Greg Koch Photography

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.

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Visual Identity

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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Creative License

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?

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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.

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Silly Faces!

So, there I was, surrounded by a bevvy of five-year-olds.  They were as patient as they could be, given their age.  But I knew I had to step it up a notch if I was going to hold their attention for more than three seconds.  The answer came quite easily: silly faces!

For the next hour, each child stepped in front of the lens for some kindergarten primping.  I’m sure I’ve had more fun in my life than I had on this photo shoot, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you when.

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To see the entire gallery, click here.

 

 

Football Profile: Vernon Davis

When I received the call to shoot Vernon Davis for a local company’s new ad campaign, I didn’t hesitate. As a child, I used to sit on the floor watching the Niners (Montana, Walsh, Clark, et al), and it seemed fitting that I could now come full circle, working with a player from an organization I’ve long admired.

I was given two instructions: shoot him high-key and shoot him low-key. Other than that, it was up to me. Are you kidding? Freedom to play with a top-tier athlete?

For the sake of expedience, we decided it best to rig both a white seamless and a black Duvetyne in separate areas of the studio. That way, Mr. Davis could simply step from one setting into the other without having to wait while we re-rigged the lights. This ended up saving us a lot of time and is now something I try to do whenever possible.

When Vernon rolled in a few minutes later, I could instantly see that he was charming, energetic, and fully committed to our shoot. I was so excited to get started that I had difficulty allowing our stylist, Lisa, the necessary time to prep the subject. But good things come to those who wait.

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As with all my sessions, there’s a certain time required for me to get to know the subject, and vice versa—at least as well as we can. Is the subject friendly, introverted, gregarious, somber, etc.? And does his/her personality naturally mesh with mine? It’s a little dance that happens every time, and the key to a successful session, I’ve found, is to key into your subject and to be what he/she needs you to be at that moment. If we don’t get a good shot, it’s never the subject’s fault. That responsibility lies with me, and so the more I can learn about who’s staring down the barrel of my lens the better. Now, all that said, I can’t claim that I got to know Mr. Davis and better than I know any of my other subjects. But I did learn a few important things:

 

  1. Vernon Davis is the Man. It’s not anything he says or does, it’s just how he carries himself. He is confident, cool, caring, and capable. The four Cs.
  2. Props make every image better.
  3. I call people “Dude” way too often.*

 

*After about my fiftieth exclamation of “Dude, you look great!”, Vernon took a deep breath and let me know in a very gentle voice, “…you gotta stop calling me ‘Dude.’ ” He said it with a smile, which helped, but for the rest of the session I struggled to come up with something appropriate. Apparently, I need to expand my vocabulary. “Bro”? “Man”? “Grand Master D.”?

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Stunted verbiage aside, we progressed through a series of wardrobe changes, each from Vernon’s own closet. There are pros and cons to working with a subject’s personal attire. On the one hand, Vernon looks good in everything he owns, which ensures that we won’t get a bad photo. On the other hand, he looks good in everything he owns…so it’s more difficult to eliminate choices. After all, we didn’t have an unlimited amount of time. As usually happens, I followed my gut. The first pick is most often the right one.

We were fortunate to have some props on hand, as well—a football and a briefcase. You might not think those two would go together so well, but you’d be surprised. Vernon pulled it off.

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Now, you should know: Because I’m just kind of twisted, I always like to mess with my subjects a bit. Sometimes I’ll ask for a serious look, then do or say something designed to draw a chuckle. It’s an old photographer’s trick to break the ice. But I’d met my match with Vernon, and now that I look back on it, this doesn’t shock me in the least. When you consider who Mr. Davis faces off against daily, both on and off the field, it stands to reason that his ability to remain composed at all times must be supercharged. My best (or worst) jokes bounced right off him. He kept cool, kept calm, and kept delivering shot after shot.

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If you ever have the opportunity to meet or to work with Mr. Davis, you’re in for a real treat. But make sure you bring your A-game and, whatever you do, don’t call him “dude.”

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*****

Thanks go out to everyone involved. Without a great cast and crew, none of this would’ve been possible.

 

Model: Vernon Davis                         (www.vernondavis.com)

M/U: Lisa Zomer                                (www.lisazomer.com)

Assistant: Brian Molyneaux             (www.brianmolyneaux.com)

Management: Patrick Powell