Corporate Portraits Beyond the Boardroom: 10 Photography Tips
April 8, 2021
In corporate photography, you need to quickly assess what makes a good portrait within moments of walking into a room or on company grounds. Interesting backgrounds might also help tell a story about the client’s business or organization.
Perhaps it’s the light coming from a window that you know will be brilliant and is crying out to be used. If the room has some features that add drama or interest, be sure to include them in your framing; just make sure they don’t distract from the main subject.
I first became interested in corporate photography after being asked to take portraits for Burberry, where I was working on a fashion shoot. One corporate shoot led to another as clients started recommending me, and today I am really pleased to have specialized in corporate work. The job is intrinsically rewarding, giving me the chance to meet some fascinating business leaders, as well as high-profile people from politics and global affairs.
While no two corporate shoots are the same, what they have in common is that the stakes are always high; there is no second chance to come back and do it all again if you don’t get the shots needed. This keeps it fresh for me and makes me even more motivated on a shoot. Today’s corporate photography is fresh and unique, and most importantly, fun. Here are some tips for getting corporate portraits that go beyond the typical boardroom shots with which the words “corporate photography” were once equated.
1. Corporate portraits 101: set up quickly and be ready for action.
You need to quickly be able to see what will make a good photograph within moments of walking in a room. Perhaps it’s the light coming from a window that you know will be brilliant and is crying out to be used. If the room has some interesting features that add drama or color and interest, include them in your framing—just make sure they don’t distract from the main subject. Interesting backgrounds might also help tell a story about the client’s business or organization.
In the corporate world, your clients are busy and won’t put up with endless vacillation or trial and error, so allow at least 20 to 30 minutes to set up and test your lighting before the first client arrives for their portraits. If you are photographing a lot of people in one session and are on site for a reasonable number of hours, avoid relying on natural light because this will change throughout the day. I use flash for a consistent set of images.
If I am using props, say for a meeting scenario with lots of people gathered round a board table, I make sure it looks realistic. If your set is limited to a solitary glass of water, or one person poised with a pen in their hand, the images will look staged and phony. I advocate a realistic amount of clutter.
2. Corporate photography comes with many time pressures—don’t be too rushed or take too long.
Corporate photographers normally work under time pressure and it’s important not to be rushed at the expense of getting the shots needed. On many occasions, a celebrity, company director or a politician is both short of time and is not in the best of moods, but this can’t be allowed to affect how the photographer gets the shoot done. I find it important to be polite but firm and I try to bear in mind that the subject’s stress isn’t focused on me personally, or at least not at the start of the shoot. If you are well organized and know the point of your shoot, which might be, say, to take pictures of a new CEO, you should be able to have the job done in around an hour, including setting up and packing away.
3. Be technically capable.
Know your equipment, inside out. There can be no fumbling and wondering which shooting mode the camera should be in, or puzzling over why the flash doesn’t look quite right. If there is an error in color balance or exposure, you should be able to correct it in seconds without hesitation. Personally, all my kit is set to manual: manual exposure, manual focusing, manual color balance—you get the picture. I seek to minimize all the variables, then if anything needs changing, that adjustment won’t affect anything else and I can keep on shooting.
4. Have a knack for dealing with people.
Handling people is actually more important than handling your equipment. It’s crucial you feel comfortable talking to all kinds of people and not be intimidated by their job title or seniority. I have photographed countless CEOs, the top management of the NHS, Prime Ministers and more than a sprinkling of billionaires. Whatever their role or title, you will need to develop a knack of getting on with your subject within moments of meeting them. To help build an instant rapport, it’s well worth doing some background reading and finding out a bit about what they like or dislike or what they have been up to recently.
You’ll also need to be able to work while others are seeking their attention. Often there are assistants or editors plying them with questions and reminding them they needed to be 20 miles away half an hour ago, or their phone is ringing constantly. Another useful tip is to ask the subject to hand their phone over to someone else during the shoot. This reduces distractions and puts the photographer in control.
5. Finish promptly.
Knowing when the shoot is over is vital. All too often I have seen photographers trying to keep the subject in place while some desperate last minute shots are taken. These photographs are rarely worth it because the subject has already become steadily more fed up and is itching to leave, now with a negative impression of the photo shoot and the photographer! Ending a shoot early is a pleasant surprise and scores points with everyone. But to do this, you have to work fast and confidently.
