The Anatomy of a Corporate Portrait Shoot.

Dell Executive onsite at Dell Headquarters.

When I read various forums about lighting and photography there are presumptions about the way professional work is done that are just plain wrong. When I used to post images as examples in discussions about lighting people would always demand that I post "the set up shots." What they wanted was a step by step photographic build, or instruction manual, of the way the image was constructed. People also wondered, "why didn't you try this, and this and this???" And, of course, the constant assumption that I would have hours to put everything together while a highly paid VP or CEO stands around waiting for me.

Well. Uh. No. When we hit the client's hallowed halls our one intention, with laser like focus, is to get in, get the images we need and then get the hell out before we overstay our welcome.

So, here's how I do executive portraits in 2009. The call comes in from the Vice President's administrative assistant and we begin the planning process. Here are the questions we cover:

1. What kind of images do we need to end up with?

Answer: We need a standard headshot against our regular blue background. Then we'd like a series of images shot across a conference table in our briefing center. On some of these we'd like to do an interview style where he appears to be answering questions for a magazine or other interviewer. Finally, we'd like two or three different environmental shots in our beautiful briefing center.

2. How much time will we have with the executive?

Answer: Can we do all of this in one hour? I'll push for an hour and a half but that's going to be the outside limit.

3. How much earlier can I have access to the locations?

Answer: I can get you into the conference room where we'll do the headshot and the conference table shots about an hour before the VP arrives. Will that work? As to the public areas we'll have to set up and tear down as we go. Sorry.

4. Can you have him bring several suits, several ties and several shirts?

Answer: No problem. What about make up?

My Answer: We'll bring our "Barbie" case and I'll powder him if necessary. I don't think we have time to put him into a standard make up routine.

5. How will the shots be used? What kind of rights license are you looking for?

Answer: We'd like unlimited public relations use for a period of three years. Can you send me an estimate for the shoot?

My Answer: I'll have an estimate to you before the end of the day.

At this point I'll sit down and figure out how I'm going to produce the job. From arrival to the point where I'm loading stuff back in the car. Now my budget is approved and we've set the date and time.

I make sure my assistant has her driver's license with her. They will ask for it at security check in. We meet at my studio at 11am and load all the gear into the Honda Element. We drop by Starbucks for coffee and snacks and then head north to Dell. We discuss the shoot, step by step. We've both done jobs in the conference center before and we have a good working knowledge of the layout and what to expect in terms of existing lighting.

After clearing security and meeting up with our client we head to the conference room with a ton of gear on a cart. We set up a blue background on background stands and put together a standard three light portrait set-up. We always bring our own posing stool for these situtions since high backed conference chairs are horrible for headshots. We test the lighting set up with the assistant sitting in and then, satisfied that we have it nailed we move on to setting up a second set of lights for the conference room table shot. Before we move on to the second lighting set up, however, we pull out the little notebook and jot in the shutter speed, aperture and other settings so we don't have to waste time when the VP sits down.

The conference room table shot calls for a Chimera Lantern (large size) over the table with a Profoto Acute 600b head and pack. The back wall is lit by several shoe mount strobes with home made grid spot adapters. A third gridded, hot shoe flash is used as a hair/rim light. That's an effect I rarely use and I keep it powered way down for a subtle separation. Once these two set ups are in place we go to scout the other locations. Along with our client we decide on three looks in one really great room. Shooting from three different vantage points will give us three completely different looks. We pull out the notebook and I sketch out how we will light it and where the camera and subject will end up.

Our subject shows up right on time and we start moving. We select a suit and tie combination that looks great and he does a quick change in the restrooms down the hall. We get warmed up with the headshot, get to know the guy pretty well during the conference table shots and build a sense of collaboration by showing him the best images from each set up. By the time we get ready to do our environmentals we're all part of one team and everyone's fairly excited about getting the best stuff in our last three shots.

While I was shooting the conference table shots my assistant was tearing down the headshot lighting set up and moving those lights into the first position we'd sketched out in the final area. She's got the lights set and ready, metered and color balanced by the time we finish with the conference room.

The VP, client and I move to the first set up in the new room. I do test shot and quick tweak and then we start in earnest. The real goal in portrait photography is to let the real person come out in the photograph. At least all the good stuff... And in this case our subject was really wonderful. Very engaging and very savvy about the process and what we hoped to get.

After the first set up in our new area I sent the VP off to change clothes so we would have a different wardrobe look. My assistant had wrapped the conference room and we set up the second lighting design for this room. In each position we're shooting fifty or sixty images in order to have a good selection to work with. While I've carefully metered and white balanced using a Lastolite gray target disk I'm still shooting raw because if we've missed anything we're going to have a hard time getting back on this VP's schedule.

