Portable Portraits

If there is one thing I do an awful lot of, it’s business portraits. The days when businesses will tolerate having stock image models represent them on their websites and in brochures seem finally to have passed, at least among businesses wishing to maintain any kind of credibility in their marketing. If you’re a high-street accountancy firm in Bristol, pictures of orange-tanned, square-jawed Canadian actors pretending to be Bristol-based accountants just don’t really work any more.

In fact they never did, but fashions come and go and now I find I pick up a lot of business from clients wishing to obliterate any sign of perma-tan or American dentistry from their About Us pages. Heck, we’re not all super-models but we are who we are and shouldn’t try to hide behind fakery.

All this is great for my business, and as dull as it might sound to be photographing business people in air-conditioned offices on build-fill-repeat office parks all over the country, getting to meet so many people is fun and interesting. And part of my job is to put people at their ease, so there are always a few laughs involved. And laughing is medically proven to be good for you, so me and my clients are reaping health benefits too, right?

Now if you’re a business wanting to get away from the look of the business clone offered by iStockphoto, apart from a few minutes of your colleagues’ time as they sit for their portraits (this can take as little as 10 minutes!) the only other things I need are somewhere to park (as close to the office as possible is ideal as there is a fair bit of kit to carry in) and a spare meeting room.

a portable studio lighting set-up in an office

A decent-sized meeting room is perfect

I’ve included a photo of a typical set-up to give you some idea of the kind of space I need. It isn’t a huge amount, but it helps if tables can be moved and chairs tend to fill a room up pretty well, so if they can be taken out before the shoot this is really helpful.

The distance between myself and the sitter is usually less than 2 metres, and I need enough width to get a decent space between the lighting heads, but again 2 or 3 metres tops is ample.

All my equipment is battery powered, so no need to be near power sockets. In fact I was doing a portrait session in an office in Edinburgh last year when there was an unexpected power cut. Since none of the staff could get on with their work, I was able to work on through the list of names pretty efficiently.

So there you have it, if you use portraits on your website, in brochures or pitch documents, there’s no need to believe that getting proper shots of your people will be a massive logistical nightmare. If you’re still not sure, why not get in touch and I’ll be happy to tell you more about the practicalities and fees.

Flash of Inspiration

It’s not often you’ll see me writing about kit because the main intention of this blog is to give an inside peek at my work, air issues surrounding the photographic industry and waffle on a bit about things which interest me. One thing this blog isn’t obsessed with is kit because I’m not obsessed with it.

If I invest in equipment it has to be for a particular, business-related reason. I choose kit carefully and with a sensible head because there is so much lovely gear out there I could squander my cash on with no real benefit either to my clients or myself.

Once in a while though I review what I have, and kit does eventually wear out naturally so I need to see what might need replacing or updating. I have no problem with using old kit provided it works and isn’t letting me down on assignments. Sometimes investment is required for a particular project and that’s another time I look to see if buying the kit will have benefits beyond the single project, or whether I can rent the kit I need without committing to buy.

A few months ago I was commissioned to shoot a couple of hundred portraits at various locations, and while I have portable studio lighting it is quite heavy and unwieldy to transport. At the same time I knew my Canon flashes were coming to the end of their natural lives, being several years old and a few models older than the current ones. I took the plunge and decided it was time to invest in new flashguns and, due to changes in the technology, adjust the way I worked.

What I hadn’t appreciated is just how much the investment would help when dealing with often very awkward situations. Such as having to shoot business portraits in a tiny hotel lounge, crowded with furniture and with limited scope for backdrops. Or helping me create more interesting light when covering a business studies workshop event where I was moving about a lot, in poor ambient light and didn’t want to use direct flash.

One reacent situation in which the new flash kit impressed a great deal was where I was in a very dark lecture theatre at a business seminar with not a lot of space to set up any kind of lighting and had to shoot both the lectern speakers and the audience. I had a single flash on a stand at the back of the auditorium to light the speakers, but it was also enough to bounce light off the projector screen and illuminate the audience (albeit with higher ISO). Taking photos of the audience at a talk where the house lights are turned right down generally results in images which are either grainy, weird colour balance or are downright unusable. I’ve included one here so you can see what my new setup got, and this is just one of several images I was pleased with.


