Anatomy of an Editorial Shoot :: Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent

I was hired by Harvard Business Review to photograph Muhtar Kent who is the CEO of The Coca-Cola company . I thought I’d post about the process of an editorial shoot from start to finish instead of just showing the photos.

The art direction for the shoot was to photograph Mr. Kent at the headquarters building in Atlanta. The editor asked for two portraits. One was to show some architectural details of the building. “Maybe with a bank of windows or something in the background.” The other shot was to incorporate something with Coca-Cola branding. The name, the Coca-Cola red, a bottle, etc. After that I was free to grab anything else I had time to which, on a job like this, means anything I can grab with the extra thirty seconds I have to work with. An editorial shoot is usually a few hours of standing around and a few minutes of taking pictures. You’ll regularly spend more time emailing with the editor then you will clicking the shutter release of your camera. I was also instructed that while they wanted a mix of vertical and horizontal images, they used a lot of square crops as well so the images needed to work well 1:1. The full process after the jump.

Once you get booked for the job you begin the scheduling process. Sometimes the client has handled that part and you’re told when and where to be. A lot of times though the scheduling is handed off to you. You’re given a contact name, number, and email address and the deadline the photographs need to be on the desk of the editor. Photo editors typically have a million things going on and the more you can handle for them the better. As the CEO of a massive international company, Mr. Kent spends much of his time circumnavigating the globe so scheduling a shoot in Atlanta between his trips and still hit the deadline was challenging. I ended up having a 24 hour window to complete this assignment and meet the deadline. He had just returned from Turkey and was leaving for China the next day. Luckily for us, the folks at Coca-Cola were extremely helpful and accommodating. We were slotted for an 11:15 am shoot and we could arrive at 10:00 am to scout and set up.

 

 

In addition to scheduling you also need to begin your research on the subject. Also ask the editor if there is a specific topic getting covered in the story. There are times the photos need to illustrate the article and there are times you just need a strong set of portraits. For this shoot I was just concentrating on portraits. I did my research on Mr. Kent and found out as much as I could about his history, his work, hobbies, etc. It’s important to have this information because it gives you insight into who your subject is, what their temperament may be, how to pronounce their name (very important detail here), and most importantly it gives you things to talk about during the shoot. You have to build rapport and trust immediately on jobs like this and knowing a few key things about your subject allows you to ask pointed questions. I knew he was just returning from Turkey which is where his family is from and where he first began working for The Coca-Cola company. I then did a little research on Turkey. I watched interviews with him to see his temperament and how he looks on camera. This all leads to questions to show your subject you care about who they are and you are genuinely interested in them. They’re not just another guy in a tie in front of your camera. It also let’s you start pre-visualizing the images you want to create days or weeks before you create them.

My conversation started something like…. “I hear you just got back from Turkey. I know you were born in New York but Turkey is where your family is from and you started working for Coke there. Did you get to see family while you were there?” “I watched your interview last year with so-and-so and you were saying your outlook for the company was such-and-such. Seems like you were right and those goals are getting met now.” “You’re going to China tomorrow? Wow! You must live by your own internal clock, etc, etc. That market must hold huge potential. I’d love to see China. I hear it’s a fascinating place to go. I’ve been to the Middle East a few times now and love the region. I’d love to explore more into Asia.” That led to Mr. Kent asking where I’ve been in the region which led to me getting to share a bit of what I do with my life. If I’m feeling comfortable with the client I’ll ask a pointed personal question because A) I am really interested in hearing their opinion and B) I don’t want to just be seen as a guy who read a wiki on the man and I’m just regurgitating it back to him. So I’ll ask, if I feel I can without pushing bounds, “I know you’re a family man, how do you handle the balance of a crazy travel schedule and family life?”

These questions fill the space. They build relationship. They gain trust. I love my job because I love meeting new people who have stories to tell. Too many people want to complain and gripe about “big business” or “corporate America” but the people who lead these companies are usually fascinating characters who have great stories to tell. Someone who holds the responsibility of an international company, travels the world as a day job, and manages to love and provide for his family is someone I want to know and learn a thing or two from.

So… blah, blah, blah. Job is booked, scheduled, researched, pre-visualized, etc. I needed to get to the Coke HQ and find a bank of windows or other such architectural detail, something that visually communicates the Coke brand, and hopefully pull something off of my own. Walking into the job I knew I wanted to shoot Mr. Kent against a white back ground with a beauty dish. It was this job that set the lighting for my Faces & Spaces personal project.

Dan and I arrive in the lobby at 10:00am to set up for the scheduled 11:15 shoot. We were told beforehand that 11:15 was approximate and conservatively set on the early side. We may have to wait around a bit. Our contact, Steve, met us and escorted us around the lobby area and up to the executive offices. I could photograph pretty much anywhere I wanted to except the roof. (yes, I asked) The first thing I wanted to know was where would Mr. Kent be coming from for the shoot and where did he need to be next. This let me plan the shoot linearly so that we could navigate a few levels of the building and not tie up any more of Mr. Kent’s time then we needed to.  Once I had the lay of the land I started test shots with Dan.

