Friday, February 8, 2019

Same subject, different lighting

CEO of defense technology company Eomax Corp.

As a follow up to my previous post, sometimes it's appropriate to add a little drama to a business profile portrait. Same subject, same studio, different background, different lighting, different processing. 

Some people talk about headshots these days as if they are loaves of Wunderbread -- cheap, pedestrian, and all the same -- or tube socks -- one size fits all. If you are looking for something better than bread, or tube socks, give me a call.

Monday, February 4, 2019

New Portable Corporate Portrait Backdrop

KHPhoto Background #5

Another success! A couple of posts ago I wrote about developing new fabric backgrounds for shooting corporate portraits on location, or in studio. I am excited to announce the newest iteration, which is, in my opinion, the best one I've designed yet. This portable fabric backdrop allows us to shoot in any room (as long as it's big enough), at any time of day. Available light or lack of it is completely irrelevant, meaning we and our clients enjoy freedom, flexibility and control.

In order to accommodate executives' busy schedules we make ourselves available whenever they need us. Increasingly we find clients requesting something more interesting than a gray background. The obvious choice is a nicely appointed boardroom, maybe showing part of the wall and some window. But this becomes problematic when, for example, the portrait is at 8:00 a.m. on a winter's day, because what's visible through the window is darkness. When we shoot portraits from morning until afternoon the light changes enormously from set-up to tear down. Even if it's a beautiful sunny day, as the sun makes its way across the sky the shadows and shapes change constantly sometimes changing a lovely background to one with a huge distracting shadow or blindingly bright highlight running right through it. 

Left: Environmental background earlier in the day. Right: Later when the light has shifted creating bright highlights and an ugly shadow.

I wanted to bring to corporate portrait shoots an easily portable backdrop with the look of an environmental background minus the pain and lack of control. The new background was designed using as its base a photo of a real background taken at an executive portrait shoot at a corporate office downtown. Using digital photo manipulation and compositing I created out of that image a final image printed on fabric to mimic a distant background while actually being positioned only a couple of feet behind the subject.

The advantages are:

  • We may need less space than we'd need to create a similar look with an actual environment.
  • We can consistently create a mid-day-in-an-office look at any time of day.
  • We can introduce some variation if desired by making it lighter or darker with lighting.
  • It looks a little different depending on where each subject is placed in front of it, so groups of portraits don't look unnaturally similar.
  • Using this background is more economical than digitally replacing a plain background after the shoot.

A portion of KHPhoto Background #5

As always, my goal is to make the people who hire us look good, and the people we photograph look great! I think about how to 'up our game' all the time, and I care passionately about your success.  I invite you to benefit from our experience. If you or your organization need excellent profile portraits and want to enjoy having them done, please get in touch. I look forward to working with you!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Author Portrait Shoot with Tiffany Calligaris

Tiffany and Shiku at home in Toronto.

Some of my favourite people to photograph are writers...I love collaborating with fellow creators, and love the idea of contributing in a small way to the creative process involved in the publication of their work. When Tiffany Calligaris first contacted me I thought she was reaching out from Argentina where she has spent most of her career, so I was relieved to find her living in Toronto. As the publication date for her newest novel approached she needed to do some updated publicity photos, one of which would be included on the book jacket.

I started off by dropping by her home to check out the background possibilities, because when the goal is several distinctly different shots that really speak to the person's 'brand' it's often worth checking out 'real' places that, ideally, have some relevance to the person, before opting to set something up in studio. Thus, I location scout whenever possible so I can 1) determine if there are suitable spaces to shoot in and decide which ones are the best, and 2) pre-visualize the lighting and set-up. Meeting at the subject's home gives me the additional advantage of being able to view and advise on wardrobe. 

Tiffany's condo is not huge but had a fantastic view, so we thought that would be conducive to an environmental portrait. Added bonus: I discovered that she and her husband have a very cute and very friendly dog, Shiku, who we decided would be a great addition to some of the shots. We also walked several blocks to a spot Tiffany had in mind as a result of her dog walks. It, too, looked perfect to me as the historical architecture was somewhat suggestive of the historical timelines in her books.

The corner I liked in Tiffany's condo, and the street corner I liked for our outdoors shots.