Business people laughing in a lecture theatre setting

The flash is behind the audience, but the projector screen made a great reflector to light the faces.

business students working on a project

Catching unposed images can be difficult, and straight-on flash kills the atmosphere. I liked the “random light” look of this with the flash off to the side.

Portrait of a business man.

Adding softboxes to a flashgun setup allows me to work in much tighter spaces than before.



Did you miss me?

I’m sorry if I’ve been a bit quiet of late, the truth is the last few weeks have been unbelievably busy. For one project I’ve driven 1,300 miles, visiting Bristol, Reading, London, Ipswich, Manchester and Edinburgh with my mobile studio kit to shoot corporate portraits for a new client. Over 160 people photographed within a week and a half and more than 6,800 images shot. These then had to be edited down and processed before delivery to the client within a couple of days. An absolutely mammoth tusk task, on top of which I already had work booked in for other clients upon my return.

Granted this project had some gruelling aspects to it, for example getting stuck on the M25 coming back from Ipswich on a Friday afternoon, in sweltering heat and the air conditioning in my car being kaput. I should probably get that fixed (which will guarantee we don’t have another warm day this year). Or the long drive from Edinburgh to home – broken by a brief visit to my brother in Co Durham, but all the same a long old haul.

Thumbnail portraits displayed in Lightroom's working window

Dealing with several thousand images is no small task

On the other hand, highlights include meeting and photographing about 160 really friendly people. Staying two nights in London in an amazing room at a photographer’s studio with lovely hosts and having some lovely meals when I got time to stop long enough to eat something other than fast food, in particular Hector’s in Stockbridge, Edinburgh where the food and the service were just brilliant. These factors become even more important to the lone traveler.

For a while, at least until the next big project comes along, I should be able to return to something more like my regular routine of corporate communications work, press release photography and business portraits. And you’ll have to get used to me being around again. Thank you for your patience!

Portraits with Personality

One thing I’ve managed not to bang on about for a while is the importance of good quality portrait photos in business, by which I mean genuine photos, well-executed of the people within an organisation, at the very least the key people who need to be the face of the business.

I’m happy to say that fewer businesses and organisations are now using stock imagery as a way to project themselves. Of course it’s still a popular source of images for websites and brochures, but people understand more than ever the importance of including their own personalities in their marketing, but having taken the decision to commission some “real” photography, what other decisions follow from that?

The key decision is what style to go for. A portrait can be formal, informal, serious, light, it can be taken indoors, outdoors, subject looking to camera, subject looking off-camera. There are infinite angles and permutations and most clients want a selection of styles and moods so they have a library of images to call upon for different requirements.

The limiting factor to all this might be how many people need to be photographed within the time available, and how much time each sitter has before they must get back to their desk or their next meeting.

I often find myself allocated a room in which to set up my lights and perhaps a backdrop, but even this basic setup can allow for quite a variety. Outdoors shoots often take longer because the environment is less easily controlled and the location is usually some distance from the office.

It’s important to have a think about the mood and the style of the shots required and the context into which they’ll be published. I’m happy to discuss all this with clients looking for guidance, and of course I’ll talk to their designers too.

Perhaps the most important thing about having portraits done is to remember that these aren’t for the mantlepiece or the family album, they’re for communicating personality and values to clients, which is something stock images cannot do.

I’ve plucked a few random portraits from my archive to give some ideas of what’s possible. There are many more possibilities than I can ever show you.

Portrait of a University of Bath student

Using available light and a white wall

Business portrait taken in Bath

Outdoors, looking off-camera, using the available architecture

business photo taken in Bristol

Standard business portrait in colour taken using lights and a backdrop

Black and white business portrait of Jamie Borwick

Black and white, looking off-camera. This was staged to look un-staged

I like a challenge (couldn’t be bothered with a ‘try’ pun)

Last Tuesday I was asked to cover a photo-call on behalf of Premiership Rugby in the build-up to the Rugby 7s final taking place on the Friday.

