Corporate Portraits. Industrial Strength Imaging for Commerce.

I photographed Ross for his work. We should all have good "work" portraits.
In many cases they are the first impression we make with future clients.

As I cruise the web I look at the avatars on LinkedIn and Facebook. When I'm researching an industry I pay careful attention to the way corporate officers are portrayed on company websites and collateral. In many cases, when the copy screams at me, "We're hip and modern and of the moment!" the portraits are screaming at me, "Oh my God, this company is trapped in the 1970's." Or, at best, the 1980's.

I looked at a site recently and you could tell the eye and hand of a competent designer paid attention to the front page graphics and the trendy, hipster-inflected selling images but you could also tell that he or she was not invited to the corporate officers' portrait sessions. From the look of some of the images you could conjecture that the young designer wasn't born at the time of the shutter click.

Other sites, which are there to attract the attention of other businesses (B to B), are so casual with their photographs that one has to wonder whether or not they just rounded up the current executive leadership team's driver's licenses and had a go at the color Zerox machines.

Corporations spend big bucks  commissioning ad agencies to create a look and feel for their companies. Part of making "look and feel" work is consistency in application. And you can see it in every aspect of most Fortune 500 companies...except when it comes to portraits. At some point perhaps the key staff must have been exhausted from making sure their underlings followed the style books when creating order forms or overseeing advertising. Whatever the excuse you consistently find a hodge podge of images. Some look like classic 1950's portraits with august and sonorous poses and techniques that came from the Eisenhower years. The portrait right next to that might have been taken of its victim at a party with a Polaroid camera. Maybe an SX-70. Then a sprinkling of front lit iPhone attempts followed by a few party candids and a shot that some executive has been dragging from job to job since the Bee Gees were hot.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by corporations to put their best foot forward and to make a good first impression (and that's just the website) meanly sabotaged by the rankest photography. It's enough to make my eyes bleed.

So, here are my rules for companies:

1. Your images should be consistent from person to person. All the executives should look like they are playing on the same team.

2. Colored backgrounds are tough to pull off. Stick with white or some shade of gray. Neutral goes out of style slower than almost everything else.

3. You'll usually only get busy execs to play ball with you once in a full moon. Don't do amazingly tricky and trendy lighting because when it gets like old fish or older cheese you'll wish you'd been a little less......of the moment.

4. We're all done with haloed spots behind people's heads. Yes, I know. I'm as guilty as anyone else but it needs to stop for about a generation.

5. I make it a rule to never mix flora and fauna. A houseplant or fern doesn't say, "In Charge!" any more than it says, "How cool and innovative." An portrait in front of landscaping might work for senior portrait but the disconnection between nature and people who spend all day, every day in offices or going to and from interior location is.....to jarring, unnatural and anachronistic.

6. Since you are going for a consistent look it might be a really good idea to ask the subjects to do likewise. You don't want one guy in a nice suit next to the guy in the Hawaiian shirt anymore than you want the woman in the gypsy shawl next to the woman in a black suit.

7. When you are photographing these people remember point #3. They don't do this very often. That means they are self conscious. Give them time to settle in and for Goodness sake, throw everyone else out of the room so they don't say things and make faces and generally goad your subject into grinning like a stupid monkey. Or even a smart monkey.

8. Don't let executives see everything you shot. It's a variant of Murphy's law that most people will pick the worst thing you show them. Edit down to the top ten or five or three. Pretend that nothing else came out. Just don't ever fall for the demand to show them EVERYTHING. Believe me, they'll pick you apart and leave you questioning your competence.

9. If you can't get to everyone who will be in the brochure or on the website it's usually because the unattainable ones live in another city. Convince the company to send you there. Convince them that continuity is gold. Or golden. Or necessary. It's your sell, you figure it out.

(But in these days of micro budgets and small visions don't think they'll always go for it.....)

10.  If there are people in other cities who need to be photographed do this: Make careful diagrams of your lighting set up. Seriously, measure the distances from the subjects and heights of  lights and the distance to the background and the exact color name of the background and help the client come to the conclusion that they should instruct all the other photographers in all the other cities to follow your lead exactly. Then you and your client will have a fighting chance at coming up with something that will return value and stand the test of time.

technical notes: camera: Sony Nex7. Lens: Sony 50mm 1.8 OSS. Light: Elinchrom Electronic Flash in five foot octabank. 


Joe Gilbert said...

Tiny camera, big light.. Sounds like the ingredients of a delicious photon pie. Jesting aside, I believe the small camera allows the subject to connect better with the photographer.

Anonymous said...


Of all the portraits you post on here, the one above is the first that screams "digital" to me. You, I think generally overcome that "thing". Film carries the illusion of the 3rd dimension better than digital in most cases - my thinking. This can generally be overcome/corrected with some good lighting if working in the studio. Outdoors it can get tricky.

