Shooting the Executive Portrait

Vice president Peter Boit of Microsoft Corporation. A slight cyan cast to the window light in this office lobby setting appealed to me. The lighting, plus a wide aperture and intentionally skewed camera angle helped add energy to this shot. Canon EOS 10D, EF 50mm f/1.4.Exposure: 1/125 at f2.0, ISO 200.

I am often asked to shoot portraits of corporate executives. As a photographic specialty this can be very rewarding, but it is often challenging. After all, executives are busy people, and most don’t have a lot of time for photography. Of course, your editor or art director is expecting something compelling, perhaps even something great. What’s the secret to getting the right shot?

Stay Cool

First of all, try to remain cool under fire, even if things don’t go your way. When you are calm and confident you will bring out the best in your subjects; if they are relaxed you will have an easier time getting the shot. It helps, or course, to plan for contingencies. Strobe misfiring? No sweat, just move to the natural light location you previously scouted. Anticipate things that can go wrong and be prepared. This works wonders for your confidence.

Do Your Homework

Sounds simple enough; what does it mean? For me, it means scouting the location ahead of time. I try to look for compelling or interesting settings that say something about the executive’s environment. I take stock of the lighting to understand how I may need to light the shots. If an outdoor shot is planned, I develop a backup idea in case inclement weather makes shooting outdoors impossible. On the date of the shoot, I try to arrive at least an hour or two early to set up any necessary lighting and do test shots. There is no substitute for good preparation.

Talk to the Right People

When scouting, I always make an appointment in advance with the subject’s executive assistant, or EA. This person is usually the gatekeeper of the executive’s busy schedule; their support (or lack thereof) can make or break your chances of having a smooth shoot. Be solicitous of their ideas: they know the subject far better than you and may have something to contribute to your planning. They can also convey suggestions to your subject in advance, such as type of attire to wear, or any special requests you may have. Introducing yourself to the subject’s EA helps establish that you are a professional and will help the shoot go more smoothly. The EA is also the person to talk to if you need access to special locations (a rooftop for example) or other corporate resources.

Respect their Time, Work Quickly—and Don’t be Intimidated

You may have just 5 minutes to complete a shot; it is a luxury to have even a half hour. So, you must have a plan going in: images pre-visualized, locations scouted. However, if you get a inspiration during the session don’t be afraid to ask for a little more time. Your subject may be open to granting you a few extra minutes if you can convey to her or him why it would be flattering or interesting to do so. “You know, I noticed the light over there is particularly nice right now. Would you mind if we take a few extra minutes to try another situation?”

Know the Story

Your editor or art director will usually have some handle on the story and how your photographs should relate to it. Talk to them. If a writer has already interviewed your subject, speak to them to gain insight into your subject. From these discussions you can get ideas for what kinds of photograph might work best, or even develop one or more concepts to translate into visuals. Successful people are often creative individuals, and may be open to doing something “different” if you explain the visual concept you are after. Knowing the story helps you enlist your subjects to be collaborators in your creation.

If Lighting on Location, Use an Assistant

A good assistant can make a world of difference when doing location lighting for executive portraiture. It is hard to maintain an engaging, confident rapport with subjects under time constraints if you are distracted worrying about whether one of your flashes fired or have to interrupt the shoot to move a light. In my newspaper days I never had the luxury of an assistant, but I have come to appreciate the many benefits. Regrettably, fewer publications will cover the cost of assistants on editorial shoots anymore, but if your assignment budget permits it don’t skip on this. You may be able to get referrals from the local American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) chapter in your city.

Show Your Professional Side

This falls into the category of common sense, but when photographing people in any walk of life, your personality and presentation plays a big role in how others relate to you. No doubt you already know if you are cut out to do portraiture successfully or not. It’s just as important to present yourself in a way that your subjects can relate to. With businesspeople, that generally means at least “business casual” attire. Dress well; show respect; be a professional.

Professional Photography is Valuable—Don’t Give It Away

Finally, if you are just starting out, keep in mind you are providing a valuable service that should be positioned and priced accordingly. Don’t give away your work or dramatically undercut your competition. It’s just not a good way to build your business for the long term. To better understand professional pricing and business practices consult with the ASMP, or purchase their book, ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography, now in its seventh edition.

Shooting Examples

Following are a few examples from my own practice, with some shooting and lighting notes so you can get a sense of what I was thinking at the time. Good luck with your own work!

Light for Drama

Hasselblad 503CW, Carl Zeiss 100mm CFi lens, Kodak E100S, Dyna-Lite strobes.

For this portrait of John Bradshaw, former managing director of Seattle’s Empty Space Theater, environment was very important. I chose the main stage set of an upcoming production and requested that the stage lights be turned on. I was striving for a careful blend of strobe and stage lighting, which I checked in advance with via Polaroids (remember those?). My lighting consisted of a large softbox to camera right, and a small fill light adjacent to my location on an overhead catwalk. I intentionally toned down the fill to maintain some drama. The blue/orange glow is from the stage lighting.

Studio on Location

Nikon D300, DX-Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8G lens, Canon 550EX and Nikon SB-800 hot-shoe strobes.