6. Make sure to capture the right expression. Corporate portraits should not be too serious.
Consider the mood required by the brief. Even if the person commissioning the shoot has asked for it explicitly, generally most politicians or company directors will want that time-honored ‘quietly confident’ pose and expression. The mood must be neither too serious—that implies ‘concern’ or ‘worry’—but equally not too flippant. If the shoot is for a photograph to accompany a piece of editorial, say, about a company’s financial performance and the business is just about to announce a big fall in profits, pictures of the chairman laughing or looking too happy will not be welcomed. Again, read up before the shoot and question your brief if it’s not there in black and white. You must know the mood you need to capture before you start photographing.
7. Plan the posing of the subject.
Consider, too, how the subject should sit or stand. Usually, the subject’s body is posed turning turn towards the light, but of course rules are sometimes there to be broken. I often have the body turned away from the light but the subject’s head turned back towards it for emphasis. Bear in mind that anything that looks too contrived can look awful and often a simple direct gaze towards the camera provides the best option.
8. Choose the background carefully.
Think carefully about the background. Is it relevant or a distraction? For example, an open plan office backdrop can imply a busy environment where everyone is working hard. This produces a better impression to an audience of shareholders than a plush empty boardroom.
9. Be ready for a fast turnaround of your images.
Be ready to process the files on the spot, no matter what you were told beforehand. There is usually a need for images to go off to the press within moments of a photo shoot concluding. As a photographer your work isn’t only the pictures you take, it’s just as important to know how to caption images, put in the correct meta data, and of course ALWAYS spell the subject’s name correctly with their correct job title. All these things count.
10. Carry all the Necessary Photographic Equipment at all Times
Make sure you bring enough kit to handle all eventualities. Often you will have been guaranteed by the commissioning client that the shoot will be held outdoors only for you to find when you arrive there’s been a last-minute change and everything will be now be shot indoors in a basement. Being prepared means having the right flash kit, soft boxes, reflectors and a tripod ready if necessary.
Corporate Portraits: My Go-To Gear
When it comes to corporate portrait photography, something that separates me from most photographers is my preference for manual focus lenses. I think they produce better images than autofocus lenses. With a little patience and regular practice, manual lenses can be fast and precise, and they have the added benefit of keeping the photographer’s mind constantly engaged on every shot, which leads to much better images.
I use the Leica Noctilux lens, which is renowned for its crazy f/0.95 aperture, but I find it great at all other apertures too; it’s by far from being a one trick pony. If the venue is dark on a winter’s day and the client doesn’t want me to use flash then the Noctilux will still easily produce images that others using f/2.8 zooms can only dream of. The color and contrast of these images are remarkable, and have even been admired by normally hard-to-please newspaper picture desks and photo agencies.
The Noctilux is also fast and precise to focus. When fixed to a rangefinder camera such as the Leica M10, it is comfortable and accommodating (and I wear spectacles).
Another Leica lens I use regularly for portrait photography is the Summilux 50mm f/1.4, another 50mm lens. While the look of the images is very different in terms of color and contrast, the bokeh is super smooth, and at a mere f/1.4 it is much smaller and lighter than its chunky brother the Noctilux. If I am shooting all day I start with the Summilux and end with the Noctilux.
I also make sure to have an utterly reliable backup system for my files, ideally in at least two different locations. This backup system should automatic and foolproof. At some point some bit of kit or other will fail spectacularly usually under a hard deadline, and you will need to retrieve the backup asap. Test and retest your backup system.
My firm has three 24TB servers, but if you are just starting out you won’t need so much memory capacity. My main server, which is located in my office, hosts my live files and is made by NetGear. I’ve used it for 10 years and it has proved fast and reliable. I also have two remote servers, each at separate locations for extra security, which are synchronized 24 hours a day providing a virtually continuous backup.
Douglas Fry is the lead on corporate portraits at Piranha Photography based in London and Oxford. He has been a professional photographer for over 25 years, photographing about 300 commissions a year around the UK and Europe. The photographic assignments have ranged from covering mine clearing operations in Bosnia, power stations in Finland, to company headshots and corporate portraits, all types of events and PR photography in London.