What makes a successful corporate portrait session?
I ask myself that question every time I get a new job, even though I’ve done this many times. Of course, it’s different for every company, and depends on the setting, the mood of the subjects, the technique, equipment, etc. But there are a few factors that universally help turn an “okay” session into a good session, or a good one into a great one. It certainly isn’t about all the equipment.
I can’t say enough about this. And it makes a world of difference. When I’m hired for a corporate job, one of my first questions is, “How do you see yourselves?” A version of that might be, “How does your company choose to present itself to its customers?” The operative word here is “choose” because many companies, I’ve found, understand the importance of visual identity, but they don’t necessarily have a clear sense of what theirs is. Or, they might know what they want, but they don’t like what they currently have. That’s where I come in. And with me I bring adjectives: powerful, energetic, helpful, professional, cost-effective, best-in-class. When I start throwing around these terms, I keep an eye on the client’s face. If s/he smiles or nods when I mention one, I know we’ve hit pay dirt.
What does this tell me? Several things. The first is this: If a company wants to be seen as powerful, I will light and compose the shots accordingly. For example, we might use back lighting or rim lighting, and we might shoot from a lower angle with a slightly foreshortened effect. This gives a sense of presence to the images.
It also tells me how the company thinks. If adjectives such as “blood-curdling” or “hysterical” come out during our discussion (for the record, they never have), I can get a sense of how easy it might be to work with them. Clients who can take their work seriously while maintaining a sense of humor are very easy to work with. To engender camaraderie, my on-set banter tends to steer toward the convivial; if I can put the subject at ease, so much the better for all of us.
The goal of all photographers is to remain low-key and friendly when shooting. I don’t try to push an agenda, and if I feel that the client is trying to do so, I know that’s often a sign of discomfort. Perhaps a break is needed, or a compliment, or a silly joke.
Of course, dialogue should never feel contrived, even when it is. And that’s the rub: Sometimes, you have to fake it. I won’t say when I’ve done it, but everybody has at some point. “You look great, don’t worry about it.” The objective isn’t to convey false information to the subject as much as it is to put the subject at ease. A bit of flattery never hurts, as long as it isn’t over the top or, worse, creepy. The point is that when I’m shooting someone, I’m far from the most important person in the room. It’s all about the subject. Be honest, be nice, be happy, be thankful. In short, be a people person.
Photographers get hired both because of who we are as individuals and who we are as elements in a team. Sometimes we get a chance to express ourselves but we need to learn to accept that this isn’t always possible. If we’re lucky, we can find a happy merging of our creative interests and the client’s. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it can turn an ordinary job into a fun job—and that means a lot. When a client is open to ideas, I try to come up with at least half a dozen. Many ideas are pitched in the pre-shoot meetings. Some come about on set and are implemented in post-. In the case of these images, the client’s existing branding suggested several creative approaches, and I offered a few. If and when I’m attempting such things, I try to do it in a way that is not off-putting or at odds with the client’s vision.
In a way, a portrait session is like a date. Should I go out with him/her or shouldn’t I?
The trick is to establish rapport, don’t make off-color remarks unless you’re certain they’ll be accepted, ask questions rather than making statements (unless they’re compliments, in which case find a happy middle ground). Oh, and never eat onions.
My job as a photographer is not to reinvent the wheel. The glory goes to the client that hired me. My goal is simply to help show to the world how great the company is. If I’ve done that, then I’ve done my job.