Teenage Dream Job

August 1, 2011

By RF Staff

You can imagine what it’s like for photographer Rena Durham when she tells a teenager what she does. “You’ve photographed Justin Bieber?” is the likely high-pitched squeal you’ll hear, followed by, “Can you get me tickets to his
next concert?”

But for Durham, the chance to photograph rising pre-teen and teen actors and musicians isn’t about glitz and glamour; it’s about working with down-to-earth talent.

Durham got her start back in 1999 when she headed to the Young Hollywood Awards red carpet with her point-and-shoot camera. She was ready to break into the industry. From there, she met a fellow photographer who showed her the ins-and-outs of the red carpet. She spent time behind the barricades competing with a slew of shooters, shouting at celebs to get that perfect sellable shot.

When Durham became pregnant, she decided she needed to change her lifestyle (and her hours), so she pursued the publicist connections she had made on the red carpet and began doing spec shoots with up-and-coming young stars. This tenacity and pluck led her to where she is today.

Jennifer Chen: How did you transition away from the red carpet to shooting for magazines that commission your work?

Rena Durham: I’d built solid relationships with some of the teen magazines, like Popstar!, Tiger Beat and Bop. They would run shots I took of teens on the red carpet, and hired me for exclusive shoots like behind-the-scenes of TV shows such as “That’s So Raven” and

“The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.” I also built relationships with different publicists I met on the red carpet and began asking if I could shoot some of their teen clients.

My first shoot was with a 12-year-old singer, Stevie Brock. I also photographed the young Scarlett Pomers from “Reba.” Everything that I shot I’d show to the teen mags and they ran them. The more I shot, the more my portfolio grew; the more I learned, the better my pictures got.

When I started doing portraiture I didn’t know much about lighting since I was coming from a red carpet background. So I bought some Profoto lights, took some online classes and enlisted people to be photographed with my new setup. I arranged spec shoots, which is where I call the publicist and say that I want to shoot your client, then I’d turn around and pitch those images to magazines. I built a solid portfolio and it snowballed.  

JC: What do you enjoy about working with the teen and younger set? How do you photograph well known, young musicians and actors with such ease? Have you ever found that you have 10 minutes to shoot them
because of their hectic schedules?

RD: I like the authenticity of teens. They are usually quite cooperative and, for the most part, and come in willing to try whatever I suggest. I find that at least with this age group, they are down-to-earth. I’m a calm, laid-back person, so I present an atmosphere that’s very comfortable. I talk with them before we start and I’m around for the whole process from the moment they arrive. As they go through makeup and wardrobe, I peek my head in. If they bring their iPod, we put that on. I make the shoot fun and they have fun doing it. I don’t try to get them to do anything they aren’t comfortable with. I like working with teens because they are usually up for whatever I have in my head.

I find that there is a difference between the teens that are just starting out versus the ones who have been doing it for a while; these kids know the routine and what’s expected. Some kids that are newer in the industry are like “What do I do?” and you have to direct them a lot more than say, a Zac Efron.

I’ve had situations where I’ve had 10 to 15 minutes with the talent. I always try to stretch that out to the very last possible second until the publicist tells me that I’m done. Generally, if it’s a magazine shoot, there will be a block of time anywhere from two to six hours. It all depends on the talent, the schedule and what the magazine wants.

On one shoot a few years ago with Jesse McCartney, I had a 20-minute window to do three wardrobe changes backstage before he went on for a concert. We set up our shoot in the venue loading dock. This was just a cement wall (which ended up being my favorite look), and I’d brought a couple backdrops so the images came out great. He’s a professional and a natural in front of the camera.

How do you photograph musicians on tour and capture the fun and joy that comes through in your imagery?

RD: During the “High School Musical” tour it was so different than shooting portraits because you have no control over what they are doing, or the lighting. I like to shoot as many frames as possible because you usually only get the first two songs to shoot, so it’s necessary to shoot as much as possible quickly. I generally shoot with shutter priority to capture the action without blurring. The lighting changes so much during the show that it’s difficult to constantly change camera settings. So I let the camera decide what the aperture is. I usually shoot with a 70–200mm f/2.8 lens. The wide frame one that I shot for “High School Musical” was shot with a 24–70mm f/2.8 lens. You really need a fast lens that can be wide open for concert photography.

I like to look for action shots when they’re jumping off the stage, dancing, using interesting angles, different compositions and always paying attention to what’s going on in the background. I don’t shoot concerts as much as I used to, but really enjoy it when I do. It’s always a challenge. There have been concerts where the whole stage is dark the entire time. You never know what’s going to happen with the lighting!

JC: How do you stay on top of what’s happening in the teen world?

RD: I get all the teen magazines whether my pictures are in them or not. In fact, I’ve got Bop right here as we speak. I have an 8-year-old so we’re always watching Disney or Nickelodeon. I’m always looking out for who’s going to be the next big thing.

The first photo shoot I did with Zac Efron was the day before High School Musical came out. It was a spec shoot. It was so low-key—it was just me, Zac and a makeup/hair stylist. I actually styled the shoot. Zac said to me, “I don’t know if ‘High School Musical’ is going to do anything.” Who knew? To this day, he tells me that my photo shoot is the most
famous photo shoot he ever did. It ran worldwide in almost every teen magazine.

JC: How do you pick up on rising talent before they break?

RD: You get that feeling. Sometimes I’m right on the money, but sometimes I’m not. With Zac, he used to be on a show with Jesse McCartney called “Summerland” when he was 12 or 13. I was doing a shoot for PopStar! and I shot a lot of pictures of Zac. The magazine asked me why I took so many shots of him, and I said that there is something about this kid.

JC: What are some of your favorite photo shoots to date?

RD: Booboo Stewart, who is in the “Twilight” movies. I’ve done a couple of photo shoots with him and his sister Fivel and his family. They are so accommodating, fun and totally up for doing whatever. They think all of my ideas are genius (laughs). I love those kids.

And Joey Pollari, who was in a few Disney movies and is now on a new MTV show called the “In-Betweeners.” We did really cool shoot with a 1958 Chevy Bel Air.

I love the Jonas Brothers. They are so fun. The first time that I shot them we hung out on Melrose Avenue and went to Johnny Rockets. The best part was that I photographed them when they were between record labels and before they signed with Disney. At first, magazines weren’t sure about the Jonas Brothers images I got, but then after they signed with Disney, a bidding war started over my images.

JC: What advice would you give to photographers who want to work with younger clientele?

Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into (laughs). Working with kids and teens isn’t for everyone and you need to have and practice a great deal of patience. Learn as much as you can—be a life-long learner. You can always learn something new, take a workshop, read articles or blogs or Rangefinder! (laughs) Find that niche that’s uniquely you and shoot what you love, and most of all, be someone people want to work with: easygoing, fun, a good person.

JC: If you could go back and do a photo shoot with your teen self, how would you set it up?

RD: (laughs) Gosh, I had tons of posters of teen idols back then. I was quite a character in my teens, so I would’ve been fun to shoot. I would definitely hire a good hair, makeup and fashion stylist because I had some fashion issues. And the hair, oh the hair! I needed some help.

View Durham’s sites:, and connect with her on Facebook at

Jennifer Chen is the associate editor for VegNews magazine and back when she was a teenager, she had some serious hair and fashion issues too. She has written for Everyday with Rachael Ray, Natural Health, Bust, VegNews, and Audrey. She is currently working on a young adult series. She blogs at