Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Getting The Shot– 73 Seconds to Photograph Bill Gates by Gary Parker

Bill Gates by Gary Parker - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Bill Gates by Gary Parker

One day out of the blue I get a call with a voice on the other end that exclaims, “Gary!!!!  Thank god we reached you!!! Can you quickly get up to Seattle to do a one-on-one magazine cover shoot of Bill Gates for us?”. It was the Director of Photography at Information Week in New York who was quick to add “Our executive editor just got an interview with him – it’s super rush.  Can you be there tomorrow?”  

I thought to myself, of course I can be there!!! With a crew!!! Private shoots with Bill Gates were rare, so I was all over the assignment any time I got a call to shoot Bill.

Although Information Week and most tech magazines hired photographers locally, I’d somehow worked my way onto the list of those who could be trusted to go shoot the Big Boys. Over the years I’d come to realize shooting captains of industry and world famous technologists is not so different than the fashion photography I did for years. CEO’s are just slightly less cooperative but the process is very similar.

Having previously photographed Bill one-on-one, I understood the man is gracious with photographers and business-savvy enough to allow magazine shoots, even though a man who is definitely not into having his picture made.   Bill was 100% all-business – magazine covers are good for Microsoft – so he endured all the media for the benefit of the company. 

Off to Seattle we raced, excited about the prospects of getting great new shots of Bill, a true commodity to an editorial photographer, since gaining a one-on-one audience with the man almost guaranteed multiple magazine covers. We packed 35mm and 120mm film and even a 4x5” Sinar view camera.  As it would turn out, this shoot came only months before we went digital entirely. However, at this point we were still scanning and then imaging film.

Once in the hotel in Seattle we were told hurry out to Microsoft. The next thing we know we are being told, “no wait – the shoot will NOT go down today”, so we goofed off in Seattle instead. To me Seattle is the most beautiful city in America, so it was a great place to be stranded waiting for the richest man in the world to give us 5 minutes.  We presumed the shoot would go down the next day but, no, we were again told to wait. 

Finally on the 4th day of waiting, we were told to race out to Microsoft where we ushered to a conference room near Bill’s office. We raced to set up a rather grand multiple background scenario to prepare for the shoot. My lighting kit weighed 800 pounds, so this was no small feat!

We were told we’d have 20 minutes with Bill so my thought was I’d maximize the boardroom shoot by lighting 3 separate background areas, each differently.  The cool trick I’d figured out was, knowing Bill would not be into changing locations, I put an X on the floor then lit various backgrounds so all the photographer had to do was move a little then ask Bill to simply turn on the X and, voila!, a different background would be behind him.  What a great way to maximize a shoot with this world icon! I was feeling great about this clever 3-backgrounds idea...

By the time Bill arrived – late, of course – all three backgrounds were fully lit and all 3 cameras were precisely set, with exposures coordinated and taped down – this was no time for mistakes...  My thought was I’d make a few 35mm frames first, just warm up Bill, then switch to either 120mm or 4x5, based on whether it felt like Bill was going to give us some time.  The lighting was rather intense since we’d lit each of the 3 backgrounds with a separate 2000 watt-second power supply and as many strobe heads as were needed.

Bill’s first words when he entered the warmly glowing, strobe-filled room were, “Wow, I thought this was going to be a still shoot?” so I reassured him it was to be a still shoot only.  Bill’s response was, “I’ve never seen a still shoot with so many lights.” There was no time to explain about the 3 separate backgrounds so we simply got started.

Creating a nice ambience with the modeling lights and bastard amber warming gels is a great trick for a photographers’ arsenal since, upon entering a nicely lit room, the subject typically realizes there is much professionalism involved, often a reassuring feeling to legends like Bill who have been photographed poorly on many occasions.

At this point, it’s important to note we were shooting film – Fujichrome 100 transparency film – great stuff but with very little exposure latitude.  Transparency (slide) film was known for the rich, saturated imagery it produced but also for it’s narrow exposure latitude. In other words, it was easy to screw up the exposure.  On a shoot SO rare and important, it was mandatory the Fujichrome exposure was spot on the money.  No room for errors. I had that feeling in my gut like you have when you’re about to get on Space Mountain at Disney – a little scary but mostly exciting!

How did we know for a fact each light was set correctly?  Apart from years of experience working with strobes, each light had been adjusted precisely using a Minolta Flash Meter.  

At this point, though, my concern was not so much exposure as it was lighting design.  What kind or shape of light would look coolest?

Learning lighting is crucial to any photographer’s career development yet working with lights goes far beyond merely learning how to set them up and get correct exposures.  The design of the lighting – HOW the drama and ambience is created – is critical in making the picture a solid image worthy of a magazine cover or two.

Despite the fact it was common to bracket exposures when using transparency film, I’d decided in this case I would shoot Bill without doing so.  Instead, I decided to shoot all film of Bill at the same F-stop then, as soon as he left the room, to have my assistant stand on the X where Bill had been standing so I could shoot a “snip test roll” of my assistant, with the camera set at the exact same exposure used for Bill.  This way we could have the Seattle photo lab process “snips” from the “test roll” to insure the exposure was correct.  If the first snip test happened to be too light or too dark, we could then snip another piece from that test roll so the lab could process another piece, at a different development time and so on until I was satisfied the exposure and processing time were perfect. As it turned out, the first snip was perfect, exposure-wise, so we knew every frame of Bill should be good!  But I’m jumping ahead.....

