A personal essay by Steve Nelson, one of the FayFoto Boston team.
What does an assignment-based corporate photographer do to stay connected with his or her tools and craft during an extended season in which there are… very few assignments?
As we approach the end of 2020, a lot of service providers continue to face that question.
There were of course opportunities to do home improvement projects, and I did plenty of those. But my personal identity is bound to my career as a photographer, and I settled on that career because I derive immense satisfaction from creating images. Especially collaboratively, with others.
So. When it became clear that this Pandemic wasn’t going to be a week or two thing I started, and stuck with, a photo of the day discipline, posting daily to a small audience on Instagram. This was intended to keep me connected to and proficient with my tools.
This discipline has proven to be satisfying creatively, but it is very different from the experience and business of portrait and product photography. Flowers and trees don’t have opinions about what they look like, or would like to look like.
So I reactivated a dormant project – setting up environmental portraits of friends. These were very deliberate portrait sessions, not casual candids. I admit I was uncomfortable asking, given the prevailing concerns surrounding contagion, but no one I asked declined. On the contrary, I was surprised to find that most seemed to welcome the request.
This informal project, unencumbered by the constraints of consistency and uniformity we adhere to for repeat clients, has given me an opportunity to experiment with lighting, and to adapt to different location situations.
Asking a friend to sit for a portrait is unusual. For me anyway.
Every one of these sessions feels a little weird initially, but I know this personal stretch will benefit my commercial work when that resumes.
Speaking of resuming… When you and your team are ready to resume, you can bet I’ll be ready. Please reach out. I have a good mask, and I’m ready to go!
The vast majority of FayFoto Boston’s work takes place in our clients’ office. That’s still the case, even in the present era of Covid-19. But with more staff working from home than ever before, the definition of office has become less defined.
Our photographer Lee headed off recently to do a headshot and personal branding assignment at the client’s home. Lee put together our standard setup inside, with studio lights and a background. Once the “standard” portraits were done, he was asked to do some more informal variations outside.
As Lee, the subject, and the subject’s spouse approached the porch, they disturbed an unexpected fourth party. Lee later identified it as a harmless Eastern Milk Snake, but its brief presence did inject some adrenaline into the assignment.
As Lee tells the story, the snake scurried under the porch as the three humans approached. This was no big deal for Lee, but the homeowners were less than thrilled.
It’s a funny anecdote after the fact, but it points to the reality that today’s committed businesses are adapting to address client needs. FayFoto is one of those committed businesses.
Oh, and good for Lee, who had the presence of mind to capture an environmental portrait of an unexpected subject!
I write this a little over a month into the great, global shut-down provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic. The photo accompanying this article was taken by our staff photographer Lee, who did what he needed to do to capture an amazing photo in spite of an acute distaste for heights. Shown is an overall of the New England Boat Show which took place in February, in the main exhibit floor of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
On April 10 this facility was converted into a 1,000-bed field hospital.
It’s astonishing that, in such a short space of time, we’re looking at images of crowds with nostalgia.
The good old days of a month ago.
The word “unprecedented” and the phrase “the new normal” have begun to grate on me, and I currently hear each multiple times a day. I guess I’ll have to get over it, because there are no more descriptive or evocative words for our present situation.
I’m a pretty hands-on portrait photographer. If a subject’s hair is messy, I pat it down. If a necktie is loose, I give it a tug. If a jacket sleeve is bunched up, I pull it smooth. I wonder what mynew normal is going to be?
I’m happy to report that the staff of FayFoto are all well, and we sincerely hope the same is true for you. We are riding this out along with everyone else. We intend to be here for you for a long time. We miss interacting with our regular clients, and we are anxious to work with you. Give us a call as soon as it is safe to do so!
I should state right from the beginning that, unlike our colleagues who serve the editorial or advertising markets, in most cases our business portraits are taken without the direct supervision of an art director. We often receive detailed style guidelines from a creative director, but most of the on-site interaction occurs directly between the subject and the photographer.
