Friday, September 6, 2019

Author Portrait Photo Shoot with Kelley Armstrong

Kelley Armstrong on the porch of her writing cottage

I am no stranger to photographing successful authors, but it was a particular thrill for me to have the chance to photograph New York Times best selling author Kelley Armstrong for the third time, since by this time I had become completely enthralled by her Rockton thriller series. The other thing that made this my favourite Kelley Armstrong shoot yet was getting to visit her country home where she creates the characters, stories and worlds that populate her varied and, thankfully, growing bibliography.

To my great joy we decided, this time, to go with a much more casual vibe, and capture Kelley in her natural habitat, so to speak. In the past we had gone the more traditional route, working with hair and make-up artists and creating styled in-studio portraits. Funnily enough, it wasn't really until this shoot that I realized Kelley has freckles; we both agreed that we did not want to cover them up, which made the sometimes risky idea of not hiring a make-up artist an easier choice to make.

Initially, in order to save Kelley money (not that she requested this!), I decided to dispense with scouting the location, Kelley's place being at least two hours away from Toronto. However, my experience and instinct kicked in and prevented me from making the mistake of skipping this important step.

Kelley's writing cottage

Although Kelley writes in a few different spots around her home, as soon as I saw her writing cottage I knew we had to shoot there. I shot the test shot above at around 11:00 a.m. and as cute as it looked with the sun beaming down upon its front wall, it was immediately apparent that we would need to schedule shooting there some hours later when the sun would no longer be shining right into her eyes.

So we planned a 12:00-5:00 p.m. time frame, with the exterior of the cottage selected as the final location. As such, even though we did get a nice sunny shoot day, by the time the sun was angled for a nice exposure on Kelley, its angle was slightly less ideal for the actual cottage, and the sky photographed pale and overexposed, requiring the addition of a hint of one of my archived skies during retouching.

Left: as shot - blown out sky, Right: new sky added in

The final version of this shot featuring a slightly stylized look (with the vignette)

Kelley's awesome husband even mowed the lawn before we arrived. I actually wouldn't have minded the longer grass, partly because it may have covered the empty planters. We couldn't find anything to put in them on the shoot day, and I couldn't bear them looking empty, so I ended up scouting around my studio until I found this solution:

Photo of some random, suitably innocuous plants down the street from my studio

Above: empty planters as photographed, Below: planters filled in the final image

Actually we were very lucky to get this sunny day, because as the shoot date was approaching, the weather was bouncing all over the place. Indications were that the weather was going to be awful on the shoot day but nice the day before. As circumstances had dictated no scheduled rain date it was understood that we would just have to deal with whatever weather we got. However, in reality I was not OK with skipping shooting outside. Thanks to Kelley's and my assistant Julia's flexibility we were able to switch the shoot date fairly last minute and shoot a day early. Disaster averted!

The other big bonus regarding scouting ahead of time was that I had the luxury of being able to choose all the locations and pre-visualize set-ups for the three main images we intended to create, rather than having to make these decisions on the day. Scouting also gave me the chance to pre-select Kelley's wardrobe with her, so that the right pieces were cleaned and pressed for rapid deployment in the appropriate scenarios on the day. And final bonus, I had the chance to meet her pets and think about the possibility of including one in a shot, which we did. Great call, since just after our shoot an editor doing a feature on authors and their pets requested a photo. 

Of course we chose the Bengal who was so pretty and regal looking when not climbing up and displacing the screen on the window (which may have happened during the scout). 

We also did a version of this shot without the cat.

While we did a few different ambience shots we also, of course, did the requisite headshot.

Kelley in her home

We had set out with a modest goal of netting three final winning shots, but managed to get six, even excluding the one set-up inside the cottage that Kelley ultimately didn't love:

Not a select. Would have looked better with a fire in the stove.

At the cottage, the first set-up (before the wide shot shown at the top of the post) was actually almost entirely out of the sun on the porch. I shot wide to include some of the cottage face in the background for flexibility. 

This is slightly cropped from the way it was shot. Lost of space around Kelley leaves room for graphics, etc.

I like the shot better cropped tighter. I provided both versions to Kelley.

As we reset to complete the final shot of the day the wind machine (the actual wind) kicked into gear at exactly the right moment, from exactly the right direction, giving a lovely little lift to Kelley's hair, just as it was starting ever so slightly to lose its volume from the heat and humidity of the day. I just had to remove a few slightly crazy stray hairs during retouching so the windblown look didn't go too far.

Thank-you wind!

Final note: If anyone is wondering, yes, we did use some artificial light. I pretty much don't go anywhere without at least a little lighting. :)

I can't wait to do Kelley's next round of portraits, but in the meantime, if you need professional photography or know someone who does please get in touch.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Personal Brand Portrait Shoot

This was actually the second portrait we shot.

This is going to be the shortest post ever, but I wanted to share the results of a recent personal brand/business portrait shoot at my studio which went pretty much perfectly.  My client Steve is a senior communications professional who was between positions and needed a fresh portrait for LinkedIn and other personal branding initiatives. 

I probably told him we needed an hour and we probably spent two, because when you are supposed to be looking competent, relaxed and awesome the last thing you want to be is rushed. 

We decided to do two looks in terms of backgrounds. We talked about losing the tie for the second look but decided to keep it because it looked really good.

For the first look the goal was a classic head and shoulders business portrait against my personally designed "Corporate #5" backdrop. This is the one Steve used for LinkedIn.

Classic head and shoulders business portrait on my Corporate #5 backdrop.

Here's a picky detail thing that's an example of why people count on me:

Left: Steve's tousled hair. Right: Steve's more nicely tousled hair.

