Have you ever daydreamed of what it would be like to land an editorial or commercial photo shoot? If so, you’ll definitely want to check this interview out. We recently came across Rena Durham of Rena Durham Photography. Rena is an extremely talented (and well known) editorial and commercial photographer and loves photographing children of all ages. She has also built a solid reputation in the entertainment industry as one of the most prolific teen celebrity photographers. Her work and client list is extensive. You can see her work in outlets such as: [Framed] Show, Rangefinder Magazine, Digital Photographer Magazine, etc. Some of her larger clients include: Interscope Records, Disney Adventures, Tiger Beat, Bop, Bravo, La Petite, Babiekins, etc. She is an amazing photographer, but her talent doesn’t stop there, she is also a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), a voice over talent, and a recording artist.
We are so excited to feature Rena’s work. We’d like to thank her for being so candid with her interview answers. The information you will find below is beyond helpful. We hope that you can use her advice, and take your business to the next level.
1. What equipment do you use?
My primary camera is the Canon 1Ds Mark III and my back-up is the Canon 5D Mark II (which I also use for video). My lenses include the 24-70mm 2.8L, 70-200mm 2.8 ISL and 50 mm 1.4. I use Profoto lighting.
2. What is your go to lens for portraits?
The lens I tend to use the most would be the 70-200mm 2.8 ISL for portraits.
3. What is your go to lens for lifestyle?
For lifestyle I most often use the 24-70mm 2.8 L.
4. Do you use natural light, artificial light, or both?
I use both. When on location outdoors I will almost always use natural lighting. Of course, you have to factor in the time of day you are shooting and the type of look the client wants, etc. but will always go natural lighting when I can. I also enjoy shooting in the studio too, so depending on what I am doing and what the client wants I decide which way to go. Sometimes I will combine the two during a shoot too.
5. Do you work with an assistant?
If I could have an assistant at every shoot (or multiple assistants) I would. I would say that there have been a lot of times I haven’t had an assistant with me (for whatever reason) and have to do everything myself, but within the last year or so I have tried to have an assistant(s) with me as much as I can, especially on commercial shoots or large productions. It really depends on what and who I am shooting. If I am photographing one person utilizing natural lighting than I more than likely would just ask if the groomer or stylist (even the parent) to hold the reflector. I find that assistants are vital on larger shoots though. It can make the difference between sanity and insanity (child wranglers are a must!).
6. A lot of photographers dream about doing commercial work, but feel lost when it comes to breaking into that industry. What advice can you give our readers that want to break into the commercial industry?
It is an extremely difficult industry to break into, I’m not going to lie. It can take years. I really have only just begun to get commercial work myself and have found that you need representation to really get the higher profile clients. It takes a lot of time and persistence and you need to build a strong portfolio of work with high production value (which often means doing lots of test shoots and spending a lot of your own time and money to build a strong body of work). I would say if it is something you really want to do, try and start with smaller clients (even offering to shoot for free) to build your portfolio and client list.
7. How did you first break into the commercial/editorial industry?
I only recently broke into the commercial industry, which was last year when I photographed the SS12 line for Fore! Axel and Hudson. I had initially made contact with the company when I had used their line in an editorial photo shoot I did and had let them know that I would love to photograph their upcoming line. They were already familiar with my celebrity and editorial work and just happened to be looking for a photographer so I got the gig.
Editorially, I began shooting celebrities in 1999, as an event photographer (red carpet events, award shows, concerts, etc.) I found that I enjoyed working with the teen and kid celebrities the most, so I approached some of the teen magazines and began submitting my work to them (event type images). They started running them which gave me tear sheets = credibility and I also signed with my first photo agency (Zuma Press) which was instrumental in getting my work syndicated to publications worldwide. I built strong relationships with the teen magazines and began shooting assignments for them (behind the scenes set visits on Disney and Nickelodeon shows, teen celeb birthday parties or events, etc.).
8. What was your first commercial/editorial shoot? Can you tell us a little bit about those experiences?
My first commercial shoot was last year with Fore! Axel and Hudson photographing their SS12 line. It was a fantastic experience. I came up with the concept for the shoot, booked the models, locations, etc. (which is not necessarily the norm. I recently shot their SS13 line and they had the concept, booked the models, etc, this time around) but it was magical. I adore the way the shoot came out and everyone was really pleased. I was also pleasantly surprised at how well I worked with all the little 4 year old boys (9 of them). I was a bit nervous as I had never worked with so many kids at this age but it went really well. I had an assistant (plus a couple people from the label helped out), so it went really well. If I wouldn’t have had that support – I am sure it would have been a different story.
