Later tonight CMT will celebrate some of today’s biggest and most influential names in country music with the Artist Of The Year Awards. Featuring acts such as Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line, and Kenny Rogers, the night is a who’s who of hitmakers. In past years the look and feel of the show has been more, well, country. From graphics to artist interviews everything felt very traditional. Fast forward to this year when a handful of executives over at CMT decided it was time to take a different approach. That’s when I got a phone call.

I was approached to conceptualize, produce, direct, and shoot a series of portraits as well as interviews with each of the winners. I direct a lot these days and really enjoy it but as I’m primarily a photographer I’ll focus on the photography side with this post.

CONCEPT | The portraits would be used in two ways. The first being for general promotion and the second for the graphics packages used during the live broadcast. After meeting with the art department and seeing their ideas I decided to create the portraits in studio. I wanted clean, simple, and classic. I’m a big fan of brand cohesiveness and knew that a canvas background with soft light would keep attention on the faces.

While not in the original shot list, in the back of my mind I knew I had to create a group portrait. To have so many well-known faces in front of my camera and not try would be irresponsible. The only logistical obstacle was that due to everyones schedules the sessions would take place over 5 days which meant there was absolutely no way to get everyone in the same room. Luckily I prefer a challenge and began to devise a way to make it work. I drew out a rough idea of how I saw the final shot and started pre-production.

The solution? I would stitch together the individual shots in post-production to make one large portrait. It sounds easy but can go horribly wrong in no time. I’d accomplished similar “stitch” looks before with bands like Sheppard and for King & Country but those had obvious jagged edges whereas I wanted a smooth seamless look on this one.

BUILDING THE SET | In order to achieve a seamless feel I placed multiple canvas drops against the wall and floor. Doing so would give each image the same look with enough space to comfortably host solo artists like Luke Bryan as well as a larger group like Little Big Town. 

Next up was light testing with my assistant Sam. With 11 people there was going to be a lot of variation in heights and skin tones that would all play a major factor in the final shot. The key needed to be strong enough to light up the entire set without being too bright or too dark. With Sam around 6’0 I was able to get a realistic look at the ideal distance for both myself and the light source. Standing about 12 feet back I dialed in the perfect settings:

Shutter Speed: 1/40  |  Aperture: 7.1  |  ISO: 800

With a low shutter and high ISO the sensor could soak up all the artificial and ambient light available for a nice clean look. The key was a Pro-8a head inside a 74″ Elinchrom Octabank set to 1/4 power. As you can see above there was a small bounce opposite the Octabank which was later replaced with white foamcore board. The result was exactly what I wanted. In fact the image above, with the exception of full desaturation, hasn’t been retouched at all.

With placements marked and camera settings noted I was ready to shoot.

SHOOTING | Over the course of five days I photographed each artist. I’d start with their piece of the group spread and then move on to the individual portraits. Before each session I would take a moment to sit and explain what I had in mind. With tear references in hand I was able to give everyone a clear vision of the end goal. In my experience those few minutes can take a shoot from good to great in no time. 

Here you can see the RAW versions of the stitch selections used.

To give you an idea of how things felt on set here’s a quick behind-the-scenes look at the Little Big Town session.

With all artists wrapped it was time to head into the edit.

POST-PRODUCTION | This is obviously where the real work began. I’m not a very technical photographer so instead of boring details about layer masks and color balance levels I thought it might be more enjoyable to simply show you how things looked along the way.

Like I mentioned before I could have easily created a hard-edged look to the stitch but I’ve learned you really have to pick your moments with that particular style. On top of that I had recently done something similar on a shoot with for King & Country:

I really do like the vibe but given the tone of this awards show I wanted things to feel a bit more connected between these artists. Country music, despite its massive global presence, is a fairly small and tight-knit community. A lot of these artists came up together, played the empty bars together, wrote their records together, and call each other on the weekends. It would have to be subtle but I knew a slight visual overlap of an elbow or foot would tie things together nicely.

The first day on set was the busiest. My sessions with Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line, and Luke Bryan all happened within 3 hours. With managers, stylists, and publicists buzzing around it was more than a little hectic and the exact reason I dedicate so much time to pre-production. I knew my settings, where I wanted them to stand, and how I wanted them to look. This meant that all of my energy could be spent focusing on the little details and talking them through what I wanted. You’ll never know how important that is until you put it into practice. Shoots immediately become less stressful and more enjoyable for everyone.

Florida Georgia Line was the last session of the day and before I could get back to the hotel I was already into the edit.

Things felt good and pre-production had paid off. The light felt natural, the shadows made sense, and the overall look is what I had envisioned.

Thankfully the next few days were much more relaxed with only one or two artists a day. Little Big Town was up next. I intentionally pushed them off the edge of the canvas to not only reinforce logical light falloff but to create a bookend to the image.

As far as the process of blending it really came down to clone stamping, the patch tool, and pulling textures from shots of the empty set. Everything was shot with the exact same settings on both camera and lighting so all I had to do was build a custom color profile when importing the images into Photoshop. That way I wasn’t wasting time trying to color balance and could focus all of my time on the stitching.

The next day was the one and only Blake Shelton who, on a side note, was exactly how you imagine him from his role on The Voice: honest, funny, and charming as all hell. Because of a last minute change in his schedule he was my shortest session clocking in at around 47 seconds. No joke. Sam timed it. I could have kept him longer but I knew he was running late and once I had what I wanted I let him go. I’ll say it again; pre-producing your shoot is crucial. When you’re supposed to have 30 minutes and end up having 30 seconds you still need to get results. Believe it or not it happens quite often, especially when you work in anything involving entertainment.

My second to last day on set was with Kenny Rogers who is being honored as the Artist Of A Lifetime. The man has sold over 120 million records making him one of the biggest selling artists of all time and working with him was a huge honor. To have had and still have a career in music that spans decades is a rare feat and one that deserves the utmost respect.

Despite being the most iconic name on the roster he was the one I ended up spending the most time with. He was in no rush and gave me his undivided attention. As a renowned photographer himself he understood the process. We took our time and talked about our favorite photographers, cameras, and things to shoot. I mean, the man photographed Michael Jackson holding Bubbles. That’s icon status.

With Kenny wrapped and placed in the stitch I was almost done.

Last but certainly not least was dark horse Chris Stapleton. His music is adored by comedic legend Bill Murray. Then there’s the whole “being best friends with Justin Timberlake” thing. He’s been a well-known name in industry circles for years but only recently exploded onto the public stage last month when he cleaned up at the CMA’s winning Album Of The Year. During our shoot he was incredibly gracious, humble, and kind. You could just feel that old soul in him.

With all of the sessions wrapped I spent the next ten days in post tweaking shadows, highlights, skin tones, height corrections, and making Sam Hunt a little less lonely. In the end it looks a little something like this:

CMT’s Artist Of The Year Awards airs tonight on CMT at 8/7c.

Sean Hagwell