Of course,I don't want to over look that maybe you wanted the "digital look" for this "now" Corp.?


Craig Yuill said...

The photo you posted is indeed all business. The subject comes across as a person who should be taken seriously. But I am curious about why you used a flash unit for this shot rather than LED panels, which you seem to be favoring these days for portraits. Do you reserve the LED panels for personal portraits and use the flash for the business portraits?

Kirk Tuck said...

Craig, here's the deal. I own a bunch of different lighting gear. I've been on a tear with the LEDs for months. I just wanted a change. I circled back to a technique I've used for years. Just to mix things up. Tomorrow I head out to work with an Oncology Practice all morning. Portraits and clinic stuff. Some interiors thrown in. I packed four LED panels, two flashes and a Lowell VIP tungsten light. I have no idea what I'll pull out of the roller case until I get there.

Also, I usually use the Sony a99 full frame camera for commercial stuff but tonight I've just packed two Nex7's and a Nex6 for tomorrow, with a rich assortment of lenses. It's fun to mix it up.

Now I'm looking at a stack of tripods and trying to decide: Do I bring a "right sized" tripod for the Nex cameras? Maybe a little carbon fiber Gitzo? Or do I bring a series 500 that I used to use for 8x10 and put the Nex on that? Which, ultimately, would be more fun?

Kirk Tuck said...

I disagree that it looks digital. It looks like corporate portraits right now. Softer shadows, less contrast and a bit more post on skin tone. Maybe that's what you are responding to...

If I cranked in some contrast and added a little bit of noise.... But that's not what they want for this. It's got to work tiny as well as normal size.

M. G. Van Drunen said...

Given that humans come in a seemingly infinite range of skin colors how do you decide on the proper balance for "flesh" tones? (No matter if the people are white, black, Asian or whatever.) To me, that's one of the largest challenges of post-processing portrait work. The flesh tones on Ross look great on my monitor which is calibrated with a Colorvision Spyder2 every 30 days.

M. G. Van Drunen said...

PS. I understand setting white balance but even with the same white balance setting used from person to person... some people just look wrong somehow. M.G.

Lianna said...

It is a true fact that a portrait one represents can make us predict his character very well. So make sure that it is in a corporate level. It is not just with the type of camera we use but depends on the physical appearance and facial expressions. It can categorize a person, whoever it may be, a corporate lawyer or a physician.

ODL Designs said...

Great post Kirk, you always get me thinking! As you probably know in the design world we have Standards manuals. For brands, for communication pieces and recently a client sent over their image standards which covered everything from lighting, angles, DoF descriptions, all the way to the specific hue they wanted the metals of their product. All in all it was about 15 pages with diagrams and examples.

It is interesting you talking about communicating consistency for the company, for the last 4 hours I have been in touch with a photographer on the other side of thr world to try to get 2 portraits from him that match 13 we have here... It has been a bit of a challenge even with a photo and description of the setup to guide him. About 5 minutes ago the proof looked fine, and I am off to bed, but I thought a quick read of your blog to get the brain cooled off and relaxed :)

Offering a solid imaging standards manual could be an interesting add on to your sales to larger corporations, consistency has never been so important as it is today.


Howard said...

Was there any consideration to crop square?

Anonymous said...

When you use a flash with an NEX system, how do you get the electronic VF to gain up for the flash? When I use external flashes, as soon as I turn the ISO to 100, the screen and VF go so dark that I lose the ability to "pre-chimp" the lighting.

John Krumm said...

A pink tie in Texas... I suppose it is Austin. : )

Keith I. said...

I can only speak for the 7 and A99, you can set the viewfinder "effect" to off. This will make is work more as a OVF. That is what I use when using flash.

Kirk Tuck said...

The option is always there.

Kirk Tuck said...

Keith, that is correct. Setting effect gets turned to "off" then the finder is always trying to project a correctly exposed image for you to work with in composition, etc.

Kirk Tuck said...

No pink ties in your closet? Hmmmm. Almost mandatory fashion statement in Austin this year... Looks nicer in the portrait that a cold, blue one...

Kirk Tuck said...

Someone with a really bad monitor calibration made a comment. It's gone now.

Charles Quinn said...

Great post, Kirk. I recently researched several Fortune 100 corporate web sites to see what the latest look is for ultra expensive headshots. None of the corporations I researched had high quality headshots with consistent styling from one person to the next. I was quite shocked.


jason gold said...

The portrait so perfect.
These portrait sitting are the hardest.
Separates the snappers from the pros.
It looks easy. It ain't..
Quite a few i had to re-do....

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the tip. I actually did read the manual, but somehow missed that.