Myth debunking. The "five minute marathon" with CEO's...

Mr. Rick Ellenberger, former CEO of Cincinnati Bell/Broadwing.

I've read a lot of books and articles by corporate and commercial photographers and there seems to be a pervasive mythology running through many of their narratives about the necessity of being able to do a portrait of a CEO, president, mover and shaker in five minutes or less. Most dress up the story by pushing the time limit to seven minutes just to make it all more believable.  It's almost like a "humble brag" (thanks, Lynn Cartia formerly Missy MWAC).    As in: "I was sweating bullets to photograph the president in four and a half minutes since I'm a pretty slow photographer...."

It's a really fun myth that makes photography seem more daring, the stakes higher, the drama more dramatic. At stake is the reputation and career of the poor photographer, exposed to the vagaries of everyone else's schedule changes and preferences. It plays well with less experienced photographers because at some point they want to believe that eventually they will develop skills that will allow them to do the super-tightly scheduled shoots that are out of the technical reach of mere mortals. Oh my, a new barrier to entry against the masses with iPhones! The need to meet, greet, photograph and say "goodbye" to the power elite in our society inside supersonic deadlines. A new kind of Olympian.

But I'm feeling like I should do a little debunking because I've been photographing CEOs and governors and even former presidents for about 25 years now and I can count on one and a half hands the times I've had to rush through a shoot and delivery perfection in five minutes or less. 

Sorry, very few of the shoots (even with the very top of the crop) are done spontaneously and instantaneously. Nope. It goes something like this: 

Accept assignment weeks in advance. Scout locations days in advance. Work with art buyers or PR team on the kinds of poses they want to get out of the shoot, how we want the subject to dress, which glasses to wear, what to put in the background and who will do the make-up. Really. This stuff is all lined up so well in advance. Right after the money is discussed and the agreement form is signed. 

In almost every situation in which we photograph a CEO we're asked to do multiple locations and multiple poses/expressions. We generally ask for an hour of "in front of camera" time and end up getting forty five minutes or so. 

After all the details are nailed down in....detail we bring in a crew of assistants and cart loads of lights and modifiers and get to work the day before or the night before the shoot and set up lighting for each location. We have people stand in so we can fine tune the lighting. We put white tape on the floor to indicate where the big man or woman will stand. We even write the f-stop and shutter speed on the tape in each location for quick reference. Every set up is approved before we leave the location and get a good night's sleep. 

On the day of the shoot we get to the location (usually company headquarters or flagship factory) about two hours ahead of time and help the make up person get set up and ready. We double check the lights and make sure the settings haven't drifted as a result of maintenance moving our stuff around. 

We greet the CEO and introduce him to the make-up person all the while confirming his time commitment and our schedule. The PR chief runs interference so the CEO's time with us is not infringed upon by V.P.s and other folks looking for impromptu face time. 

Once the make-up is complete we walk the subject to the first location, pose him, and get to work. Then we smile, say, "We've got this one, we're ahead of schedule, let's move to the next location." If the CEO has spent a lot of time in front of cameras it's actually an easy job. Yes, everyone around him can be filled with stress but if he's experienced and we've practiced a couple hundred times there's not a lot left to chance. 

Thirty to forty-five minutes later we're shaking hands and I'm telling him how great he was in front of camera and what pleasure it has been to work with him. He smiles, says something gracious to the PR director and he's gone. We pack up and go home.

Sometimes plans go out the window and schedules change. We were down in San Antonio making a portrait of the CEO at USAA a few years back. We agreed to do three locations within his office suite in 30 minutes (after set-up and make up) but once we started chatting the CEO and I remembered that we attended high school (rival schools) at the same time in San Antonio and had competed against each other for four years in a row as competitive swimmers. Once we rediscovered the common interest everything changed. Two hours later we did a leisurely pack up, laughed, smiled, shook hands and promised each other we'd stay in touch. 

The times  we've been pressed for time have generally been on editorial assignments and generally where an editor is looking for one perfect shot on a quick deadline with a subject that's been scheduled in a rush. And even then the subjects know that it's to their advantage to do it right.

Photographers who are training clients to expect a five minute miracle are just another obstacle to doing the business correctly for everyone who comes after them. It's a professional encounter, if you need time, it's just professional to ask for it and push back against unrealistic expectations. 

Just my two cents worth. 


Unknown said...

Hi Kirk, Thanks for taking the time out to debunk the 5-min portrait myth. May be you should also do one on how much fashion photographers get paid :-)

Ian Kirk said...

A brilliant insight - I feel all ready to go and shoot some CEO's now!

Cheers Kirk!

TonysVision said...

Thanks for another view behind the curtain. There is so much hype in the photo blogs and other media pushing gear, and photographer's dramatizing their world to attract workshop signups. I'm sure your blog must be unique in providing a view of the real world of one professional photographer. I'm greatly looking forward to another year of your posts.

-- Tony

Anonymous said...

It's refreshing to deal in facts and experience instead of the breathless ego sharing you get from folks on the web with photographer to photographer marketing plans.

Paul Crouse said...

Hi Kirk,
Thanks for honestly describing how the real world works. That is why I keep coming back to read your blog.

Paul Crouse
Kyoto, Japan