Editorially, I don’t think I even remember what my first editorial was. The first magazines I ever worked with were Popstar!, Tiger Beat and Bop. I am sure it was a set visit on a TV show or music video shoot. Those are always fun, but you also don’t know what to expect. You have to go with the flow but at the same time you have a shot list that you need to get, as well. You have to work with the talent between shooting and sometimes don’t have a lot of time to get what you need.
9. A lot of photographers that are first approached regarding a commercial/editorial session do not know how to price their products and services. How did you go about setting your pricing for each?
I always try and get the client to let me know what their budget is if I can. It’s always difficult because you don’t want to low ball yourself or price your services so high that the client goes elsewhere. I generally say – this is my standard rate for publication usage (editorial rate usage in generally based on the circulation of the publication…is it a small online mag versus RollingStone … and it’s also based on the size and placement of the image. Is it the full cover or is it a 1/4 image on page 56 in the beauty feature? Or is it a 4 page pull-out poster? So I have standard rates that I have developed over the years that I send. I also make sure to tell them that I would do my best to work with their budgets, leaving the door open for negotiation.
Commercial shoots are always more money than editorials and are based on the needs of the client (how many looks or shots are required, what the logistics of the shoot are, and how much work is involved (i.e. one model on a white backdrop with the product versus an elaborate set with props and multiple lights and 5 models), also you want to charge for any pre-production (location scouting, casting, etc.) and post-production work, as well as any equipment rentals, etc.
There are some companies that you can hire to bid on projects for you or consult you in bidding on projects, as well. Such as Wonderful Machine Cog. American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) is another great resource where you can get an idea of what bid proposals look like. It’s a great organization that has a lot of business forms for their members including some bid proposal shares from their members.
10. You have a lot of major commercial/editorial clients. Can you tell us a bit about how you booked those clients (Ex. Interscope Records, Disney Adventures, Bravo, etc.)?
Initially, it was just knocking on doors (it still is). If I find an outlet that fits the type of work I do, I will try and get in touch with the person in charge of hiring photographers (sometimes it’s the editor or photo editor) and introduce myself (and my work) to them. Other times (like with Interscope and Disney Adventures) it comes from another client referring me to them. You have to be a real go-getter in this industry and not be afraid of rejection (it happens all the time! But for every 10-20 NO’s – you will get a YES! of course the number may vary but you get the idea).
11. You are a woman of many talents, and your resume is very extensive with jobs varying from voiceover talent, actress, to photographer. What has been your most exciting job yet (it can be photography or non photography)?
Thank you so much. That is a tough question. I don’t know what would be my most exciting job. I don’t think I have yet had a job that I did cartwheels over yet…I can say that there have been some really fantastic surprises as far as *spec shoots that I have done. The most highly published photo shoot to date has been with actor Zac Efron. We did the shoot the day before High School Musical 1 came out and it was just Zac, the groomer and myself. No one had any idea how much a phenomenon HSM would become and that shoot ended up running in virtually every teen magazine worldwide. Needless to say, I was really excited about that! Disney even purchased a couple of images to use for merchandising – Zac HSM T-Shirts (the most money I have ever made to date on a single image/shoot). Another similar story is when I photographed the Jonas Brothers before they signed with Disney (while they were in between labels). I am very blessed to have had those shoots do so well.
* A spec shoot is when you do a shoot with no assignment. I do the shoot and then pitch them to the magazines (in hopes that they would run them which would then allow me to recoup the money spent on the shoot and hopefully pay myself whilst the talent gets the publicity). Shoots like Zac and Jonas were spec shoots that definitely paid off (and are rare). I have done many shoots where I have yet to break even so…
As far as non-photography job, I think my first SAG acting job was my most memorable. I played HARVEY in the Bratz Babyz video game. It was super exciting for me and I still remember some of the dialogue. Another would be the video game Guild Wars 2 which is coming out soon. I play 2 major characters (Ellen who is a human soldier and Valka who is a Norn warrior.) That project was so much fun to record!
12. When you submit a session to a publication, how do you find out what kind of content the publication is in need of?
If I am hired to do the shoot, then the publication tells me the content they are in need of. If the publication is local, they will often be present at the shoot itself, directing it and they always give me a heads up on what they need and want out of the shoot (how many looks we are doing, what type of looks, what type of backdrops/sets or locations, etc.).
There have also been kids editorials that I have done with the publication just giving me a general idea on the themes they are looking for for the issue or a vague concept idea – which I then run with and make my own. So, it varies. If I do a spec shoot, then I usually have the freedom to come up with the styling of the shoot, concepts, locations, etc.
13. How do you typically direct your subjects during a session? Do you ask them questions? If so, can you list some examples?
