My process for getting portraits selected and delivered to our clients. Let's run through the steps.

©2009 Kirk Tuck.

Regardless of what gear I select for making portraits the portrait session or "sitting" is just part of the overall assignment equation which includes: editing down the number of images, making a global color and tone correction of the first round of selections and then delivering a gallery from which the client(s) will choose their final "keeper." The smoothness of this process, in the eyes of the client, is a critical part of our customer service. 

When I write about my photography business I've alluded to the fact that I am a promiscuous shooter and come home with buckets of images; more than a client might have the time or inclination to wade through. So, I thought this rainy April morning would be a good time to discuss process. 

Let's start at the very beginning. We need to get invited to the party. Then we need to let the client know what the process will be and how much money it will cost them. We have different rates or costs for portraits done in the
studio and for portraits done on location. The clients will get certain usage rights and we will get paid for the license to those rights. These streamlined days mean that our general agreement is in the form of an e-mail, which is acknowledged and agreed to by the client.

Before the day of the shoot we send over an information brief that outlines what we'll be doing. We discuss where we'll be shooting, the kind of look we're trying to get and how the subject should dress. We want the client, if they are not the actual subject, to share this information with the subject in order to get everyone "on the same page." 

In this post I'm going to use a location portrait as an example. Our first discussion about the portrait is about whether we are shooting on location as a convenience for a busy executive, or, because we want to create an "environmental" style portrait that makes use of the look of the location. If it's for convenience sake we may be bringing along the same background and lights we use for that company's regular studio portraits; just replicating our ongoing " corporate look" at a new location. If the client is seeking an environmental portrait then we get the thrill of arriving early enough to scout out a great locations in or around the client location. We did an environmental portrait for a client on Monday. We made use of some great floor to ceiling windows to take advantage of the soft, indirect, natural light and made good use of the long distance from our subject to the natural background. The area behind our subject was dropped into a sweet sea of non-focus while he was in good focus. 

I arrived about an hour and a half before the proposed start time but I had photographed at this sixth floor headquarters location before and had a good idea of where to set up. I used a round diffusion disk, on a tall light stand, to block a light fixture from backlighting our subject with light of a different color temperature than our main source. I used a black, subtractive "fill" from the opposite side of the daylight "main" light to tone down the light reflected from the white wall on the shadow side of the subject. This gave me a pleasing ratio that preserved the modeling of light that makes a portrait work. 

I used a small flash, in a 72 inch umbrella, ten feet behind the camera position and dialed down to about 1/32nd power as a very, very subtle fill. 

Once everything was set up, and the camera was formatted and set for the general lighting level, and custom white balanced, I went searching for the chief operating officer in order to invite him to the set and make him comfortable. I straightened his collar (no ties for this particular company), brushed a speck or two of dust off his jacket and then showed him how I wanted him to stand, and how to angle himself into the optimum flow of the light. 

I walked back to camera position and took a test shot. There were a few little things to fine tune but then we started taking images. I'd shoot three or four images of a look and an expression then stop and chat for a few seconds; making direct eye contact and encouraging my subject with a casual manner. The person I photographed on Monday was a perfect portrait subject. Early middle age, trim and in good physical shape, a quick and personable smile and manner. We joked a bit, he gave me a very natural smile and in very little time we had 75 or 80 frames "in the can." We exchanged business cards and the COO headed back to his office while I struck the lights and camera gear and headed back down the highway to my Fortress of Solitude; aka: the Studio. 

I pulled the gear out of the car and headed in. I opened up Lightroom and inserted the memory card into the computing machine. In Lightroom, in the Library pane, all of the images populate the screen as thumbnails. You can select everything and start ingesting your images into the system or you can go through and look at each thumbnail doing a quick, overall, thumbs up or down on the images on the card. I use this part of the sequence to get rid of massive failures: closed eyes, deer in the headlight eyes, images with the subject caught mid sentence, people accidentally walking through the background, my mis-focus foibles, etc. 

By getting rid of as many non-useable images upfront I save on time and disk space. I only load images into the system that I may end up showing. But this is a coarse search. You could go through one by one but huge raw images take time to render previews which slows down the initial process. 

Once I have the coarse edit done I select two locations in which to save the original files, name the folders and then fill out the blanks for the metadata information and captioning, along with copyright information that is attached to each image. Once this is done I hit the import button and go get coffee. 

After all of the images have imported and Lightroom has created standard previews for everything I go through frame by frame for a tighter edit. I "flag" the images I know I will want to show. On the first pass I might flag as many as half of the images in the folder. Then I stand up, walk around the room, drink some more coffee or call a friend to talk about which lens is the coolest one in all the world. With a little bit of objective space tossed into the mix I go back in to edit tighter. My goal is to narrow a portrait take down to twenty images. I'll go 24 if they are all great. 

Many of you might suggest that I should end up with eight or ten or a dozen but I've found that, given the way I shoot, clients presented with say, ten images immediately ask what happened to all the others I shot. Raising the number of presented images to twenty means that question almost never comes up. It's a number that satisfies their mental assessment.

These twenty images are then color and tone corrected as a group. If you custom white balanced at the shoot this part of the process should be straightforward but you might want to tighten up the contrast or add some punch to the blacks. Now is the time to make some general post processing adjustments aimed at making the images look right at first glance. 