 

I tested the light in this spot and took note of my settings. These would be my starting points once Mr. Kent was in place. I knew I was at least an hour, if not more, from actually shooting there so the light in the lobby would be different by the time I got back there. I just needed it roughed in. We were allowed to keep our gear there while we set up in another part of the building for a different look. This rig is an AB800 with a 22″ white beauty dish (with sock) on a C-Stand. (The rig in the first photo of this post).

Next we went to the area near the elevators that Mr. Kent would be coming downstairs in. I could have shot in the executive office but I felt it wasn’t my best option, it seemed “typical”, and we would have spent more time traveling between one place several floors up to another place in the lobby. Also remember I wanted to get my shot and once I started shooting I’d only have about ten minutes to get the job done. No time to be waiting on elevators.

Coca-Cola had just celebrated their 125th anniversary and there were a number of little Coke bottle details around the building. I was drawn to these decals on some glass doors.

 

 

Dan started the ever-so-fun stand in process. Since I left my AB upstairs, I decided I’d either shoot available light here or use a small hot shoe flash in a 28″ Westcott Apollo softbox. I ended up using the flash. I needed to find the right angle that framed Mr. Kent well, showed the bottles, and have as clean of a background as possible. If I blew the bottles out of focus too much they’d be lost as an element but if they were too sharp then they would be distracting. I shot every angle from inside to outside. I really like the reflections of the outside in the glass but I knew that it might not print well. Maybe it would work. Maybe not. I didn’t have enough time to shoot two different angles here so I went with the safe route. I knew that on a monitor it’d be fine but once it goes to print you can lose detail and contrast so I decided the safe route was the best route.  These are some of the angles I tested with these doors.

 

 

We were all set and were soon told that the interview Mr. Kent was in was running long and he’d be down “soon”. That could have been five minutes soon or an hour soon. You never know. As we were waiting Dan spotted some large frosted glass doors and wondered what it would look like if we backlit them with the shape of the Coca-Cola bottle in the shot. Around the lobby were a number or recycling containers shaped like Coke bottles as well as some 125th anniversary plexi decorations. We either had five minutes or an hour so we ran around like chickens with their heads cut off to see if we could pull the idea into a usable photo.

 

 

I feel there was a shot to be had somewhere but I needed another light, some glass cleaner, a boom, and fifteen more minutes to really dial it in. I had none of those things so we ditched the idea, re-set the window decal shot just as Mr. Kent stepped off the elevator. Good thing we didn’t spend any more time on that. Fired off my test shot as he stood in.

 

 

Since I was worried about reflections I had Dan hold a large Impact reflector with a black cover on it behind my head to kill the reflections from outside. An aperture of 3.2 on the Canon 85mm got me to the right mix of the decals being out of focus but still retain their shape. I went ahead and shot the reflections but then I ended up getting in the shot so I only shot two frames and moved on. I had used nearly half of my time once this look was done and needed to get moving to the next spot. This is what the same scene looked like without the reflector.

 

 

We walked from there to the upstairs window location. I had my 24mm on one 5d2 body and an 85mm on the other. I didn’t want to waste a moment switching lenses so I kept both bodies on me with each lens I needed. The 24 was going to include more of the environment and expand the perspective.

 

I then switched to the 85mm to compress the perspective for a second option of this location.

There wasn’t a single clean white wall in the building and I still wanted my white background shot. So we took the black cover off the large reflector and I had Dan hold that behind Mr. Kent. We pre-staged a small flash on a short stand at this location so all I had to do was get the window shot and then move Mr. Kent and the main light about five feet forward and have Dan drop the short stand behind him and hold the reflector in the background.

 

The above was shot with the 24mm. Once I pulled the 85mm up it compressed the background enough to get this shot.

 

 

THAT what the shot I wanted the whole time. A strong business portrait on a super simple background and in black and white. Lucky for me the editors at HBR liked this shot as well. This is how the story ran…

 

 

 

From my research I figured Mr. Kent was going to be a breeze to work with and he was. He accommodated all of my requests and the folks working with him could not have been kinder or more professional. They allowed me to do my job without breathing down my neck or making demands. It was a great shoot.

To summarize.

• Research • Pre-visualize • Get there early • Plan your shoot as though you have zero time • Take care of the editor’s request first • Do what you can to get your shot too. It sometimes ends up being the one the client runs with.

If you have any questions let me know in the comments.

Cheers,

Zack

ETA- A number of people have asked in the comments below about why I didn’t shoot this job with the PhaseOne or the Einsteins. When I do a magazine assignment there’s usually an agreed upon time that the publication has exclusive use of the images. Sometimes I can share photos as soon as the magazine hits the stands. Sometimes it’s 30 days after publication. Sometimes longer. Then there’s the whole “Oooo, I’ll get around to blogging about this shoot at some point.” That “some point” might be six months later.  So… I shot this before I got those lights or that camera.

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