As a location specialist, I don’t maintain a full-time studio, but I can create one when I need to. In this portrait of Seattle-area real estate entrepreneur Andrew Weiffenbach, a portable background and small strobes enabled me to bring the studio to the subject. This shot was designed for use with advertising copy, so a loose, off-center composition on a neutral gray seamless backdrop was chosen, and the subject’s posture, lighting and camera angle tuned for graphic effect. Five small wireless hot-shoe strobes were used to light this shot: a main light in a large umbrella to camera left; a fill light behind me to the right; a hair/rim light behind the subject to camera right to help separate him from the background; and two more lights with snoots feathered onto the background to create the “band of light” effect. It’s essential when doing this type of shot to adjust and test the lighting beforehand, so use a stand-in to get things worked out in advance.

Use the Environment

Canon EOS 10D, EF 24mm f/1.4L lens. Exposure: 1/4 at f4.5, ISO 200, tripod, Dyna-Lite strobe. Inset above: Canon EOS-1V, EF 100mm f/2.0 lens, Kodak E100G, exposure unrecorded.

This assignment called for me to shoot an interview with Rick Devenuti, then vice president of information technology for Microsoft, in his office on campus. I clearly needed to add light for professional results, but there were huge, green-tinted windows in his office that I wanted to take advantage of. So, I shot the candids using a single umbrella-mounted strobe with a 1/4 CTO (“color temperature orange”) warming gel and used the ambient window light for fill. Light of this sort often creates a subtle cyan tinge that works well for technology subjects. Although the candids were fine, I wanted something that could anchor a page or potentially even be a cover. I noticed the hallway outside of Rick’s office had this beautiful warm wood paneling and an interesting arc of track lights. At the end of the interview, I asked Rick if he would mind stepping into the hall for a quick “formal”. He assented, and I quickly moved the light. I had time to shoot maybe half a dozen more frames this way; in this one, a figure stepped into the background and helped to make the final shot.

Natural Light with Small Strobes

Canon EOS 20D, EF 85mm f/1.8 lens. Exposure: 1/180 at f2.0, ISO 200.

Control of depth of field is one reason why I like the flexibility of using small shoe-mounted strobes for digital location work. This image of Rick Rashid, Microsoft senior vice president of research, was made in the cafeteria in his building, where I noticed a beautiful soft glow coming through these north-facing windows. To throw the background out of focus on my small-format (APS-C) digital camera, I needed a nearly wide-open aperture of f/2.0. To balance light at this aperture, you have to really clamp down on the strobe output. Studio quality strobes designed for location use (like my Dyna-Lites) are great with larger format gear but often put out too much light for small format digital. For example, on medium format I might obtain this same depth of focus using an aperture of f/5.6, but with APS I needed f/2.0, a three-stop difference. Wirelessly controlled shoe-mount strobes are just the ticket. Although the lighting on Rick looks natural, it is created by a Canon 550EX with warming gel bounced into an umbrella a few feet away to camera left. An 85mm prime lens and an aperture of f/2.0 gives the desired effect.

Working with What’s There

Hasselblad 503CW, Carl Zeiss 150mm CFi lens, Kodak E100S (exposure unrecorded). Dyna-Lite strobes.

Vice presidents Andrew Lees and Gerri Elliott of Microsoft Corporation, photographed during an interview for Executive Circle magazine. A common problem when shooting businesspeople is dealing with less-than-ideal fluorescent lighting found in office buildings. You almost always want to light the shot. For these photos I used one umbrella-mounted main light and a fill light bounced into a corner of the office ceiling, balanced to the exterior daylight. (In this case I had enough light to overpower the fluorescents, though sometimes you need to place green gels on the strobes to balance the color.) I thought the horizontal window blinds and cool-green exterior could be interesting background elements, so I arranged for the subjects to sit across from each other at a 3/4 angle with the window in the background. I added color contrast by warming the strobe light with a 1/4 CTO gel and enhanced the background further with a bit of motion blur in post processing. A subtle tilt to the camera angle also helps create some energy.

Just 3 Minutes More!

Hasselblad 503CW, Carl Zeiss 60mm CB lens, Kodak E100S (exposure unrecorded), Photoflex gold reflector.

This portrait of former Microsoft president Jeff Raikes is an example of a “hail Mary”. I had been assigned to shoot candids during an interview with Jeff and was supposed to have at least 10 minutes after the interview to do a formal environmental portrait. Well, the interview ran long, and a handler pointedly commented that I probably “had enough shots”. In a controlled panic (“stay cool” remember?), I asked for just 3 minutes more, and Jeff (a professional) agreed to step outside into the courtyard where I had noticed this huge mural on the side of the building. Having no time to move equipment or set up lighting, I just grabbed a camera with a wide-angle lens and a gold reflector, which I gave to a nearby Microsoft employee to create the necessary fill light. I generally prefer strobes to reflectors as the later can cause subjects to squint (as Jeff is doing a little here), but I had no choice in this case. I shot exactly 3 frames. The final image is simple but effective, and the art director loved it.

Don’t Overlook Candid Opportunities

Canon EOS 5D, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L. Exposure: 1/45 at f2.8, ISO 1600.

Since the demise of the great picture magazines, it is rare to see candid portraiture in print anymore; today everything is lit, controlled, posed, etc. Still, sometimes candids can be effective outside the context of a picture story. One of my most-requested photographs is this candid portrait of Berkshire-Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett. Likewise, this image of computer software entrepreneur Ray Ozzie, inventor of Lotus Notes software and current chief software architect for Microsoft, is a successful stand-alone image that could work well in a variety of print uses, even a cover.