Home Arts & Entertainment Art Q&A with Brian Kelly, celebrity photographer and GRCC alumnus

Q&A with Brian Kelly, celebrity photographer and GRCC alumnus

Brian Kelly, celebrity portrait photographer & GRCC alumnus. (Photo by Mark Andrus)

Brian Kelly has 25 years of experience in the photography industry, and specializes in hybrid shoots where he captures both photo and video. He studied photography for two years at GRCC. He didn’t complete a degree, yet the foundation he received at GRCC allowed him to go out into the world and be a professional photographer. Even though he’s based in Grand Rapids, he travels all over the world and his subject matter ranges from celebrity portraits, to architecture, to commercial and corporate photography. His website demonstrates massive diversity in style and stories alike. 

Why does portrait photography matter? 

Well, it matters because, I’ll take it to its basic form, when you’re a photographer taking someone’s portrait, there’s an exchange of trust that happens, whether you know that person or not, and it’s a very intimate experience. I don’t mean that in a physical way, but emotionally it’s pretty intimate and raw to ask someone to be your subject. There’s a whole relationship between the photographer and the person who is the subject of that image. It’s (portrait photography) the most human form of photography we have, it’s human to human. To make a truly great portrait, I think you (the photographer) have to have a tremendous amount of empathy for the person. Does photography matter? Do I like shooting celebrities? Yeah, but does it really matter? F*ck no it doesn’t matter, you know, in the context of life. 

What beneficial or harmful changes have you seen in the portrait photography industry?

Photography is easier now than it’s ever been, technology has democratized who has access to good equipment. The barrier to entry has been lowered, which I think is good in some ways, but it’s also been harmful to the industry because there’s a lot of decline in rates, what we can earn on a particular job. A lot of pressure on rates, downward, because there’s more people willing to do work for a lot less than what we used to do it for. So, I feel fortunate that I’m not coming up today as a photographer, as a young person. I think earning a good living right now is harder when you get started.

Have you encountered people who invalidate the expertise it takes to be a portrait photographer? How have you dealt with those people?

The expertise? Yeah, ‘why should I pay you more money than this person? They’ve got a camera.’ You know, it’s frustrating. That gets back to the democratization of technology, it’s easy to discount what we do and how we do it. My work sort of stands for itself. There’s a particular quality to my work that other people don’t have locally. I’m a certain type of photographer who takes tremendous pride in being very intentional about what we (the client and I) are doing. As a businessperson you have to understand what’s a good fit and what isn’t, so I try to really project how much experience I have and understanding of what needs to be accomplished from a particular shoot.

How do you put people at ease to capture their personalities during a session?

Fantastic question, because every subject brings their own baggage of insecurities to a portrait session. I try to ask questions, ‘how’s your day?’ or ‘where’re you from?’ And again, gaining trust.

Healthcare shoot for Spectrum/Helen DeVos Children’s hospital. Photo by Brian Kelly

I’m interested in them, this is a person I wanna get to know. I use jokes, I have a dry sense of humor, I’ve got great dad jokes, you know, just dumb stuff. If they like particular music, we’ll put it on a speaker. I’ll ask all kinds of questions to just put them in an environment that gets them out of their head.


What relationship does body image have with portrait photography?

It’s everything. I mean there’s a big difference between photographing someone who’s fully accepting of themselves, and their body, and their body image, and someone who’s trying desperately to hide flaws. I think flaws are beautiful. So-called flaws,I wouldn’t even call them flaws, I mean there’s norms right? The human form is beautiful in all its shapes and sizes. Body image is…undeniable, it’s part of the conversation of that portrait, it’s part of the person’s perception of themselves.

Do portrait photographers have a responsibility to make clients feel good about themselves?

Depends what you mean by portrait photographer, I think if you’re commissioned…that’s part of that kind of gig. If you’re a photojournalist going out and documenting protests for a newspaper or magazine…there’s a truth that needs to be told that has no concern for the person in the image. So I think it depends on the goals of the shoot. Generally, in my work…I want the person to feel and look amazing, and feel like they really love this particular interpretation I have of them. But it’s not a mandate to make people happy with the image, some people you can’t satisfy, they’re always gonna find something wrong. I’ve had many portraits where people don’t really love the results…but other people do. Other people that know them (the subject) think they’re amazing, the shots. In my work, I tend to want to flatter them and make them look really, really nice and I do that by controlling every aspect of the light that falls on the subject. 

What differences do you see, if any, in photographing men vs. photographing women? 

In many ways, it’s the same. Men typically are not as concerned with hair, makeup. Women think much more about wardrobe, they think much more about the perception of how they look in an image. Getting them comfortable in that context sometimes is…

Men typically are easy and require less…retouching and refreshing of a particular image. Women expect a little bit more retouching. You know, that’s not entirely true; painting with broad strokes here, so a lot of caveats for this answer. But I would just underscore that everyone brings the complications…with their own self image and their own identity.

Do you actively choose to photograph men and women differently? If so, why?

No, I don’t really approach the photography or the lighting necessarily differently during the session. I really look at photography, the subject as an object–it’s a person–but it’s an object that I’m projecting light onto via my lighting gear, and I’m just letting light fall on them in a particular manner, until I’m happy with what I’m seeing.

I don’t think there’s a gendered approach that I have. If you’re so passionate about photography, which I am, it really is a door to humanity and society.

