Face Up to Portrait Fears

Recently I’ve been asked to shoot a lot, and I mean A LOT, of corporate portraits for many different clients. It tends to go like this; slightly nervous office staff shuffle into the broom cupboard I’ve been assigned to as my portable studio for the day, and I have to stop them hyperventilating with fear at least until I can get a nice photo of their smiling face, preferably with eyes open and a minimum of sweat shine on their noses.

I understand the fear. I too am not delighted when someone points a camera at me, so I feel their pain. That’s why I try to settle the sitter, crack some bad jokes, and be as quick as possible.

However, there is another way. Not to say that the standard portrait isn’t important and useful, but if you’re trying to arrange a photo shoot for a collection of colleagues who break out in hives at the thought of looking into my dead, glassy eye, perhaps the candid portrait would be a better option.

In this scenario you can gather a selection of people around a table and get them chatting while I work around the group, capturing smiling, positive expressions. Lay on some coffee, biscuits (cookies for our American friends), or water and let people chat, relax and forget that I’m there. They might use the time to discuss some project that they’re planning, or just have a bit of a social. Within minutes they’ll forget I’m there, and it’ll show in the photos.

relaxed corporate portrait

Chatting to a colleague takes the mind off being photographed.

Another option is to have colleagues come to me in pairs. One of the pair will be photographed while the other chats to them, tells jokes and makes them laugh and interact. They won’t be looking into camera, but as with the round-table discussion shots it’s a way of relaxing people into the photo session. It creates more dynamic images which can be useful for more than just the About Us section of the website, and you’ll have a broader choice of angles and expressions so pictures on the website can be periodically refreshed, and pictures in a brochure can be different from those on the website.

In any event, I can always finish off with a final shot to camera, by which time the sitter should be relaxed enough to give a more natural smile.

I’ve blogged before about why decent portraits are important, but at the risk of repeating myself, these photos are generally used on business websites in the About Us section, or in corporate literature. They are the World’s window on the people that make up the business and those photos are the first impression anyone gets of the business. The photos will be used repeatedly and different contexts, each time making a first impression on someone new. So if you’re going to spend good time, money and fear on corporate portraits, consider the options I’ve set out. It really doesn’t need to be as painful as route canal work. At least not always.

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  • Lisa McKelvie August 13, 2010  

    Hi Tim

    Great information and very relevant as I face this issue constantly. Just wondering, how do you handle lighting in this type of situation? Or do you just use a high ISO?

    • Glass Eye August 14, 2010  

      Hi Lisa

      Thank you for your kind comment. I generally use portable studio lighting. In an office environment the ambient light is usually so ghastly that relying on high ISO isn’t an option. It’s why so many corporate headshots (not taken by me!) look horrid – either the person taking the photos is relying on high ISO and the ceiling lights of the room, resulting in panda eyes, yellow/magenta skin tones and generally very unflattering, or they use direct camera-top flash which leads to bleached-out skin tones, harsh shadows, red-eye and the startled rabbit look.

  • Neil Turner August 14, 2010  

    Right with you on this one Tim. Once clients get the idea that interesting is 500% better than bland you can give them an even better service.


    • Glass Eye August 14, 2010  

      You managed to cunningly slip in an additional and very good point there, Neil. Clients need to be aware that by working with the photographer on choosing the style and mood of the photos, they can get far more interesting and arresting images for the same price as “bog standard” ones. Work with the photographer, trust his/her input and suddenly the results will be greater than the sum of the effort involved.


  • Andrew September 1, 2010  

    I bring my 21 month old daughter with me to my portrait shoots, it may not look incredibly professional at first, but it sure does get my clients to relax and smile.

    • Glass Eye September 1, 2010  

      I’ll need to abduct a baby for my next portrait session. Sounds like a plan…