Tuesday, August 7, 2018

New Portable Backdrop for Corporate Portraits

The photographer against KHPhoto Background 1

Every time I speak with a new client about corporate portraits or headshots, the question of what background to use arises. Even though a portrait is really about the subject, the background is important. In some cases, for example when a large number of subjects within an organization are to be photographed for a website or directory, the desire is for a conservative, innocuous, repeatable, fairly plain backdrop, so the portraits will look clean and consistent across a page. But plain white and gray backgrounds can be boring, and look cookie cutter-ish.

Environmental portraits are very popular these days and for good reason. For one thing they tend to be a bit more interesting looking, and eye catching...very helpful if a potential employer and/or potential business contact is scanning through resumés or online profiles.  Furthermore, a portrait that looks like it was taken in some kind of real place, as opposed to a portrait studio, invokes a greater sense of authenticity, and uniqueness both in terms of the individual subject and of the organization they are representing. But...

The challenge from the photographer's point of view, when shooting on site at clients' offices (which I do 90% of the time), is finding office space that is conducive to an attractive environmental portrait. White and beige walls provide no texture or detail to throw artfully out of focus. And, if there are windows at all, often whatever is visible through them does not work very well as a backdrop either. It is amazing how rare it is to find an available environmental background that really works. Just recently we set up a portrait in a large office and included part of a plant, some wall, some window, and some interior design details (see photos below), and when the executive walked in for his "close-up" he announced that he really did want a close-up...all the lovely out of focus details in the background disappeared with the tight crop we were now facing. As a result the background looked boring and not very attractive, so I ended up digitally compositing in details to bring the shot back to life -- time consuming and not billable.

Left: Aesthetically pleasing environmental background for a horizontal portrait. Middle: The "close-up" vertical portrait the client actually wanted.  Right: Digitally altered, improved background in the final portrait.

Even in my studio, I am limited to using photo backdrops because I don't have a big beautifully appointed boardroom to simulate an executive environment...so I needed something I could use in studio as well. 

Like every corporate photographer I have paper (plain) and fabric (fairly plain) backdrops I bring on location, and there are a variety of mottled fabric photo backdrops as well as environmental image backdrops available for purchase; however the dearth of options that I actually like or would expect clients to like has frustrated me for years. In the past I painted many of my own backdrops, but they look dated now, and they can be unwieldy to take on location. Recently it got a lot easier and more economical to digitally composite in a different background using Photoshop, but doing that adds time and expense that may be tough to justify, especially if you are doing a large number of portraits at a time. Furthermore, if you have a bunch of portraits on a page and the backdrop looks exactly the same, to the pixel, in each one, they fairly scream "Photoshopped!" (and "inauthentic"!). Having said that, I do have a growing collection of digital corporate backgrounds ready for compositing into portraits. And yes, one can place the background just differently enough in each frame that they do not look cookie-cuttered, so if budget allows, we have the technology and the resources!  

A few blurred background digital files in my archives

Client photographed on white, background added later.

But back to my point: it was important to me to figure out a way to provide a more manageable, flexible, and economical solution. Having suitable backdrops custom made was not a very reasonably priced option until now.

My goal was to create a backdrop that suggested some kind of structure in the background, out of focus enough not to be distracting or identifiable, and generic enough that it would be appropriate for a wide ranging clientele. So I selected one of my digital background files, took pieces of it, and blurred and combined them to simulate a distant background. I used a combination of experience, and a bunch of tests, to determine the amount of detail, texture and blur needed to make it appear not too busy if I included a subject's torso (looser crop) or too plain if I did a tight head shot. 

It also had to be vertical (unlike the digital backgrounds above, unfortunately!) to allow for easy portability and use in the often narrow spaces we encounter in boardrooms (beside big boardroom tables for example), and for flexible placement of the subjects who may be sitting or standing, and short or tall. All tough to balance, which is part of the reason I leapt at the chance to do a two-sided backdrop, when I discovered I needed to redo my order, having screwed up the first time by making the colour saturation too intense.

Even the new one is still actually a little bluer than I would maybe have liked -- it doesn't look nearly as blue to the eye, as the reader will see if we work together -- so I will likely be spending an extra few seconds desaturating these backgrounds as I use them on upcoming jobs. As I write this,  I just completed a shoot with four business women. Three stayed with the blue, and one chose a slightly grayer look:

3 portraits against side 1 of the blue background

1 portrait with the blue desaturated during retouching

Me x 15! My new 2-sided corporate background showing variations made possible with lighting, processing and cropping. A large-enough-to-read version is available by e-mail upon request.

