How I Got That Shot: The 3-Minute Portrait

November 18, 2011

© Marco Grob for Time magazine

Adm. William McRaven, photographed for Time magazine.

Photographer: Marco Grob
Client: Time magazine; director of photography Kira Pollack

Whether he’s photographing a world leader, an unknown firefighter, or the CEO of Apple for the cover of Time magazine, Marco Grob typically shoots a portrait in under three minutes. That’s about the limit of a subject’s attention span, he says, and if he hasn’t gotten a good portrait in that amount of time, he assumes he is not going to get it at all.

“People hate to be photographed. I always think that everyone who doesn’t hate to be photographed should go to a shrink,” he says. “Even famous actors hate to be photographed because you make them be still. They get bored.”

Grob has refined his lighting and camera set-up for maximum efficiency and to guarantee him the flexibility to respond quickly when his subject steps in front of the backdrop. “There is no margin for error, so we prepare, and then it’s more relaxed for the subject. I owe that to the subject, to be as prepared as possible.”

For a Time magazine portfolio, “Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience,” and a companion book, Grob took intimate, probing portraits of 40 men and women who had been leaders and sources of inspiration in the decade since the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Grob’s portrait of Adm. William McRaven, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command group who killed Osama bin Laden, shows how he used his simple lighting set-up to create a contrast of light and shadow that symbolizes the former spy’s story.

McRaven told Grob that he had never been photographed professionally before. “He’s come from the dark into the light,” Grob says. “He felt uncomfortable still with being a public figure after 30 years operating in the dark.”

The shoot took place in June and, like several of Grob’s photos for the “Beyond 9/11” portfolio, was taken in Time’s Washington, DC bureau. Before the shoot, Grob and his two assistants set up two small backdrops, a gray and a white, and marked the floor to show where Grob and the subject would stand, as well as where Grob’s assistant handholding the light would stand.

During the shoot, Grob gave McRaven no directions. “I actually sneak around and look very precisely. I’m watching, not talking.” He prefers that the subject interact with his camera, not with him. He adds that the images he can capture with the camera are “brutal: you can run but you cannot hide,” especially when the images are printed big, as they were for a recent exhibition at Milk Gallery in New York.

Hasselblad H4D-60 with an 80mm lens; f/16 and 1/250th of a second. Grob always handholds his camera. “Tripods are cumbersome and, because I’m physically close to the subject, tripods are very uncomfortable for the subjects.”

An Elinchrom Rotalux on an 600 watt-second head, held by an assistant inches from the left side of McRaven’s head. Another assistant handheld a silver reflector low and in front of the subject. Grob says he took 12 photos, moving slightly, and directing his assistant to adjust the light slightly. “My assistants know what to do when I ask them, so it’s a very quick way of working and getting a lot done in no time.”

They typically carry flash heads. Because he handholds his camera, Grob says, “In order to get maximum sharpness and absolutely no motion blur, you have to have a steady hand and the flash head has to be fairly quick.”

Grob’s team used the same light when he photographed former Vice President Dick Cheney, this time in front of a white backdrop, with the light held high and slightly in front of him. “With Cheney, it just seemed the right thing to do, to take this man who has been kind of shady and to put him in the light.”

Post Production: “I always do it myself. It’s not that post-production houses aren’t capable, but I know what I want and explaining it is painful. It’s like, how do you explain a sound?”