It really depends on who (celeb or model and age) I am shooting and what it is for (it is a commercial job, a celebrity portrait/editorial or kids fashion editorial?). It really varies, but, in general, I will let them know what we are going to be doing that day and kind of just walk them through the process. Some people are more experienced than others and feel more comfortable in front of the camera so there are times that I barely have to say anything (maybe an occasional ‘chin down’ but other than that – the celeb or model knows exactly what they are doing and makes it extremely easy). Other times, I have to direct them through the entire shoot (which can be tough at times). If there is a specific pose I want, I will show them or direct them into it or if there is a mood, I will paint the scene for them…During a shoot with young kids, I will engage them by asking them questions, especially when I am looking for a reaction. When you get a person talking about themselves, it takes the focus off of ‘I’m getting my picture taken’ and they relax a bit…I will ask questions like “What’s your favorite food?” and say “Oh…I know, it’s a booger sandwich!” (or worm pizza!). Boys especially get a kick out of that. Silly stuff and lots of potty talk (I am not beyond making fart noises). I have been known to get really silly. I really don’t like fake smiles so I will do whatever I need to do to get real ones.
14. How do you find inspiration for your sessions?
I think you can find inspiration anywhere really, you just have to look. I have found inspiration looking at other photographers work, illustrations, art, movies, books, songs, poems, an outfit can inspire me, colors, props, you name it. I have just started getting into Pinterest. I enjoy keeping up on fashion magazines, commercial and fashion photographers, the [Framed Show] is great for photographers – I was featured last year on the show, and now they are a network so have even more to offer in the form of education and inspiration. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Oh…I love Vogue Bambini!! They are a kids fashion magazine out of Italy and feature amazing kids editorials. I love to look through that magazine. Also another is MilK from France. Any kids fashion mags are great for inspiration. I also like to keep up with what kids commercial photographers are up to by browsing through recent work on their reps sites or blogs. Just keeping up to date with the trends and what not.
15. Do you prefer a particular style of photography over another? (Ex. lifestyle vs. editorial) If so, why?
I love shooting concept driven shoots – it can be editorially, commercially, etc. I just find them the most fun and exciting to do especially when they are very fantastical and whimsical. I love fashion editorials where models can dress in attire than they might not normally wear walking down the street, you know.
16. How do you obtain the clothing and props used in your sessions? Are they provided to you or do you have to purchase them?
It depends. If it is a celebrity shoot done for a magazine then the stylist will bring the clothing and the magazine will bring the props. If it is a spec shoot then I will either hire a stylist or get clothes pulled myself (or even have the talent bring their own clothes). If I pull the clothes, I will either contact different designers and ask about using their lines in the shoot (telling them who it is I am shooting, what it is for, etc.) and have them send clothes (sometimes you can keep the clothes or the celeb can keep the clothes but most times they will want you to return them). I have also gone to the mall and bought clothes for the shoot, kept the tags on them and returned them after the shoot (which is what many stylists do, too). Props – depending on what the prop is, I will see if I can borrow it, or I will buy it and return if I can. It just depends on what it is, how easily it is found, what it will cost, etc. I love to go through the shops on etsy.com too. You can find some really talented people that are willing to send their designs (clothing or props) for you to use in exchange for images for their store.
17. If the clothing and props are provided to you, how do you approach/establish relationships with the vendors that provide the items?
I just contact the vendor and introduce myself, let them know what it is I am doing and direct them to my website where they can view my work. I explain that I would be interested in using some pieces from their line in my shoot and ask if they would be willing to send me the items to use. If the magazine gives clothing credits, I let them know that and tell them that they can get the tear sheets to use for their press books (which gives the clothing company publicity). A lot of teen celeb mags don’t give clothing credits though so I let them know I can send them a behind the scenes shot of the talent in the clothes for their records. Some companies work differently.
18. When you are in need of models, how do you look for and book them?
I will go through LA Casting for a lot of my casting calls. I also know a lot of the agencies and will often book them off their online portfolios. Sometimes I will put a casting call on my Facebook page. I live in Los Angeles so there definitely isn’t a shortage of talented models here. I like to look for a diverse group of models that compliment each other (ethnicity, age, gender, etc.). I almost always book based on clothing sizes as a lot of times the clothing samples are in a specific size so I need to find models that fit those sizes.
19. What is the one thing that you know now, that you wish you’d known when you were starting out in commercial/editorial photography?
When I initially started out doing celebrity editorial work, I was just learning studio lighting and tried to copy a lot of what I saw other photographers doing versus trying to find out what I liked and developing my own personal style. Now I look back at those images (and even some of the photographers that I thought were great back then) and ask myself what on Earth was I thinking!
