An interesting dilemma. Client with an existing background for portraits.

Noelia H. helps me test the Mamiya 28 MF.

An interesting conundrum for portrait photographers. I got a call a while back from an engineering company that needs 24 portraits done. They would like to do the portraits at their headquarters building here in Austin (no problem) and they would like the images to have a consistent look (no problem) but the issue I'm grappling with came later, after we'd struck a deal and were moving forward...

The client had used a different photographer in the past and that photographer, who is more focused on a PPofA portrait style (which works well for families, and kids), used a custom painted canvas background that is now impossible to source and also looks (to my sensibilities) a bit dated. I have scoured the web to see if I can find a close match but at the same time I'm more inclined to go back to the client and discuss alternatives that would benefit them.

I find detailed backgrounds (and the previous photographer obviously believed in f16 as an optimum portrait aperture) distracting; especially when the primary use of the images is in a website gallery with dozens of other small images. My first choice would be a steel gray background with no texture and my second choice would be a gray canvas background with minimum texture. Also, I like to through backgrounds out of focus so I like to shoot FF cameras at f4.0 and m4:3 cameras at something like f2.0 or 2.8.

One way or another I'm scheduled to shoot one week from now so I feel that I have to go back to the client today and discuss how we'll proceed. I think I'm going to suggest my preferred style but I'm also researching with a couple of good, local retouchers, the cost (in bulk) to take the existing portraits currently being used by the client and have them drop out the backgrounds and replace them with a clean image of my chosen background. That's a hassle and the it's likely to involve some compromises in some of the images.

My other suggestion is that they consider the new background as a standard going forward and work over time to re-photograph the people who were photographed in the previous style.

Has anyone else had a similar situation arise? Suggestions most welcome!


  1. Could you replace the background on the existing portraits with the new one in PS? A bit of work but would set them up for going forward. Better still if you can get them to pay for the extra work.

  2. Hey Kirk,

    Yep, had a similar problem with a law firm. The previous guy was a Monte Zucker disciple and used a hideous painted background, real close to his subjects and also using a very small aperture to render it cleanly in all it's horror.

    I just came clean with the client and told them that shooting that way went out ages ago and it is distracting on the web. I told him that I'd never shoot that way, and that the background was a one off hand painted version that (thankfully) can never be duplicated. And even if it could, I'd never use it, just not my style. I included a link from my web site with examples of good clean photos on neutral grey backgrounds. I was willing to walk away rather than duplicate something offensive. Fortunately they agreed and I had lots more work reshooting what the previous person did years before me.


  3. Not much help but sure like the highlights in the photo

  4. Kirk, I can sympathize. Both the the previous comments would be my favorites too. However, a not so satisfactory alternative would be to shoot all the new portraits on green screen and comp in the previous background. A bit craven but I guess it depends on how much you want to compromise your well-honed portrait style. My first choice would be reshoot the existing ones too.
    Good luck,

  5. Guess I don't have much to add. Green screen was my thought as sort of a "best of the worst" alternative, if the client really wants the old look and you want the job badly enough. Shoot on green screen (or white) then drop in the old background. (I'd probably have to outsource the computer work. If the backdrop is as bad as I envision I might throw up on the keyboard.)

    I think you are on track in trying to convince them to update -- go with your style for the newer work, then either reshoot or Photoshop the older portraits. It's likely some of those folks are due for an update anyway -- new clothing styles, new hair looks and so on.

    Good luck. Let us know how it works out.


  6. Hopefully an engineering company will be acquainted enough with the matter of intellectual property that is the unspoken issue here.

    I'm not sure if a canvas background is sufficiently or specifically covered by copyright but the client's request/guidance/brief of having you use another photographer's work as a starting point might give you the basis for convincing the client to make a clean break from the past.

    A client request to"match" the work of another artist happens frequently but it certainly doesn't make it right. Once educated, a solid professional client might see the error of their thinking and follow your guidance to a solution that benefits you and them with new creative work.

