Commercial Photography, Evan Williams Advertisement, Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh

Commercial Photography, Advertising Assignment

Featured Full-Page in Playboy, Maxim, and Sports Illustrated


Camera: Canon 5D
Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
Aperture: Setting: f/5
Shutter Speed: 1/40th tripod mounted
ISO: 100
White Balance: 6000K
Camera Mode: Manual
Lighting: Various Hensel Lights, Chimera soft boxes, Rosco Cinefoil
Location: Keller-Cresent Advertising Studio, Evansville, Indiana


Keller-Cresent advertising agency asked me to bid on a commercial photography assignment for their client Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams bourbon. The agency provided a storyboard (sketches) of their needs. I provided a bid; we then negotiated to meet their budget. Upon arrival at their studio, the set was not ready per our terms, so we became flexible and adapted to the situation to get it done.

The Story Behind The Photo

The Background
It’s good to reflect back on previous photos as they can remind you of what it took to create them, and in this case, it was not only a photo, it was a commercial photography assignment. Even though it took place roughly seven years ago, I want to relive this experience with you as a reminder that photography is about flexibility and adaptability, not inability, especially on a paid assignment, something I teach at my photography workshops.

Commercial Photography assignment, Evan Williams Bourbon

The makeup artist touches up Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh during this commercial photography shoot for the Evan Williams bourbon advertisement.

This commercial photography shoot was a great example about being flexible and adapting to the situation. It all started when a representative from the Keller-Crescent Advertising Agency (now called Essentra) contacted me from Evansville, Indiana. The representative asked me to bid on an Evan Williams bourbon advertisement that would run full-page in Sports Illustrated Swimwear, Maxim, and Playboy. I placed my bid after they had faxed me the sketched storyboard requirements, but then immediately received a call back from the representative letting me know my bid was the highest. She asked me to justify my price as I came highly recommended.

First I told her, “Do you want to pay for economics, or for Rolando Gomez?” She of course asked me to explain, which I did (see The Picasso Principle—Pricing Photos). She said her art director, Keith Rios, really wanted me as the photographer and that if they provided the sets pre-built, the studio, the light stands, an assistant, the make-up artist, transport to and from the airport, etc., if I would reduce my price to their specific target number.

Evan Williams Bourbon, Commercial Photography Assignment

Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh poses in one of the three dresses she wore during the commercial photography shoot for the Evan Williams bourbon advertisement.

In the end, we agreed provided they would fly me in early the day before the actual shoot plus they would have the sets already built upon my arrival for my inspection and pre-lighting tests. We would then do the shoot the next day, and I would fly home the following day. In and out plus quick was the mantra.

Ironically this commercial photography assignment was also the first time I would work with their makeup artist, their art director, their creative director, their account executive, their brand manager, plus the client’s brand manager, and most important, the model, Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh. Yes, these were all the people, besides Monica, the art director and the makeup artist, that showed up to the shoot and stood behind me eating their donuts, drinking their coffee, and shooting the shit with each other while I was perfecting the shot, more on that later.

Flexibility Kicks In
The day before the shoot meant an early rise, plus an early drive to the airport for an early flight in late January that year. We started in the predawn hours of lukewarm San Antonio and arrived mid-morning in the frigid weather of Evansville, Indiana. Upon arrival at the Keller-Crescent headquarters, I met the people I’d be working with, sans the model, and received the nickel-dime tour of the building including the “studio.”

“No set,” I said to the studio manager and of course I received the typical “we’re a bit behind schedule” response “but we have the materials and will get it done.” About that time the art director and the account executive arrived in the studio and decided we’d go to lunch.

Evan Williams Liquor Commercial Photography studio set

In the end, I helped build the set and pre-light it with nine lights.

Upon my return I began helping the studio manager and his assistant in building the sets and after we finished, I began setting up the lights and making pre-lighting checks using the art director’s secretary as the “stand-in” model as I had promised them we’d be ready to rock and roll the shoot the next morning with no delays.

We finished up late that night as this was a critical shoot, the photo specs called for ensuring the curtain rod for the living room window and the shower curtain rod for the bathroom would be the same diameter in the final photos, something they were not in real life. We actually marked the floor with tape for the placement of the model plus the tripod and took note of the exact focal lengths of the lens for each shot.