As we're finishing our third set up in this location the VP looks at his watch and starts to look a bit...impatient. We're right at the hour we'd been promised. I know we've got a lot of good stuff so we shake hands and he sprints off toward his next tightly timed meeting.

While my assistant begins wrapping equipment I talk over payment schedules and delivery schedules with my client. Then I help with the packing and the load out.

On the way home we discuss the shoot. I'm looking for feedback and she's looking for answers to several technical questions. We hit the studio and unpack all the gear. I write a check to the assistant and sit down to back up the raw files in several places and then fire up Capture One for a first pass editing session.

The stuff looks good. I have a web gallery, with globally corrected images, up for our client inspection and selection and I send her the link before 5pm. Along with an invoice for our services and usage license. This shoot has gone like clockwork. We have enough gear to keep two different set-ups rolling all the time.

We got what the client needed in the time we were given. The next step was finishing out the selected images and delivering tiffs and jpegs. Since we don't know in advance the number of files they'll need we have a la carte pricing for finishing out the raw files. They're generally delivered by FTP.

This job was done with Nikon D700's and assorted Nikon Lenses. Lighting was mostly Profoto Acute 600b's which are battery powered, light and portable to the extreme.

At no time was it either appropriate or feasible to step back and shoot step by step images of our entire set up. The client's needs are primary. That's just good practice and good marketing.

All the best, Kirk


MyVintageCameras said...

Great advice. I never would have expected a step by step shooting guide complete with photo documentation. Clients probably wouldn't appreciate that in most cases. I have a friend that is a commercial photographer,if I want that type of information I'll ask to assist him sometime. As anyone could do if they know the right people.

People have some strange expections sometime, eh?

kirk tuck said...

I think there is a horrifying sense of entitlement on some photography forums. More and more often people aren't asking questions (favors) of more knowledgeable people on the forums, they are DEMANDING information. I suppose people think there is a short cut for experience but why they feel like this information is an inalienable right for them is beyond me.

I think the "free culture" of the web is very dangerous and is destroying differentiation and creativity in hundreds of field that create intellectual property.

Nelson said...

Nice rundown, very insightful post, thanks Kirk. Great example of the value of pre-planning, something we not-yet-pros overlook as we get preoccupied with the nuts and bolds technical stuff.

Dan Fogel said...

I am not a professional photographer, but am a fan of your writing and find it informative. I could see being a pro, but that would involve a career change into what I think is a crowded field.

In reading your writing lately, I have noticed a strong bias against web fora and some of those folks who are on them. While I can agree to a point, I think part of the problem is that many people have never had a mentor and don't really understand how to be mentored. I took a cooking class once from a very successful restaurant owner. He said that at his early jobs, he watched everything and kept his mouth shut. He was learning in the doing and modeling those who were around him. That works great in a "live" setting. I was a lawyer a decade ago and part of the learning was going into court and sitting in the back and watching other lawyers work. Now comes the web as most people's way to learn. How, before the web would I get access to the knowledge of Kirk Tuck or a multitude of others who are great at what they do pre-web? I would sign up for a class or buy your book or hope to learn from someone who had learned from you. But now, I have (to your chagrin, I now suspect) direct access to you. I think there is a balancing act of mentor helping mentee learn and mentee learning how to learn.

Keep up the great work.


matt s. said...


As someone who has never really known a professional photographer well enough to ask questions, I find things like this invaluable. The web is great for learning up to a point and only for people who put in the effort to make it worthwhile. Those who would have made great apprentices prior to the web are still doing so while using the web. Those who would have made lousy apprentices before the internet are still that with the internet.

As usual with your writing, there are a lot of subtle details from which I can glean information besides the main points.

Anonymous said...

My gf is a successful pro photographer with a small niche market. I've seen what she does and how hard she works, occasionally even assisted her - and fully appreciate the work that goes into it. I also see how annoying it is to see every hobbyist with a D3000 and a kit lens pretending to be a pro photographer - and unknowingly undercutting all the pros in the market. When even one or two of those folks offers prints for less than the cost of the paper it is printed on (and free sessions), that really skews expectations out there. I have not seen you write about this - perhaps in your market, shooting high end corporate jobs, that is not an issue. Still, would be curious to read your take on it sometime.

Thanks for the interesting blog!

Lee said...

Thanks for all the insights. I'll be going to be a full time photographer next year and what you write on your blog are really good advice for me to take note.

Radu said...

Thank you very much for posting such a detailed account of a professional job! I'm preparing to become a semi-pro (I have a family and can't afford to completely switch to photography yet) and I find this type of posts invaluable.

