Photographer Bil Zelman specializes in shooting lifestyle advertising for top brands such as Coke, Apple and Budweiser that looks real, not staged. Getting natural, emotionally genuine performances out of talent is one of the biggest challenges for advertising photographers, but Zelman has spent his career honing his skill. In this video, he describes how he saved one shoot that was spiraling out of control, and he shares some tips and tricks he uses to coax the performances he’s looking for.
Zelman uses non-professional talent almost exclusively. He explains, “They don’t know what’s expected of them. Usually they show up a little bit nervous and it’s easier for me to relax them, rather than pro talent that shows up feeling like they’re going to act it out. I hate acting. that’s the bottom line.
“You know, people are laughing in [advertising] scenes all over the place, and so good talent will simply guffaw the entire time, and it looks so fake. So I would much rather have somebody uncomfortable in front of the camera, and then do something stupid to make them laugh, than hire somebody’s who’s basically a somewhat attractive professional laugher.
“Whatever city we’re flying to, I’ll fly my casting director (Heather Smith) there ahead of time and she’ll go to bars, and Craigslist, and hit all the social media and we’ll just find people. if I need bikers she goes to motorcycle gangs and if I need twenty five-year-old college kids she goes to the colleges, not to talent agencies.
“I try to go to casting calls whenever possible. Depending on the mood of our desired performance I might yell at [the people answering the casting call] or throw something at them. I’ll see if they can cry, [and see] what their eyes do when they genuinely laugh verses faking it with just their mouth. Perhaps I’ll ask them to dance with no music going. It all depends on the job but I’m looking hard to flush out any overacting, self-consciousness or catolog-like contrapposto or gestures and such.
“I’m often looking for big, extroverted personalities as well- A person who you can throw into a group of strangers and get them all roiled up regardless of the fact that it might be 6 am.”