This means that, under normal circumstances, the subject and the photographer work together at the time of the photo session to arrive at a selected image which is then optimized at our office and sent to our contact for publication. (There are exceptions, such as when we have to photograph a lot of subjects in a short timeframe. This article deals with the more common business head shot portrait assignment in which we have the luxury of 10-15 minutes with each subject.)
How do we make this work?
The majority of our business headshot portraits these days are taken with the camera attached to a portable computer. This allows us to invite the subject to review and select his or her favorite right then, at the time of the photo session. (See ”Why” below.)
We work with a lot of senior-level executives. These executives have important things to be doing, and “picture day” is pretty low on the priority list. Given that we typically have 10-15 minutes with a subject, this means we somehow have to get to a yes in a short period of time. How we get there is as much of an art as is the lighting and the choice of lens.
With rare exceptions, the average subject shows up announcing that he or she would prefer dental surgery over sitting for a business portrait. We get it – it’s awkward and intimidating to stand in front of a stranger while trying to present your ideal persona in a photo which may represent you for years. But by now we have heard this so many times we don’t get discouraged. We bring positive energy to the situation.
Personally, I don't fire away, taking dozens or even hundreds of pictures, hoping that the odds will be with me and at least one will look good.
Usually between 15-20 exposures are enough, with pauses along the way every 6 to 8 shots to evaluate what's happening and allowing for course corrections based on what the subject and I are seeing.
That’s an average of course. For some, as few as 8 is plenty. The most it has ever taken me is 150. (Seriously.)
My colleagues and I at FayFoto Boston do this a lot. We bring confidence and enthusiasm to the situation. And yes, we make flattering and encouraging remarks (“You look good today!”) And yes, we coach the subject (“Shoulders are great, but turn your head a little this way”).
Then we sit the subject down at the laptop and a little bond develops. This isn’t a smart phone snapshot – he or she does look good, because we have lit them well. But if the subject isn’t happy we make it clear we’ll keep working. Once the subject realizes that he or she can have some input on the outcome… that this experience is a collaboration, a partnership… that we are here to make her or him look amazing… a truly palpable change in the energy and relationship emerges.
I have observed that my colleagues prefer to take pictures until they are satisfied they have captured some great images. They then sit with subject to identify the one. Personally, I prefer to start off with fewer preliminary photos and show them to the subject right away, to get a baseline. Either way, the process allows us to experiment with variables such as
whether to go with our without glasses,
whether that sweater or wrap works, or
whether a woman prefers her hair arranged one way or the other.
Why select on-site?
We work with busy professionals. The highly optimized approach described above has evolved over years to meet time and workflow expectations.
Our contacts are generally keen to get the finished image quickly. Having the selections right away means we can start post production right away.
Our contacts are not interested in pouring over dozens of options for each subject.
For most subjects, the motivation to make a selection immediately dwindles to zero when they are given the option of deciding later.
It is extremely efficient for the subject to select at the time of the session. Contrary to what you might imagine, the best image turns out to be pretty easy to spot.
When it doesn’t work
The process described above works beautifully more than 96% of the time. But what happens if the subject experiences what I call “decision remorse?” Or if the subject’s spouse, or mother, or best friend snickers at the selection? Well, that’s why we never discard anything usable. Blinks and half-blinks are tossed; the rest of the images from an assignment are archived along with the selected images. A proof sheet of additional options from the session can be generated to allow the subject a second chance at deciding. This doesn’t happen often, but it happens often enough that we have learned to keep the out takes.
Get in touch
If this workflow appears to be better suited to your needs than what you are currently experiencing, FayFoto Boston is easy to get in touch with. We would love to have a conversation.
The popular phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff” might be good advice for a happy life, but you may be sure that phrase was not coined by a professional photographer.
Why hire a professional in a trade?
Why? Because for professionals in any given discipline, it’s all small stuff.
