A Business Portrait

Today, I shot another business executive portrait. Or rather, a series of portraits. I needed both formal and informal.

What are the needs for an executive portrait? What does a photographer need to be able to do them well?

Equipment—so I have a full studio in the car. And at least two cameras, five speedlights, four light stands, softboxes, umbrellas, and so on. Fast lenses, too. Clasps, brackets, modifiers, “thingies”.

Knowledge—clearly, you need to know your stuff. Especially, know about light; light direction; flash; standard portraits; portrait “gotchas”; and balancing flash with ambient.

Composition—this is the most important need: quickly spotting the opportunities in an office environment, which was not designed for artistic portraiture. If you can learn this, you can do successful business portraits. You need to be able to see context: an environmental portrait is also known as a “contextual” portrait. The “background” needs to be meaningful. This is what separates the men from the boys, i.e. where you use your experience.

Detail—you need to be able to see detail, especially “stuff to remove”. You do not want things coming out of your subject’s head, you need to avoid including garbage cans, and so on. Keep your eyes open!

People skills—you need to see what the person you are shooting is all about, what makes him/her tick. You need to establish a relationship quickly. Be reassuring and be confident: any hesitation will be seen as a sign of weakness. Exude the sense that you know your business.

Post—you need to know what you can do in post-production; and you need to be good, and quick.

So let’s take a look at today. The challenges were the usual: no space, no obvious places to shoot. No space for formal, and no obvious places for informal. The office was small, and there was no time for a long walk-around. Normally I would like an hour by myself to find good spots; but this time, the walk-around had to be done with the client showing us.

Challenges. But that’s why I am a photographer.

Of course we did “formal” using a door as the backdrop, a speedlighter/umbrella as key, ambient light as fill:

Good. Well lit, nice catchlights in the right place.

Now, the environmental portraits.

The first thing I noticed was a nice hallway with converging lines. I put my assistant, intern Daniel, in it, for a test shot:

Yup. That works. That is not a finished product, but when I see that, I know what I can do. In the end portrait, I de-saturate the yellow, to get this:

But the other side appeals more, because of the visual interest and because of the “work” it implies: this is a manufacturing facility, after all. See that other side here:

(1/200 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400, bounced-behind speedlight)

That I am happy with.

Next, more converging lines: the test kitchen. I did the same there:

(1/250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400, “bounced-behind-me” speedlight plus ambient)

Or vertical:

And finally, a more traditional office shot.

There, the challenge was to expose the green background properly. Not much of a challenge: all you need to do is pay attention. Expose for that background, then add flash. 1/250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400.

As you see, a simple “executive headshot” shoot can actually be fairly complicated and can need a whole range of skills. On the plus side, this kind of shoot is fun, and can allow you to get really creative.


Want to learn this stuff? Yes! Take some private training from me, and read my books, from http://learning.photography.



Outside the box, that is: Do not be afraid to think a little outside the box sometimes. Like here, me last night:

20s at f/7.1, ISO800. 50mm on Canon 1Dx.

The flash has a grid, leading to a circle of light, a spotlight effect. I am blown out by the flash, for an extra intense, eerie effect. The sky and houses have light due to a 20 second exposure. Post production made the saturation lower (“desat” effect). The “Dutch Angle” tilt gives it interest also.  And although the flash would take 10 seconds to remove in Lightroom using the healing tool, I prefer to leave it in for extra mystery effect. 50mm lens gives this a realistic, undistorted look.

Key in this photo? Balancing ambient (start with it!) and flash (add it afterward).

Now, off to a CEO shoot, which although it will presumably look very different will use the very same principles. Photography is an amazing tool.


Telling a story

If I do manage to get to Israel (help me out here for the crowdsourcing project) then I will do a few things. Other than, of course, the purely mechanical.

First, of course, I will constantly remind myself that I am neutral. For any photojournalism to be worth that name, it has to be impartial. Now, I am going to cover a particular story, of course. But that does not imply bias. Sometimes, journalists have to remind themselves they are there to observe; they are not activists. Of course the very choice of subjects implies an agenda, but it can be an impartial agenda (“in search of justice” rather than “in search of justice for party X”).

Second, I will make this a story, and arrange shoots to show that story. My story really here would contain  the following elements:

  • Who’s who? Newspaper readers may think “Israel”: is one unit.. but Israel consists of various types of Jews, various creeds of Muslims, and of Druze, Bahai, and many more. Informing would be good. Showing how these groups live, who they are, how they interact.
  • Show people under the daily threat of violence. The sign above is not unusual. Imagine being confronted with such things daily.
  • Show who is getting on which whom, or if not, why not. The byzantine nature of Middle East politics is not easy to explain in a few photos, but I can shed some light on it no doubt.
  • Show, if possible, both problems and resolutions.

And all this has to be storytelling.

This particular photo assignment may or may not go ahead (depends on you, kind pledgers—only four days left..please help if you can); but what matters more is that the principles here apply to pretty much all photojournalism.

And no, photojournalism makes no-one any money. Most photojournalists, as an acquainted newspaper photo editor just reminded me, make a loss. As will I: consider it my volunteer work.


Develop yourself

Today’s post is about style in photography.

There are many, many styles. And they are all very different.

For example, photojournalism (as I plan to be doing in Israel, see here) is very simple: no edits. Colour or, often. black and white. Flash is allowed, but other than that, it should look as it looked to the eye.

IV - Intravenous, by Michael Willems

Photojournalism: from "IV - Intravenous", by Michael Willems, on 180mag.ca

Or there’s this; I would call this “Annie Leibowitz’s style”:

Then there’s the “amateur aesthetic”, made popular by Terry Richardson. Harsh light with a direct flash, overexposed a little:

Or business “annual report style”:

Reflection, photo by Michael Willems


Or the natural soft light style we use with babies:

Or “desat”, very popular today:

Or my own “dramatic portrait lighting” style, which is an adaptation of earlier Dramatic Portrait techniques:

I could go on. There are almost as many techniques as there are photographers. Almost, not quite. And as a photographer you should be able to master any and all of them. “It’s just technique”, as a friend once said to me.

But it’s when we get beyond that that some of us are lucky enough to develop our own styles. My style is unique to me. And the last picture is a little more my style than the others are.

So the photographer who recently told me that my work was “wrong” and “it looks like your models are photoshopped in:” and “you must open the shutter for longer” is just plan incorrect. It’s my style, and it’s recognizable as my style, and you don’t need to like it. But if you do, great. Your style is yours. If others like it, good for you. If not, it can still be just fine, as long as you like it.


Need Help: Scroll to yesterday to see my Israel project proposal and go here to support it.. every bit helps.