Today I spoke at a Society for Marketing Professionals, Lunch and Learn session. We talked about how to leverage good portraits in the Enterprise space. (Written a few weeks ago...)

I wrote an outline for the presentation and within the outline was section called, How clients screw up portrait sessions. The marketing folks were intrigued so I thought I would share it here now.

The idea is that companies go to a lot of trouble and spend good money setting up on location portrait sessions for their executives and key personnel. They bring good photographers onto the location and they proceed to hobble the whole process through a series of missteps and erroneous assumptions.

Here's what I know:

1. Too Small. I'm not talking about format size or focal length here, I'm talking about the fact that after talking all about things like shallow depth of field and large, soft light sources the photographer walks through the front door of the business and is ushered into a microscopic conference room. By microscopic I mean something like 10 feet by 12 feet with ceiling heights that must be the minimum which city codes allow. As the client is saying, "I hope this room will work. It's a crazy day around here today. We have clients in town and it's the only conference room we have available." you are wondering where you can put the lights and what to do with the conference room table that takes up over half the floor space. And that table? It weighs a ton.

You hear the client again and she's now saying, "So can we do that technique where the background goes completely out of focus and we don't even see what's on that white board right behind the subject???"  You look for your 85mm f.009 lens but then you realize it never got invented.

2. Scouting that presumes daylight never changes. Or traffic. Over the years you learn that every location needs to be scouted. But every once in a while you drop the ball---or the client is so tight on budget that they only can afford for you to start your car twice. Once to drive to their preferred location and once to drive back to the studio. And if you could take the bus they'd love it.

I learned again the hard way. The client raved about the really nice lighting and the sweet background she saw for the location she scouted. But when we showed up the location was in full sun with shadows from the sparse foliage of the almost dead tree dappling the entire scene. The sweet background area was totally backlit by this point and the area filled with cars.

I asked the art director when she scouted it. Seems like it did look pretty nice about four weeks ago in the early morning. Before daylight savings time. She got to work the morning morning she scouted at 7:30 am but our shoot with people is scheduled at 9:30 am today. The cure? Bag the whole thing and remember to do your own scouting next time.  Or get the scrims out and the big flash and the big reflectors and go to town. But it won't look like Waldon Pond no matter how good your technique.

3. Location Greed.  This one is probably partially your fault. You were talking to the A.D. about the backgrounds and maybe you suggested that more than one background would be useful to keep everything from looking too homogenous. You were thinking maybe two or three different locations with different backgrounds that could all be rendered out of focus. If you shot twelve people during the day you'd have four in each location and the variation would be nice while the style of shooting would surely tie everything together, aesthetically.

Your client took the idea and ran with it. If a little is good then more must better, would be the thought process. She's figuring that if changing backgrounds makes everything better than we might as well change for all twelve images. Doesn't really matter to them if the location only has three good, different views. That's surely your problem and not theirs. Hmmm. Twelve different portrait set-ups. That will sure keep you moving all day long.....

There's no cure for this one. You have to kill it in the planning or scouting stages. Otherwise you are doomed to a day of dragging gear and people around and around.

4. Massive wardrobe malfunctions. It all sounded so wrapped up when the client asked you for suggestions for wardrobe. It's a big corporation, most of their clients live in the northeastern U.S. and wear button down shirts and leather shoes with laces. Everyone agreed that coat and tie for men and smart business outfits for women would be the safe way to go. You talked about shying away from trendy fashions and loud colors, talked about the issues that might jump up with detailed patterns in clothing, even remembered to ask that the men shave a couple hours before their portrait sessions and then the day arrives and the CEO has forgotten to wear a suit but thinks the promotional, logo-ed polo shirt might just cut it. Angie in accounting has decided it would be a good day for a bright magenta blouse. Hedrick in customer support is in his third day of growing a quite "iffy" and uneven beard. Joe in legal is wearing a light colored suite with a herringbone pattern that's so defined it's already moire-ing before you've even looked through the lens. The CTO is wearing the awkward, shiny dress shirt in which he slept; for the second night in a row.

Although we stressed consistency in the memo we've got some execs who feel like a T-shirt makes any suit sparkle and others who just gave up and wore just the staid but ill-fitting white shirt with no tie and no jacket. Althea in H.R. spent the lunch hour crying and comes in with eyeliner drooling down her face and that guy in programming has on his Fantastic Four T-shirt over his long sleeve thermal.

