Bermuda-born, Toronto-raised Carlo Allegri has time on his side. As a top portrait photographer of A-list celebrities, Allegri is well-aware of time constraints placed on photoshoots by managers, publicists, and handlers of celebrities. He has done nothing short of perfecting the five minute portrait session.
Starting his career as a wire service photo journalist for 15 years, Allegri worked primarily for Agence France-Presse, where he was considered a “super-stringer,” and handled Canadian coverage. He worked his way up to senior staff photographer at The National Post, where he stayed for five years. A move to Los Angeles got him a gig at Getty as senior photographer in the Entertainment Department.
While at The National Post, he developed his guerilla lighting technique. If Allegri has a trademark known to many in the entertainment industry, it’s his ability to quickly light a celebrity portrait, shoot, and get the A-lister on his or her way. Interestingly, this came about because of the limits of technology. Using early digital cameras proved special circumstances were needed. “We were printing nationwide on questionable newsprint,” Allegri explains. “We quickly realized we needed to light everything because pictures with those cameras needed help to make things pop. We had to have hard, off-axis lighting, and some backlighting to make the pictures bounce off the page. That’s where, very quickly, I developed what I call guerilla lighting.”
Allegri lights everything these days, but estimates he lit eighty to ninety-percent of his shots for the paper as he developed this technique. “We were even lighting press conferences with flashes and PocketWizards early on, way back then,” he recalls. “I’ve been using PocketWizards since the first version came out in 1994. It was just called The PocketWizard, which was later renamed The Classic.”
When he went to Getty, he was given the opportunity to shoot celebrity portraits, which he approached with the same lighting methodology. “I used one or two lights, and did that with success at a bunch of the film festivals—Toronto, Canne, Sundance, Sarasota—and as my proficiency increased I needed better lighting. I was able to use Profoto Pro-7b’s at Getty. Now that I’m out on my own, I use four sets of the AcuteB 600R’s.
One of Allegri’s iconic photos is of actor Steve Buscemi photographed as Whistler’s Mother. It was later selected as the cover of a catalog for a Los Angeles show of Allegri’s work. Not only are his portraits well-lit and convey the intensities and vulnerabilities of his well-known subjects, but the sheer speed they’re executed is remarkable. “I get them in and out very quickly,” says Allegri. “I often get chosen over other photographers at red carpet events because handlers know I can get the job done faster than most other photographers. I tend to let my subjects speak to me, and then decide how best to photograph them. This all happens very quickly—often in seconds.”
With stripping down and setting up repeatedly for his five-minute sessions, Allegri needs gear he can rely on. “Pretty much all I use is Profoto lights and heads. I have a few strip lights and beauty dishes, which are currently my favorite things. I carry all my grip gear and beauty dishes in Tenba Air Cases.”
PocketWizard gear is what keeps Allegri’s lights firing. “I have six MultiMAX transceivers, and two or three Plus II’s,” he says. Allegri teaches photo lighting workshops, and demonstrates the PocketWizards in conjunction with the AcuteB 600R’s. “There’s nothing that compares with these products for consistency and durability,” he says.
Allegri cites one job as being the turning point when he converted permanently to Profoto. When asked to shoot the one-hundred top tennis players for the Women’s Tennis Association, logistics demanded the assignment be carried out in six locations around the world: Paris, London, New York, Berlin, Poland, and Miami. Studios were rented, but absolute consistency was needed for each portrait. Allegri made a list of four heads, four 1200 watt packs, a softbox, and other assorted gear. “I told the producer if we couldn’t get a rental house that had Profoto, find another rental house. I had to ensure that a portrait done in London would be absolutely the same as one done six weeks earlier in Poland. The lighting had to be identical. I had my lighting set-up, ratios, settings, and distances—everything was documented. I’d fax the assistants the lighting set-ups for how I needed everything. I’d just show up and off we’d go. I was able to keep the client happy because the Profoto gear is so ubiquitous I was able to find in anywhere in the world I needed it.”
“I work very fast. It’s guerilla portraiture. I often grab a CEO at the end of a press conference and get a very suitable portrait. If I’m using Profoto, I know that with these packs my exposure is going to be right on the money. I don’t have to worry about the pack not giving consistent output. I just have to worry about the subject and what I can get out of them in 30 or 45 seconds.”
When Rhianna gave her first television interview after the Chris Brown story broke, Allegri was called in to take the first portraits of her after she reemerged from seclusion. He built a set with a white seamless background in the hallway of the television studio. Rhianna had to walk through the set to leave the studio. She walked through, posed, and Allegri shot. “Total time on target? 48 seconds,” he says, triumphantly. “She was there one minute, twelve seconds, but I had to stop to have my assistant move a chair. I filed something like 20 photographs from that session. That’s basically what I do. 48 seconds in a hallway and it looks like a real studio shot. That’s what being a guerilla lighting expert is all about.”
“The funny thing is sometimes I’m shooting someone and they’ll say, ‘Oh, Profoto! Those are good lights.’ Forest Whitaker and Viggo Mortensen in particular knew about Profoto. Viggo was impressed with the AcuteB. Viggo is quite an accomplished photographer, as you probably know.”
