How distorted perceptions of yourself can ruin your enjoyment of life and what you can do about it

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It’s all inside your head

In photography, there are two kinds of distortion that impact an image: optical and perception.

Optical distortion, also known as lens distortion, is caused by the design of the lens itself and its effect is to make straight lines in reality appear bent or curvy. You may notice it happening yourself when you take a photo with a wide angle lens of a group and notice that the figures on the edges of the group (and inside the photo) appear to bend inwards or look wider and larger than they actually are – which is one of the reasons I always advise people who really want to look their best to take the centre position in a group photo if they can).

Perspective distortion, technically, is a function of where the subject of a photo being taken is in relation to the positioning of the lens. People or objects positioned closer to the lens will appear larger, wider and if you are very close, the physical features of their face will look stretched and larger than life. The same thing happens with your own eyes (things closer look larger, things further away look smaller – hence the “super power ability for the infamous Head Crusher in the classic television comedy series Kids in the Hall from the early nineties).

Both are explained in longer format here.

There is, however, another kind of perspective distortion, as it relates to how people, usually women, perceive themselves in photos. As a photographer of people, men and women, I have seen the effects of a distorted perception of reality time and time again. There are many contributing factors, both intrinsic to individuals (low self-esteem, poor body image) and extrinsic from a media saturated world drenched with images of “perfect’ looking people that glorifies body types on women like Kim Kardashian as some how representative of all women.

As a photographer, particularly an event and portrait photographer, my job is to take photos of people looking their best. But at the same time, I believe I am also responsible for showing people as they are and because I look for moments when they are smiling and interacting with people that genuinely interest them, I always find angles and views of people that I believe they look great in. It’s actually one of the things I am most known for as an event photographer, and yet, there are still times when I, and I am sure all working photographers today, encounter clients who just can’t get over how they look in photos.

These kinds of people have unrealistic expectations but more significantly, they have a distorted view of themselves. They focus on details that no one else would ever notice and these loom large in their eyes, while ignoring other positive features or facets of how they are actually perceived. Rather than see themselves as most people do, they hold themselves up to a truly black mirror that distorts their self-image, and no doubt brings psychological pain and discomfort. This can of course then lead them to behave in ways that creates friction or conflict with others when the source has to do with their own distorted view of themselves.

As a people photographer, I sometimes find myself playing the role of therapist, taking my clients through a narrated tour of their photos and trying to help them see themselves as I see them, and surely most other people do as well.

I am not always successful, but I think that it does help to be told that the single out of place strand of hair you are fixating on is invisible to people you are interacting with who are almost always concentrating on what you are saying or what you are about, rather than the way your face looks.

Just like in high school, that pimple on the edge of your cheek is much larger to you than it is to everyone else around you. It may still feel uncomfortable and unpleasant even if you really are obsessed with how you look or really dislike something about yourself (and I know because I had terrible acne as a teenager) but the truth is there is no better version of yourself than the one that recognizes its flaws, works on what can be controlled, and accepts what cannot.

Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. If you suffer from a  perception distortion habit when you see yourself in photos, try to recognize that while your perception may be distorted, you aren’t.  You can change how you see yourself.

Understand that no one pays as much attention to your perceived flaws as you do, and many people (not all, but they have other problems to deal with) are actually trying to see who you are when they meet and interact with you – not what you look like.

When we truly connect with someone it isn’t because of how we look – it’s because of how we make the other person feel. People like–or dislike–other people mainly because of the way they feel when they interact with them. If you are focussed on yourself and adopting stances and postures, both physically and psychologically designed to defend or protect yourself where you feel vulnerable, exposed or uncomfortable you are most likely going to invoke those same feelings in others. If you want to be seen for who you are, accepted, respected, loved even – your first responsibility is to change the way you perceive yourself so that you feel that way about yourself first. Change yourself and you change your world.

Last-minute portraits?

Here’s a fact that surprises people all the time when I tell it to them: more the 50% of the corporate headshots I take are last-minute rush jobs.

How is it possible, they ask, that someone could ever urgently need a photograph, let alone a headshot? Believe me, I used to wonder the same thing, until I started paying attention to the triggers. People use the same professional headshot for several years. Just do a quick scan through your contacts on LinkedIn and see how many have updated their photos in the past year. People kind of forget about their profile pics after a while, until a need arises for a new one.

Here are some of the reasons why all of a sudden, a headshot is needed, like NOW! All of the examples below are taken from real contracts I’ve had.

  • “Looking for new challenges”: People don’t change their headshots unless there is a change in their employment status. When that happens, there may be a lead up to the decision if the change is self-driven, but there are many reasons why a person’s employment status can change beyond their control. This unexpected change often triggers a need for a new look.
  • “You’re published!”: People get articles published on schedules they don’t control, and get asked to submit a bio picture along with their submission.
  • “You won!” : People win industry awards and accolades, or are selected for internal company awards they weren’t expecting and they need a picture to accompany the announcement.
  • “You’re being promoted!”: Good things happen to hard working people. They get promotions and despite company’s best efforts, HR doesn’t always keep internal comms informed of the latest personnel changes, nor provide a lot lead time before the announcement has to go out, particularly in public companies where the change in senior level appointments is material information that must be made public.
  • “You’re invited to speak at our upcoming…”: People get asked at the last minute to speak at an event, a gala dinner, or a conference they hadn’t planned on going to. Suddenly they are facing a roomful of their peers and colleagues with a 10-year old bio picture that looks like it was cut out of their high school year book. Awkward.

As with all rush-jobs, there are usually fees associated that raise the price of the product or service being purchased. As well, the last-minute pressure also usually indicates a lack of preparation and limits the number of other people in the office or on site who may also be in need of a new headshot but just aren’t given enough notice to get there for the appointed day because they are out of the office, in a client meeting or just having a bad hair day. All of these factors increase the cost to the buyer.

A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down…

Forward-thinking planners, event and conference organizers can score big savings by taking advantage of organizing an onsite headshot session when they are assembling people who may only get together once or twice a year. Annual meetings, board meetings, seminars, training sessions, workshops and conferences are just a few places where people are brought together. This allows the organizer to save on per/head costs as the set up fee for an onsite portrait session can be spread out over a number of individuals rather than just the one.

To those paying for the service, there may be the perception that bringing in a photographer to conduct a portrait session is just an unnecessary extra expense tacked on the event, but if viewed from a slightly longer-term perspective, the savings can be significant to the organization.

  • Per head costs / portraits can be reduced by 50% or more
  • Leverage the investment already made in bringing important people together (food, hotel, travel)
  • Raise staff morale – everyone loves having a little extra attention paid to them, and a professional headshot is a nice perk that saves your staff money. Happy workers are more productive ones.

Leaving anything to the last-minute creates more stress, cost and hassle. It’s great for my business, but do yours a favour and plan ahead. You will need a new headshot someday. Don’t wait till that day happens to be tomorrow.

How to feel good about how you look in photos

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Seeing the world through Snap-coloured glasses

Being a photographer requires a thick skin and an appreciative eye to help deal with the number of times people tell you, “I hate having my photo taken.”

It comes from women and men, young and old, in professional settings and at parties. It doesn’t matter what the person actually looks like, it’s how they think about what they look like that matters.

It’s not all just insecurity, though that plays a role. Far too many people have a distorted view of themselves. They look in the mirror and see what’s wrong with their face, their nose, their eyes, their teeth, their hair etc. I look and I see someone who is almost always much more photogenic and pleasant to look at than they believe themselves to be. The slight “imperfections” they balk at are the features that distinguish their faces from others and what gives them each something uniquely their own that makes them uniquely themselves. Alas, we are our own harshest judges.