Amy Schumer at LaughFest 2012. Photo by Brian Kelly

I am so grateful that I’ve had a camera because I’ve met thousands of people I never would have ever encountered in my life, if I had not been a professional photographer. I’m forced into situations every day to photograph people I’ve never met, and it’s the greatest privilege in the world. 

Is there ever a scenario where you shoot with your phone?

Oh I do it all the time, not for a job, not for a gig, but when I was in Haiti there were many situations where the phone was the best choice. It was right there and it was good enough for what I needed. My own personal stuff, I see something interesting, or maybe I’m scouting, I’m scouting locations and I’m using my phone all the time for that. I used to scout with a big old DSLR camera because a phone wouldn’t do it. So the phone is really an amazing thing and sometimes it’s the best tool. I look at cameras as tools, I’m not super into the latest, greatest technology and trying to trade up cameras. I’ve been using the same camera now for eight years. It’s a damn good camera, it’s still the best tool for me right now.

What camera(s) do you use?

I use a Pentax 645Z Medium Format 52 megapixel camera, I use prime lenses, which means they’re not zooms. So I have a range of lenses that are fixed focal length. I shoot Sony cameras sometimes for architectural work. All my portrait work is shot on the Pentax. And then I have video cameras as well. I’ll rent gear that I need for a specific job. Some photographers are more concerned about technology and gear than they are about their image making. That’s a common problem in photography – people think they need a better camera to take better pictures or better portraits and that’s a lot of bullsh*t. I guarantee if you’re unsatisfied with your portrait work, it’s not because of your camera, it’s you. I can take a great portrait with an iphone.

I started with an old Pentax K1000, that was a film camera, it’s a $50 camera, and that was the go-to student camera because it has manual controls. I never encourage anyone to go out and spend a bunch of money on lenses and camera bodies, that’s not a good investment. Your investment is in your time and…doing it over and over again. So shoot, shoot a lot. Go out and make a thousand mistakes, it doesn’t matter.

For portraits specifically, what lenses do you use? 

I have a 35mm prime lens, which is more of a wide angle. Then I have 55mm, and then I have a macro. It’s a 120mm and the minimum focusing distance is very short, so you can shoot things up close. So those are the three workhorse lenses that I have. If I need a long telephoto lens or something, I’ll just rent one. Because those lenses might be five to ten thousand dollars and I’m not going to invest that kind of money in a single long lens if I’m only going to use it once every two years.

What editing software do you use?

I use Adobe Lightroom for the initial editing, like picking what images I want the client to see. I’ll do my initial toning and all my color work in there. So Lightroom is essential to me, and then I’ll do any retouching and any major photoshop work in Adobe Photoshop. Then I’ll narrow it down to maybe 40 or 50 images that I want the client to see. Then the client chooses from those.

How much time do you typically have with a celebrity to get their portrait?

Oh that varies, sometimes it’s two to five minutes, sometimes it’s all day, sometimes it’s an hour. I love an hour, an hour is perfect. It depends on the context. If I only have five minutes to do a portrait, I’m there three hours early, building my lights. I’ll use test subjects, taking photos, narrowing it down, changing backgrounds or whatever we need to do. So once the celebrity arrives, all the work has been done, I’ve made all the mistakes, I’m very happy with the lighting. Usually then I’ll take one or two test shots, and then work as fast as I can with them to get the things I need in five minutes. It’s amazing what you can do if you’re prepared.

Do you use more photoshop with celebrities vs. with people who are not famous?

No, not really. Not as a default. One reason I feel very confident doing high pressure, short shoots with really well known people is that I don’t really look at them any differently.

Portrait of famous rapper, Eminem. Photo by Brian Kelly

I don’t really get starstruck in that way, I’m excited about who they are, but I don’t go into it thinking like ‘oh yeah this is gonna need more photoshop than maybe a different type of shoot.’

I’m gonna put them through my editing process just like anybody else.



When you’re doing these high profile shots, is there an expectation to edit them to look perfect? Is there more pressure?

There’s more pressure to get it right in-camera for sure. That’s why I do so much prep. If my lighting’s not right on a particular celebrity or person, that builds in a lot of extra work on the back end to execute the vision I had before the shoot that I couldn’t get in-camera. So, you kinda have to reverse engineer, which is a lot of pressure and you might not have the data in the file to fix things. There certainly is more of an expectation with a celebrity that you fix more imperfections, that you’ve flattered them as much as possible.

What is the mission that fuels your work?

Never been asked that either. There’s so many contexts you can answer. If I’m wearing my architecture photography hat, yeah I want to flatter the home…and I’m embellishing light and making everything look perfect. Sometimes that is the same in portraiture. If I’m truly speaking about being a gun for hire advertising photographer, then my mission is to collaborate with the client, taking all my talent and experience and conducting the shoot that results in exceeding that client’s expectations. I wouldn’t work and be successful if I didn’t try to exceed every client’s expectations on every single job that I shoot.

I get the impression that ‘adequate’ is not a compliment. 

No, I didn’t always believe in my work and after many, many, many years I feel like I have something very unique to say about the world and photography or through my work. I have a certain skill set that I want to maximize on every single shoot to make something better than what we intended from the start. I’ve fought through years of self-doubt, self-deprecation, insecurity about my work and it’s really just been the last 10-15 years where I’ve really felt like I have a voice that isn’t easily replicated in photography.

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