While everyone else is happy to be photographed in front of the stark background we all chose together there's always that one key executive who read somewhere that outdoor photographs are all the rage and demands that he alone be allowed to do his "headshot" in the little patch of nature given over to the people who still go outside to smoke cigarettes. It's cold. He wants to wear his down vest...

And there is absolutely nothing you can do about any of this. You deliver a web gallery and wait as each person in each corporate silo contacts you individually in order to get a "private appointment" to re-do their image at your place. Just make sure you process their credit cards in advance...

5. Changing direction after the fact.  "Every photo we want taken is to be used on the web as a horizontal. I want to make sure you give me landscape images, okay?!" Asks your direct contact. You nod in agreement and as you shoot images all day long you marvel at how cool everything looks at a horizontal with some "air" around the people. It's a nice look. The web designer is happy and starts using the images all over the website. And then the nonsense starts. First off it's the assistant to the CEO who is calling to complain that when they "right clicked" on the CEO's image on the website and cropped it vertically and re-sized it to run on the cover of their printed annual report the image looked "all digital and blocky." Can you fix it right away?

Remember the long discussion with the guy who wanted his "headshot" done in the smoking gardens? Well now he would like his shot to match those of the rest of the senior executives. Can you just drop in a new background? And make the lighting on his face match?  At the same time five of the execs saw the image you did in the smoking gardens and would like to have the stark background dropped out and a "nice, garden-y" background dropped in to their photos. And could you make the light on their faces match.

"Ooops. That group shot where we asked for full lengths of all the people? Right? Well wouldn't you know that Bruce wore brown pants with a blue jacket and he wore brown shoes. Could you change the pants to black, lighten his jacket for some contrast and change the shoes to black?  Since you already have the file open in PhotoShop could you also change a few other pairs of shoes we don't like?"

6. Scheduling Nightmares. If you are an experienced photographer I'm going to guess you'd like about an hour at the location just to unload your vehicle, get the gear inside the building, get to the (hopefully) huge conference room where you'll be shooting and get your lights and backgrounds set up. Right? You probably talked about that with your client far in advance.

But many times we'll arrive and discover that no one has informed security that we'd be there. Even worse, no one has informed security that we would be bringing in cases of equipment. Sometimes it snowballs from there. Your liaison chooses that day to run late. Security can't do anything till they hear from your liaison. Someone finally untangles the security issues and you're frantically pushing that cart full of gear down the long, long hall to the conference room---when you are joined by the marketing director (your contact's boss). He wants to know if you can be set up in five minutes because the CEO's schedule has changed and, well, he wants to be photographed, now!

You rush to get everything set up and to move the furniture around and test whatever you can before the big man steps in for his headshot. You moved mountains and got everything ready as fast as you could and now the big man is a "no show." The original, appointed start time for everyone else arrives and there's still no CEO. You have the regularly scheduled people starting to show up early but the marketing director has everyone in a holding pattern, waiting for the boss of bosses to show. An hour into the holding pattern someone gets a text and the announcement goes out to "stand down." The CEO has re-decided to come at his scheduled time. But your original requestor is now miffed that you are no longer on schedule. You spend the day making up for lost time.

A corollary to this is the time crunch.  When asked about scheduling you let the original requestor know that a good portrait takes time. Everyone is different and getting the right look from some folks (sales people?) can be a quick and easy thing while with others (engineers?) you'll need to work for a while to get a pleasant and natural expression. You ask for 20 or 25 minutes with each person. The first two people to show up are former models as well as professional actors who each hit their marks, flash you the perfect smile and give you thirty frames apiece of real gold. Your requestor takes this two person statistical sample, extrapolates and starts slashing the time for each session down. Then the difficult subjects start to show up. The pathologically shy. The incredibly obese. The relentless blinkers. The "deer in the headlight" people. The "glowing" sweaters.  Suddenly it takes more time to get something good for each new arrival, and again, the requestor is miffed.

