time to direct the group portrait, he explains.

Once cast members took their positions, Dittmar began shooting immediately to establish a rhythm. “People get distracted quickly. You need to get them thinking you’re doing stuff, even if it’s not right yet,” he explains. And shooting with so many people on set “is a lot like a performance,” he says. “I need to be very decisive. You have to be big and grand and type-A to get people snapped in.”

Without interrupting his shooting rhythm, Dittmar gave directions to tweak subjects’ stances. The danger of stopping to analyze and direct too intensely, he says, is that subjects “get self-conscious because you’re looking. They scrunch their shoulders, they hold their breath.”

Fortunately, he says, everyone “looked pretty good” where they took their marks. But he did have to experiment with Kevin Doyle, who was first lying down, then standing up, and finally sitting on a piano bench the crew rustled up while the shoot was under way.

Dittmar also switched the positions of two of the producers, to hide the jeans that one was wearing. And he gave directions about hand placement, stepping into the set to show a Downton Abbey producer how to place her hand on another producer’s shoulder, so they looked more relaxed and intimate. “And I think I told Elizabeth to put her hands on Hugh’s shoulder because they’re a couple,” he says.


The portrait shoot was all over in five minutes. He shot 30 hand-held frames with a Canon 5DS that he had rented for its 50MP sensor. He used a 24-70 mm lens set at 30mm, to get everyone in the frame with a minimum amount of distortion on the edges of the frame. The aperture was f/11, for sufficient depth of field to get everyone in focus. The ISO was 400—“not much of a concern, but I wanted to keep it as low as possible,” he says. The shutter speed was 1/160.

“At a certain point, when you’re crushed for time, there’s not much more you can do. And once you have a good frame where nobody is blinking, you’re good,” Dittmar says. His stylists and assistants stepped into the set to keep everyone’s attention while he checked the back of the camera to make sure he had at least one good frame.

With more time and money, Dittmar says, he would have sprung for a better backdrop. And with a larger room to work in, he would have used bigger light modifiers to improve the light gradation across the subjects’ faces, he explains. Despite the constraints, he says, I walked out of the shoot feeling really good about it.”

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