The reality of a photograph is, well, it’s not really a reflection of reality. It’s a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world and therefore it is inherently misleading.

The same face can look remarkably different depending on a wide range of factors. In a portrait or group photo for example the most common elements that affect the way someone looks are:

  • the kind of lens being used (85mm to 100mm portrait, or 70-200mm telephoto are best)
  • the distance a subject is standing from the photographer
  • where in the frame the subject is standing (on the edge or in the centre)
  • the angle of the photo (from below, from above)
  • the lighting/shadows at play influenced by time of day, indoors or outdoors, with flash or no flash, etc.
  • the way a person stands (posture), and holds his or head (angle/tilt of head)
  • whether or not the chin is tucked in or thrust out (which impacts how well-defined, or not, the jawline is)
  • what someone is wearing (scarf, plunging neckline, collar short, etc)

So, now that you know that there are a lot of variable at play, which ones can you influence the next time you have to have your photo taken despite hating having to do so?

Three tips for liking the way you look in photos:

There are, of course,  a few little tricks that people who really hate having their photos taken can keep in mind the next time it happens at an event they are attending.

  1. Smile widely and naturally: this one doesn’t come easily to everyone, which actually always kind of surprises me, so I recommend practice. Smile in front yourself in mirrors. Smile at your colleagues. Smile at strangers. You don’t have to be weird or leery about it. Just smile when you see something out there in the world that is smile-worthy. It may come slowly at first, but once you start doing it, it’s a hard habit to break.
  2. Think jawline: people almost alway prefer the image of themselves that shows a distinct jawline vs. one lost in a double chin, or a twisted, wrinkled mass of neck. To get yours to look the way you want, practice thrusting your chin out for photos ever so slightly. It doesn’t take much to pull the chin away and bring out the line. Conversely, try not to turn your face too much away from the camera and don’t tuck in your chin (which many people do habitually when having their photo taken)
  3. Take centre stage: if you are in a group shot, put yourself in the middle or as close to the middle as you can be. It’s the sweet spot for all lenses, and your image will therefore not suffer any distortion that can sometimes impact the people on the edges who may be a little closer to the photographer, or be stretched a bit by lens distortion.

Number #1 Rule for Looking Good In Photos

The best way to look good in photos is to dispense with believing in the “one ideal body type” fallacy, love yourself and smile like you mean it. And mean it. Really, happy, smiling people who are comfortable with themselves and the way they look are ALWAYS more attractive. We all come in different shapes, colours and sizes. We’re supposed to look different from each other. That’s normal. A bland, homogenous and artificial sense of beauty is damaging to self-esteem and is fake. Be you and you will look your best.

Free headshots for your employees can help your company attract new talent

CORPORATEPROFILE101Your current employees are your company’s best brand ambassadors. Central to effective talent acquisition and recruitment today is having an effective employee referral program plugged into your hiring practices. LinkedIn is probably the most important tool in this arsenal and it has a wealth of content available for companies looking to fire up their recruitment drives and engage employees. And yet, how many of your current employees don’t have an updated LinkedIn profile?

You can help them – and yourself in the process – by setting up a simple LinkedIn training session accompanied by an onsite headshot photo session.

Alas, gone are the days when it was enough to just pay your employees a decent salary and they’d be grateful to have a job. As an employer you’re now also on the hook for making your workplace a fun place to be, that respects and provides for work life balance, as well as all kinds of other perks to keep your employees engaged in a world of distraction. Sorry, but free coffee isn’t going to cut it in a world where talent is always on the move.

Social media (where half your workforce right now is “investing” a bit of company time), is unavoidably where you have to be if you want to attract, retain and engage the best talent out there for your workforce.

An updated profile picture is a necessary tool in today’s workforce. It’s a simple thing to get wrong and if you or your staff still isn’t using one, you’re losing up to 40% of your views and you look a bit creepy.

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Would you trust this guy?

Giving your employees the tools and assets to up their own game on social media sites is a value-add benefit that will pay back dividends to the company, especially if it’s tied to a smart in-house referral program. Remember, there’s a lot more “me” in social media than you’d think.

Plan a morning or half session where you gather your social media specialists (either in-house or bringing in a consultant) and offer a short presentationCORPORATEPROFILE18 (1) on how to leverage LinkedIn for career development and to promote your own company.

A headshot session in this context is about as cost-effective as it gets. That doesn’t mean you cheap out and do it in-house. Hire a pro, but leverage the volume to get a low cost/head or negotiate a fixed rate. It’s way cheaper to get all your staff done at once than to bring in a corporate photographer on an urgent basis when you realize your executive that’s just been nominated for an industry award is still using his vacation pic from Cancun in his profile.

 

 

How does your profile picture rate?

Using profiles to sort through people is a bit of a dirty word in policing but online we’d all be lost without one. We’re now “seen” hundreds if not thousands more times by people (and bots, and spammers, and other internet undesirables) online than we ever are in real life – but are we paying a proportionate amount of attention to how we -or our avatars– are being perceived?

You probably wouldn’t leave the house without at least a cursory glance in the mirror to check your hair, scan your complexion and make sure you had nothing large and green stuck in your teeth but how long have you had that cropped vacation pic up as a placeholder on LinkedIn that you’ve been meaning to change but just haven’t got anything better to replace it with?

Here’s something fun you can try out. I discovered PhotoFeeler while listening to a great podcast from Terry O’Reilly’s The Art of Persuasion . The site lets you upload a photo of yourself and have it ranked across three metrics (that change depending on whether your purpose is business, social or dating). The “free” test actually requires 10 credits which you can get easily enough by voting on ten other photos of random people the site serves up to you. The results, as this excerpt from an email I got today show, can be quite revealing, showing marked differences in opinions on the same person from photos taken seconds apart:

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Here are my results (for the first two I selected “Business” and the last one “Social”):

This is my current LinkedIn photo (soon to be old LinkedIn photo as you can see from the results):

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Not what I expected, but then maybe I should have sprung for the $12 evaluation which gathers more than 10 quick hit votes. Or maybe I need to change my photo. I do think that with half my face hidden behind the camera I may be turning off people as it’s hard to trust someone if you can’t see their eyes and a smile.

Now here are the results from my last LinkedIn photo that I just changed away from (but looks like I’ll be switching it back in!):

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My personal Facebook photo did alright, though I care a little less about this one. I think the hat is pushing up my grade in the Fun category.

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All in, though this was only the free version and a rough vote, I think it probably correlates well to how these images are perceived. A handy tool for anyone on the job/dating market looking to get a bit of insight in what their profile picture says about them. I’d like to see, in addition to these raw results, a few guidelines on how to improve the photos selected and more detail on what elements people are reacting to in particular, but perhaps that comes with more votes/the paid version.  In any case, a fun way to get a look in the mirror through someone else’s eyes.

 

 

When does pricing per image make sense?

When should a client and photographer opt for a per image pricing contract?

Pricing in photography has always been a challenge and will continue to be so as the demand for creative images increases in tandem with the abundance of suppliers.  While quality can vary considerably between photographers, the bottom end of the range has risen in line with technology so an average shooter ten years ago is now able to deliver reasonably good images with some basic kit that may meet the needs of some clients. On the upper end, the possibilities of what can be done with images in post-production, as well as the quality of images that can be captured and created now with top-line professional gear that can include virtual reality cameras like the Ricoh Theta S, drones and a range of pro lenses, is even more impressive and can satisfy even the most demanding of clients.