Basically, Steve's hair has a naturally tousled look. I decided I didn't like the way it had landed in the headshot as well as I did when we shot the second look, so during retouching I replaced the part I didn't like with the part I did like.

For the second shot (see pic at the top of the post) I wanted to make it a little more artful and give him more room to play with in case he decided to use it as a banner on his website or anywhere else that may require more horizontal space. The backdrop was a canvas one of mine that I recently repainted. It can look very different depending on the amount of light on it and the amount of focus or blur.

One of my hand-painted canvas backdrops.

As Steve is a versatile guy with a lot of experience in more and less conservatively corporate roles, and broad interests, including sports, we decided to do one more super casual shot to round out the set of images. 

Steve looked his most relaxed in a simple white T-shirt.

Bottom line: I took his picture, he posted it and he landed his next senior position! It may sound as if I'm saying that my picture got him the job. I cannot say that unequivocally. :)

If you need a refresh, please get in touch.

Monday, March 18, 2019

200 Headshots!

We photographed over 200 people in two days.

A recent corporate "photo day" shoot  was organized by an executive who loved what we did for her at her previous company and wanted to make professional portraits available to staff at her new firm. The company's internal communications system accommodated space for each user to include a profile photo, but many staff had not uploaded one because they didn't feel they had one that was good enough or business appropriate. Furthermore, a number of the company's executives' portraits were out of date or non-existent. So the plan was made to do a two day photo blitz during which we would provide four minute mini-sessions to the general staff and half hour sessions to the executives.

I have to mention a caveat...I would not suggest that four minutes is an ideal amount of time in which do create a perfect portrait. But these quick mini-sessions are the only practical way to deal with large numbers of portraits, and they will still, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, produce pictures that far exceed the quality of a selfie or a snapshot, while making for a more professional, consistent look across company directories or websites. Photo days are also an increasingly popular way of expressing employee appreciation.

Prior to the shoot dates I visited the client's offices for a location scout, to ensure they selected the best shoot space possible. Pretty much regardless of budget I opt to do a pre-shoot scout when planning to shoot on location, because it's my job to know what kind of space will work best, and it won't serve anyone for us to find out on the day that the proposed/reserved space is going to compromise our set-up. In this case we had the use of two huge rooms, so we planned to set up the make-up artist and ID cards in one room while we set up the actual shoot in the next room. I strongly advise a closed set, ie. keeping people other than the subject, my assistant and myself out of the actual shoot space because so many people are uncomfortable already...the last thing they need is a colleague watching or distracting them.

The photo shoot 'reception' desk where subjects picked up their name cards

The client had all subjects sign up for specific time slots, and instructed them to arrive ten minutes early for make-up touch-ups. They also printed out name cards which each subject presented to us upon arrival in our 'studio' so we could enter their name into the computer ensuring each portrait file was correctly labeled. As expected some people switched times with others for various reasons so this way we didn't have to rely on just the time sheet for ID's or spelling.

Standing portrait set. We were lucky enough to have two huge rooms, and had more space than we needed. 

One thing we do to facilitate fast headshot sessions is forgo a seated pose and opt for standing, with where to stand marked very clearly. It's amazing how confusing a photo set can be to subjects who are not used to being in front of the camera and may be anxious about getting their pictures taken. So we employ the most basic indicator possible...a picture of a pair of feet stuck to the floor. 

We use are a large, sturdy tripod that extends high enough that I can set the camera to look down on even the tallest subjects (for a more flattering angle), and a small step ladder, so I can see through the camera viewfinder! The tripod allows me to keep the camera in position so I can shoot faster and more consistently without having to waste time picking it up and reorienting every time I step away from it. This way I can step up to the subject to fix hair, assist in positioning, etc. quickly, and as often as necessary. One of the reasons we get the testimonials we do is my hands on all-in attitude, as I am back and forth from the camera to the subject regularly. No "stand there, smile, click, done!" on my shoots.

My assistant checking focus and expression as we shoot

Regardless of how long or short the sessions are, or what the budget is, one of the ways we mitigate the amount of retouching required and ensure our headshots turn out as well as possible is that we always bring a basic kit: powder, combs, hairspray, blotting tissues, toothpicks, chapstick, and eyeglass wipes. This time around, to make the experience a bit more special for the subjects, the client also brought in their own in-house make-up artists which they were in a unique position to be able to do.

Client's cosmetician at work

During any shoot on location when we are doing portraits that might need to be replicated in the future we photograph the set and make diagrams. We did have to replicate this set-up at a later date back at the clients' offices, and then again back at the studio, so it was helpful to have the info to ensure the new portraits matched the previous ones.

Measuring the set so we can reproduce it consistently in the future

After the shoot we delivered retouched selects for the executives. In most cases they chose theirs at the time of their sessions when we could assist them in making their decisions, and make sure before they left that we had one they loved. For everyone else, I delivered a set of low res "as-is" files to the organizer to distribute to the staff. Anyone who wanted retouching, a high res file, or prints was invited to reach out to my studio directly and order what they wanted individually. A few did, but for most the small files were fine as they were for posting in small format online.

Here's some feedback we heard/received after the shoot:

Your professionalism, efficient responsiveness and incredible personality made the headshot day such a hit. Know that I am one of your biggest fans...

I also heard some incredibly positive feedback from a senior...leader who was so impressed with your work that she used the word ‘fabulous’ (this is a feat!) Congrats! 

Just to add to this – I was the one who took that ‘fabulous’ feedback, and she said that apart from the beautiful pictures you took, it was really the ‘experience’ that stood out. She said you made her feel so comfortable, welcome, and at ease. That is going above and beyond!

Thank you for another wonderful photo shoot.

Thanks for reading! If you'd like us to make you look good please get in touch.

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 resum├ęs 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!