Lifestyle portrait shooter Jon McKee is a firm believer that “everyone’s got something,” it’s just a matter of finding out what that something is and putting it in the right location and the right situation. To create his characteristically vivacious, animated images, he has to get what he wants from the models while satisfying the client’s vision. To achieve this balance, McKee has become a master of communication.
His prestigious clientele, including Target, Disney, Limited Too, Shape, Teen, and the L.A. Dodgers, usually start a campaign with McKee by sending him sample images to convey their desired look. Alternatively, “ad agencies and individual art directors will send specific layouts and FedEx their ideas for different sets or backgrounds they want built in for models on location,” says McKee.
Throughout the shoot, he maintains communications with the client. “As soon as we start painting the set, we’ll email pictures of our progress to the client so they can say ‘it’s too green,’ or ‘we want more blue and more texture,’” says McKee. “The rest is knowing how to be flexible enough to make the changes they want without sacrificing your creative efforts.”
Give It To ‘Em Straight
Communicating with the models can be a little more involved. “You have to set the tone with them early on,” he says. “You have to create this environment and make them feel comfortable that you are going to get beautiful pictures of them.”
McKee finds it helps to pick out one of the model’s outstanding features and say he’s going to try and play up that feature. “Maybe a woman has a beautiful smile that everyone recognizes or this great thick hair. Maybe a guy is really charming or fun. Whatever it is, they’ll eventually loosen up and give you what you want. You just have to be ready for it.”
Being ready means recognizing the most animated shots and getting as many of them as you can. McKee finds that a little encouragement usually leads to a more entertaining photograph.
“When I see the shot developing in front of me, I’ll say, ‘Face the light a little more.’ Or if the people are just goofing off and it starts to look good, I’ll just start telling them to keep the flow going. If it stops happening, I might ask them to try and recreate it.”
McKee suggests never getting hung up on one great shot thinking you “have it.”
“I am always concentrating on the next shot to give my client a variety of images to choose from,” he says. If it weren’t for his habit of over shooting, the picture of the three girls on bikes (below) would never have reached its full potential.
According to McKee, the representative from Teen was already satisfied with a shot of the girls walking next to the bikes and was concerned about the models getting hurt, but McKee couldn’t resist trying for a bit more.
“I started asking the girls, ‘Could you try riding the bikes or sitting on the handle bars? Can I get a little more expression out of you guys?’” The results speak for themselves.
When it comes to selecting a spot on location, McKee lets the environment determine what’s best. “Is there a lot of green grass or a lot of dead trees? Are the flowers in bloom? Perhaps that waterfall is looking pretty good,” he says, communicating his observations to the crew to get them on the same wavelength. He also reacts to changes in lighting throughout the day. “I just keep seeing different shots that I want to put the models in to create different scenarios.”
The image taken for Apparel News of the man sitting on top of a car (below) is a perfect example of McKee letting a change in the environment determine the direction of the shoot.
“It was the end of the day and I noticed the sunset on the opposite side of the mountain, so I told the crew that everyone had to trek over there to get this last-minute shot.” In spite of some initial grumbling, the race against the clock and the crew’s end-of-the-day energy surges wound up infusing the photo with a great feeling.
Similarly, while shooting in a downtown area near the L.A. River, the original plan had been to shoot everything from under a certain graffiti-covered bridge. But, after a few images, McKee noticed that the top of the bridge might have more to offer in terms of perspective.