The struggle remains however, for the independent photographer, in determining the right price for their work when a request comes in from a new client. Given the paucity of full time jobs for photographers and the oversaturation of people in the field all calling themselves professionals, pricing for any given type of photographic assignment is really widely distributed. The range begins at free and rises up through the thousands for the same kind of assignment.

I recently read a very good and thorough article on PetaPixel by Rosh Sillars that explores the idea of pricing photography in 2016 in great detail. I recommend reading it for anyone – producer or buyer – who is in the market of hiring photographers, buying photographs or producing images. I want to focus on just one aspect of the article, regarding per image pricing as it is a concept I am beginning to explore with my clients and feel that in certain contexts it makes the most sense from both the photographer’s and buyer’s point of view.

Specifically, I want to explore types of assignments I am experienced in where it would and would not make sense to offer per-image pricing. I look at four types of photography: event, portrait, editorial/website and wedding.

EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY:

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Per image pricing? Not for most situations

One of the challenges an event photographer encounters with every gig is how to gauge what balance of images a client actually needs and will use vs coverage provided. In most events for which a photographer is contracted, there is a planned agenda which is followed with more or less adhesion depending on the client, type of event etc. While not every event has speakers or centre-stage activity, there will be a timeline and detailed plan for the night that an event manager has hashed out, often down to the minute. This holds true whether you are covering an international conference or a local wedding.  As the person responsible for providing visual coverage of the event, one of your tasks is to capture everything that happens – which includes both scheduled agenda items, as well as candid moments, beauty shots of rooms, important items, and often signage and evidence of sponsorship activity.  The result is a tendency to err on the side of over-shooting such that at the end of even a brief 2 or 3 hour event you may well have a few hundred images to subsequently sort through, curate, edit and then deliver to the client.

How would per-image pricing work in that scenario? I have never met a client who wants to pay more to do more work, which is exactly what would happen were a per-image pricing model enlisted in this context. Furthermore, some of the most beautiful and engaging images I have captured as an event photographer happen in those unscripted moments where people experience some kind of emotional uplift or response to each other. These images are often my signature pieces but would they make the cut if a client is suddenly sensitized to the idea of having to pay for each and every image?

I suppose the model exacts a discipline on both the photographer and the client to really focus in on the essentials, and this kind of a constraint can have a positive impact on creativity, but I believe it would have a greater negative effect on the overall workflow of the shooter and result in a less attentive, less responsive style of shooting that would skew towards the main event, ignoring or overlooking the often much more interesting, fun and engaging, off-stage type moments where the magic tends to happen when people gather.

PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY

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Per image pricing? Yes, almost always

Portrait photography much more easily lends itself to per image pricing. Often a client is booking for a number of employees, the shoots take place on site in the client’s office and there are invariably last minute additions when random employees wander past and see a photoshoot going on and beg to have a shot “so I can update my LinkedIn profile”.  A day rate or per hour contract in this scenario can be costly for the photographer as the workload is effectively uncontrollable. When shooting portraits in the client’s office, there is a lot of pre and post work involved, not the least of which may be physically accessing sometimes inconveniently located office spaces, navigating a labyrinth of loading dock, freight elevators and shipping doors lugging around the unwieldy collection of light stands, gear, etc., required to make everyone look beautiful. Then there is the set up-almost always in an office that is cramped and small-before the shoot happens. While each subject may not require more than 10 or 15 minutes, post-shoot there is the added work of sorting, and editing final versions of images that are highly scrutinized by their likenesses. It is not for the faint of heart and all in, a per image pricing model makes a lot of sense. How much per image is a completely different story of course, as the end result needs to still align with client expectations and counter the misperception that all you’re doing is pressing a button.

I normally calculate portraits on a per image fee, starting from a fixed base for the onsite studio set-up than a per head fee that can be adjusted based on discussions with clients vis-a-vis budgets, as well as the type of client being served.  I consider it fair to offer lower, more flexible rates to smaller businesses and charge full pop for corporate users. My pricing is based on a fairly elaborate calculation that takes into account not just all the work required to perform the specific task, but the overhead involved in marketing a corporate portrait business, and aftermarket support to clients.

EDITORIAL/WEBSITE PHOTOGRAPHY

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Per image pricing? Yes, almost always

Thanks to the convergence of social media sites and formerly corporate websites, there is an ever-growing demand for fresh photography to populate an array of digital properties most companies have to manage today to ensure their brands stay relevant and they are engaging their customers where and how they like to be engaged. This generates, in turn, an  insatiable desire for imagery which is heavily skewed to photography. While video is a rising star in the digital marketing world, use-cases for video are still more restricted than photography. While it’s quite possible to envision a website with no video on it, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the same with no photography. And as most stock imagery these days is recognizable as such, clients with even a little budget are thinking creatively about their needs and hiring photographers to generate their own library of custom stock photography. It can be done affordably and may often be less expensive than the ostensible cheaper option of using stock images. But in either case, a per image fee makes a lot of sense here. Clients who hire photographers to come in and document a day in the life of their office space usually have a set of images in mind that they’d like to see at the end of the day. A talented photographer can work through that kind of list and add value by shooting the shot list with their own brand of creativity that can excited clients when they see the final results. As well, this can be a very low-risk type of contract for a client to enter into as there are no fees paid other than for the images they themselves select and place a value on.

For these kinds of contracts, whether the images are ultimately destined for internal client use, a public facing website or publication or media, the pricing per image should reflect both the effort and skill required to take them, as well as the post-production necessary. While some photographers will share unedited proofs, I believe this to be a terrible idea that is highly disfavourable to the photographer. A movie producer does not release a trailer of the unedited cuts. Most clients, regardless of their sophistication and experience purchasing photography, do not have the time and skill required to parse an image, as it were, and see it for its potential from an unedited proof. More than likely they will deem the work subpar, and judge the photographer accordingly.  While there is a risk to the photographer of editing a batch of images that may not, in the end, be purchased, this can be mitigated against by making a judicious selection of images to edit and share with the client initially. Once the client’s appetite has been whetted, more images can be processed and shown should the client express interest.

WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY

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Per image pricing? No.

Wedding photography (which I run through a separate weddings focused business here), is in my opinion, the mother of all excess and the source of the most widely varied pricing in the industry. This is due to a conflux of factors including: first time buyers, people spending other people’s money, vast gaps between expectation and reality when it comes to desired outcomes vs real budgets, and good old fashioned price gouging, exaggerated markups and unscrupulous vendors taking advantage of misinformed or unsaavvy buyers to charge huge, unwarranted premiums.

Now before all you wedding photographers get your corsages all tied up in a knot, I’ll say that some wedding photographers are truly gifted artists and power to them for charging as much as they can and finding receptive clients happy to pay. These comments are not for you. But for the wedding factory type photography outfits, the fly-by-nighters, and the countless hacks who claim to offer some kind of premium service when all they are really doing is grabbing at extra margin because they’ve inserted the word “wedding” into their portfolio, I believe the balance of power is shifting to consumers and your days of overcharging are numbered.

Brides and grooms, while subject to a vast array of marketing machines aiming for their wedding dollars, are becoming savvier and more prudent with who and how they hire. Paying a fixed package price that takes into account all the extras and additional work of a wedding is fair, but spending over $10,000 on wedding photography, no matter how jaw-droopingly beautiful you may be, is just a silly waste of money. Yes, weddings are a lot of work and they are rightfully a little more expensive than your average event photography contract. While the same skill set is required, given the intimate nature of the event, the vast number of guests who are all in their own way important, and the richness of opportunity for touching moments to happen and be captured by a sensitive photographer, there is necessarily an increase in effort that needs to correlate to price. Within reason.