This was going to be a quick-turnaround job, but the shots also needed to look polished, so I arrived in plenty of time to set up portable strobes on the rugby pitch at the Bath Rec (recreation ground, home to Bath Rugby Club) and have the trophy arranged so that when the team captains came down for the photo, I’d be good and ready.

The shoot list required pictures for the website, a shot for each of the captains’ home newspapers (consisting of a group shot each, with each captain taking it in turns to be nearest the cup and then individual captains with the cup), and a programme cover. I probably had less than half an hour to shoot the whole thing, including time for the photographer from The Bath Chronicle to get his shots too.

Having got all the shots I needed, I got the images onto my laptop, captioned, edited and sent off to the agency that was going to deal with the distribution of the images to all concerned. From starting the shoot to delivering the images was about 2 hours.

Premiership Rugby 7s Final web page

The website was updated with the new group photo of the team captains with the cup.

Despite the rain, the shots turned out fine and the Premiership Rugby website was updated with the new group photo and the regional papers all had the shots they needed. And on Friday when I arrived to cover the corporate hospitality aspect of the event, there was the programme with my cover shot on it. It’s challenges like that which get the adrenaline going and keep me keen. More please 🙂

Rugby 7s Final programme cover

I photographed the players, but you might detect some Photoshop work in the background…

Case Study: Business Portrait Consistency

contact sheet of business portraits

Reasonable consistency across different sites is possible with the right set up and approach.

A recent commission, spread over a number of days, consisted of corporate portraits of around 50 partners and staff in accountancy firm Moore Stephens.

Simple enough, apart from three considerations: Firstly the portraits all needed the same look, secondly the staff are spread across five office sites (Salisbury, Chichester, Newport, Southampton and Guildford) and finally the style needed to match that which I’d established with the client on a shoot which happened over a year ago.

The first task then was to pull the previous headshots from my archive and double check the look and lighting of them. That’s easy enough, and I remembered what setup I’d used so simply had to replicate that for the new shots.

The simplicity of that setup also made it easier to replicate it across the sites. This was handy because different offices have different amounts of space for me to work in, so compact is good.

Different offices will also have different kinds of lighting in them, and different amounts of daylight. Really I needed to kill the daylight and ceiling lights, and set up using my portable studio lighting so that again the look would remain as consistent as possible.

I’d previously chosen quite a flat, “airy” kind of lighting because as nice as it is to use dramatic side-lighting, it can be a lot less flattering. And while everyone at Moore Stephens is attractive in person, I have to consider how they’ll look in a photo.

With corporate portraits I often emphasise to the client that these photos aren’t meant to flatter them or look good on the mantlepiece, their purpose is to make them look friendly and professional to their existing and potential clients. Even so, when shooting dozens of headshots while trying to keep people tied up for as little time as possible, the set-up I used ensured that the pictures are consistent, as flattering as they need to be and simple to execute.

Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and so far I’ve had some very complimentary comments about how it all turned out.

If you have a lot of people in your business that need to be photographed, it’s worth thinking about how the look you want will translate into images which can be replicated for other staff at other sites, and how well that look will suit the people being photographed. And if it all gets too complicated, this will affect how easy it is to get everyone photographed in a sensible amount of time.

Photo case study: Location portrait.

I’ve written before on the subject of Photoshop, the pitfalls, dangers and terrors, but “meh”, nobody listened so I thought I’d show a recent example of where I have used some photo manipulation to benefit the final photo.

You see when I shoot for corporate clients, I prefer to get things pretty much spot-on in the camera, rather than taking any old muzzy smudge and hoping I can sort it all out later on the ‘puter. I have heard tales of “professional” photographers who work this way, and it tends to end in tears and a lot of wasted CEO/staff time, not to mention the wasted marketing budget, because by the time somebody has spotted that the Emperor’s new clothes are in fact a figment of the imagination, the cheeky little monkey with the winning smile and the expensive looking camera has caught the next plane to Rio with the company cheque already safely banked.