Realistically, I don't think clients want to have to think about backgrounds. They want great, appropriate, usable portraits. It's my job to figure out the details. So far clients are responding enthusiastically to this new backdrop, which makes me very happy. I'm looking forward to using it lots more, and to designing new ones going forward. I'm also considering offering custom designed backdrops for exclusive use by individual client organizations. If that sounds useful, or if you are in need of portrait photography, let's talk!


Monday, November 13, 2017

Employee Engagement Headshots: Everyone Looks Good

Employee headshots -- a great gift idea

This is going to be a short post as I've written about a similar type of shoot before, but I wanted to publish this well ahead of the holidays because it's the perfect time to suggest a company headshot photo shoot as a gift to your staff. We're doing more and more of these as leaders, wanting to show their appreciation for the unique contributions of every employee, realize that a great way to do so is to give everyone the most personal gift possible -- a professional portrait of their unique selves. 

Not only does everyone get a great profile portrait but they get the fun of experiencing a professional photo shoot, and while it's true that quite a few people purport to hate having their pictures taken, we make it as "fun and painless" as possible (people say this about our shoots), while making sure to get the best and most flattering shot possible in the time we have. 

While it's true that pretty much every company these days has the resources to put together some kind of employee portrait shoot I can pretty much promise that a professional photographer will deliver better, more consistent and more professional looking results. We also know from experience that employees really appreciate the fact that we use "real, professional gear", and take care with every individual who steps in front of our camera.

I've written before about the importance of a good, professional headshot. With business networking portals, internal corporate communications platforms, and every other social media app facilitating inclusion of a picture of the person posting or contributing, it makes sense to 1) have a profile pic, and 2) look good and look your part. But how many people can afford to go out and get a professional headshot? A professional staff portrait shoot is a great way to give employees something they may not be in a position to organize themselves, but will really appreciate, with the added bonus that companies are ultimately more professionally represented.

Please call or e-mail me to talk about how we can make your employees feel special and look great. Book now before the holidays, or give employees something to look forward to in the new year. Look forward to speaking!


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Women of Influence Photo Shoot with Ginella Massa

Fall 2017 Cover of Women of Influence Magazine

Some of my favourite professional moments are those I get to spend meeting and working with accomplished professional women, so when Stephania Varalli, Co-CEO and Head of Media at Women of Influence contacted me about shooting their next magazine cover I jumped at the chance. The subject: Toronto celebrity Ginella Massa, "Canada's first hijab wearing reporter, and the first anchor of a major Canadian news channel to wear a hijab on-air." (Women of Influence)

As is typical these days in the world of publishing, the budget was limited, but there are certain things that are worth doing, if possible, no matter the budget or lack thereof, one of these being a pre-shoot site visit. The advantage of location scouting is not just figuring out logistics such as where we'll be able to unload gear and park on the shoot day (who wants to be dealing with these unknowns on a shoot day?...not me), but getting the opportunity to pre-visualize and plan ahead. Working out where exactly we'd be shooting meant windows could be cleaned, and furniture moved and dusted prior to our even getting there to set up, a luxury we don't often have, but one that positioned us to be particularly nimble and efficient on this shoot.

The other helpful luxury was getting to speak with Ginella about wardrobe prior to the shoot. Although I have a blurb I typically send that outlines basic do's and dont's there's nothing like actually looking at at a subject's clothing and accessories ahead of time to make sure we're on the same page.

And this brings me to yet another opportunity to underscore one of the many advantages of working with an all-female team. No woman really wants a photographer barging in on them when they are barely out of their pajamas, but at least if it's another woman, it's less...inappropriate. In Ginella's case, in particular, it meant we had a green light to show up prior to her putting on not only her make-up, but her hijab. As it happened, thanks to our preparations, Ginella walked onto the set perfectly camera-ready, in the perfect wardrobe, anyway, hugely aiding us in our goal to shoot reasonably quickly and free her to get back to work on time.

The other thing working in our favour to this end, oddly enough, was our lack of permission to shoot in the second, outdoor, location. As a professional, I tend to be somewhat cautious in terms of breaking rules, or exposing shoots to any potential liability, so whenever possible, we get the proper permits for location shoots. However, when we were unable to contact anyone with the authority to issue a permit, we decided to go for it and shoot in our selected outdoor spot anyway, quickly. How à propos given that Ginella owes her success to refusing to be held back by what some would see as the 'rules.' 