I would not see a per-image pricing model as any way satisfactory for clients for their wedding. In a typical wedding photography contract a photographer works anywhere from eight to fourteen hours on the wedding day. There is often more than one location, multiple lighting situations to accommodate for, and a parade of necessary if rather formulaic images the clients will expect to receive. The photographer is also considered the expert and will have a leading role to play in organizing groupings, and managing the “formal” parts of the shoot. All of this is best covered under a blanket fee based on a blended rate that covers both time on the ground, as well as the significant post-production work that will be done on the images.

In reviewing these four types of photography assignments, it is clear that in all cases, the best pricing model for both client and photographer is aligned. Much noise is made in photographer circles about the costs of maintaining a photography business (expensive gear, high upgrade costs, time to market, etc) but I don’t think that is at all relevant to clients nor should it be. No one forces a photographer to go into business. If you are a photographer, you’ve chosen a career with variable income, and high operating costs. Complaining about that to your clients doesn’t get you better pricing and won’t make you more money. Choosing the right kind of pricing structure for the job that places the client’s interests above your own, on the other hand, will.

The most beautiful woman in the world

People Magazine just released their pick for the most beautiful woman in 2016: Jennifer Aniston.

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I have nothing at all against Jennifer Aniston. I think she is a great actress with lots of comedic talent and yes, she is quite pretty. But I do have something against beauty contests in general, and something about this headline really bothers me.

First of all, it celebrates celebrity which I think is a vacuous and thoughtless focus on a small percentage of humans who through luck, genetic windfalls and of course skill and hard work too, find themselves splashed across the covers of things like People magazine and movie screens. Yes, they are often nice to look at and they entertain us and move us emotionally, but they receive a disproportionate amount of attention to the value they add to society, and distract attention from other important issues that are harder to think about (like climate change, or corruption, or systemic racism, etc…) that actually have much greater impacts on real people’s lives.

Celebrity culture, the nadir of which would be someone like Kim Kardashian showing off her shapely buttocks and expensive bathroom, demeans everyone who engages in it. It locks us into an inherently superficial relationship with ourselves and each other, that actually dehumanizes both the star-struck fan and the celebrity whose personality and true self lies buried beneath the persona.

It also makes regular people, regular looking people with regular lives, feel badly about themselves. It idealizes specific looks, body types, hairstyles, skin tones, accessories and lifestyles that aren’t a part of most of our lives.

As a photographer of course, I stand accused. My work is to photograph people and I know that the more recognizable my subject, the more attention my work gets and the more “important” by association, I become.

But the worst thing about the epithet of “The most beautiful X…” is it implies a judgement and sets up the entity making the announcement as some kind of authority on beauty when such a thing is purely fiction. A fantasy. False.

There is no one most beautiful anything. We are all capable of being beautiful and carry within ourselves the real source of beauty, in how we behave towards one another and what we can contribute to the communities we share.

I know it’s just a marketing ploy (I used the same tactic for my headline), but it isn’t harmless. I’ve seen so many people through my lens who fret about how they look, and how they are perceived – particularly younger women – and their misperception about the way they look affects their self-esteem and sense of self-worth and that’s what really bothers me.

If we spent more effort seeking out and seeing the real beauty in the people around us, and less time and energy on the images of famous people, perhaps we’d make the world a kinder place for all of us.

 

 

 

 

How to survive as a freelance photographer

How do you survive as a freelance photographer?

I encounter a lot of people who are curious about what it’s like making a living as a freelance photographer. Because I often go into offices during the work day to shoot an executive or pickups of office life for company websites, I am in contact with lots of people doing a lot of different jobs.

And I see the look of incredulity on people’s faces when I tell them what I do for a living. They can’t quite seem to fathom that in this digital age where everyone is armed with a camera in their pocket, and people are uploading hundreds of millions of photographs daily to Instagram and Snapchat, that anyone could possibly earn enough to survive by just being a photographer.

And while I am not “just a photographer” (I do a lot of freelance writing as well), photography is my main occupation and what I fill out on customs cards when I travel.

Do it for love, not money

I am the first to admit that photography as a career choice is not one made with an eye to getting rich. Indeed there are very wealthy photographers out there, those who shoot celebrity portraits on exotic beaches, for example, but I am not one of them, and the vast majority of working photographers are not either. Gigs come and go, clients come and go, and you are never guaranteed anything. It is not a surefooted, clearly marked career path and there is no security. So if you are looking for anything of the sort, it may not be the best choice for you.

It is, however, one of the best jobs in the world if you enjoy meeting a lot of people in a wide range of contexts, and engaging with each one of them on a human level. One of my first ambitions in life was to become a journalist, and though I never realized it, photography affords much of the same exposure to different situations, different groups of people and an array of ideas (if you keep your ears open as you do your work) that is very exciting. It is totally unscripted – one day you may be doing a CEO portrait in an office tower, the next you’re covering a tree-planting team building event in a city park, but the opportunities are truly endless for encountering new, interesting people and getting a snapshot of who they are by being a fly on the wall in their every day lives.

So if you love meeting lots of different people and having many interactions throughout the day (if you are covering a large event like a conference or tradeshow), than it is a very fulfilling job.

Get your hustle on

How do you get business? In that sense it’s no different than any other freelancer gigness out there. Whether you are a writer, a designer, graphic artist, videographer or the guy who sets up window displays for shops on High Street, getting gigs is about showing up, doing your best work every time, listening and understanding what your client really needs, delivering everything you promise (and more), and then doing it all over again for the next client. And the next. And on and on until one day you get a call from someone who says they heard about you from someone else.

While you can never stop hunting for new clients – and that can mean making cold calls, running e-mail marketing campaigns, maintaining a blog with regular, useful content, and good old-fashioned networking both on and off-line – holding on to the clients you have is also part of the job. If you develop a good relationship with your client – mainly by doing good work consistently for them – you earn the benefit of their repeat business. Having a few regular clients can help smooth out some of the variability in your income and provide a degree of security, though nothing ever lasts forever.

Developing your hustle muscle is also critical. I never go to any gig without a pocket full of business cards, and my spiel ready to deliver at the right moment if I meet a prospective future client. While the main focus is always on the paid gig at hand, part of photographing people necessarily entails talking and connecting with them. Not doing so makes you that awkward shooter lurking on the sidelines and yields a crop of photos showing people with slightly annoyed looks on their faces at your interruptions. You have to interact, and mingle, professionally. Sometimes, in so doing, you’ll meet someone who might need what you’ve got to offer and you follow up. I’ve landed a lot of new business this way.

Don’t let your love go cold

Finally, staying at it and always looking for ways to up your game or improve your skills, tools and technique is all part of the job. You are only ever as good as your last job, and no body cares how expensive your gear is. They just want great photos and it’s your job to get them done.  I read up on photo news, stoke my perpetual gear lust with Pinboards full of the latest gadgets, and experiment constantly with new approaches to my work.

It’s very important not to let your passion ebb away by letting your work go stale. After the 100th portrait of the old guy in a suit against a grey seamless backdrop in a cramped little fluorescent lit office downtown, you may be tempted to just mail it in. But that would be the beginning of the end of your career, I believe, because to that man, this portrait means something. It’s a sign his company is investing in him, a chance for him to show who he is to his clients or to accompany a news article about his recent accomplishments. Having your portrait taken is something to be proud of, and it’s important to always keep your emotional IQ running high to ensure you never lose sight of what a photo is really about.