I digress; back to Photoshop, or to use the verb form, “photoshopping”. Not to be confused with the act of shopping for photos.

In the case where I was asked to get a website cover shot for Clucas Communications the brief was to get a double portrait of Peter and Sibylle Clucas against a white background so the designer could either leave the subjects against white or undertake a cutout more easily. In the event the final shot is used as a cutout against a white page, which works well.

That would seem easy enough, except that the shooting conditions were tricky (to get enough space we ended up setting up the shot outdoors with portable background and lights), so these were not perfect studio conditions. My one compromise then was that I knew I could get the background white-ish, but it wouldn’t be fully white as if we were in the studio with perfect lighting.

Below are the results, and the sharp-eyed among (amongst? amo amas amat?) you will notice that pretty much all I’ve done is go at the background with the dodge tool to lighten the highlights (only affecting those areas which are already almost white) to achieve a perfect whiteness any soap manufacturer would be proud of.


before and after photoshop examples of corporate portraits

Spot the difference. Can't see it? Oh well...

And despite the fact that most weeks I’ll have to listen to some smart Alec or Alice telling me what I can fix in Photoshop, I still stick to the principle that for my work, Photoshop is great for removing the dust spots that are the curse of the digital SLR and correcting the odd colour cast and generally preparing an image so that it is technically viable for either print or web. I’m not going to make a rainy day sunny, or drop the Taj Mahal into the background to make the view from your office window look more interesting. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll be wanting a different breed of photographer. One that will probably be in Brazil by the time you realise those “interesting” photos are in fact junk.

What price a portrait?

corporate portrait of businessman in Bristol

A corporate portrait can be more than a mugshot.

I should start by explaining that this article isn’t talking about family portraits or photos for the mantelpiece. What I’m talking about here is the business portrait. The corporate headshot for the profile page of a commercial website, newsletter or chairman’s statement in the annual report.

Why is this distinction important? Mainly for licensing reasons. If you go to a high street photographic studio and have photos taken you will probably pay about £30 for a sitting, and £100 for a print to hang on the wall. And personal use is all you’ll be allowed of that photo. Commercial use would require payment of an extra fee, and I suspect most studios wouldn’t be happy handing over an original digital file for that use as you could then get your own reprints done, which would of course breach the photographer’s copyright.

When you have a photographer visit your offices to take portraits for the company website/brochure etc, you’re not paying for prints for personal use (though you can probably buy those if you want), instead you’re paying a licence fee to use the images for corporate use. This is a different kind of agreement with the photographer and the pricing structure is different.

Of course if you book a photographer and then just have a single headhsot done, it can work out relatively expensive. Perhaps £250 to get a small selection of images for use across various media. But if you line up a few headshots to be taken at the same time, the cost will rise but the individual price for each headshot will drop quite dramatically.

It’s often quite difficult to explain this concept to clients who will say “well it’s only some portraits, they shouldn’t take long.” The thing is, in commercial and corporate photography, it isn’t just the time taken to get the shots that you’re being charged for, but also the commercial (as opposed to domestic) value of the photos. Remember, these photos are part of your marketing, and hopefully will help your business make more money. They may not be used as prominently as your product shots, or general photos of your business operation, but they’re all part of the mix and to have any value to your business, they have to be good. Which requires skill, time and equipment to achieve.

In short, you need to give the humble head and shoulders photo some respect and also understand that what you’re paying for is a combination of the photographer’s skill, experience and time on the commission, as well as a fee for the commercial exploitation of the results.

And what is that worth? As I said earlier, if you hire a photographer to take just one headshot you could easily pay £250 for that, maybe more. Get a batch of portraits done in half a day and the rate might rise to around £500, but if 10 portraits are done, that works out at £50 per head. That’s less than you’d pay for a 10-inch print to hang on your wall at home, and your clients can’t even see that photo. Unless they’ve broken into your house.