I think it is fine to look at other photographers work and ask yourself what is it about their work that you like but not try and copy them. Find your own style…also you don’t always have to fit in with the standard either. Just because everyone else seems to be doing it, doesn’t mean you have to too. Find what drives you and makes you feel excited and inspired and shoot that! Also, know your equipment!! I can’t tell you how important it is to know the technical side of photography. You never know when you will come across a situation where your studio strobes fail and you have to improvise, etc. Learn as much as you can about lighting in different scenarios. I would also highly recommend having a back-up camera. I remember I was on an assignment for a magazine at an event (the editor was with me) and my camera failed. The shutter went out and I had no back-up camera. I was mortified. I ended up missing some important shots. Luckily there were some other photographers there and one lent me his back-up to use so I could finish the job. Luckily, I have had this client for a really long time and it didn’t hurt our relationship but WOW! I never want that to happen again.
20. Many photographers would LOVE to photograph a celebrity. You have photographed quite a few . . . (name dropping time . . . Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Zac Efron, Demi Lovato, and the list just goes on and on). Can you tell us what it’s like to photograph a celebrity? Is it different than a regular session? If so, how?
Celebrity shoots can be quite a bit different. With celebrities, you have to deal with not just the talent but their publicists and agents or managers.. There is a lot of people that have their own personal opinions on how things should look and how the shoot should go. Sometimes you don’t have as much time with the talent and have to work within a very short time frame to capture what the client wants. I once had 30 minutes with Jesse McCartney backstage at his concert to grab 3 studio looks for a client – we ended up setting up a studio with 2 lights and a backdrop in the loading area of the venue and he did 3 shirt changes. Sometimes it can be even as little as 15 minutes or so. Also, depending on who you are shooting and what it is for – many times publicists or artist representatives ask for approval over the images (which I like to avoid at all costs). They want the ability to look at the images and ‘kill’ any images that they don’t like before you submit them to publications (some even want approval over who and how the images are used). I personally don’t like to agree to this as I feel it infringes on my creativity as an artist but at times there has been no way around it.
21. Have you ever found yourself starstruck, if so, who was the celebrity?
I began my photography career shooting celebrities on the red carpet, as an event photographer. I initially thought it was the coolest thing ever, but after awhile it became like any other job and I got used to seeing all the A listers. I don’t really get starstruck per say, but I will admit that I used to be a huge Backstreet Boys fan so when I photographed them on the red carpet, I was super excited to say the least. That was back in 1999-2000. I also really enjoyed photographing the cast of Harry Potter at the Goblet of Fire premiere (I am a huge HP fan).
22. You have photographed many teens over the years. Have you ever found it hard to relate to them? If so, how did you overcome that?
Not really. I am actually really at ease with this age group. I’m just myself and treat them as I would anyone else – taking interest in them as a person, showing them respect and valuing their opinions. I think it is also important to be up on what is popular with the age group you shoot (knowing who Katy Perry is and if you are Team Edward or Team Jacob).
23. When you photograph a celebrity, are you approached by a client for the shoot or the celebrity?
Both. When I first started, I approached their representatives (people who I knew and had built relationships with) about photographing their talent (these images were the starting point for my portfolio and I also pitched the images to magazines). I still do this occasionally (spec shoots) with select talent (ones that I feel have the most chance of running in the magazines). So in this case, I contact them. I also shoot celebrities for magazines or record labels and in that case, they approach me. Most often it is the representative of the celebrity that will contact me versus the talent themselves.
24. Can you give any advice regarding the business side of commercial photography (ex. contracts, commercial model releases, etc.)?
I would recommend having models sign a full model release. Editorially you don’t need it (although some publications ask for it) but commercially you do. I don’t usually have celebs sign one (and usually they won’t anyway). You only really need a model release if the images will be used commercially. I also like to have my models sign another agreement that goes over what they will receive from the shoot (images or payment), a waiver (I am always very careful during my shoots and would never put anyone in harms way but it’s always good to have a waiver just in case). It also states that I am the exclusive photographer (I can’t tell you how much I dislike it when people are shooting behind me while I am shooting).
Expect that people will want you to shoot for free. You can either say yes or no. That is up to you. If you are just starting out and need images for your portfolio then it might be worth it to do the shoot at no cost to get images for your book. When you start out, there is A LOT of shooting for free. After all, no one knows who you are and you need to build a portfolio. I would definitely limit what exactly you give for free on the shoots. Don’t give everything for free. Also, you want to look like you are working even when you aren’t, so that means you need to always be producing new work. So, between paid commercial or editorial – do some test shoots.
And lastly, I would say that there is always something new to learn – so take a workshop or watch the [Framed] network, or just get out there and experiment!