Taking good pictures, and being the kind of photographer people like and want to hire is ultimately not about the tech you are using, or any tricks you’ve learned along the way. Yes, you need to understand your gear, have mastery over the tools you have, and not flub the shots technically. But the most important aspect of the work is making sure your heart is in it, and keeping it there.

Stick with it

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Mr. Stickwithitness

Being a freelance photographer is really an amazing life. I’ve been able to travel, meet interesting, friendly and wonderful people and see places and things I never would have were it not for the work. That’s imparted a very deep sense of gratitude in me and a respect for my work. I truly believe that it’s a privilege to be hired by every client, and every client deserves my best work. If I let that slip, even a little, it’s the beginning of the end for me.

The work is important. The gigs will vary. You’ll have to nail your pricing and be flexible and able to talk frankly about cost vs. value, and you’ll need stamina. All entrepreneurs will tell you that it takes twice as long as you think it will to be successful, and will cost twice as much as you expect it will to get there.

How you define “success” of course, is up to you. I consider the option to wake up every day, direct my efforts towards my goals and do important work for great clients a success. And as my economics professor once told me, I’ve got “stickwithitness” which is probably the single most important thing you need if you want to make it as freelance anything.

How to take better beach portraits

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Context counts

Taking pictures on the beach is a great way to extend the pleasure of a vacation. Long after the waves have receded into the ocean and your week in the sun is a distant memory, photos and videos from your lazy days on the beach can cast a warm afterglow on the experience.

But it’s also a pain having anything electronic on the beach because of all the things that make a beach, well, a beach: salty air, salt water, intense heat, sand, sand, and more sand.

fuerte1I can’t do much about the sand except to recommend keeping your gear (which includes your phone) in a ziplock bag before stuffing it into the sandy catch-all beach bag, but here are a few recommendations for making the experience less technically frustrating and for maximizing the images you take home along with the seashells you gather up from the shore:

1) Shoot early or late: depending on where you are in the world, there are optimal times to go to the beach, and unsurprisingly, these also present the best lighting opportunities for photos. Everyone has probably heard the term “the golden hour” that photographers love to gush on about. It’s actually a bit of a misnomer as it pertains to two distinct periods during the day – shortly after sunrise and shortly before sunset, and may not even last a full hour, but the idea is simply that these times are when the sun’s light is warmer, characterized by a golden, reddish tone which bathes people in a very flattering light. If you’re looking to get a great family portrait on the beach, grab a few glasses for the bubbly, gather up the kids and get to the beach about an hour before the sunset. Then position yourselves facing the sun, so the light is on your faces, and fire away (you’ll need a tripod-see #2)

Getting ready to surf at the "golden hour"

Getting ready to surf at the “golden hour”

2) Bring a tripod: there are myriad tripods on the market and I’m not going to recommend any specific brand, though I think the GorillaPod style (the original is by JOBY but there are now lots of copycat brands) is best suited for a beach as you can use the flexible grips to wrap around a piece of driftwood, or balance on your bag or even a bottle of water. The only disadvantage is height as the pod legs aren’t extendible nor very long. For that you can go for any number of travel tripods that are lightweight (no heavy SLRs here) but ideal for packing, carrying and using a lightweight camera or your phone beachside.

3) Watch out for overexposure: beaches are some of the brightest light saturated environments your camera will ever deal with. There is light bearing down on you from above, bouncing off the sands below and refracting off the water before you. Be careful when you set up your shot to expose for the faces in your image, and not have them turn into blackened silhouettes by letting the camera choose randomly.

beachportrait1.jpg4. Use a flash: given the excess of light on a beach you may wonder why I’d recommend using flash. If you want really great shots of people standing in front of a gorgeous sunset, a flash is the only way you can get it right. If you don’t either you’ll expose for the sunset behind them and their faces will be too dark, or you’ll expose for the faces and the sunset will disappear.  Use a flash to highlight everyone in the shot and you’ll get the best of both worlds.

With these few tips you’re guaranteed to take better pictures on the beach, and come away with more than just tan lines.

Happy travels!

Behind every photo is an idea

Men at work

I was recently hired to create the photos for a company website relaunch project. The creative briefing involved meeting with the marketing director and general manager, reviewing the look book provided by their web designers and brainstorming on what we could do to make the portraits and products look interesting, authentic and fresh in line with the new look planned for the site.

 

Decommissioned manufacturing site near Montreal

Decommissioned manufacturing site near Montreal

The look we were trying to achieve was industrial, showing real people in contexts related to the nature of the work they do (manufacturing and refurbishing various barrels, pails, buckets, oil drums and related myriad accessories). We immediately discussed shooting the portraits in a second factory location currently in the process of being dismantled. As the decommissioning of our shooting location was active, we needed to move quickly from planning to shooting to ensure there would still be machinery and interesting materials to work with to create our setups.

I visited the factory location a day before shooting day to scope out some locations. I wandered through the furnace where once steel oil drums were burnished and formed, along rails they used to roll along that passed in front of a paint room with walls Jackson Pollack would envy, letting visual ideas come to me as I wandered. In the central area workers were cutting through large machines to be hauled off for scrap, their arc welders casting off sprays of sparks like oversized sparklers on a birthday cake. The floor was covered in dust and tracks from various vehicles and dollies had criss-crossed it leaving patterns like you’d see on a road of recently fallen snow.

On shooting day, I arrived early and created three set-ups: one by a stack of wonderfully aged and multi-coloured palettes; another in a room with a vast collection of black standing oil drums waiting for their final delivery; and a third in the furnace room before a gnarly, beast of a machine with pipes and vents protruding from it like a patient on life support.

The subjects, real people, not models, some of whom clearly had not had much, if any, experience with a professional photographer, arrived in time slots, 5 at a time. I decided to try to shoot each in a slight different spot, giving each a unique portrait that would all be thematically linked and visually consistent, but different enough to convey a sense of the uniqueness of each individual.

It went exceedingly well, and both my client and I was pleased with the results. I realized that a big part of the success of this shoot was having the leeway from the client to be creative and have fun with the shoot, within the framework agreed to ahead of time. As well, the subjects themselves, initially a little nervous and awkward soon found themselves enjoying the experience and contributing ideas for setups and locations that improved the final images.

And all of it was done within a few productive days. No long lead up or series of creativity-sapping meetings, no layers of approvals or complicated lighting setups. We worked with what we had, in an authentic environment marked by time and delivered a set of unique portraits that will breathe new life into the forthcoming website, a far cry above the standard, dull, headshot-against-seamless-white background that everyone has seen thousands of time.

The difference really, was this shoot started with an idea we collaborated on – photographer, client and subjects – to create something together.

The slide show of your life

Image of girl looking at negatives from old 8x10 camera

Image of girl looking at negatives from old 8×10 camera

Yesterday I went to a funeral, at the end of which we were invited to visit a slide show playing off to the side of the church. You’ve seen these before. They play at milestone events like weddings, 50th+ birthday celebrations and in their saddest iteration, funerals. It made me think about what those pictures really mean.

Why do we like to look at pictures? Why do we care?