When you hire a professional, you assume that person or firm will attend to details you might not consider. You can be confident a professional knows the tools and knows how to be business-like.
If that professional is a plumber, it might be tight solder joints. If that professional is a woodworker it might be perfect dovetails. If that professional is a roofer, it might be sealing the roof/chimney joint.
Professional photographers likewise look for the things a non-photographer appreciates subliminally but might not be trained to pay explicit attention to. It’s less about the equipment we bring and more about the experience we bring.
For portraits, we look at hair, highlights, and neckties. For product, we look at angles, texture, and intersection. For interiors, we look for stray wires in the corner and cushions askew on the sofa. At events we are attentive to distractions in the background. (You know, the hilarious lampshade on the head.)
Professionals don’t have supernatural powers. We have just learned to look for things other people might not pick up on.
Let’s consider portraits
If that professional is a corporate portrait photographer it’s looking for fly-away hair, shiny foreheads, loose necktie knots, and glare (or smudges) on glasses. It’s sensing when the subject is anxious and uncomfortable, and helping them get past that. It’s making sure garments look crisp, necklaces are centered, and a myriad of other small details.
Consistency from session to session, year to year is another mark of a professional corporate portrait photographer, because it’s not uncommon for firms pitching a new account to assemble a team using photos taken many years apart.
And then there’s post production
Post Production is what happens between the image capture and the image delivery.
No matter how careful and attentive the photographer is at the photo session, final touches applied in post production are equally important to the final result. Since corporate portraiture is a significant part of what FayFoto Boston offers (as distinct from fashion or editorial portraiture), let’s look at …
I do a lot of business portrait photography, and I do most of the post production on the images my colleagues and I capture. In case you ever wonder what the value of post production is (or why retouching might be an additional fee) I’ll show you a few examples to illustrate why hiring a professional can be money well spent. All of these examples are tightly cropped to preserve the anonymity of the subject while at the same time illustrating one specific area. The differences are obvious when you look at the before/after views, but in real life it’s only the retoucher who sees the difference. Your audience only sees your personnel in their best light.
By the way, none of these corrections were done at the special request of the subject. This is just what a professional who is proud of his or her product brings to the craft. This is what you can expect when you choose to work with FayFoto Boston.
Sometimes at the end of an editing session I say “you’re welcome! But only to myself. To say it out loud wouldn’t be… professional!
We have been working at clearing out old and unnecessary stuff recently. After more than 25 years in our current office, you might well imagine there’s quite a lot of that. Recently Wayne unearthed the very first digital camera FayFoto purchased. That got me curious, so I started sifting through old assignment log books for the first evidence of actually capturing assignments digitally.
They started showing up in the Fall of 1999. Given that we’re into the second quarter of 2018 as I write this, that feels like quite a long time.
We weren’t the earliest of adopters, but our market moved us into providing digital services before a lot of other photographers made the leap (or else said “to heck with this” and moved into some other endeavor). Pro-level digital cameras at that time were beyond our means. We eased into the inevitable by scanning negatives and transparencies for years before investing in digital capture equipment. Our first cautious investment in a digital camera was at the upper end of what was then the consumer level. (It was a Kodak DC265, purchased in the Fall of 1999 at the CompUSA around the corner from our office. You can still read the camera’s review in DPReview’s archive!)
I’ll begin this article with a few words about the word retouching. We understand that this is the word everyone uses and understands, so we use it, too.
Frankly, most of the connotations about that word are negative. At best it implies fakery. At worst it suggests repair work on a flawed subject. We don’t want our work to suggest either of those! We are much more comfortable using the term polishing, which suggests making something good even better. So we’ll continue to honor the term which is used by most of the world but, between you and us, polishing comes closer to what we do.
These days, just about every head shot portrait image we release to our clients has been looked at carefully by an experienced digital technician. 1
You don’t have to specify or explicitly request the basics of retouching – you can count on that being done as part of our service. It’s built into our pricing.