I have your first book and consider buying the other two (especially the third) and I am following your blog since you started it. You've given me many insights on what it means to be a pro these days. Thank you for giving away so much information for free! I am among those who really appreciate it!

Mark Coons said...

Another excellent article Kirk, thanks.

David Ingram said...

Kirk, thanks for your excellent post. Very interesting and helpful. Real world info from a guy who has been there and done that.

Mark n Manna said...

As always,your information is detailed and to the point.
I agree that some folks feel entitled...others of us are thankful for the things you share,Kirk.
Thank you.

kirk tuck said...

I love writing stuff about photography. I just hate defending facts with people who are underinformed and overopinionated.....

Thanks for taking time to write. We'll have fun here.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, What I want to know is.
What did you wear ?

kirk tuck said...

Black pants, French blue shirt. Black Street Car lace shoes. A top hat...

kirk tuck said...

two d700's, 24mm-85mm, 70-200, 85 1.4, 60 macro, 12-24mm, two sekonic meters. Two Profoto Acute 600b's each with one head, two Profoto Compact 300 Monolights, various reflectors. Two Nikon Sb-800 flashes. Radio Triggers for everything. Three sizes of softboxes. A softlighter 60" umbrellas, Background stands, blue seamless background paper. Seven light stands, One Gitzo 1436 tripod with ball head, one Gitzo 320 tripod with ballhead. One Chimera Lantern, Two extension cords with splitters, Four 4 GB CF cards, One portable posing stool. Make up kit. Large transport cart. Had an assistant and couldn't make up my mind while I was packing.

DantePasquale said...

Thanks for the post, great reading something non-techie about photography! One question comes to mind, what did you do before you had enough gear to setup for one set while shooting another set? Did you try to bid the job differently, like limit the scope? Or, did you rent/borrow extra gear since the customer had such limited time?
Ciao, Danté

Ray K said...

It is the entitlement generation Kirk, shortcuts and what is yours you owe me thinking. I get pretty fed up as well. I figure I am smart enough to figure it out myself if pointed in the right direction, and in the process maybe learn something I didn't expect. Others I guess don't want it to work that way. Please keep dropping those hints and signposts for those of us that know what they are for.

Washington & Main said...

As a beginning photographer, just want to say thanks for taking the time to write this up.

Dave E. said...

Nice post! Awesome blue walls... imagine having to light them all if they weren't lit? ugggghhh

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a precision shoot. I guess top corporations don't want their top people standing around while a photographer chimps and tweaks and wastes time. I learn something new with every blog you write! Is this kind of stuff in your book?

Anonymous said...

somebody beat me to the "...entitlement generation." sigh. gimme some of that experience you're talking about...forget the shortcut.

Anonymous said...

That concept of tweak less, know what you are doing and ge the shot and move on is straight out of the handbook of any competant pro. The ones that often have issues with this are the amateurs (skilled or not).

Let's take a shot, chimp, one shot, chimp, change the lighting, arrange the furniture, etc... when you are not used to being under the gun of a very short timeline. When people see this, they areclueless, until they are placed in that situation.

However, the side discussion about the "entitlement generation" just hits it right on the head.

You want to know how to do it right? Invest the time, money, practice and earn that level of experience yourself, don't take the lazy way... thats the fast track... to nowhere!!

Justin S. said...

Hi Kirk,

Very informative "inside account" of this type of shoot. Thank you for writing it because one can almost draw on this vicariously and have a point from which to start. I notice that you use Capture One, do you use this for all Raws whether from Nikon or Olympus or do you find that Nikon files require Cap-One in your experience for better output over say LR or (Aperture)?

kirk tuck said...

Cap-One (as you call it) does such a good job with batch sharpening and boosting the lower mid curves on most cameras that, whenever I process in the other programs I long for the snappy, bright look of it. I'm sure I could replicate it with the other programs but........

I do use LR a lot because it's quicker. And 95% as good.

d4n131m3j14 said...

I have to be honest, I really undervalued your comments on flickr before. But now I must say I see you under a new light.
Good reading, I will be watching closely.

Anonymous said...

Every generation always thinks that the new generation is the "entitlement generation". The only way to get by on the web is to ignore the clueless. Someone is always wrong on the internet.

Matt said...

Hi Kirk,

Are you shooting these days with a combination of Nikon -and- Olympus cameras and lenses?

kirk tuck said...

Hey Matt, I've switched over almost totally to the Olympus system. I do have a few favorite Nikon lenses hanging around. The 50mm1.1.2 is one. I also have a Kodak SLR/n camera body that seemed to be more valuable to me than the market in general....