When it comes to photographing people, Emily Shur is a master of concept, color and design. After 15 years on the job, and with an editorial client list that includes The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Interview and PAPER, to name a few, she’s adept at drawing out the essence of her celebrity subjects. Known for a vibrant aesthetic that elevates the energy of even the brightest star, she takes a static portrait to a space of epic narrative—all within the confines of a two-dimensional frame.
We caught up with the photographer, who’s teaching a portraiture course April 2–7 at the venerated Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in New Mexico’s high desert, to find out her top ten tips for creating a standout editorial portrait.
Connection is key
“We have to be able to relate to people we’ve never met and connect with them almost immediately,” says Shur of making portraits on assignment. While she knew going into her shoot with actor Don Cheadle that she use light and color in a specific way, it was his expression that gelled the shot.
Sometimes shooting at a subject’s home can be challenging, but Shur made the most of a shoot at the home of singer-songwriter Hayley Williams. The shot was a balancing act: “We lit [the scene] with strobes in a way that enhanced the natural window light and still kept everything pretty soft,” she says. “Then I worked on the pose with [Williams] to get the right mix of femininity and strength.”
Sometimes less is more
Shur explains of her shoot with actress Kaitlin Olson: “I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and she knew exactly how to get there.” In order to create a strong narrative within the photo, Shur was conscious of every detail within the minimal composition. “I’ve always felt that you don’t need to beat people over the head with an idea. If it’s executed properly, it can be done with just what’s necessary.”
On her shoot with comedian Kevin Hart: “I love the marriage of technical and comedic elements in this photo: The bright, saturated colors in combination with the graphic lines and shapes are such a good complement to the pineapple drink and pink slippers.” She explains. Getting the shot was an act of careful deception and synergy. “The area that he’s standing in is a very small space just big enough for the chaise lounge. I was shooting across a swimming pool and we only had a few minutes to shoot with natural light.”
Trust your eye
Shur shot this image of actor Nick Offerman for his first book cover. She says he remains one of her “all-time favorite subjects” because of his willingness to trust her artistic eye. “He told me the title, gave me a description of what the book was about, and explained what sort of vibe he was going for. After giving me that information, he wanted me to execute my vision and left many of the final details up to me. It was very gratifying to see the image come together the way it did in the end.”
Allow your subject to take charge (once in awhile)
Tracee Ellis Ross, the multi-talented daughter of Diana Ross, “was such a fun, vibrant, energetic subject,” Shur says. And she demonstrated this in the studio, preferring being photographed with music on full blast. “It was so loud that I couldn’t direct her at all,” Shur says. “I just had to be a careful observer and [remain] ready for whatever she might do.”
Know when to keep shooting
“This setup [with actor Will Ferrell] was not on our shot list initially, but I’m glad I fought to squeeze it in quickly in between other shots,” says Shur. “I remember one thing [Ferrell] said to me when we were looking at this shot on the screen. He said, ‘It’s great when it’s funny, but it’s even better when it looks good, too.’ I completely agree.”
–Sponsored by Santa Fe Photographic Workshops