Emily Shur: Master Of Illuminating Fame

Celebrity portrait photographer Emily Shur’s primary task is collaboration. No matter the client, whatever the budget, she needs to forge a partnership with her subject if they’re going to make something great. It’s the existential crisis of even the most talented portraitist: You can’t do it alone.

"Most shoots are the photographer coming in and trying to endear themselves to the subject," Shur explains, "and hoping that in this super-short amount of time, you’re going to be able to connect with them in a way that’s going to make them want to give a little something. It’s difficult. That aspect of portrait photography has pretty much nothing to do with photography, and it’s a huge part of walking away with something you’re proud of."

Shur had cultivated a fine career in editorial portraiture in New York before deciding that she wanted to specialize in celebrities—actors, mostly. She hoped performers would be more willing to perform for her camera.


Kaitlin Olson. "The picture was pitched and approved before she got there," says Shur. She’s like a down-on-her-luck homecoming queen. It was low-budget. I bought a few food and drink prop items that she could choose from. She picked a beer. I was just there with a camera and she was going for it. She was just so funny. She was that perfect scenario type of shoot."

"I wanted to photograph people who enjoyed performing," she says. "In my mind, I thought they would all enjoy being in front of the camera because this is what they do. I don’t like those shoots where you just feel like you’re torturing someone. I’m always really surprised when a businessman is excited to get his picture taken. It has happened, but it’s very rare. I usually feel like I’m pulling teeth, and this person can’t wait to be done. And I don’t want to feel that way. I want to have fun, and I want the person I’m shooting to have fun. I want it to be a good experience, and I don’t want them to be traumatized."

That quest for fun gives Shur’s work a youthful energy. Some portrait photographers may consider smiling a sin, but Shur embraces the beauty of happiness, the energy of laughter. It’s evident throughout her portfolio, along with her considerable technical proficiency, as well. Every compositional element is placed just so, every color is carefully controlled, every subject is beautifully lit. It’s attention to detail, sure, but mostly it’s an understanding of the primary difference between celebrity portraiture and photographs of mere mortals: The subject must, above all else, look beautiful.

"I think that’s what celebrity portraiture is," Shur says. "The portrait part is saying something interesting about another person with a photograph, or seeing something interesting about another person. But the celebrity-ism of that portrait…not every successful celebrity portrait photographer follows the rules of, ‘They must look good, they must be well lit,’ but I’m not super-famous so I can’t just roll in and say, ‘This is what we’re doing, this is how it’s going to look.’ I can’t do that. I need to make sure that the subject and their publicists leave happy with what happened in that shoot. It really is important if you want to keep working. If your whole thing is, ‘I don’t want to light anyone in a flattering way, and I want everyone to look crazy in my photos,’ you’re probably not going to be photographing a lot of actors."

To create beautiful illumination that’s also visually interesting, Shur’s go-to setup is a Photek Softlighter for diffused softness and a bit of postprocessing for added contrast.

"I used to be a beauty dish person," she says. "I still have a beauty dish, and I do use it, but right now my ‘I don’t know what to do if all else fails’ light is a Photek with just a little bit of fill underneath. It’s so inexpensive, and it’s honestly one of the most versatile modifiers. If you see any behind-the-scenes of Annie Leibovitz or Norman Jean Roy, you’ll see an assistant walking around with a Photek on a C-stand arm and just moving with the camera.

"In the computer," Shur says, "you can add some contrast and give it a little more snap. It’s this really nice, soft light, but when you go in and give it a little more contrast and snap, it becomes, in my opinion, a very nice, easy light. It works great super-close to the subject, kind of feathered off, or right on top of them. It’s really versatile. If I did have a go-to ‘I’m stranded on a desert island with one light,’ that would be it."


Nick Offerman

Closer study of Shur’s portraits reveals that she doesn’t care for dramatic shadows, and while her images are full of color, she doesn’t use it arbitrarily. She’s very precise, with both color and fill. It’s part of her visual signature.

"I’m not really big on shadows," she says. "I like shape in light, but I’m not a huge fan of pronounced shadows. My assistant makes fun of me for not wanting any neck shadows. And I do spend a lot of time on color. I obsess over it, and I really don’t like for my skin tones to go too crazy. Generally speaking, I like a neutral skin tone, and then I’ll bring out other parts of the picture and take those parts of the picture wherever the mood is.

"And I don’t always light softly," adds Shur. "I definitely like to figure out what works best in that particular shot. I always ask for a lot of setup time because I like to play around with lights and really figure out the best lighting scenario for a certain picture. Lately, I’ve been doing some things with a Fresnel and just getting a little bit more into doing something with a very hard light. I like that, too. It really just depends on the picture and what looks good on the person. Can they handle a hard light? Not everyone can. Does it look good? Does it work for this shot? I would be bored if every shoot we just busted out the same three accessories and set them up the same way and took the same readings.

"When I used to shoot with a large camera," she continues, "that was a big part of my technique—the camera and what look the camera brought to the picture. The camera adds a whole other element. But with digital, not so much. I kind of feel like that’s somewhat lost for me at this point. Shooting 4×5 or with the RZ with the bellows kind of gave an added element to the picture, and now it’s strictly lighting. Instead of creating that mood with a format change, it’s a little more about lighting.

What I Use

"If I have the budget, my preference is to shoot with a Hasselblad H system with an 80mm, a 65-110mm, a 100mm and a 150mm lens," Emily Shur says. "I usually use the P65 or the P30 digital back. If the budget doesn’t allow, or if I need to shoot in a lower-light situation, I’ll go with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with 24-105mm, 50mm and 70-200mm lenses. I prefer the Hasselblad system mainly because I have just never been much of a 35mm shooter. That said, the Canon is a great camera. I usually wind up cropping the frame to more of a 6×7 crop just because the 35mm frame has always felt too long for me." "It takes a lot of effort," Shur says. "I know a lot of sloppy photographers. Lazy. We’ve all been there. I might complain and whatever, but once I’m there, I’m like, ‘Well, we’re here, let’s make it good.’ It’s not always easy."

When it comes to celebrity, som
e photographers deny all but the faintest acknowledgement of their famous subjects. Not Shur. While she’s a total pro, she’s also a regular fan. It’s not the fame that’s intimidating, though. Like any photographer, it’s the opportunity to make an exceptional photograph that keeps her up at night.

"Photography is so cutthroat," she says. "I’ve had it happen a million times. Even if you turn in a good shoot, you might never get another call from that magazine or that client. It’s so cutthroat—what if something should actually go wrong, let alone not just be amazing? It’s very nerve-wracking, and even though I know what I’m doing, I do get nervous and excited about working with certain people, and I want it to go well, and I want them to enjoy working with me, and I want them to think I’m a good photographer. All those things, I want all those things, and I definitely would never sit here and say I don’t care. I do care. And I think it’s good to care."

Go to www.emilyshur.com to see more of Emily Shur’s photography.

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