Behind-the-scenes shot by assistant Lindsay Voegelin

A shout out to assistant Lindsay Voegelin for taking the behind-the-scenes pics to share on social media. I have to admit, we had to stage this shot a bit since the 'real' picture showed me bending over in an extremely unflattering way (think wide angle lens...distortion of objects closest to the lens...), so we fudged the set-up just a tiny bit to spare our (my) dignity and maintain the appearance of visual competence. Thanks also to designer Lois Kim...as evidence of how fast we were shooting...she didn't even have time to find a place to put down her lunch before we co-opted her into holding a light stand.

I must say I felt especially lucky that the weather held for us, given the amount of rain we've had this summer. In fact, the forecast was not stable that day, so we were on the lookout for signs of inclement weather, but the sun stayed out, and it was a hot one. Ginella, the consummate professional did not even break a sweat. And I was reminded how more-than-usually fun it can be to work with a subject who is comfortable and experienced in front of a camera. (Of course I still love all my hate-having-their-picture-taken clients...and per my raison d'être as a portraitist, only you and I know who you are!)

On that note, I'll sign off, with one final thought: even if you don't need a picture for a magazine cover, you want to look good wherever your picture appears, right? So call me. I can help.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Portraits Created for Longevity

Temperance Marketing Partners (screen grab from their website)

Recently I had an opportunity to photograph the three core partners of Toronto's Temperance Marketing for their new website. Originally they considered having Megean, the agency's Manager of Digital Marketing, shoot them, since part of her job is photography. But they understood that there is a difference between the often somewhat temporary nature of social marketing photos and the longevity required of 'foundational' photos that will reside on the company's website, and possibly appear in print, for some time to come. These images need to be of high quality, clearly convey the company's brand, and of course, look really good, even when viewed repeatedly.

When they sent me a mock up of the site by their designer Jennifer Weaymouth of Weaymouth Creative, to show me the kinds of portraits they wanted, the first thing I noted was the style; they were bright, fresh, environmental portraits, ie. shots that had been taken (or looked as if they'd been taken) in an office, or outdoors, or in some other appropriate place, that drops beautifully out of focus behind the subjects. This is a trend in corporate portraiture that I really like. 

Unfortunately not everyone has access to a suitable office or corporate-appropriate environment. Yes, you can rent spaces by the hour for photo shoots in Toronto, but doing so can be cost-prohibitive, and there are the logistical considerations -- sourcing, scouting, coordinating availability of the space with clients' schedules, etc. It has also been possible for a long time to digitally cut out a subject and place them in some alternative background, but to do this really well (ie. well enough for high resolution reproduction) took more time and care than would typically fall within the budget for many corporate portraits.

However, I really wanted to be able to offer all my clients the option of an environmental (looking) portrait. So, after much testing, and starting a background archive, we now have an efficient and economical solution, allowing us to shoot in studio and composite in an environmental background.

The background in this shot was never intended to be in the final image - it just provided the colour and tone to facilitate replacement with the selected environmental background

When I visualized the background I thought would work for these images I actually thought I'd need to shoot new images, so I reached out to one of my clients about taking some pictures out of their office windows. They were happy to accommodate,  but I needed a sunny day, and as luck would have it we had just started into a two week run of cloud. (When did Toronto's winter weather start behaving like Vancouver's?!) The opportunity to shoot there clearly wasn't going to happen in a timely manner, so I revisited my archives and after some experimentation discovered that I actually had what I needed. I just needed to do some creative skewing, cropping, resizing, colouring, exposure adjusting and blurring. 

An outtake from another client's location shoot 
(used with permission -- thanks Cornerstone Physiotherapy!)

A tiny portion of the previous picture, adjusted to work as a portrait background

The final touch as far as the background compositing went was to make sure I used a slightly different part of the background image for each portrait, so it wasn't obvious that the background was added in. (If we'd really been shooting on location the view would change slightly depending on the subject's position.) In fact, I went the extra step of subtly changing small elements within the background for each portrait, for aesthetic reasons, specific to each portrait.  

Beyond the style of background there were other details about the designer's sample photos that were important to note, as I knew these particular samples were chosen for good reason: the lighting was very open and flattering, the angle of the camera was straight on (not looking down), making the women look strong and confident, and the look was somewhat casual but clearly business oriented. These are the kinds of details that it's our job as professional portrait photographers to care about. And they're the kinds of details that can make a huge difference to the overall impact and success of a portrait.    

This attention to detail continues into post-production (the processing/optimizing/retouching after the shoot). Here's a tiny picky detail my clients probably didn't even notice, but that I felt compelled to fix:

An example of a picky detail that I don't like to leave uncorrected

Ultimately the feedback from Anita, Megean and Shazya was that it was "so much less painful" than they thought it would be. I never get tired of hearing this. 