Once I have these twenty keepers I pull the raw files into a folder for a different part of the process. I then select the selections and go into the export menu. I export the images as 6000 pixel wide Jpeg files @ maximum quality, no extra sharpening or processing. I export the Jpegs into the same folder as the selected RAWs and place them in their own subfolder, labelled "Jpegs for gallery." 

I upload these large Jpegs to a gallery, nestled in a client folder, on Smugmug.com; which I have been using since 2005. I currently have 320,000+ images on tap there. In the old days of slow connections and limited bandwidth resources I used the service only to host galleries of reduced size (1600 to 2100 pixels wide) compressed Jpegs. Now that our connections are near the gigabit level I load up larger, relatively low compression files as an extra layer of redundancy. If the studio burns to the ground and my cloud storage goes bankrupt I might still have access to these client files and could deliver usable replacements. 

The files go up and I host them as "private, viewable only by people with a link and a password." 
I send the client the link and the password and they can go through a very straightforward, online gallery which gives them the ability to see each image either as a thumbnail or enlarged to see details. The images are "right click protected" but, for the most part, my corporate customers are different than bargain hunting brides and realize the value of our final steps in post processing a delivery. 

Once we've sent a link we wait. There are different kinds of clients. Some need images quickly and are empowered to select the final frame or frames, even in the case of a CEO sitting. Others seem to have time to make more leisurely selections or want to run the choices by the subject. Eventually they decide and get back to me with an identifying frame number. 

At this point I go back to the original RAW file and work on it. I'm fixing wrinkles we didn't catch in clothing, subduing (but not plasticizing) pores and age lines. Eradicating skin eruptions. Taming sunburns and golf-induced raccoon eyes. I eliminate stray hairs, add some sparkle to eyes, and add local contrast where it might be appreciated. I deliver what I like to think is the absolutely best image I can create through a mix of good original photography and the best of my long, long experience with PhotoShop. 

When I have gotten the image as perfect as I can I save the big Photoshop file in 16 bit into the folder with the original RAWs and then make an assortment of files in different formats and sizes. We always include a full size Tiff and full size Jpeg file along with smaller Jpeg files that can be e-mailed, pulled onto a website, or shared for public relations use. These are all delivered via FTP to the client. These days each client seems to have an FTP application or service they prefer and we confer with them before delivery to make sure we are conforming to their organization's security parameters. 

Finally, the assortment of files also goes into the Raw folder for that job, along with the Jpeg gallery, big Photoshop file and the selected RAWs. I burn two duplicate DVDs of the folder and also duplicate the folder onto a second hard drive for abundant safekeeping. Lately I also append the full size, final Jpeg to the gallery on Smugmug.com. If a client loses their original and I need to be send along a replacement from a remote location, it can be very convenient. 

After the client has had a day or two to evaluate the final images I check in with them via e-mail or by phone and make sure they are satisfied and happy with the image. At this point I created a folded greeting card with an industry relevant photograph on it and send it to them with my sincere "thank you" for their business. The next day I send along an invoice for the amount we agreed upon at the start of the project. 

During a busy season I might have ten or a dozen sessions, in studio and on location, during the course of a week. I use a white board at the studio, next to my desk, to keep my post-production schedules and deadlines top of mind. 

The important thing for me is to do the post production process immediately after the shoot. This means that your assessment of the subject is top of mind and it also means you have fewer opportunities to misplace cards, etc. 

On our Monday assignment I shot at noon, was back in the studio at one, had the images in the gallery online by two and got a frame selection the next morning at 7:45am. The finished flies were FTP'd before lunch and delivery was confirmed shortly afterwards. I mailed the "Thank you" card yesterday at end of day and the invoice goes out this afternoon. Other stuff happens in the spaces in between.....

An interesting side note for me is the intense concentration people show for selecting just the right camera for this kind of portrait work. The reality is that the camera is in use for about 5% of the entire process. Seen objectively, the selection of the right image and correct messaging for the "thank you" card may just be of equal importance. 


Don Karner said...

What a wonderfully informative post. The speed at which you can place all these galleries is amazing to me. I am surprised about the FTP. I think most of my clients would have blank stares if I asked if I could FTP their files. Thanks again for the great post.

dasar photography said...

Very interesting. As usual. Thank you for sharing.
One question: do you always make everything as "one man band" or sometimes get the help of an assistant (at least for post processing) ?
And in the latter case, does it really let you spare some time ?

Bob Travaglione said...

Kirk Tuck,
Thank You for sharing such detailed and useful information and business secrets.

Kirk Tuck said...

Dasar, Some assistants are good. A few are great. Most just get in the way. If you can't do a portrait with a digital camera by yourself you might as well hang it up and get a day job.

Kirk Tuck said...

Don, you'd be pretty hard pressed to find an Austin corporate client who DOESN'T want their stuff delivered via FTP. Most of my clients are far more facile with technology than me.

Henk said...


I did not get to reading your text but keep staring at the portrait. She has a mysterious smile like the Mona Lisa. Is there a way to avoid the reflection of the light in her eyes?

Thanks for sharing.

Paul said...

Great post Kirk, inteesting on how you settled on 20ish images. When you custom white balance do you use something like a color checker or just a grey or white card?