Back at the shoot, Bill stepped on the X so I picked up the 35mm camera, presuming I’d get a few quick shots then would switch to a larger format camera.  Curiously, my assistant had the presence of mind to push his wrist watch timer when I fired the first frame, curious how much time Bill would give us to accomplish this cover shoot since 20 minutes sounded excessively long to have Bill in front of me. I chose a 70-200mm lens so I could zoom in tight then zoom back out to magazine cover format very quickly.  I did some minor chatting with Bill and he was pleasant-enough, as always.

However, at the point when I’d made 31 frames on the 35mm camera, I reached for the 120mm camera at which point Bill smiled politely, said “Thank you very much!,” turned and walked out of the room.............  Uh..................   What just happened to the other 18 minutes and 47 seconds???????  My assistant clicked his stop watch timer and Bill had given us exactly 73 seconds!!!???

OH NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!! No 120mm or 4x5 shots – just those now-precious 31 frames on 35mm… OH NO!!! On the other hand, one rule of photography is stuff always happens so you better be ready to shift gears, regroup and make it happen despite whatever comes up.
As soon as I pried the stunned look off my face, I had my assistant step onto the X and proceeded to shoot a roll of him at the exact same exposure I’d just used with Bill. This was to be my test roll…

We then raced to the downtown Seattle lab where we discovered the snip-test roll was perfectly exposed. I’d nailed the exposure, it appeared, so I asked the lab to go ahead and process those 31 frames of Bill at the exact same development time.  We held our breath as the film was being processed thinking things like, “What if I screwed up and accidentally bumped the aperture to something different than the test-roll exposure??? What if the film processor screws up and wraps that film around the rollers? This is the very stuff that makes photography an exciting business!!! There are so many “what-if’s” and possibilities for screw-ups in this business.
Had I been a bit more paranoid, I might have had the lab process that “priceless” roll of Bill in two parts – they could cut it in half, processed the first half then, once I inspected it, could then develop the 2nd half of the good Bill roll.  (though I would lose a frame wherever they cut the roll – and the frame you lose is always a great one, it seems…)  However, I’m a bit famous for risky photographic behavior so I found it more exciting to go ahead and process the entire roll, betting on the fact the camera was set correctly.  

When the film was done ALL frames were right on the money!!!! YES!!!!  We were dancing in the lab!!!!  I had 31 perfectly exposed frames of Bill Gates, some tight, some loose, mostly vertical for magazine cover format, though a few horizontals for full spreads.

From the lab we FedEx’d the film to the magazine in New York where we did indeed make the cover and full page lead photo inside the magazine. Once the film was returned to me – the magazine was granted one-time usage rights – those shots were now up for grabs by any magazine in need of a fresh cover-oriented photograph of Bill Gates.  

Although all 31 frames were color, I set about converting some frames to black & white, cropping others tightly, tweaking the colors richly on some while creating “effects” looks with others. I did straight black & white conversions and tweaked conversions. I even made a multi-colored Andy Warhol version shown below. I liked it but nobody used it – ha, ha.

Gates Warhol Effect by Gary Parker - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Copyright Gary Parker – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

In the end, my best recollection is these 31 frames scored 9 magazine covers!  The shoot did NOT go as we’d hoped – we got only 31 frames on 35mm only – YET we optimized those 31 frames to the point many magazines were happy to use them and each frame looked different enough to satisfy the magazines they weren’t using the same photo as the others. 

On the 4th day we went home with a great story to tell about our 73 second shoot with Bill Gates.  Since the shoot worked out great, having only 73 seconds made it much more fun, in ways. We’re still not sure why Bill pulled the plug in only 73 seconds – the shoot was going great - yet the bottom line is we were totally prepared so, even considering what could be viewed as a mishap, those were 73 great seconds!

More Gary Parker Articles

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Gary Parker and Ron Martinsen are teaming up to teach you how to make great photographs of people outdoors in Seattle, WA on May 26th, 2012. Click here to learn more about our workshop!

About Gary Parker (by Ron Martinsen)

Redwood Dog by Gary Parker - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Redwood Dog on Gary Parker’s CatDogPhotography.com

Gary Parker is one of my favorite photographers and this photo is just one of many in his portfolio that make me go “WOW”!!! Not only is Gary talented at photographing people, but his pet photography at CatDogPhotography.com is going to look familiar to you if you’ve ever owned a pet.

Among Gary’s long list of accomplishments is being a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Team for the San Jose Mercury News coverage of Loma Prieta Earthquake; Southern Photographer of the Year; and Newspaper Photographer of the Year (twice!).

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Anonymous said...

That Bill Gates would only give these photographers 73 seconds is shameful. They are trying to make a living and deliver a quality product and he has the arrogance to walk out without even asking them if they are done and have all they need.

Ron Martinsen said...

Ha, ha - hey that's pretty good. Steve Jobs gave him zero seconds, and was pretty rude to him when Gary delivered a print to Steve. Gary has stories of other execs that were so rude he can't even write about it.