Usually these slide shows are put together by someone close to the person, or for a wedding, the couple being married. They are often preceded by an email call out to friends and family asking if they’ve got any photos of the beloved(s) they can share. The end result is always a mishmash of photos taken over a span of years, with varying – usually fairly amateurish – photo quality. Overexposure, odd crops, off-colour and poor lighting are commonplace – and it doesn’t matter at all. You can almost always feel the full emotional impact of the image regardless of quality. In some case, too much quality actually diminishes the emotional power of the images. We expect professional looking photography when we see an ad or hire a portrait photographer to shoot the family portrait, but we mistrust it in the context of the real, old-fashioned slide show of your life.

Colour slides, the old fashioned kind

Colour slides, the old fashioned kind

For a wedding, the typical formula is a series of baby images and fun kid shots of both the bride and groom, as they are growing up. Family vacation photos feature prominently. Usually around mid-way through, the couple meets and there are a smattering of images of the two together leading up to the present moment.  There tends to be more text and jokey captions on the wedding reel and the end is always celebratory, a kind of big “To Be Continued” implied as the couple will presumably go on to fill out the rest of the slide show together as they live out their lives.

Birthday slide shows are looser, more jokey then the funerary genre but usually carrying an undertone of celebration and kind poking fun at the subject. Key images likely include at least one shot of the subject wearing a ridiculous hat, a few with Hawaiian shirts, and of course, as many as possible showing the subject making a fool of him or herself in various states of inebriation. This kind of slide show is there to fill in the time between speeches and dancing, or it loops while dinner is being served. It can be played with or without narration, depending on the setup in the party.

And finally, the end of life slide show. This one, of course, is the most emotionally riveting. There is something unbearably sad about looking at the smiling face of someone  in full life who is now gone. And yet, I think these slide shows are also an important part of the grieving process and they help the bereaved to say goodbye properly. We want to hold on and the pictures we have of the people we love and have loved throughout our life help us to do it. Like slowly letting go of a hand, these final images are there to tell us that the person we loved, lived a full and happy life that we were a part of. These may be the photos that matter the most to anyone. The images you would run into a burning building to save. They matter to us because the person or the people in them matter to us. And while nothing replaces the living presence of another, a photo saturated with love and seared into memory by a deep emotional connection, matters.  Not just to help us deal with the loss of our loved one, but also to push us back into living life.

A life in slides

A life in slides

Because, in the end, a picture is always and inevitably a revision of a lived event. What really matters, of course, is the living. Experiencing each moment as fully as you can. Being mindful that this moment now, is really all you can ever hope for and to feel it and sense it and be in it as fully as you can. So while the photos we collect of our family and friends are treasures, the moments we share with them matter much, much more.

So put away your phone, take a break from updating your status on Facebook, look up and see who you are with. Then go out and make a moment that you’ll want to keep for the slide show of your life.

Time lapsed in-office corporate portrait session

My Brinno in action waiting for squirrels

I recently purchased a Brinno TLC200 f/1.2 Time Lapse Camera to play around with to incorporate into my conference and tradeshow coverage photography gigs. There is a child-like fascination with watching time speed up, like the thrill you used to get pressing fast forward and play at the same time when watching an old VHS tape (if you’re old enough to remember what a VHS is, if not check here).

Here’s my first attempt, shot recently at one of my client’s offices while we were doing a corporate portrait session.

While I haven’t quite mastered it, I can see how this will be a useful tool to showcase construction projects, or intermittent flows of people moving to and from convention halls, or the setting up and tearing down of trade show booths. The cameras are quite inexpensive relative to most photography gear and I suspect I’ll be getting a few more to play around with.

I also serendipitously came across this article on Springwise (one of my sources for finding out about new products and innovations and really really good for slacking off a bit on a Friday afternoon) about a company using a time lapse camera kit to teach kids about wild life: Camera kit teaches kids about tech in nature which inspired this afternoon’s project, where I’ve set up my Brinno out on the deck to try to capture shots of the squirrels ravaging my garden.

I think it’s a fun camera to have in your kit as a pro, and equally fun for anyone who enjoys messing around with cameras. You could bring one on your next camping trip to document setting up your campsite, and finally have proof that in fact the bear beside  your tent was really just your friend snoring. Happy trails!

 

 

You are somebody – so smile

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I am somebody

I chose the handle @ursomebody for my Instagram account after realizing that julianhaberphotography was too long. But that’s not the only reason – I also chose it because I believe that everyone is a somebody but not everyone believes that about themselves and I find that kind of sad.

I realized that the core of what I do – photograph people at work and at play – provides me with a unique position from which to observe humans in their sometimes unnatural habitats of gala parties and conferences, work parties, and social gatherings. From years of peering through my lenses at thousands of faces, I’ve honed my intuition and feel sometimes like I can see right into who someone is, just by the way they look when they don’t think anyone else is watching, or how they present themselves when they do. I feel this is one of the privileges of being a photographer and I am very grateful for the experience.

What I have observed countless times is the amount of discomfort and social anxiety many people feel that they do their best to hide. Reflecting on that, I came to the conclusion that main reason people feel awkward in social situations is because they harbour a sense of insecurity about themselves. They feel judged. They don’t think they are pretty. They think their clothes don’t fit them well. They think they are fat. They think they are too short. Too tall. Too skinny. Too ugly.

So they develop ways of hiding. They lean away from the photographer. They smirk rather than smile. They slouch, they turn their bodies defensively away from the lens. These gestures and subtle adjustments to posture and pose when facing a lens are not always conscious or deliberate. I believe, in fact, that most are unconscious. But to me it says that the person before me feels a kind of pain and I’ve learned that a big part of my job as a photographer of people at social and professional events is to make that pain disappear – however briefly. One easy way to do it is just by being kind and by recognizing that not everyone who is beautiful believes it about themselves, so I try to make them feel that they are. I think this is a valuable thing to learn to do for oneself as well.

We are somebodies

We are somebodies

A few helpful things you can do if you are one of those people who doesn’t like the way they look or feels uncomfortable in front of a camera – and there are many others who feel just like you do – is to smile. Just the act of smiling opens up positive energy inside of you and actually improves your state of mind. And you instantly look much better, I can guarantee you that.

We are somebodies

We are somebodies too

Deeper down, my wish is also for you to stop being so hard on yourself. I was once chastised (in a friendly way) by someone whose portrait I had taken for having slightly blended out a few small wrinkles in her face. I hadn’t really thought much about it as I try not to edit portraits very heavily and only allow myself slight interventions to enhance the natural beauty of the person I am photographing. But in this case, the woman – a mother of four – told me she was proud of her wrinkles and didn’t want them brushed away and I realized that she was absolutely right.

You’ve earned the face you have now. Be proud of who you are, how you look and what you can still give to the world.

You are somebody.

 

Leverage conferences for updating new corporate portraits

Conference organizers know that a lot of planning goes into creating a program of interesting and relevant content and attracting a strong roster of speakers, panelists and breakout session leaders. Effort is usually spent creating a detailed shot list for photographers to make sure that nothing on the agenda is missed and the investment in hiring a professional shooter to cover the event pays off with a load of marketable images of attendees and conference activities to help promote next year’s event.

conference-portrait 1Conferences often pull together people from within and across organizations that are otherwise rarely all in one place at the same time, and this creates an opportunity for updated group photos, corporate headshots and bio pictures that is often overlooked by organizers with heads full of conference planning details.

Often the venue itself will provide interesting and useful on site backdrops and your photographer will also have the necessary lighting and equipment to set up a small mobile studio in one of the many spaces occupied by the conference. You’re paying for it already so why not leverage the space to either update your firm’s set of portraits or offer the service to your attendees as an added value for attending your event? conference-portrait 5

Everyone needs a headshot these days – something I’ve written extensively about in posts on personal branding and profile pictures  – but organizing one can be a tedious task often dropped due to other more urgent priorities. If you can offer the service conveniently and quickly to attendees who are already on-site and available, you are providing a useful service and alleviating a pain point preemptively for both your attendees and perhaps the marketing team within your own organization.

