5 Things I Learned Shooting in a Studio with PJ Pantelis

Recently, I kicked off my boots and headed indoors with music photographer and YouTube tutorial/vlog champion, Pj Pantelis.

I captured some film photographs on this Mamiya 645 while Pj gave my 70-200 a run. Image by  Andrew Basso .

I captured some film photographs on this Mamiya 645 while Pj gave my 70-200 a run. Image by Andrew Basso.

Being such a huge fan of the outdoors and the sense of adventure that comes along with my photography, shooting in a studio environment is not something that I have had a lot of experience with. I used to occasionally tag along with a friend of mine when she was shooting in the studio but years have passed and I had barely pulled my first camera out of the box at the time. 

Roll in PJ.

PJ has been shooting bands for a couple of years and, thanks to his powerhouse work ethic, manages to churn out gem after gem for his clients.

We got in contact to discuss some work for his YouTube channel and I was fortunate enough to have him extend the offer to me to join him in the studio on a shoot for a band. He gave me the heads up on the brief for the shoot and, a couple of days later, I found myself walking into a room of people that I'd never met at Andrew Basso's Electrum Photography studio. Here are 5 things that I learned from the experience.

1) Be Personable.
This was the first thing that I noticed. I was barely two feet in the door before there was a huge smile staring at me and introducing me to everyone involved in the shoot. Watching PJ work, it was abundantly clear that his personality drives a lot of the interaction between photographer and subject. The words "that's awesome", "great", "that looks sick" were constantly streaming from his mouth at the band he was shooting and I could actually see the way it lifted their energy and encouraged them to experiment more with how they positioned themselves. He refers to everyone by name and knows their role in the band (or in the bts of the shoot) and presents his directions as something interesting or exciting to try. At one point, I heard the phrase "think JB in My Calvins" and, sure enough, there was a metal version of JB doing My Calvins. He asked me to roll back part of a black sheet, but the delivery was "this is looking great! Do you want to try pulling that back a little? Yeah, awesome. Maybe even some more, that'll look perfect!". Everything is delivered with positive affirmations and that sets a really comfortable dynamic. Which brings me to the second thing that I learned...

2) Build the Client's Trust.
Before the shoot began, PJ explained the brief in detail with his client again. It was their brief, but his intimate understanding of what they were trying to achieve together laid the foundations for a successful time on both sides of the camera. During each set of images, he didn't fragment the moment by stopping to check his camera's LCD screen but consistently reminded his clients that they were doing well, the poses were looking natural and that they were "definitely getting some amazing shots". When directing the band members, he explained what he wanted them to do but also assured them as to why - generating a sense of comfort in posing in a manner that may have felt awkward or as though it wouldn't translate in the images. After each set of images, I noticed that he would only flick through a small handful of captures with the band to show them the success that they were having. This kept up the excitement to create more and allowed the band to ease, knowing that PJ had already delivered on what he promised. This opened them up to new ideas.

3) Control the Light.
Having control over light isn't something that features in the landscape photographer's arsenal. What I learned from PJ here is how to effectively control your light to create dynamic effects. By diffusing the key light with a fairly large softbox placed slightly off centre, and a second light source projected at the white backdrop, the band were evenly lit from the front and stood out against the pure white background. I watched as PJ changed this set up to achieve new effects. He shifted to a black background and had each member stand, individually, next to the key light. He swapped out the softbox to a gridded softbox and used this to intensify the 'drama' of the shots by reducing spill light onto the black background. This left only the band member partially illuminated on the face and arms, as if they were bursting out of the blackness. Experimenting with your lights and controlling where you project your light, plus the intensity, is absolutely key in making your photographs stand out.

4) Change Your Focal Length.
Once you're in your groove, it's easy to snap away making magic and forget about exploring your possibilities. PJ captured his images in a range of different focal lengths, changing between 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses. At the wider end, this enabled him to capture much more open shots that incorporated a powerful use of the background to isolate the band members, while at the longer end, the telephoto compression flattened out lens distortion of the member's faces and produced crisp portraiture styled shots. If you look through PJ's catalogue of images, you'll find that his focal length varies quite a lot to achieve different effects, such as including all of the behind-the-scenes gear in the band's image, to minimising the perceived distance between band members and an interesting background or backdrop. Overall, I learned the importance of experimenting more with focal lengths when shooting people for a brief because, sometimes, you can have quality and quantity.

5) Record Your Experience.
Pj spoke to me about recording his shoots for his growing YouTube channel. Producing video content does more than giving a great record of events; it helps to grow your audience across a range of formats, gives your client even more out of the experience, and offers a great tool for reflecting on and learning from. This is something that I've been looking into a lot recently (and may have already started) and seeing how Pj sets up his kit to capture his shoots was very insightful. One main camera capturing the shoot overall and a second camera set up to capture more specific details. A good mix of primary and B-roll. 

At the end of the shoot, I threw the triggers onto my camera and captured a few quick shots of my own under Pj's guidance. These were for the sole purpose of having an experiment with the lights for myself. After watching Pj throughout the day, I had a few ideas that I wanted to try and I feel comfortable with how they came out.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable experience and I learned a lot about a different style of photography from hanging out with Pj. Be sure to check out his YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.

Thanks for reading.
(Unfortunately, I haven't developed the roll of film that I shot on the day yet)