A Paradigm Shift in Portraits

At the risk of stating the obvious, the C word is creating difficulties for all kinds of businesses, but what’s been making the news agenda this week is the problems caused by the new home-working paradigm.

For all the benefits to office workers who no longer have a daily commute, the businesses relying on the office economy, from landlords to sandwich vendors, are in trouble.

Even with some hope of an end to the mass contagion of a couple of months ago, it’s not as if there are many signs that businesses and their staff are clamouring to return to the old ways of working.

So if you’ll indulge me to be somewhat selfish for a moment, this has a knock-on effect for my trade too.

When deciding to update a website with fresh office photography, most of my clients will choose a date when the majority of their staff are in. Not only does this mean I can get shots of a busy office, but I’ll also get fresh head shots of as many people as possible in a single visit.

That is no longer (necessarily) possible. If businesses are only inviting small teams in at any given time, there might never be an opportunity to photograph enough people to make a session viable, unless some new thinking is employed. That’s what I’d like to set out here.

Consider The New Normal.

Low-key portrait of a young female architectural assistant wearing glasses, looking directly into camera, not smile.

Simplicity is powerful.

Things have to change, at least for the foreseeable future, possibly forever. This means I have to work smarter and differently, and clients have to understand the new constraints in the round.

Traditionally, if a client required a series of headshots against white (grey, or black, but usually white), I would hoof several bags of kit plus an unwieldy backdrop into the office. This might involve multiple trips to/from the car, or a client would help carry my kit in.

This isn’t ideal when you have multiple doors, lifts and other obstacles to tackle and heightens the risk of cross-contamination.

So perhaps a change of approach is needed: I can work more nimbly if all I need is basic kit and no backdrop. Perhaps the age of the headshot against white is over. It will enforce a wider change in look and feel to the portraits too, but is that necessarily a bad thing?

If done with skill and care, a new style can look just as professional.

A New Honesty About Costs.

Ouch, but wait: A photographer can make multiple trips to an office in order to capture all the colleagues in smaller sessions, but inevitably this increases cost. Well perhaps this just requires an adjustment in perception. Photography has been cheap as chips for many years now, so perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate budgets and accept it may never be as cheap again.

Alternatively, to keep costs down, be more selective about who ends up on the About Us page. Ask the question, “Who needs to be visible?” Occasionally I’ve felt as if I’m photographing people just so they don’t feel left out or under-valued. Sometimes I’ve felt this was more a concern of the client than it was of the person standing in front of me who I’m working to relax out of an expression of “I hate having my picture taken, so why am I included in this?” Think about who really needs to appear in corporate communications.

Combining the new normal with an acceptance of higher cost (or being more selective), it’s worth considering that if people are going to work from home more, perhaps that’s where their portraits need to be taken.

Does your corporate imagery have to pretend people are working in an office building when they’re not? It’s also possible, through either photographic or post-production techniques, to diminish the domestic influence in the photograph and create a consistent look across all the portraits even where multiple locations are involved.

I can even bring a backdrop into the home if needed. It’s often easier than getting it into an office building.

Again this has cost implications, but are they insurmountable? By being selective and canny, I think costs can be kept reasonable.

The Bottom Line

The “bottom line” isn’t the bottom line. It’s worth remembering that powerful, engaging photography for your business isn’t about Value for Money, it’s about quality and aesthetics. As un-measurable as that might seem, that is what will help sell your services.

All of this starts with creative conversations, so talk to me. Let me know what you’re trying to achieve and I’ll help you achieve it in the best way possible.

Sweet Luxury

The other day I was asked to come into a business in Bristol to undertake a portrait session so members of staff could post to Twitter and LinkedIn with fresh, up-to-date (and importantly, professionally-taken) profile photos.

The pictures were taken at the end of an in-house social media training seminar, and I suspect this helped convince attendees of the importance of a decent avatar portrait. I believe this kind of training is an excellent idea for businesses wanting their staff to help promote the brand on online platforms, and of course a clean, clear profile photo gives their posts greater gravitas.

What made it for me though, apart from the lovely welcoming people I got to work with, was the huge amount of space I was given to work in.

If your business has just taken over larger premises and you haven’t quite expanded into it just yet, take the opportunity to make headway on your headshots. While the entire office isn’t crammed with furniture and people, it makes a great space to work in and I can light the portraits better than if I’m shoehorned into a stationery cupboard, or a board room with an immovable table filling it.