While candid photos are always good to have, there is still a need for planned, posed and conventional headshots. I am often approached by conference attendees – people not paying me directly for my work – who say things like, “I need a new LinkedIn photo” or “My headshot is ten years old, can you do a new one for me?”.  Aside from essentially asking a working professional for a freebie, these kinds of requests would take time away from what I am hired to be doing and are rarely accommodated for.  They reveal the demand though, which could be better met by including an on-site portrait option within the general conference coverage contract.

Wconference-portraithy not leverage the inherent social nature of conferences to turn a portrait session into a networking opportunity in its own right? You could promote the on-site photo booth as a place to meet other attendees, leverage its presence by offering another component a sponsor could brand, or embed it inside a collaboration or meeting lounge space that conference attendees can pop into when they have a spare five minutes.

When planning the shooting schedule and generating a shot list for your conference photographer, consider asking about including a mobile photobooth for corporate and group portraits. You’ll save time and provide yet another added value to your attendees.

Yes, people judge you based on how your profile pic looks

Professional headshot

It’s not fair. It’s not even nice, but it seems that people really do make decisions about who you are based on their gut reactions to how you look in your profile picture. As a headshot photographer, I’ve always thought that it was my job to make people feel good and look good when I take their picture (it’s hard to have the latter without the former anyway), but I never gave much thought to why. Then I read this article, “Modeling first impressions from highly variable facial images” – or more accurately, stumbled across it while exploring Pinterest pages on headshots and realized that my work can have a tangible and direct impact on whether someone gets a job, finds a match on a dating site, or gets Friended, Retweeted or LinkedIn. It’s kind of sad, but the truth is, appearances really do matter so you might as well just accept it and try to get the best – and most appropriate – profile photo you can. What works on Facebook (and no, it’s not a good idea to use a photo of your kid as your profile picture there either) doesn’t work on LinkedIn and vice-versa. I’ve written about this before in my post on how to prepare for a photoshoot, and in my post on how your online photo is your avatar, but here are a few thoughts and tips to keep in mind when you realize that it’s time to take your online image as seriously as you do your real world one and update your set of profile photos:

  1. Your online photo is a marketing tool. Perhaps the most important one you’ve got as a shockingly high number of people may not even bother to scroll past your photo if they don’t like what they see.
  2. You can optimize the way you look online. While excessive and heavy-handed use of Photoshop doesn’t really look good (plastic fantastic may work for Barbie but is not recommended for your portrait), that doesn’t mean you can’t have your photo professionally taken, with flattering lighting and lightly retouched to take away distracting elements that take away from your natural good looks.
  3. Choose wisely. Before uploading any photo of yourself, whether it’s for a profile or not, ask yourself if you would feel comfortable with this being on the front page of the New York Times. If not, don’t do it.
  4. Be appropriate: Different online identities call for different looks. While it’s all “you” in the aggregate, a picture you put on Facebook for your friends and family is not necessarily (probably isn’t) appropriate for LinkedIn. Your image should reflect your personal brand in a professional setting, and your personality on more social networks. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but a cropped photo of you from your vacation in Italy is not a good image to lead in with at the head of your LinkedIn profile page.
  5. Don’t do it yourself: while I am a fan of the Maker Movement and respect entrepreneurs and DIYers in general, a good photograph of yourself is harder to get than it looks. I’ve been a professional photographer for over a decade and I wouldn’t take my own photo. In fact, I probably take the worst selfies on the planet. Whether you hire a pro (recommended, of course) or get a friend who knows what they are doing, try to get the best quality image you can get. If you think of your headshot like an online ad for yourself, the cost of paying a professional to take it is negligible compared to the amount of space and views it will garner as you push it out through your various online personae.

As cutting as it sounds, we are quick to judge people on how they look and long to remember our facile first impressions. Make yours count.

Capturing company culture in a corporate portrait

One of the aims (and challenges) of portraiture is to tell a person’s story in just one image. Those that do it well, like Yousef Karsh‘s image of Churchill, are memorable because you see more than a representation of what someone looks like – you see something of who they are.

I was once on a portrait assignment in Old Montreal and asked to capture in a few portraits the main executives of a company with a long and interesting history.

The client, a family operation, has an extensive shipping network and is one of the leading shipping companies in Montreal. The current CEO is following in the footsteps of his father, and his father before him. The corporate portrait needed to capture a sense of the current CEO’s personality and show a continuity and link to the company’s important and valuable heritage.

Next in line

Next in line

I set up this shot in the board room, using two soft-boxes and positioning the CEO and VP beside earlier portraits of their father and former CEO. My intention was to give the impression of people who are in charge but know their place in history.

I took the next few portraits with the company’s business in mind. I wanted to include a view of the St. Lawrence Seaway visible down below, while highlighting the person in the portrait. Lighting a subject in front of a window is a bit tricky, but  with the help of an assistant holding up a baffle to block unwanted glare, and a willing subject, we were able to capture an image that highlights both the main subject and allows in elements of the background that I felt were important, if subtle, accents to the portrait itself.

A man with an Empire

A man with an Empire

Taking good corporate portraits often involves thinking not just about the subject and the technical requirements of the shoot, but also about your client’s business. I believe a good corporate portrait shows a subject in the context of the actual business. While in many cases, a client only needs or wants a straight portrait shot against a seamless grey or white background, in those cases where more can be done, a good way of capturing a corporate portrait is to situate the subject within a framework of visual elements that speak to the culture and brand of the company itself.

What are catchlights and why do you need them in your portrait?

One of my client recently asked me why there were lights in his eyes from the proofs gallery I’d sent him to select his headshot from.

“They are called catchlights,” I told him. “Without them you look dead.”

Catch me if you can

Catch me if you can

As you can see, the photo on the right has had the catchlights removed. The resulting image is somehow unsettling, as if my subject had suddenly been turned into an android with a drained battery.

So what is a “catchlight anyway, and why do photographers want them in their subject’s eyes (aside from wanting their subjects to look alive)?

5853eA catchlight is the light reflected in a subject’s eyes, sometimes called eye lights, that give a sense of life to a portrait. Look into someone’s face the next time you are talking to someone outdoors and you’ll see the reflected light from the sky in their eyes. It is this single source of light – the sun, in other words – that the catchlight mimics. Typically you’ll see the catchlight in the upper portion of the eye, as the placement of studio lights are generally done at an angle above the subject’s head.

We expect to see eyes sparkling when we see someone, even if we are not aware of it. Dull eyes that don’t reflect light appear lifeless. Look for how the next villain or evil character is lit in any film or television show you watch. Now you won’t be surprised if you see the eyes lack catchlights, enhancing the character’s “dark side”, literally.

There are no specific rules to how catchlights should be used, but I like them best when they are not too large, and situated a little off-centre in both irises. Sometimes you will see two lights (reflecting the two umbrellas most portrait set ups require), though some photographers will edit out one so that only a single gleam remains in keeping with the tradition of mimicking the look of the sun reflected in the eye.

Catchlights can come in different shapes and sizes, according to the light source casting them. If the photographer is using a soft box, the catchlights will be square or rectangular. Or if the photographer is using a ring light (preferred flash technique for fashion shoots) the light will be a round circle, like a tiny little LED donut shape in the eye.

