How I Got That Shot: Jake Chessum Captures the Essence of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
March 31, 2015
The shot of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings Chessum captured in-camera was "about spontaneity."
An image of Julian Casablancas and Karen O on Delancey Street in New York City from Chessum's portfolio.
Client: Cole Haan
Creative Director: Andy Gray
Brand Design Director: Elyse Siegal
Art Director: Kate Evans
“Groups are probably one of the hardest things to shoot,” Jake Chessum says. The portrait photographer has been hired by editorial, commercial and corporate clients to bring his exuberant portrait style to photographs of actors, filmmakers, athletes and musicians. There are many challenges to corralling several subjects at once, he says. “It may sound stupid, but remembering everyone’s name is right up there, especially when you have to direct someone. What are you going to say: ‘Hey, third guy from the left?’”
For a holiday promotional mailer for Cole Haan, Chessum was hired to photograph the funk and soul band Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Chessum had worked on the shoe company’s previous holiday ads, making upbeat portraits of individual artists and leaders. For the new promotion, he says, “They wanted it to look loose and reflect the personalities of the members of the band,” both in individual portraits and in a group photo of the musicians. Chessum would photograph them on a 42-foot cyclorama at Pier 59 studios in New York City, near the set where the band was simultaneously shooting a video promotion. The photographer would have only a few minutes for each portrait session, pulling band members onto his set whenever there was a break in the video shoot.
Chessum’s goal was to shoot one group portrait in-camera, and capture enough material to composite a second group portrait from four to five plates. Chessum organized every aspect of the shoot, from the lighting to directing, to help keep the energy and attention of his subjects from flagging while he captured multiple variations.
The Cole Haan still shoot was a big production, with stylists and their assistants, seamstresses, clients, the band’s management, a digital tech and Chessum’s own assistants on the set.
When shooting portraits, Chessum will typically try to shoot several frames quickly. “Sometimes you have to crank it out, because it’s the first few minutes where they’re more loose, before they get bored or in a rut.”
In his in-camera group portrait of the musicians playing instruments, some of the subjects’ faces were blocked, “but it was as much about spontaneity as everyone looking good.”
To make the images for the composite shot, he would grab groups of two or three Dap-Kings as they were freed up from the video shoot, shooting as many variations as he could. He couldn’t be sure what order he would shoot the subjects in, and didn’t have a layout for the final composite. He notes, “Sharon had to be in the middle,” he says, “but other than that it was wide open.” As he directed each small group, he had to anticipate how the shots might fit together in the composite. “We tried to comp it together in our heads because we didn’t really have time to comp it on the set, and just try to get as many variations within the parameters of time.” As he directed the subjects, he explains, “Sometimes you’d say: Look at your imaginary friend just to your left, or look around and pretend that Sharon’s next to you.”
The musicians were game, he says. “If you’re shooting a corporate group where there’s a hierarchy they need to maintain or they need to be respectful of the boss, that can become more staged and stiff,” he says. With the Dap-Kings, “You assume that having been together so long, there’s a good group dynamic.”
Chessum and his assistants first lit the back wall of the cyc, “not to blast it, but to give it some fill.” They placed two bare Profoto heads on stands close to the background but set wide apart, outside the frame of the image, and bounced them into v-flats.
To light his subjects, Chessum wanted a broad light source, “to make sure they have freedom to move, so they don’t feel tied down, and provide latitude so if someone runs forward or back a few feet it’s still ok.”
Chessum and his crew hung a 12 x 12 silk vertically, about 10 feet from the subjects, then placed a continuous Briese Focus 180 behind it. Chessum calls it a “great single-light source: crisp, beautiful.” The light was placed at a slight angle, to add some modeling to the faces. When photographing individual portraits, Chessum’s assistants brought in flags and baffles to accentuate shadows as needed.
Chessum shot with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with a 24-70mm zoom, “which we locked off at somewhere between 50- and 60mm” to maintain consistent focal length in the images that were used for the composite. Chessum estimates he shot at 1/160 sec at f/11, ISO 100. Chessum was about eight feet from the subjects, he says. “You want to be close enough to yell and maintain the flow of communication.”
The tripod was locked down, its position marked on the floor to help make sure there were no subtle movements that could affect the consistency of the plates.
“The cheat with this is that you shoot on a focal length where there’s not much distortion on the lens. You basically shoot everyone in the middle of the frame, so in post you can move them around afterwards without any distortion.” To prepare for compositing in postproduction, he shot extra space on either side of the subjects, and also made plates of the empty cyc wall.
The digital tech on the Cole Haan shoot was Pippa Drummond. Though Chessum always shoots tethered, he rarely checks the monitor himself, because he wants to maintain his constant communication with his subjects. “I would rather not leave the set and interrupt the flow. I trust my tech to shout out if something’s wrong or there’s a mistake,” he says. When he routinely shot film, he recalls, “I was constantly fussing over Polaroids. Maybe it’s age or confidence, but I find with digital, if it looks good through the lens, I trust it.”
He also keeps the monitor out of sight of his subjects. “We try to build a little fort around the tech,” Chessum says. “There are shoots where the publicist is looking at the screen, the talent looks at them, and then tries to judge from their facial expression how good or bad this is, and I hate that.”
When it comes to editing his images, Chessum says, “I prefer not to look at them for a day or two if I can avoid it. You need time to get away from it to look at them differently.” When he sits down to the task, he likes to work in Adobe Bridge. “I start by putting a star on the ones I sort of like, then two stars on the ones I like a bit more. If there’s any comping or head-swapping to be done, I put a note on that and start putting them together.”
He typically reviews his choices and sends JPEGs to one of his regular retouchers, who then return TIFF files for him to review, comment on, and send back for more revisions. For this campaign, Cole Haan took his edit and handled the retouching.
He says that an “unexpected benefit” of shooting digitally is that he carries his shoot on his laptop, and spends more time working on color, contrast and compositing. “With film, I’d mark up the contact sheets and pass them onto the printer.” He enjoys the hands-on experience of working on digital files, he says. “I think it’s helped me creatively.”