The key here was that the advertisement called for two “half” photos that would combine into one photo with the rods connecting in the middle to form one rod across the top of the frame with the top of the model’s head the same distance from the rods. Yes, it would have made my job easier if the studio manager had purchased both rods the same diameter before the shoot. In the end, we overcame the challenge, found one restaurant still open late at night for dinner, then got me checked-in to the hotel after 11 p.m. with a call time of 7:00 a.m. the next day. I was exhausted.

Commercial Photography Assignment, Evan Williams Bourbon

Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh poses in a black dress as another option during the Evan Williams bourbon advertisement shoot.

The Commercial Photography Shoot
The alarm clock went off sometime after 5 a.m. and I was downstairs ready for my ride to take me to the studio to arrive by 6:45 a.m. With snow on the ground and blizzard-style winds blowing, I wasted no time getting into the building only to find out the new call-time was changed to 7:45 a.m. because the model’s flight was delayed due to bad weather. The other great news that morning was that we had to finish by 5 p.m. as the model I’d never worked with before had an evening flight back to Los Angeles that same day.

Not a problem I thought because Monica and I had talked many times before about working together and finally it was happening plus being paid was a nice caveat. We had all nine lights ready still set up from the pre-lighting the night before. We had one main light for the model modified with a Chimera Oct57 Octabox assembled to the 7-foot width, plus a medium Chimera Soft Strip with a Lighttools 40-degree grid as a camera left fill. I also placed a small Chimera Soft Strip above the red window curtains fitted with ROSCO Cinefoil on the front to control spill-light to the front of the image.

This strip would highlight the darker curtains a tad as dark colors absorb more light and we were exposing for the model’s lighter skin, not the curtains. Behind the make-shift window, I placed a large Chimera Soft Strip with the modeling lamp at full-power and flash tube turned off, since my white-balance was at 6000K and the modeling lamp is 3200K, I knew the color of the box would mimic the warmth of an evening sun filtering through a window.

Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh, Evan Williams Bourbon

Monica poses in the red dress, notice the purse, which was not in the original storyboard sketch.

The other five lights were fitted with 7-inch reflectors and various grids of 10- through 30-degrees to control the light path. Two were used to accent the model on each side plus another light for her hair. Another light was aimed at the small table next to the model to bring out the wood color and grain. The final light was used to help illuminate the model’s purse. Several of the lights were additionally fitted with Cinefoil to reduce spill-light and to control plus shape the light.

The camera I used was the Canon 5D with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L USM, image stabilized lens. The tripod allowed me to keep the curtain rods straight at all times. This was very important to keep uniformity through the shoot as the model would do three complete wardrobe changes—the client wanted choices.

While the original story-board sketch provided by the art director was approved by the liquor company, I asked if we could add a small elegant purse and one key on a keyring as the concept of the after picture was the model going out for the evening. Obviously the before photo, taken to simulate getting ready in a bathroom, was simple and only took about thirty-minutes to shoot. The after photo, plus a lunch break, various breaks for the graphic designer to download the photos and check the images in the pre-made advertising templates, the model changing, makeup retouches, hair, etc., took most of the day.

The Ability
At one point during the shoot I politely asked all the higher-paid managers and executives to keep their voices down so the art director, model, stylist, and I could concentrate on the shoot as we were pressed for time and I reminded them they were paying big bucks for a perfect result, not for a possible reshoot. Funny what coffee and donuts can do to people standing behind you with nothing else to do, the stress was on, but our team’s adaptability allowed us to get it done.

Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh, Evan Williams Bourbon

The makeup artist and stylist and the art director get Monica ready for the shoot.

In the end, we were done by 5 p.m., though eventually we’d learn the Monica’s flight had been cancelled due to bad winter weather, yet we still completed the shoot on the allotted time. While I normally do my best work with simple lighting, this commercial photography assignment critical lighting on specific parts of the image, not just the model, so I was glad that I had brought extra photographic lighting gear to get the assignment done.

The team effort between the studio assistants, the model, makeup artist, and art director helped my abilities come through and even though this shoot took place seven years ago, I still remember the role of flexibility and adaptability—it’s a must on any commercial photography assignment, and as you can see from other photographer’s testimonials, I recommend this mantra.


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