And the final bonus: The younger partners did not have a lot of experience with full fledged photo shoots, thus had not been sure exactly what a "real photographer" did. This isn't uncommon these days, as the barriers to entry into this industry (professional photography) are increasingly low, much can be done with little equipment, budgets are tight, and it can be challenging to communicate the value of hiring a pro. And, realistically, in the case of social marketing posts which have to be executed quickly, economically, repeatedly and ongoingly, it would be logistically and economically impossible to have a pro quote and produce a shoot every time a client had to post a pic. Now, however, these marketing specialists 'get it'. And this will serve them and their clients well going forward.

If you need a pro to bring skill and experience to your next portrait shoot, give me a call. Thanks for reading! 


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Corporate Team Portraits - "You guys really care!"

Some of the 150 Portraits

Recently we shot a job for a big corporation who wanted staff portraits of up to two hundred of their employees over two days -- one day each at two separate office locations. They had a very specific style and layout they required, so we didn't do anything particularly creative or unusual, except apparently we did. What, apparently, was unusual, according to our subjects, was that we appeared to "care."

The schedule dictated that we allot approximately three minutes per person (which we time to keep us on track) during which we would elicit a solid professional portrait, depicting a happy, calm, comfortable and confident representative of the company. Three minutes is not a lot of time, and if we had fewer people, more time and a commensurately higher budget, I would never recommend such short sessions. However, in this kind of circumstance, we have to work within some immutable parameters. And that's where we as photographers have a choice to make. We either kind of throw in the towel and don't even try to make great portraits, or we step it up and do our level best to pull a rabbit out of a hat and make our three minute clients as close to as happy as our 'full length' session clients as we can. (Sorry, very awkward sentence!) And this is what we do.

In a nutshell, we had all the usual challenges plus some more: a number of the subjects were not at all excited about being photographed, we had no budget for hair and make-up, the staff were in the middle of their shifts so could not leave their desks for long, and there was no budget for retouching. My team included just me and my assistant. Our deliverable was to include one medium resolution portrait file for each subject, and a full set of logo embedded Jpegs for corporate use.

So, every three minutes, we posed the subject, styled their hair, powdered their face if they needed it (almost everyone did), lint-rolled and straightened out their wardrobe, and worked with them to elicit their authentic self. And it was during this sustained flurry of focus and activity that we were told, a number of times, that we were different because we appeared to actually care. The feedback after the shoot underscored this sentiment.

Back in the studio, during processing and preparation of the final files, I took care to select the frames I truly felt were the best, and then I took one extra step to ensure a happy clientele. There were, unavoidably, a handful of portraits that were seriously compromised by skin issues. These I had my retoucher do a quick 'once over' on, as a courtesy, just so that I wasn't sending out anything I really felt was sub-standard.

Bottom line, if you are getting a professional portrait, it should look professional, period. So, as much as I'd like to always have the time, the budget and the opportunity to bring some artful interpretation into the equation (and please call me if you fit this bill), if you need a photographer to make a large number of people look good, quickly, I'd be happy to help


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

In-Studio Executive Portraits - Take the Time

Three Final Retouched Portraits

 The point of this short post is, primarily, the value of committing an appropriate amount of time to the process of getting the portraits that will really serve you best. My lovely client, Amanda wanted to come away with three final, different shots to give her some flexibility. Uses might include her online profile (company website, LinkedIn, etc.) and various digital and print documents: proposals, marketing materials, publicity, speaker profiles etc. I had asked her to expect to be at the studio for about an hour and a half, two hours max., with the goal of producing a headshot against an environmental backdrop, another against a more plain backdrop and a torso shot.

Amanda brought a small selection of very appropriate wardrobe options -- professional looking, neutral, solid colours, mid-tones, and perfectly fitted -- as per the wardrobe blurb I share with all portrait clients prior to shooting. In her garment bag she had a solid dark blue dress, a gray skirt suit with some stylish black leather detailing, and a round necked, short sleeved gray dress, all neatly pressed. The few wrinkles that had manged to sneak onto one of the dresses were quickly steamed out.

We started with the environmental head shot which I had worked on ahead of time because it's the most time-consuming to set up and I like to be as close to ready to shoot as possible when a client arrives. As always I was very glad to have different wardrobe options we could work with because the one I initially thought would work in this setting just didn't...the dark dress just looked too heavy below Amanda's fair skin and the light-ish backdrop. 