There is a variation on this and it's one we don't indulge at all any more. It goes like this: As you get better and better at making portraits you are able to put people at ease, light them and get good images more reliably and you actually can go a bit faster than you might have initially scheduled. This is a good thing because the gaps allow you time to rush to the restroom or grab a bottle of water. The gaps in time which you create through your expertise and experience allow you to double check the work you're doing and continually fine tune stuff. Maybe you even have time to personalize the light for each face! You're bringing value by being good at what you do. If you finish early that means you've saved some valuable time for your client. They can get back to their desk and get more work done and the people who came to sit for portraits can head back to their offices to do more online shopping or other mission critical work.

But some clients don't see efficient expertise as a plus. They have some strange concept in their heads that revolves around the idea that they are just paying for your time. That time elapsed is the only measure of productivity.  If you get done quicker they consider it their mission to find more people to photograph. Many more. Your well planned and well executed shoot devolves into a cattle call. This is something you need to nip in the bud.

With portraits comes the need for lots of post production work. Each person's images will have to be edited, ingested into your system, labelled, globally color corrected and put into a web gallery so someone can select the right frame. Once the frame is selected you might need to do a little or a lot of retouching. I recently retouched a female board member's selected photo and even though I've been working with PhotoShop for several decades it still took the better part of twenty minutes to get just right. If you multiply that by ten or fifteen people you'll easily find that however much time you spend on location you'll spend an equal amount of time in post production. And someone has to pay for that.

We don't charge by the hour anymore. We charge by the person. Add a person and we add a fixed amount to cover our time, usage and post production. There's a minimum charge to go out to a location and set up but after the minimum it's a "per head" charge. If your client understands that it will cost them an additional $XXX for everyone else they put in front of your camera they slow down the gushing pipeline pretty quickly. And if you do finish early you still got everything done you said you would.

I laughed when someone at a corporation I don't work for (and probably never would) told me about a photographer who assured the company's marcom people he could do "a day's worth of portraits for a dayrate of $800." Turnkey. Including "quick retouching of selects." My acquaintance went on to say that the marcom people lined up enough people to form a line that rivaled the lines at an Apple Store on the first day of a new product release. The poor photographer probably shot 60 or 70 people that day, spending a couple of minutes with each person, then spent days and days post processing. It's an unwinnable situation.

7. Privacy and the public theater of getting your headshot done. In the world of medicine they have laws called the HIPA laws that ensure patient privacy. No one will be standing at the door of your hospital room goading you to share your X-rays or to laugh along at your current prognosis. But for some reason the culture at some companies is one that allows employees to stand at the door to your makeshift studio and yell over to Bob from accounting, "Hey Bob, don't break the camera!" "Smile because (fill in the blank)." And yes, the hoary, "Say Cheese!!!"  I guess these folks think that they are helping you get a dignified smile from Bob by making bizarre faces and questioning Bob's sexuality in a very public venue but really it just means we have to get Bob mentally back into the process over and over again.  We try to make it a rule to keep the doors closed and the onlookers to a minimum but when the top guys in the company come in to play "frat house" with each other it can be hard to control. You might want to discuss this with your original requestor. The extra time between sessions also helps to control lingering. H.R. might want to send along a message not to leer at the cute persons of the opposite sex as well. You'd be amazed.....

Clients will be clients but it might be a productive thing to discuss some of these issues with them. Do it nicely and figure out the reward for them at each step. It might make your life easier and your portraits better.

One last piece of advice.... As soon as the last person on your list steps out the door of your makeshift studio start breaking down and packing the gear. Don't stand around and chat with the client. For some reason they can't stand to see the gear set up and ready and no one being photographed. So help me, if you leave it set up they'll keep finding people to stick in front of your camera. If you pack now you might just get out in time to actively participate in rush hour.


Bill Stormont said...

I never did any commercial work, but I got nervous and stressed just reading this. Now I need a drink.

Patrick Dodds said...

Excellent. Funny and spot on. I recently had to shoot a couple of actors in what was, essentially and without exaggeration, an urban cave. After introducing me to the actors in the near darkness the producer said, without missing a beat, "you've got three minutes". I'm glad you shared this - made me feel much better.

Unknown said...

This was awesome.

Kepano said...


Unknown said...

What Bill said. My blood pressure was going up
just reading your (very believable) description.

C. Kurt Holter said...

You have totally nailed all of this. As soon as I read the opening about the room size I knew there was a kindred spirit at the keyboard.

Unknown said...

It's nice to know there are other photographers out there who share my pain.