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