  7. This person? https://petapixel.com/2017/08/18/woman-paints-backdrops-used-top-photographers/

  8. If I take your f16 comment literally I have to wonder how soft the subjects are in the previous images. Probably won't matter for Web images but your equipment at f4 FF may render the subjects noticeably differently than older images at f16. If so just photo shopping a common background may not make the collection look uniform. May want to re-shoot for consistent subject rendering if client uses images for more than just Web. I am imagining 80s airbrushed look vs. today's clinically sharp rendering.

    Usual IANAL disclaimer, but I have to wonder if your client acquired sufficient rights to allow you to alter the prior photos to change background. If prior photog has a recognizable style, that background you hate may be his/her calling card. May not be happy to see their work altered to a different style that removes their recognizable background, particularly if they point their prospective clients to your new clients website as an example of their work....

  9. Are you able to take a few of their existing portraits and replace the background with your style to show the contrast and emphasize the advantages your style brings for the web?

  10. With a business hat on, I think you'd need to offer a couple of options.

    1) offer to shoot the photos in a new (your) style, explaining the benefits, possibly offering a bit of a deal on the reshooting of the old photos (one of the fascinating things about your blog is when you pragmatically talk about when you are happy to do 'extra' work for the client and when you draw the line to stop them taking the mickey).

    2) offer to shoot them in a way which, although will look different, will be as little jarring as possible.

    From how you have punted this out to the Hive mind of the Web. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I guess that you are conflicted about how much you should try to meet the client's request and how much you should compromise to do it. Go with your intuition. If it doesn't work, then make a note in case you need to deal with them again.

    I wouldn't photoshop to match. But that's just me.

  11. I agree with Stephen Kennedy, a clean break and updating of the previous images to a more modern look would be the optimum solution. Surely an engineering company website won't have a massive number of portraits so it should be feasible for them to get everyone together on a given day or days.

    Only problems I can see is if they have an installation/repair force (or satellite offices) spread across a very wide geographic area (think worldwide) and they maybe only come to the central office one a year or less frequently; or if their office is a long haul from yours. With your experience and expertise I am sure that you can sell the benefits and mitigate the problems.

  12. I've been on the other side of this. The company I work for (coincidentally an engineering company) for many years had employee photos for our internal locator taken against an awful yellowish background. When we moved buildings the yellow background didn't make the move so all the new employees got pictures on a much more sensible gray background. Last year (after 3 years of a mix of yellow and gray backgrounds) it was decided everyone would get their pictures updated on the gray background. They set it up in our big conference room and scheduled blocks of time for each team to come down, grade school year book style. There were about 350-400 people that needed updated pictures and it took a few days to get through everyone. But the end result of consistent, less dated photos was deemed worth taking up a little bit of all those people's time.

  13. I had this once when a client came to me with a sample photograph and letter from head office in America - please match this photograph and use this film (it was back in film days...).

    I matched the background by using a similar PPoA background and filtering the backlight yellow to match the background color as closely as possible.

    On the other hand the film they had specified was not available in Australia, and no one had ever heard of it. We used the nearest thing available, and took the shots.

    All worked out in the end - head office were happy with the results

  14. I regularly get requests to match more or less standard corporate portraits on gray, though even in such a simple situation I tend to tweak the lighting, poses, retouching, etc to make the style my own (and better, ha). Given the outdated background and style of your client's existing pictures, pushing them to reshoot all portraits in a more contemporary way would be ideal, as others have suggested.

    There are potential legal risks or at least potential costs with both mimicking and modifying as others have noted and as you are surely already aware. Stephen's comment echoes a conversation I had with an advertising attorney earlier this week--not actual legal advice just chit chat over lunch. She was telling me about the looseness with which copyright infringement lawsuits can be filed. My mind immediately turned to the common situation I describe above where clients see a commodity rather than creative IP but that could potentially create enough gray area for an infringement suit. Given the highly stylized nature of your client's existing photographs, duplicating them would make me uneasy. Anon's comment asking whether or not the client has the right to alter the existing photographs is also spot on. IANAL but I am a risk averse small business owner.

    Bottom line: The existing style is passé. Get them to agree to something better.

    Love the blog. Always helpful to hear how others are finding solutions to the challenges we all face. Thanks!

  15. Whoever you talk to will have to justify the changes to those bigher up. Make the reasons short, simple and easy to understand but give them some choices so they still feel in control, otherwise your one option will be rejected.


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