Oprah & Tyler Perry for Essence – 30 Minutes & 36 Hours

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Behind the Scenes….



Ready to light!



Thanks to Morel Rental House for helping everything run smoothly!


Sunset from the plane.


My LA Photo crew hustling to get home in the airport.

No Mondays are mundane when you’re in the creative industry–and on New York time.  On a particularly chilly March morning, Essence magazine’s photo director Rebecca Karamehmedovic called me with an exciting assignment–photographing two media moguls who hold the reins to Hollywood and the entertainment industry: Oprah and Tyler Perry.  The shoot was scheduled weeks away to be shot in Atlanta–however, we only had a total of 30 minutes to photograph this duo and create an iconic cover.  Although the shoot was weeks away, production and creative preparation consumed our days while we discussed wardrobe, lighting, location,  creative concepts, travel arrangements..and all of a sudden, it was time to board the plane.  We departed at 6 AM on a Friday, our groggy team consisting of myself,  2 assistants, 1 digi tech, and countless equipment bags that greatly outweighed us.  Despite entering our SUV to the airport with limp heads and sleepy eyes, once we hit the airport, it was go time.  You could feel the excitement, tension, and thrill in the air.

We landed into humid Hotlanta in the afternoon, 3 time zones away from home, and immediately arranged a plan for the day: driving to the rental house to confirm the order, ensuring we had all of the clearance we needed for the location, testing equipment, and scribbling detailed lighting diagrams on bar napkins under the dim lights of the W hotel.

Our Saturday shoot began hours before sunrise, giving us ample time to set up before Oprah and Tyler arrived at the infamous Tyler Perry Studios.  Essence’s creative team (Editor at Large Emil Wilbekin, Creative Director Lisa Hunt, and Photo Editor Tracey Woods) and I met to discuss lighting and the emotion we needed to memorialize this pair in an iconic cover.

After hours of setting up lights and digital imaging equipment, our dynamic duo arrived right on time and ready to give their A-game. I reviewed my creative boards with Oprah and Tyler and quickly escorted them to set to begin our cover shoot. I’ve had the pleasure to work with both of them on many occasions, and knew it was important to capture the spirit of the moment with a good cover composition for Essence’s creative team to lay out later.

While photographers have control over composition and lighting, it’s important to remember that it’s always a team effort and the input of editors and art directors are essential.  It took me some time to understand how to shoot covers.  Editors need additional space around the subject to lay cover text and logos, which are just as important as photographs to help sell the publication.  So take a step back when shooting–and don’t get lost in creating the perfect frame.

Our shoot lasted just over 30 minutes which is more than enough time to shoot two cover options and capture something for the inside.  Eons ago, Oprah gave me a very valuable piece of advice: it is important to get the image within ten minutes becuase sometimes that is all you will have. This note of hers is always in the back of my mind, which is why I go straight for the cover shot and move on once I am satisfied– but let’s be realistic: having more time is always a blessing.

And as quickly as we arrived, we were gone–landing in Los Angeles Saturday night.  36 hours had never gone by faster.

My advice for aspiring young photographers who want to pursue celebrity portraiture is that preparation is just as important as learning to let go.  When dealing with high power clients, you must be open to unexpected circumstances and go with the flow.  Sometimes you may have to deal with uncomfortable situations or unfortunate circumstances–but remember that creative problem-solving is a part of the game. Keeping a good attitude and open mind is the key to making a successful image, no matter the scenario.


  1. Pingback: Kwaku Alston photographs Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry for Essence cover story « Stockland Martel

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