A repost: Hewing to your own path when making portraits.

It's almost comical when you interface with new clients about making a business portrait. They might come to you because they've seen some signature work you've done for someone else and the new client decided that it really clicked for them. They've been all over the website and blog and now they are ready to get together and make a nice portrait. "You know, like the ones on your website.."

And then it begins. They want you to come to their location. They have a very limited amount of time in which you can set up in this location. The person you are to photograph is "A very busy person so you'll only have a few minutes of their time.." The new client would kind of like it if you could match the style of the images they've already had done for their website. "We like that dark gray background you use but could you make it yellow and brighten it up and still keep that nice feel that we like about your work?" 

I'm hardly making this up. It happens all the time. It's the way that participation commercial art homogenizes everything it touches. 

I really like portraits made in my own little studio space. It's not that the space itself is magic but, to me, it's a known commodity. One less variable in the equation. When I shoot in my space I can always come into the studio the night before and set up the lights just the way I want to. And I can set up time consuming lighting. The kind you have to use a lot of light stands to make.

Generally, when I get to new client location the time allotted to me for set up before the very important person's schedule intersects briefly with mine, starts to get sucked away as I wait and wait at the front security desk. Every non-employee at this facility has to be escorted by a media specialist. You wouldn't want a rogue portrait photographer stalking the hallways. But the emissary from the client is invariably not at her desk when I arrive. I leave voice mail and the bland and unmovable security desk person moves glacially to find her direct line on the in-house data base. He asks me for a third time if I can spell the contact person's name. I can. But I can't understand it for him.

After enough time has passed for me to read two or three trade journals about cloud storage and data center design my media specialist comes faking-puffing down the hall to receive me, or to take me into her custody. Or some permutation of that. We drag a cart laden high with lighting gadgets and support gear past row after row of carpeted cubicles until we get to the elevator that is out of order. I look at 200 pounds of gear on my cart while my media specialist mulls over the efficacy of taking a couple flights of stairs versus retracing our initial path to find the other bank of elevators...

When we get to the room I am stunned into silence by the mental disconnection that must take place in the minds of the people who supposed they might want a new portrait of said "very important person." Do they really expect that we'll be able to do a wonderful portrait of vip in about 140 square feet of space? When over 60% of that space is already occupied by a very ugly and very unmovable conference table? Do they expect us to manage a nine foot wide background in a room that is only eight feet wide? Do they think we can transmute the laws of physics and get our 6 foot by 6 foot scrim set up and ready to concurrently occupy the space already filled by conference table molecules and atoms? And finally, who designs these mini-conference room torture chambers with seven and a half foot ceilings?

When this pattern is repeated time and time again by legions of clients you start to change the way you work. You only take small softboxes or umbrella boxes that are quick to set up and take no space at all. You take only the gear you think you can sprint up the stairs with while avoiding cardiac arrest. You start telling each media specialist that you need two hours to set up. In this way, if your media specialist is twenty or thirty minutes tardy in coming to collect you then you'll still have mountains of time left to negotiation the elevator/stairs and figure out how to move a 900 pound table two feet to the right without shredding the carpet and the wires that connect the odious teleconferencing system seemingly permanently married to the giant, wood laminate covered monstrosity of a table. And you'll have ample time to move all of the counterfeit AERO chairs out into the hallway. Argue with the security guy over the fire code and them move all the counterfeit AERO chairs back into the mini-torture-conference room.

And you'll get to do all these things right up until you realize that the air conditioning has been turned off to this space and no one knows how to turn it all back on.

A week later you'll get the phone call that starts like this: "There's something wrong with the pictures."

Me: "I checked each one as I was making the web gallery. They looked okay to me. What's the problem?"

Them: "Well, I was looking at them with four or five of the other people in the office and the problem is that there's a shadow on one side of his face. One side is darker than the other.

Me: "Oh, that's the style of lighting we use. It shows off the contours of people's faces better and makes the images a lot more interesting and three dimensional. We discussed that with the marketing team when they hired me..."

Them: "Oh. Well, I don't know about the marketing people by I'm the VIP's admin and I know he won't like this either. And neither does Francine in accounting and she's a really good landscape photographer..."

Me: "Have you gotten any input from the marketing team? And has Mr. VIP seen them?"

Them: "No, we got the link you sent for Mr. VIP and we decided to save him some time and go through them first. But I'm not even sure we should show them to Mr. VIP. He won't like the shadow on his face.  And he shaved off his beard and mustache since the session... so the pictures don't even look like him anymore."

Me: "Well, I can't really do anything about the shadows on his face. That's what your marketing team said they wanted, and they hired me."

Them: "Yes, but we write the checks...."   A long silence ensues.  Followed by: "I think we could live with the shadows if you could find some way to just Air Brush the beard and mustache off his face..."

Me:  "I'm sorry but that's impossible. Even if we could do it in Photoshop that kind of retouching would take days. It would be better if we could just re-shoot him. But this time I'd like for him to come into our studio. We'll have more control over the lighting."

Them:  "He's far too busy for that but let me see if we can reserve the same conference room...."

The reality is that most people don't know what is required to set up lights and do a really good and sincere portrait. All they want to do is walk in somewhere quick and grin at the camera. Happy with a flat as a pancake, one-to-one lighting ratio and a crappy background. Part of our work is translating to people who live in these other universes what it is we do and how we do it.

