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 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!


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