Business Portraits and The Digital Revolution

On the rare occasions I have time for reflection, I'm amazed how quickly the digital revolution grabbed hold of photography, it took all the tacit assumptions and turned them on their heads! This was a rapid revolution which in particular transformed the process of portrait photography.  

“Back in the day” the cost of film and processing forced a disciplined attitude to shooting, after an initial set up Polaroid (chargeable to the client) three to twelve frames were shot of each sitter depending on the client's budget.  Needless to say this gave scant opportunity for creative expression, with so few frames to play with success was defined by the number of shots recorded with the sitter’s eyes open rather than the ascetic quality of the portrait! The arrival of digital cameras transformed this shooting process almost overnight, where a photographer was no longer limited by quantity of film stock in the bag, we suddenly had the freedom to clicked away until we got the shot!  Another game changer was the ability to review the pictures just shot, arguably the most profound development. 

The quality of any portrait is determined by many factors, pose, lighting, lens selection and image management to name just a few. The extra dimension the digital world offered was affordable retouching.  Often referred to as airbrushing, literally inaccurate, but a nostalgic reference to the good old days when retouching was achieved courtesy of a skilled graphic artist armed with an array of tools which inevitably included an air brush! However professional photographers are today in a position to offer the entire production process in-house, the upside for the photographer is the ability to control the image from capture to output, the price paid is the endless hours spent at the workstation! Today photographers are in a position to produce better photography with faster delivery than ever before - an obvious benefit to the client. 

In the heady days of the early naughties, there was much resistance to the concept of digital photography. The general perception was of low quality. Ad agencies were using Macs, but most photographers were still shooting on film,  scanned and then refined and manipulated in Photoshop. The last fifteen years has seen the quality of images recorded by digital media improved exponentially.  Sensor technology moved on to enable DSLR to use lenses as their focal length intended and continue to produce ever larger file sizes.  More recently with the advent of the Canon 5DIII and its competitors, the ability to shoot in low light at high speeds, a significant development leading corporate photographers away from the almost inevitable requirement of shooting flash on camera, but rather towards natural ambient lighting. The functionality of cameras have also improved, making the task of image capture a happier experience, notwithstanding the ability to tether to external devices such as laptops or tablets to review photographs in real time, enabling photographers and clients to examine shots in forensic detail during a shoot. 

The inevitable tide of technological development and the pressure of commercial competition will inevitably move photography soon to another stage ...............I can't wait!

The Changing Face of Business Portraits

I've been working as a full time corporate photographer in London for over 20 years, a short period in history but a quantum leap in the technical evolution of photography! Studying as a student photographer in the 1970s, the smell of the chemistry was the overriding sensory experience.  The E4 processing run, colour film, black and white  boxes of bromide printing paper, the chemistry proffered a unique odour, intensified by the light deprived working conditions.  When I joined a Central London agency in the late eighties as in-house photographer (actually salaried) the experience was essentially the same.  The darkroom was similar, albeit more sophisticated. The black and white paper was multigrade, the enlargers were state-of-the-art with integrated filters and the process all by a machine, exposed paper in one end and a dry finished print emerged the other, a miracle of modern technology.

The 21st Century arrived and so did the digital revolution. Photographers swapped film for flashcards,  darkrooms for Macs and Photoshop which has taught us that you can no longer believe anything you see in a photograph!  J-PEGs, TIFFs and images measured in MB rather than inches was the new world of digital imagery sent to bemuse and beguile the 20th Century photographer.  As in most industries the changes were client led, print runs became shorter as clients discovered scanners.  Mail shots became email shots, clients no longer needed hundreds of prints or transparencies to post but a single print to scan and send.  Then came the digital SLR!  The supplier network was no longer needed.  Film suppliers, printing houses, couriers, not forgetting the scanning guys who bridged the technology gap, all gone, now we could do it ourselves!

But what has this meant for the industry?  I believe the clients have benefited all the way. The photography has got better, the delivery has become quicker and the fees have become cheaper.  In 2001 I made the bold, some would say rash, decision to commit myself to digital output.  This was a nervous time as although I was convinced the future lay in sensors and pixels, I was far from certain how my clients would react.  At the time the general perception of digital photography was fairly negative as the overall quality offered by the digital cameras of the day was fairly poor.  The press boys led the vanguard using the latest SLRs, a raft of ever improving cameras followed,eventually hitting the market at an affordable price. How has this improved photography?  Digital technology has enabled photographers to be braver and more creative. The ability to see the actually image shot rather than a preview has allowed photographers the freedom to use light and technique in a less restrained way.  The other creative benefit is removal of material cost when shooting.  In the old days the cost of film and processing restricted shooting in line with the client's budget, now we just shoot and shoot making the probability of, not a good shot, but a great shot much more likely.  Delivery has become almost instant, digital contact sheets and image files delivered via ever faster broadband.













Approaches to Corporate Headshots

Online staff profiles are an increasingly important part of professional business marketing.  Head and shoulder business portraits were an infrequent occurrence traditionally shot for brochures or annual reports, as the shoot was invariably tied up with a publishing date.   However since the recognition of online marketing, and business websites it particular, things have changed dramatically.  Websites are information hungry requiring constant updating, not only to maintain relevance and interest to the visitor but essential for effective SEO, this development has lead to an exponential increase in demand for professional business portraits.

There are two main approaches to the business portrait, a head shot which is essentially a studio photograph, and an environmental portrait which places the subject in a contextual situation. 

The typical location for a business headshot is a boardroom or large office where a temporary studio is set up with the subject photographed against a studio roll.  The key to success in this genre is to ensure that each portrait on the client’s website, which may have been shot over a period of years, appears as if taken during the same session.  It’s vital that the colour balance, crop and pose of each portrait are as close as possible from the first to the last.  Environmental portraits also require the same attention to detail to maintain consistency, but with this more informal style of shooting the background changes with virtually every frame.  Unlike a studio head shot when great attention is given to replicate of each portrait as exactly as possible, the background of each environmental portrait should look slightly different.  Because of the informality of this style even minor variations helps to balance the gallery giving the feel of a candid photo journal project.  Environmental pictures however still need to obey the same rules of continuity as the studio shots with regard to cropping and shooting style.

The joy of this kind of work is that it’s constantly looking forward.  Commercial and corporate websites need constant updating but also periodic revision, often as part of a rebranding exercise.  A fresh and engaging approach to the photography it contains is an important part of that process.