When asked further about shooting celebrities, Allegri points out the nuances of interaction. “You don’t really negotiate with the celebrity, you negotiate with the publicist. The publicists know me and trust me. When I tell them I need less than five minutes, they know I’m not lying. If I can do it in two minutes and I’m reasonably happy with my results, I’ll excuse myself and say, ‘thank you, I’ve got it,’ not even using the full five minutes. Shoot with alacrity. Get in, get it, and get out. I can always move my lights around, do another set-up, but then you start pushing it. I want them to trust me. The publicists often don’t even put me in the schedule because they know how fast I work.”
Allegri spends his time communicating his needs to publicists, never with the celebrities themselves. “A lot of times you’ll hear photographers say, ‘Oh, I loved you in this movie or that movie,’” he explains. “They try to engage the person and talk about riding motorcycles, or whatever. At the end of the shoot I always say, ‘It was great to work with you, but I know you have another appointment. You’d better get going.’ I’m not there to make friends and hang out. The publicist is usually smiling in the background and giving me a big thumbs up,” he says, laughing.
Listening is key to getting in tune with his subjects during such a limited amount of time. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Hi, I’m Carlo Allegri, and I’ll be your photographer for the next two minutes,’” he laughs. “Sometimes it’s very serious, other times you want to get a chuckle out of them. You have to be receptive, and keep your ears open.”
Here’s an example of how a typical Allegri shoot takes place. “Gene Simmons was promoting his book where he claims to have sex with 2500 women,” Allegri recalls. “I said to him, ‘Dude, this is a book guys are going to read in the bathroom. What do you say?’” Simmons agreed. “I followed him into the bathroom,” continues Allegri. “I told him, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to say this to you, but to make this picture work, you’re going to have to drop trou.’ He said, ‘You’re right’ and sat down on the toilet. I shot eight frames. His publicist was having a conniption fit—losing her mind. He told her to chill out. I didn’t want to antagonize her any longer, so I wrapped it with just eight shots, thanked him, and that was it.”
Regarding the slightly uneasy, almost wistful look Elisabeth Shue gave him, Allegri feels his strength lies in being able to read his subjects. “Sometimes it just works to ask for a particular look, which might fit the backdrop you’ve created. I think I asked her to think about her daughter to get her out of the headspace she was in. I don’t want the subject to panic because we only have two minutes. I’ll panic for both of us. I tell them to think about their happy place and I’ll take care of the rest.”
The Shue photograph is a case study in how Allegri’s work can deceive. “It looks like available light, but it’s the Profotos at work. I put the Profoto head through a couple of little scrim pieces I had put in a V, and then shot the light through a warming gel. It’s all artificial, and not shot in the evening. It was dark outside when I took that. The whole thing was spontaneous. She came in and between her hair and what she was wearing, I was wishing it was late afternoon. I was able to create it very quickly.”
When shooting this rapidly, set-up times are often just as frantic as the shoots themselves. “You get a minute or two to set-up. The Profoto knobs are big, and I can reach over and change the settings just by feeling the pack. It’s very intuitive, and I don’t have to think about it. You turn the dial, and off you go.”
Allegri resets all his lenses, bodies, and Profoto gear to the same settings when packing up after a shoot. Some may question this methodology, but there’s a reason for this. “When working from a known baseline, I can easily dial in what I need at the start of the next shoot,” he explains. “I don’t even have to look at the dials, because I already know what they’re set at.”
Despite his five-minute sessions, at a red carpet event like the Cannes Film Festival, Allegri will often shoot upwards of three thousand photos a day. While shooting for the Associated Press at the last Sundance Film Festival, a studio was set up on Main Street. Hundreds of filmmakers came before Allegri’s lens, from unknown documentary directors to A-list celebrities. “I had eight lights for two set-ups—a blue and a white,” he says. “I used just two channels on my PocketWizards, and I’d move between the two as I had the celebrities go from set-up to set-up. I also had a second camera with a ring flash.”
Allegri has a novel set-up regarding his ring flash. “I use a separate AcuteB with the ring light,” he says. “I don’t normally fire it with a PocketWizard because you have the cable that’s attached to the camera anyway. I use the Profoto PC cord, which is just about the same length as the ring flash head. I tape the PC cord to the ring flash cord with electrical tape, so it makes one cable that runs up to the camera. That makes it compact so you don’t trip over it. I fling the AcuteB on my shoulder and work it really easily with a second camera. There’s a cable running to the pack, anyway.”
Allegri shoots Canon EOS-1D Mark III’s as his main camera body. A Canon 24-70mm is the lens he does eighty-percent of his studio work with. He owns lenses up to 300mm f/2.8. Additional lighting gear include Profoto StripLights and two Softlight Reflectors with grids.
When asked if he’s ever had an hour or longer to work with a celebrity, Allegri laughs. “It’s happened a few times, but after ten minutes, I’m done! I’ve been given all the time in the world with a few people. I’ve got a mental list of shots I go through. I’m able to kick them out. We have a collaborative moment, and we’re usually able to get it all very quickly. It’s just the way I work.”
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