I recently had the honor of photographing one of the greatest and most renowned actors of our generation, Mr. Robin Williams. While I would typically post the portrait and throw up a description, for this one I thought I’d break down how the final shot was made from start to finish. While we shot four setups in all I’m going with my favorite from the day.

CONCEPT | It’s common knowledge that Mr. Williams has a very energetic public persona. From late-night interviews to red carpet spots, the man is always “on”. Always funny, always riffing, and always entertaining. With that in mind I really wanted to create something that showed the quieter side of his personality. In all honesty I couldn’t be sure if that quiet side did in fact exist but, in my experience, people who are that outgoing do have a very soft side behind closed doors. But deciding that was going to be the concept was a gamble. If I sit him down and he doesn’t feel comfortable and relaxed, I may not get the shot. A fake smile or goofy face would probably look out of place. Even so, I had to go for it. With that in mind I was now left with finding a location. After some discussion with Mr. Williams’ team, we got a feel for his schedule and the ideal shoot time that day. In the end, we would have 30 minutes outside of hair, makeup, and wardrobe.

Time to scout.

SCOUTING | Given the time frame, the easiest thing to do in this case was to simply take the shoot to Mr. Williams. With that in mind I scouted his hotel a week prior at the exact time the shoot was to take place so I would get the most accurate representation of what the team and I would be working with. While I found roughly half a dozen decent spots, the cafe really stuck out in my mind. It perfectly reflected the concept in mind, offered beautiful window light, and was in a secluded dining area of the hotel which ensured us a decent level of privacy. Once I had chosen the location I began to work up a rough edit on the scouting shot of the room to finalize visual tone. I’ve found this step to be crucial as it allows my lead assistant to fine-tune camera and lighting settings the day of the shoot. Plus, it never hurts to have the scouting shot printed out so you can show the talent exactly what’s in your head on set.

There is a second part to the scouting process we do on the day of the shoot as well. Once everything has been setup in terms of the gear we go around to each set and use a stand-in to make any last minute adjustments. In this case it was our studios DP Bryce (seen below). The reason for doing this is that sometimes what you shot on the original scouting day may not be exactly what it is the day of the shoot. Maybe cloud cover has changed the ambient light or the rooms layout has changed. You have to arrive earlier to get it but it’s worth it.

To take it a step further, once we test shoot with our stand-in, I go back to our digital asset kit and do a rough edit to make sure things are sitting exactly where I want them. I’m not going to get a re-shoot so putting in the extra effort beforehand is vital.

VISUAL TONE | A lot of my work is either cold with blue/green tones or warm with orange/yellow tones. I tend to do what I know best so in this case, given the location, I wanted to go warm. With the coffee and newspaper on the table it would have a “early morning” aesthetic. In my scouting shot there was a slight light leak in the upper right hand corner which offered a cool touch to the environment.

SHOOTING // All in all we had four setups in 30 minutes. The first three setups were knocked out in roughly 6 minutes. With our in-depth scouting process and pre-shooting the day of with a stand-in, my team has become extremely efficient which means I’m no longer shooting a hundred photos to make sure I get the right one. Whether it’s on the first shot or the 100th, if I feel I got it, I move on. With only one concept left my team escorted Mr. Williams and his management to the cafe.

Early on one of the best lessons I learned watching Annie work was the way she takes all the pressure off the talent and puts it squarely on her shoulders. She doesn’t only do this internally but voices it clearly before she fires the first shot. When Mr. Williams arrived I simply walked over, showed him where I’d like him to sit, and said, “I’d like to have you sit here, drink some coffee, read the paper, and relax. We’ll do the rest.” Once he understood that I wouldn’t be asking him to smile or turn his head “just a little” you could see the pressure to perform melt away. We talked a little as I fired off a few frames and within minutes we were done. I thanked him for his time, shook his hand, and let him get on with his day.

11 minutes out the door.

LIGHTING | If it’s not blatantly obvious I am a huge fan of motivated light when it comes to photographs. Simply adding an artificial light source to blend with the environmental lighting was an obvious choice on this one given the window light to the right side of the frame. After a little testing my head lighting tech and I settled on a Profoto 7B head inside a 36″ Photek Softlighter off to the side of the window. We angled slightly more towards Mr. Williams’ face to ensure a nice even tone. The power sat extremely low around -4 on 1/4. This made sure we didn’t blow out his face or create an overtly obvious artificial flash look.

POST-PRODUCTION | Over the years I’ve built a custom setting inside the camera with adjusted saturation, contrast, and a few others. It’s allowed me to get a consistent look with my final images. That along with the even motivated lighting and beautiful environment, a majority of the post on the image was adjusting the shadows and mid tones in the color balance and an enhancement on the natural light leak in the top right corner. Throw in my favorite sharpening trick and I’m done.

There it is. Start to finish on the latest portrait shoot with Mr. Robin Williams.

Sean Hagwell