How I Got That Shot: Emily Shur’s Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail for WIRED

January 12, 2015

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Client: WIRED

Photo Editor: Julia Sabot

Emily Shur, a Los Angeles-based photographer whose clients include HBO, Entertainment Weekly, Dodge, Sprint and The New Yorker, has been called upon to photograph lots of actors and comedians. Whether she’s shooting a funny subject or a serious one, her goal is always to make a timeless, classic photo. “Even if there’s comedy in it, I like it to be lit well and well-composed. I want it to still be sophisticated,” she says. Her assignments have ranged from natural-light portraits to conceptual shots requiring numerous lights. She doesn’t rely on a go-to technique for assignments, she says. “I like figuring out what works best for that particular shoot.”

On a recent assignment for WIRED magazine’s fall TV preview, Shur photographed the comedians Jonah Ray and Kumail Nanjiani, stars of the Comedy Central show The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail. They were reviewing trailers for new TV shows for the magazine’s September issue, so photo editor Julia Sabot told Shur the image should show them watching TV, but didn’t need to be dominated by a big TV set. The comedians themselves suggested the concept, Shur explains. “They actually came back with the idea: What if we were watching Saturday morning cartoons in our pajamas like when we were kids?” Shur wanted her image to convey a sunny morning, and chose to enhance the window light in the location where she was shooting. Her goal was to “not have it feel too lit, strobe-y or dramatic,” she says.


Shur suggested the location: a house about 30 minutes from Los Angeles that is filled with period details from the 1970s. “It’s actually the house that was prominent in Boogie Nights,” she notes. “I could shoot for days in this house. Every room is just perfect for a picture.” A location scout contacted the owner, who negotiated a fee that fit the editorial assignment budget.

Period furnishings and décor were already in place; prop stylist Kyle Kinsella brought along toys, a crocheted blanket, and breakfast for the actors to eat in the shot; Natalie and Giolliosa Fuller of Sister Styling brought pajamas and the wardrobe for additional set ups.

In directing her subjects, Shur says, she tries to provide specific details about the story being told. Some subjects, she says, need only brief instructions at the start of the shoot while others need reminding. With Ray and Nanjiani, she says, “It was their idea, and I knew they were game to have fun with it,” she says. She suggested ideas for shows they might be watching on TV, so she could photograph their reactions. As they tried out variations, she gave them feedback about what looked good in the camera. “That’s what the subjects are looking to the photographer for. They can’t see what I’m seeing, so they’re trying different things that they think can work and it’s my job to steer them in the direction of what looks good.”

When actors are enjoying a shoot, she says, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment, but it’s her job in directing a shoot to be attentive to details. “There have been shoots where I’ve thought, ‘That was an amazing shoot,’ and then I’ve come home and realized I wasn’t being as particular as I should have been about the framing or body language.”

She says that when she is making a funny photo, she pays attention to tone. “It’s really a delicate balance between a joke being visually readable and immediate, and not slapping you in the face, saying, ‘This is funny, right?’”


The back of the house had large windows that let sunlight into the living room. “I liked the quality of it, but it wasn’t enough for the exposure I needed,” Shur says, so she decided to mimic the sunlight using a broad, soft light to camera left. “I wanted it to feel bright and airy, but I wanted it to have a direction,” Shur says. By using a light with diffusion, “the shadows aren’t too hard, and there’s not a dramatic fall off in the light.”

She hung a 6-foot square silk from C-stands, about six feet to the left of the couch where her subjects where sitting. Behind the silk, she placed a Profoto Pro 7 head on a stand, about 9–10 feet from the floor. While the silk provided some diffusion, she diffused the light further by using an old umbrella. The strobe was on a 1200-watt-second Profoto 782 pack, but because she wanted a soft, daylight look, “We were definitely not at full power,” she says. “If you overpower the ambient light completely, that’s when it starts to look lit and ‘strobe-y.’”

For fill, she placed a second light about six feet high, over the camera, with a medium-sized Photek umbrella. “It’s a soft, not boring, flattering light,” Shur says.

In other setups, which WIRED used on its iPad edition, she created a nighttime scene by putting blueish gels on a bare head with a reflector just below the camera, so the actors appeared to be sitting in the glow of a TV.

Shur recently faced the similar challenge of creating realistic room lighting while creating promotions for the Fox show The Mindy Project. Shur spent a day shooting multiple portraits and scenes on several sets created on a sound stage. One ad, which Fox recently released, was based on a frame grabbed from a recent episode in which stars Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina are at home, watching TV together. Though the scene had romantic lighting, Shur needed the lighting in the ad to be “a little more snappy.” She used a strobe with a Fresnel attachment to light the two subjects, creating dramatic fall-off behind them. The Fresnel created “snappy shadows,” she says.

She used an extra-small gridded softbox at 6 feet high—about level with Shur’s camera—to illuminate Kaling. “I wanted her to pop in a very subtle way. In order to get that feeling, I had to give [Kaling] her own source because of the difference in skin tone between her and Chris Messina.” In a lamp to the right of the subjects, Shur swapped out the light bulb for a pen light (a small strobe), and wrapped it in a CTO gel to make its glow look warmer. Shur notes that she could have shot the lamp as a separate plate, then composited that into the main shot, but the effect of having light from the lamp fall on her subjects was more realistic when captured in-camera.


On the WIRED shoot, Shur used a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a 50mm lens at f/8. She shot at 1/50 sec at ISO 400. When the budget allows, Shur likes to have a digital tech on set to organize her images and do color correction before she does her own post-production work on the images at home.

On the WIRED shoot, however, she was on her own. She shot to cards and then used Capture One to process and color-correct her images.

On the Fox shoot, she used a Hasselblad with a PhaseOne P65 back and 100mm lens, shooting tethered so the creatives and clients on the set could preview images.

Post Production

When a shoot has gone well, Shur says, she’ll typically send the client 20–25 images of each set up. For the WIRED shoot, she worked on the selected images at home, doing some color correction and retouching in Capture One. Once the editors made their choices, she sent the JPEGs with notes about some further post-production tweaks she wanted to Anna Glen of Wet Noodles, Shur’s long-time retoucher. Shur says, “Before we shoot, when we’re doing the estimate, I make sure I’m up front about the retouching cost and the turnaround time for the retoucher so that everyone’s on the same page.”

Her photo of Ray and Nanjiani appeared in the September issue of WIRED.

Related: Emily Shur on How Great Portraits Are Made