As we were well into the fall season, we had to choose a shoot date sooner rather than later so there would still be leaves on the trees. Unfortunately, fall can be an iffy time weather-wise, and this one seemed particularly unsettled. As the shoot date and back-up weather dates neared, we made a somewhat last minute decision to skip the preferred date and commit to the next day. Of course, I then spent the entire original date looking for signs that I'd picked the wrong day, and the sun did come out once for about five minutes. I was vindicated, though, by an entire morning of sun on shoot day...not for long enough that it shone the whole shoot, but of the two days we did select the better one.

Shooting inside to begin with we started by setting a base exposure for the outside and seeing how Tiffany looked in the position I'd imagined. After the shoot I actually ended up changing my mind about the outside exposure, but while I was shooting I felt I wanted lots of colour and detail in the fall-coloured cityscape. As always, we brought lighting so we'd have control, and compositional possibilities would not be limited by the level or direction of the natural light. We also spent a few minutes trying out a throw rug as a prop, but ultimately decided it was a distraction that didn't really add anything of visual value to the image.

Left: Setting the ambient exposure. Middle: Setting the lighting and colour balance. Right: Trying out a throw rug prop which we ultimately ditched.

Here are two final versions of the selected shot -- the first being the way I envisioned it at the time, and the second a revised version I did, really, to make up for the fact that I had not been able to place a background light behind Tiffany where I wanted to because there wasn't room (we tried). There's more depth and dimension in the revised version.

Left: The first iteration. Right: My revised version which has more depth. Note that the part of the window frame behind Tiffany's head (visible in the test shots above) was removed during retouching; its relative position during shooting was unavoidable, so I planned to remove it later.

We did do a wardrobe and set change while we were inside but time was tight, so we didn't spend a lot of time trying for alternates. Ultimately we needed approximately five final shots and we had to pack everything up to move to the outdoor location, so we did not dally.

One alternative look, inside.

The outdoor location was far enough away that we needed to drive there with the gear. While my assistant and I drove over, Tiffany and her husband Phillip took Shiku for a walk and met us at the agreed spot. My first goal was to capture Tiffany and Shiku walking. Because I knew I wanted to photograph them at a specific spot, we set up a light and had them walk through that spot repeatedly while I locked focus on it.

Once again, I would like to have used slightly more complicated lighting than we were able to. Inside we had no room. Outside, I had the limiting factors of of one assistant (to handle one light) in a high traffic area (way more so than we'd anticipated), and in which we had no permission to shoot, so we had to keep as low a profile as possible. As a result, although the shot looked OK, I felt as if something was missing, until I did a little extra post-production to give it a little zing.

Left: Encroaching cars kept wrecking the shot; there was much more traffic on the shoot day than on the scout day. Right: We got the shot during one of the brief moments during which there were no cars or people in the way.  

The final walking shot.

Thankfully it didn't take long to get this shot as the endless traffic was driving me crazy (no pun intended). So although I'd planned initially to keep shooting here, I grabbed just a few more shots before deciding to move onto the church grounds in the background.

Once I crossed to the same side of the street as my subject we no longer had to deal with the traffic but the sun went behind the increasing clouds, not to be seen again. Between the clouds and the wind it was not warm, and Tiffany was wearing a light little jacket, not actual outerwear. Phillip took Shiku home so we could concentrate on the task at hand, which, for Tiffany, was mostly trying not to look like she was freezing to death.

You would never know Tiffany was freezing.

Tiffany had told me when we met initially that she would welcome my direction during the shoot, as she, like almost all of my subjects, is not a professional model and not especially comfortable in front of the camera. By putting her trust in me, she set the stage for us to successfully create a set of shots in which she looks comfortable, relaxed and confident. I have to applaud her, too, for her commitment, patience and perseverance. It was not easy posing outside in the cold, but you'd never know it from the pictures, and she uttered not a word of complaint. I found out later she'd needed a hot bath to thaw out, and fell asleep right after that!

Tiffany's newest novel Lesath Ever After is scheduled to hit shelves in March 2019.

Whether you are publishing a book, a website, a blog, etc., please get in touch if you want to look great on it!

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 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 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!