I just finished the post production on the very last big portrait project of 2022. I photographed people for a national accounting firm. Adobe is making it easier and easier to do great color grading and retouching for environmental portrait work.

 There is one thing I do know. I really like making portraits for people. I'm not a fan of the "factory headshot" production method of herding a never-ending line of people onto a gray or blue seamless background and trying to get everyone through quickly, although I did a lot of that in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently I've worked toward a style, or a family of styles, that clients seem to really like and prefer. Even if the process is slower and less client controlled. 

From law firms and accounting firms to associations and medical practices we've moved away from photographing people in front of plain backgrounds and have been, instead, photographing them in their work locations. Environmental portraits as pioneered by photographers like Arnold Newman and evolved by more contemporary portraitists like Annie Leibovitz. 

A good example is the last big portrait project I produced this year. Back on the first week of December I started on the second shoot of the quarter for a national accounting firm. The company is in the process of totally revamping their website with new portrait images that do away with the previous, dated, heads against seamless and replacing all of the staff and partner photographs with images of their people taken in the offices. My job was to come into the space on one day and scout possible locations which didn't have a lot of clutter, had interesting shapes, colors and lighting which would render beautifully when shown out of focus in the backgrounds and then map out those locations and divide up the 18 people I needed to photograph amongst five or six locations. 

My client asked me to give recommendations about wardrobe and I gave it my best shot knowing all along that most people would just default to showing up in their favorite clothes and winging it. I've written about the shift in how I light these environmental portraits in an earlier post but if you missed it here's the short form:

I shot on two different days. On both days I used a big scrim, or light blocker, on a stand and positioned it directly over the subject to block out direct light on their faces coming from ceiling installed fluorescent lights or MR16 spot lights. I used one light in a big umbrella as my main light and used a second light to illuminate backgrounds that needed some extra photons. I color balanced for the faces and let the backgrounds fall where they wanted for color. 

For decades I worked hard to match the background and subject white balance because, in the film days you were stuck with whatever imbalances occurred if you didn't match. I threw all that away this year on these kinds of shoots. I used daylight balanced LED lights on the subjects and if a background area rendered green or sickly yellow I let it go knowing that with the new selection tools in Lightroom and PhotoShop I could easily separate the subject from the background and color correct each area, during the raw processing, to have pleasing colors or, in the case of the faces, neutral colors, with very little hard work. 

There are three tools I use a lot when retouching portraits that I've taken in this way. The first is the set of subject selection tools. In Lightroom I can easily select the foreground subject (the person being photographed) and create not just a single mask but a series of masks for face, hair, body, eyes, lips etc. Each of these masks can be retouched for color, exposure, saturation, sharpness, etc. The backgrounds can be selected in a second automated mask and can be extensively corrected for the same parameters. Most benefit from changes in WB settings but also can be further softened via the sharpness sliders and the shadows and highlights can also be extensively modified. 

The real magic of the new selection tools, masking, and fine-tuning of multiple masks is that the settings can be copied and applied to all the photos in a folder. Instead of trying to explain how we'll retouch an image and providing a gallery of 25-50 images for the subject to choose from --- with a promise of all the things we'll correct in post --- we can now, efficiently and accurately, fix those things in one selected frame and apply/sync the corrections to every other image from a similar set up and pose using a batch. This way we have a much higher likelihood of providing previews that are near enough to the finished, retouched final image that people don't have to guess or imagine what the final image is going to look like. In my experience this goes a long way toward reducing or eliminating re-shoots for small, correctable things like a bit too much shine on a forehead or nose.

I do this kind of blanket retouching in Lightroom, working with raw files, when I'm doing my basic edit (elimination of unwanted or unneeded frames). From the edited and batch processed files I export my keepers as large Jpegs and send a folder for each subject to its own gallery on Smugmug.com. The clients can go there to review the images and make their final selection. Once they've selected from one of the full resolution Jpegs they give their selection numbers to someone on the client side whose responsibility it is to gather up the selects and provide all of them to me in one go. I absolutely hate being given file selections piecemeal and the requirement to provide all of them at once is written into the first paragraph of any proposal or contract. It's just so much easier to provide continuity (and to be efficient) if I can work serially and at one time on all the retouching required at the final stage. 

Once I get the selections I pull/export a 16 bit .PSD file for each from Lightroom and put it into the "retouch for final use" folder. Then start working on the individual files in PS. 

I use one of the Adobe Neural filters on just about every file. It's called skin smoothing. It's not so much a filter to take out texture or skin faults, it's more of a way to remove variations in tone, color and texture across a face. To smooth out differences in color mostly. But it's also an effective way to smooth out rough skin texture. I use "liquify" to even out the usual differences in size between the left and the right eyes. But mostly I try to fine tune to a higher degree the color temperature and hue of the person's skin tone and make the color of the background more harmonious. I use the "rubber stamp" tool to clone out flyaway hairs and I take away skin anomalies that are obviously temporary (pimples, sore spots, etc.).

If you haven't played with Neural Filters yet I strongly recommend them. Some are a bit hokey but several allow you do speed up a portrait retouching workflow by being able to match colors between files (good for flesh tones) in addition to the skin smoothing. One filter that's still listed as a "beta" is the ability to fine-tune the way backgrounds drop out of focus. 

I love making portraits with three dimensional backgrounds and try to find locations that accentuate depth in the final photograph. Long hallways, big lobbies, stacked up rows of cubicles and anything else that has leading lines and apparent depth. It's fun to play with focus. It's fun to play with the relationship between the subject and the background. Sometimes moving one or two inches one way or another makes big changes...