Dress too dark

I find a V neckline often works very well in headshots and suit jackets provide this. So once Amanda had changed into the suit option, it didn't take long to get a great selection of expressions -- comfortable, confident, happy and approachable -- in spite of the fact that Amanda, not atypically, had apparently not exactly been looking forward to our shoot. (Picture top left)

Next in the schedule was the torso shot for which we had planned to use a plain gray background, but the thing about plain gray backgrounds, or any plain background is that they tend to look not just boring, but they can make the subject look as if they are not in the real world. They're great if you need somewhere to put type, like the title of your book, or if flexibility and consistency between multiple portraits is key, but those were not considerations in this case. 

Frames from the ultimately unsuccessful process of determining the best combination of lighting, and wardrobe to go with a plain gray background

So, as we worked to choose a combination of background tone, subject lighting, and wardrobe that worked well together, ultimately we decided to start again with a different set-up entirely: a couch and an upholstery fabric backdrop which would give Amanda more of a chance to settle into the space and exude her real personality, in a somewhat more real looking place. It added a bit to the duration of the shoot, but it was worth it to have the time to explore what would really work best for this particular individual, and get to the point where she was able to utter the magic words "That's me!" (Picture top middle)

We had just enough time to do one final set-up (to finish at the two hour max. beyond which we could not continue due to her tight schedule) and again, rather than use a plain background I quickly fashioned the upholstery fabric from the couch set-up into a corner (I'd planned ahead of time to possibly do this) and had Amanda lean against it, which was again, totally conducive to the more informal, personality-specific look Amanda wanted and could really roll with comfortably. (Picture top right) 

Did this shoot really need to take two hours? There are times when that kind of time is simply not available. But because we blocked a full two hours, just in case, it gave us both, the photographer and the subject, the room to really work through what was working and what wasn't, which will be different for every client. Had Amanda not been willing or able to commit the time, we may not have achieved what we did. In the end, each of the three final portraits succeeds, and each has a distinct feel to it, so Amanda will be covered regardless of who requests her picture or what requirements come up, at least for a while.

One final note: I have a personal preference for a 5x7 format for portraits (as per the three finals), as opposed to 8x10 which is sort of a shorter and fatter shape. Clients will often stipulate 8x10 (which is a well known standard), maybe because they have previously committed to this format and need new portraits to match. But, generally, I don't love the composition; there's too much space beside the head unless you crop quite tightly, which then removes too much of the shoulders and clothing really limiting the flexibility in terms of using the image in different layouts. I always hope that if clients decide to use their 8x10's on LinkedIn they'll crop them tighter, but they often don't and their heads look small. So to all my clients, if you'd like me to do an additional crop of a portrait file for LI please feel free to ask and I'll throw it in, no charge. 

Looking forward to our next shoot!


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

New Environmental Background for In-Studio Corporate Portraits

Dave arrives with shirts cleaned and pressed, on hangers. Yes!

These days there is a growing trend towards environmental business portraits (in which the background is the space where you're shooting, as opposed to a photographer's fabric or paper background). Environmental portraits tend to be a bit more interesting and a bit more 'real' looking. I love this trend. However, not all business people have access to an aesthetically appealing boardroom or office or professional looking space in which a photographer can set-up and shoot. Typically, if the shoot is an in-studio one and there's no budget for creating an interesting custom set, we would be limited to using plain seamless paper or painted muslin. So I decided to create a simple to set-up option for affordable in-studio corporate portraits, that kind of hints at an office (or a somewhat appropriate interior) environment. 

I also wanted a fresher, brighter look this time. I've shot Dave before and one of the tests we did at the beginning of the session looked similar to a past portrait in which the shadow areas were larger and deeper, and the background darker, making for a moodier image...

Wrong shirt for a bright background,
but I didn't want this dark, moody look

not what I wanted at all, but we tried it because the first shirt Dave put on was so pale it didn't separate enough from the lighter background. In this test, the shirt stands out well from the background, but to the detriment of the shot overall. 

Dave is a really happy, positive, friendly guy which serves him extremely well is his capacity as a real estate agent for Re/Max Hallmark Realty Ltd., so we knew we wanted him in a bright environment, smiling. In fact in Dave's case the challenge was to rein in his infectious smile enough that he didn't look too happy (not that anyone can ever really be "too happy").

Dave - Final Portrait
How could you not trust this man?

Is there anything I don't love about the picture? Dave could have worn a plain shirt so I could have retouched out the wrinkles, but this shirt is a favourite of his, it's a great colour on him, and the wrinkles aren't really too distracting. Other than that I think the shot captures Dave's personality perfectly, and I like the feel of the "place" where this photo was taken.