I shot two portraits in the studio this week. One was on video and the one above was a still project. I was lucky to work with an art director who really understands the whole process, from beginning to end. He gets "buy in" from the client and he carefully leads them, step by step, through what to expect in a portrait sitting. And he shares back to me, in very clear terms, what his needs are. He would rather always have business portraits of his clients shot in the studio because it's easier to control access to the sitter. To cut off the interruptions and help them get their heads in the game.

I set up my lights the day before and I test them. I've been working with large, soft, light from one side with small white "flags" as fill. I've been using banks of fluorescent fixtures (made for video and cinema) behind 6x6 foot silks diffusers. I'm blocking out any stray light that wants to come into the studio. I use a posing table from the 1950's to give subjects some place to rest their hands. I'm using a fresnel spot light to cast a subtle, soft light onto the background.

When the sitter arrives my art director is here to greet her. We're introduced and I take some test shots as we get to know each other and talk about what everyone wants to get from the shoot. Then the art director says, "I'm leaving now. I'll be in the house having coffee and returning phone calls. Come and get me when you need me. Kirk will take good care of you."

Once my art director walks the twelve steps to my house and starts operating the Keurig coffee machine and arm wrestling with my little dog we start our session in earnest. I'm looking for a few different emotions. Compassion, caring, warm, happy and calm. We talk about these attributes and how to manifest them in the image. We chat and I ask about things I know she is interested in. In twenty minutes or so we call for the art director. We review the images and everyone is happy. I'm happy that I am able to supply nice, rich shadows to someone who will understand and appreciate them. The subject is happy  because she knows we have her best interest (visually) at heart. And the art director is happy because he knows he has an image of his client that will look good on the website and in some public relations they've got coming up.

The image above is one I grabbed from the very end of the session because it reminded me of how sweet the session was and how engaging Nancy looked at the end. It is almost certainly not the image that the art director will select. He knows the demographic he's aiming at and almost certainly I'm not in it. And that's okay.

When I do my portraits on my own path way I have at least a chance of making something that positively represents my sitters. When I capitulate to the demands of clients, against my better judgement, I fight to get something that is usable. Something a client is at least willing to pay for. There's big ocean between these two points. Hewing to your own path is a way of making sure everyone wins. At the very least being in control gives you a fighting chance.


  1. Managing expectations, I do a lot of that in my work too.

  2. Great portrait Kirk, but what's up with the tiled faux canvas texture?

    1. Just experimenting. KInda like the way it feels like grain or paper texture. Something more three D to offset the monitor flatness...

  3. I read this whole post with a big grin and plenty of head shaking. I must be living in a parallel universe, because on many days, this is my life too.

  4. You just know that when the Pope's secretary first saw Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel, he said something to the effect of: "This seems too busy, and too many people are naked. Can you paint some clothes on these people? Why can't you just paint some pictures of the Apostles like we told you?"

  5. This is hilarious - well it would be if it were not true!

    I could bore you with stories of my ( plumbing ) clients and troublesome toilets but I won't lower the tone of your blog!

  6. omagahh the shadowsss!!!! i really didn't know whether to laugh or cry as you recounted the intimate details of half my assignments from the past year or so, a world away, here in india...

  7. Kirk you would be amazed to know how similar this is to corporate life in IT.

  8. A couple years ago I did headshots for a professional firm comprised mostly of age-40-ish females. They absolutely did not want any shadows in the photos, because the shadows revealed the details of the skin as too, um, detailed.

    I did leave some soft shadows in the shots, and the owner of firm looked at the proof images and said, "Wow, these aren't horrible." I took that as a compliment.

  9. Another great one. As we used to say, the ad business would be great were it not for the clients!

  10. My favorite was when they changed their minds and wanted to see "the rest" of the person in the photo.

    Me: you mean full length?

    Them: Yes, the whole person. Send us a copy showing the whole person.

    Me: We'll have to re shoot then.

    Them: Why? Just give us the rest of the picture.

    Me: .......

  11. Kirk,

    You say the clients/art directors read your sites and blogs. What kind of reaction do you expect when they come across this post?

    1. JJ, What kind of response do you want? First of all, I think I've stated many, many, many times that my clients rarely read my blog. They don't care about the process of making sausage, they just want the sausage. Secondly, maybe the really ignorant ones will learn to be better consumers of photographic services which can only serve their interests and mine. Most of my art director clients are smart enough to see the humor and understand that they get similar bullshit from the same clients. They probably shake their heads and say, "too true."

      But more to the point, why do you ask this question? Are you trying to make some sort of point? If so, it eludes me. I'm not good at passive/agressive conditionals. I can't control how my clients react to anything. Have you ever entertained the idea that crappy clients aren't really worth a going a second round with? Are you afraid of clients? Why don't you just tell me what it is you're thinking?

  12. I can laugh because I'm retired and rarely have to put up with this stuff anymore. If I were still working it might move me to tears.

  13. The admins! God save us from the very young! What Mark Twain wrote. Roughly: "When I was 18 I thought my father didn't know much. When I was 21 I was amazed by how much he'd learned."

  14. It's funny and aggravating at the same time. Reminds me of the photographer who hired me to assist/teach/mentor her through a portrait session. Synchro-sunlight location shoot. I explained how and why to set the camera up a certain way and I manned the off-camera flash. Later she told me that the photos came out horrible, that it took her forever to Photoshop the shadow off of one side of the face. Seeing the final results I was truly impressed with her skill in making them look like they were shot with on-camera flash. Oh well. We all need to chip in for public service commercials enlightening people to what good portraits should look like.

  15. This is so much of my life.
    I spend a lot of time joking that I can't take a picture like that because I never trained at the DMV.

    Took me longer to say that well than it took me to learn photography.


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