I also really like the word catchlight, and the idea that our eyes do actually “catch” light through themselves, allowing those of us fortunate to have good vision see the world.

How much space do you need to take a good portrait?

I'm touching the walls on either side of me;)

If I open my arms I’d be touching two walls

The answer is, not much. While all photographers would love a beautiful, white walled studio with a full cyclorama, mounted studio lighting for every occasion, a view of a lovely European city below, most work out of rented studios or their homes. For photographers, like many of their corporate clients, the real working spaces they inhabit are often small, sometimes a little cramped, or shared so they are elbow to elbow with their colleagues. Most likely there is a boardroom available for meetings, but the day-to-day worker spends a lot of time in a little space and is concerned about whether such a space is adequate for having an in-office portrait done.

The truth is, a good corporate portrait photographer has to be highly adaptable and adjust to client spaces, not the other way around. While nearly all people working today require not just one but a few different profile pictures, this increased online presence has cut into one valuable resource that can’t be bought: time. The time-strapped professional doesn’t want to travel out of their office for a quick portrait to update their headshot, when the same service is available to them in their offices, at a lower cost and in a fraction of the time.

The space required for a corporate portrait is much less than you would think. I’ve worked in offices large and small, in downtown Montreal, industrial parks, hotel rooms, lobbies, boardrooms and people’s homes. The most space I’ve ever had to work with has been maybe 12 by 12 feet, and the least has been much tighter. I’ve been in closets bigger than some of the offices where I took portraits – but the thing is, regardless of the available space, the shots always come out and the subjects look as good.

I took this in my living room

I took this in my living room

Without getting into unnecessary detail on the positioning of lights, and the finagling of backdrops, the point is that a good corporate portrait a client will be able to use for at least a few years, can be taken in any sized office, and the process from start-to-finish can be done in no more than 45 minutes (with most of that time allocated to set up and take down).

 

Unconventional portraits for families, artists and corporate warriors alike

When a young family begins to blossom, many parents are motivated to hire a photographer to shoot their family portrait. Even though parents document nearly every waking (and some sleeping) moment of a new child with iPads, iPhones and inexpensive point and shoot cameras (there are still a few around), there is something about hiring a pro to shoot the “official” family portrait that still has appeal. I’ve done my share of family sessions, in studios, in parks, living rooms and backyards, but one still stands out for its singular point of view.eyes1The idea for this eye-level family portrait actually came from my client herself (99% of all family portraits are booked and organized by the mother of the house). She had a vision for exactly the kind of photo she wanted for her family portrait and I helped execute it for her. This is also an example of the co-creativity involved in producing real, meaningful portraits and this approach can be applied to any kind of portrait, not just the family, but for corporate or professional head shots as well. Sometimes all it takes is stepping out of the office and into the street, taking advantage of the natural urban setting, or finding a convenient, non-traditional backdrop, as in the two shots below.

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Lapointe_CEO_KATIMAVIK2011 100Other times, a really non-traditional portrait can be created by focusing on mood or atmosphere, or playing off an idea generated through discussions with clients about how and what they want to present as an image. Here are a few which turn the concept of a traditional portrait on its head, but still achieve a distinctive look that could be interesting and useful for some purposes.

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Whatever your purpose is for having a portrait taken, consider your creative options before doing it. You may want and need a straight up conventional shot for an updated LinkedIn profile or to add to your bio when publishing a piece of your work, but you can also explore and have a little fun with your image, generating portraits that say something about how you feel or wish to be perceived, whether that is for a private audience or more personalized project in which you want to show something of yourself that is unique, creative and clever. Non-standard crops, artsy Photoshop filters, even blurred images can produce interesting images that might look good printed on canvas as a gift to a loved one, or just to show a different side of yourself to the one everyone expects to see. Whatever your goals are in creating a portrait, taking time to explore your creativity with your photographer can often produce images that are as memorable and unique as you are.

 

Using context, collaboration and communication to create great portraits

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Classical Studies Summer Students

School may be out for most classes, but the hard-working students at the McGill School for Continuing Education are in session right through the hot summer months, and yesterday posed for their class photos on campus. The weather was hot and sunny  but this Montrealer is not complaining as winter is always just around the corner in this city.  After this brief  portrait session was done, I reflected a while on what it takes to create a great portrait whether you are just snapping a few shots of your family on vacation, or looking online to gather a few guidelines to inform your next corporate portrait photo shoot.

  1. Draw out the connections between subject(s) and their relevant subject matter or theme: whether your subject is someone famous, or just one of the millions of hard-working corporate workers out there in the world today, or a group of young summer students taking a course in a Classical Studies program, your job as photographer is to come up with ideas that can be translated into images that represent visually what is relevant to your subject. For example, if your subject is a Math Professor you could set up your shot in a classroom posing your subject in front of a blackboard covered in formulas and equations. Or if your subject is an author, you could set the subject in a contemplative space, perhaps the one where they write, or surround the writer with books. In the case of the McGill Classical Studies students, we (why we? see next point) sought out “classical” looking backgrounds to imbue the young group with a bit of the weight and substance of what they had gathered to study. In brief, contextualize your subject within the essential context of what makes your subject portrait-worthy in the time frame of your photograph.

    Cuban born artist, Alexander Poll

    Cuban born artist, Alexander Poll

  2. Collaborate with your subject(s): In my many years of experience photographing all types of people alone or in groups, from CEOs to
    Let's get married! On skates???

    Let’s get married! On skates???

    toddlers in diapers in a family living room, I’ve found that the single most important element of creating an excellent portrait is having a rapport with the subject. This rapport or relationship is created by including the subject in the creation of their own image. Even world-famous executives with a private jet waiting to whisk them away can and do enjoy a brief moment to create a photograph in which their likeness features that says something about who they are as a person. All portraits have an element of playfulness about them, even the serious ones, and the best ones happen when you as photographer can encourage that innate sense of play in your subject.

  3. Communicate with your subject: this is really just another aspect of collaboration, but it merits its own point as it is really so important when trying to capture an image of someone as they really are, which is the true call of a portrait artist. Talk to your client/subject throughout the creative process. Explain to them what you are thinking or wanting to do. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen my initial ideas improved upon by sharing them with my clients who gamely take up the challenge and often contribute new ideas and have even better backgrounds in mind than I come up with on my own. While I don’t think it’s important, or at all interesting, to tell the client the technical aspects of what’s happening (I’m not sure how many clients I have had who would care what aperture I am shooting at or what lens I am using) I do think it is critical to engage your subject in a dialogue about what you are doing and give them the space and opportunity to contribute their ideas to how they will be portrayed. At the very least, it gains their confidence, and more often than not leads to a better portrait.
Using features of the landscape for a good portrait

Using features of the landscape for a good portrait

A good portrait, whether of an individual or a group, should aim to capture some of the context of the subject, both physically and conceptually. Using both setting and features of the context of the subject will help to strengthen the portrait. After all, what is a portrait but a window into the heart and soul of a subject. The best ones, particularly photographs like Yousouf Karsh‘s epic shot of Winston Churchill reveal the essence of a person’s character – at least as they are in that moment. Portrait photography is the short story of people-oriented photography and the artistry involved is not something that can be easily reproduced. However, the core concepts connected to creating a great portrait are accessible to anyone who takes the time to learn and implement them. Central to all great portraits is establishing a rapport with your subject by collaborating and communicating during the session. And finally, as always, cultivate a sense of play and playfulness throughout your session so that the experience reveals not just who the subject is, but the best version of themselves.