Of course once you’ve filled the space, I’ll need to come back to photograph all the newly appointed team members. Don’t worry though, as long as there is room enough, I can make the lighting work. It’s just so much nicer when there’s space a-plenty.

 

Space – Time Continuum

A recent experience reminded me once again of the importance of two particular aspects of a corporate portrait photography session, namely space and time. In fact as these two elements are inextricably linked, we can refer to them as a continuum.

Setting aside the fourth dimension for a moment, on this particular occasion I was shown into a vast board room, which would have been perfect except it was mostly filled with immobile boardroom furniture; massive table and countless chairs. At the same time I was told I could only have the room for half an hour, which is approximately how long it would have taken me to set up the lighting kit even if there had been space to do so.

This would have left no time for any photography to happen, let lone the two hours I was booked for. A continuum conundrum, no less.

Thankfully we were able to find an alternative room which, though smaller, had much more clear floor space. It was also available for two hours, which was just about enough – not perfect, as I was booked for three (and could happily have filled them with the shots listed as required), but better than zero minutes by quite a considerable percentage.

Of course when you’re setting up a photo session, coordinating the schedules of everyone involved is often a headache, but it’s worth thinking of the room and the time required as if they were two more people in the schedule. If a room or the time in that room are unavailable, it’s a no-goer.

The time required will depend on how many people are to be photographed and the brief to which I’ll be working (more varieties of poses etc will obviously require more time) and at least 30 minute’s set-up and break-down time should be factored either side of the session.

How much space is needed will depend on whether it’s close head shots or full-length portraits required (full-length requires a great deal more space), but as a rule of thumb for headshots, you need to allow approximately 2.5 – 3m width x 3m length (length being the distance between where I’ll stand and the next wall or immobile obstacle).

This is approximate, but it is a realistic guide. You can easily add another couple of metres to the length for full-length portraits.

The photo on this article shows an example of where I’ve had more space than I knew what to do with (it was in fact one half of a hotel ballroom!), but seeing the set-up gives you some notion of how that space is used.

So remember, when you’re booking all the executives and colleagues for that all-important photo session, don’t forget to plan the room and ring-fence the time. Without those two elements, the space – time continuum breaks down and everything else becomes academic.

Gimme Some Room!

Much of my business photography consists of taking portraits of, rather predictably, business people. So far so good.

This pretty much always happens at their place of work because that means less disruption to their busy schedule and I can create a set of portraits covering all the colleagues that happen to be in the building that day. Still so far so good.

Where “so far so good” becomes “ummm” is when I’m shown into a meeting room/stationery cupboard which is so crammed with immobile tables and heavy chairs/stationery that I have no space to actually take pictures.

I do make a point of requesting a space roughly 10 foot square, but sometimes the message gets lost or it’s assumed the boardroom table can be moved when I get there. More commonly now, tables are cabled to the floor with telephone and computer wires, which will only stretch so far before they go PING! and the IT department has to be called in.

So to say I was utterly delighted with the space I was given this week is an understatement – half a ballroom in a hotel. All to myself, with nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing taking up floor space. In fact I had to pull a small table into the room so I could check off peoples’ names as I went without having to squat on the floor.

A photographer's backdrop and studio flash equipment are set up in a large empty room in the Hilton, Walcot Street, Bath, UK

A great space for portraits

I thoroughly enjoyed setting up my backdrop and lights slap bang in the middle of the space. It gave the whole thing a slightly surreal air and the people who came in to have their photos taken were astonished that the room they’d been assigned for their meeting was so much smaller than the one reserved for me.

Of course the ballroom wouldn’t have worked for them because they needed AV and a projector for their presentations which the ballroom didn’t have, but it did make me feel very special and it also meant I had bags of room to control how the lights lit the backdrop and the sitters. It meant I could work towards a very particular look without too much difficulty.

Ok, not the most exciting tale in the world, and it’s not as if I’ll be dining out on that one ever, but it’s a fine illustration of how giving the photographer ample space to work will not only make their life easier, it’ll also mean they can work to achieve more accurate results in-camera and ensure that so far so good endures right through to “that’s a wrap”.

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.

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.