One mandate from the big accounting firm's marketing department is that peoples' faces, from the tip of the nose to the backs of their ears, be in adequately "sharp" focus. I interpret that to mean the edges you can see need to be in focus to make it easier for us to drop out the subject should we need to repurpose the images. Since they want a deeper focus than I could get away with on a purely "art" portrait I need to use apertures like f5.6. This means it's important to use longer lenses and also to make the distance from the subject to the background as far apart as possible. But....

Instead of shooting in the old, classic, vertical orientation we're shooting horizontal images which means, if one shows the subject's shoulders, the head size is smaller. This more or less precludes (at least for me) using any lens shorter than 60mm to do this work to my taste. I've leaned heavily on the 85mm lens but I've also been working a bit closer to my subjects with the 65mm f2.0 Sigma lens. It has a unique three dimensional look to it. The longest lens I've used on this project is the 90mm end on my 24-90mm zoom lens. All three lenses work well but each had a different "look." 

Once I've done the post processing and I like what I see I save a 16 bit .PSD file for myself, make an 8 bit .PSD file for the marketing department. Make a Tiff and a large Jpeg file for the local office use and for the use of the individual subject. Finally, I make a smaller Jpeg (3200 pixels on the long side) for the web designers. The smaller Jpeg is at least twice as large as they will use in the final website construction but I deliver it that way just in case the designer would like to make various crops.

The accounting firm is the last client I have who won't "white hat" any file delivery sites. No Dropbox, no Smugmug, no WeTransfer. I routinely write all the files to a thumb drive and mosey over in my car to hand deliver. I often try to time my delivery of the files at lunch time. The client caters lunch for the accountants ( there will be 180 in Austin by 2023) and they always order good stuff and more than they need. Invariably they invite me to grab a lunch. If it's great I happily agree. Over the course of shooting for this client for about a decade I have become good friends with the local office manager. I'm happy to do little extras for her such as the in-person delivery of the files. On the flip side she trusts me to do photographic things in the best way possible and these days that means applying my preferred style to their work. 

Masking for fine corrections in Lightroom. Batching corrections in Lightroom. Neural filters in PS. Liquify in PS. And good old fashioned cloning and carefully measured flesh tone values in PS. 

I found myself really enjoying the enhancing and retouching of these last two rounds of photos. It was fun to compare just how different three top quality lenses can be when used side by side. I used both an SL2 and the Sigma fp and I'm still on the fence about which camera body I like best. And that's a good thing since I think they are both superb image machines. I love adjusting things like mid-tone contrast just to see how it works with peoples' faces. I enjoy being able to adjust the subject and the background separately for much more control and some artistic fooling around. I love being able to see, while working in post, just how well I got along with a subject and how authentic and present the person looks. Out of a batch of 18 there are two where I don't think I made a perfect connection. Those images are fine but they lack the connection the subjects and I were able to make the other 16 times. I should slow down a bit and take more time next set of sessions.

Since I just finished the work and loaded files onto the thumb drive for delivery I can't show the images from the last job of the year to my readers; the photos haven't yet been published by my client! But I've added my usual "author" photo just below and then, below that, some examples of the styles I'm talking about and selling to clients going forward. 

I have a new goal for 2023. I'd like to do 100 environmental portraits over the course of the year. That's only an average of two per week with some extra time built in for weeklong vacations. I'd like to average $1,500 per portrait and do this as my sole work for the year. It'll take a bit of marketing but it seems very do-able. I think I've boiled down how to make this job; photography, more fun and engaging for me in the near future. We'll see what I can pull off. It's fun to have a goal. Now to put the processes in place.

Heroic photographer shoots a selfie in his wet weather gear. 
Somewhere on the Skidmore College campus in upstate NY. And, FYI,
they have a really nice indoor swimming pool there....

One of my earlier environmental portraits. 
From an industrial project in NYC which culminated
in a show of huge black and white prints at the Javits Center. 
Hasselblad. One 1K hot light into an umbrella. 
And yes, I did know how to print black and white back then. 

Former CEO of Ottobock, Canada. Visiting the Austin offices. 
An early example of my new trend. This one done about five years ago.

Healthcare V.P. on a visit to Austin.
Natural light augmented by a small flash in one big umbrella.

An attorney  portrait in a downtown office building, on the 23rd floor.
This project marked my move to using LED lights almost exclusively for
portrait work. One of 40+ portraits I've done for this client over the 
past four years. 

My favorite example of a workplace environmental portrait
done on an exterior location just before (and during) really bad weather 
moving in. We ended the shoot running to the car with big, 
battery powered flash packs in our hands. 

An environmental portrait at Dell. The challenge 
here was to hide the glare from the lights on a whole 
wall of screens in the background. Pre-LED shot done
with a Nikon D700 camera. The camera was kind to portrait subjects. 

Above and below, software executives in yet another enormously tall 
building in downtown Austin. Small flash/big umbrella.
Lots of funny stories to get those smiles...

Styles in photography tend to ebb and flow but seem to always come back around. If I stay employed long enough we'll probably cycle back to dramatic black and white portraits with dense shadows and neutral backgrounds. But for now? Let's play with locations. It's actually fun if one can resist the temptation to over produce and bring along every light and lens you own. For this style minimalism is definitely a plus....

putting the "mental" in environmental? Probably NOT a good tag line....