Rob Frith from Acorn Photo has a special interest in workplace portraiture for business websites, marketing and corporate publishing. He is skilled at the challenge of capturing lively images that communicate character and authority. In this interview Rob talks about why photography is so important for consultant websites and the process of getting those images.
What are people are looking for when they engage you to do workplace portraiture?
People are looking for head shots or head and shoulder shots, right through to higher level workplace portraits. These are usually for websites or document publishing.
What do you see is changing in these consultant or service industry websites?
It used to be that people would just want their key personnel on their website. Now they’re putting all of their operational staff. Sometimes they’re putting their entire staff. Part of it is, even if it’s small pictures, just putting faces to names so that when people communicate via email or phone they feel like they know the person. The thinking is that it makes the customer feel more comfortable.
In so many of those pictures now consistency is becoming important. I still have some clients who l like the head shots to vary from one to the next quite a bit. Other clients like them all to be facing the same way and the same background and the same lighting. We may have to repeat that over many years. Getting little formulas to make sure that’s a repeatable result is important.
What’s the most common mistakes you see with this type of corporate photography?
Wrong clothes is a big one. I always advise people to minimise the pattern or just take the pattern away completely. Just stick with plains. Clothes that have a design that draws too much attention away from the face are a big no-no in my book.
Hair & Make-up
The other big one is ignoring the potential benefit that having professional hair and make up. Hair in particular is an issue. I’ve got a few little tricks I can deal with if a client doesn’t want to do make up, but hair can quickly add to the cost if you’re trying to fix it in post production.
A Sense of Occasion
The other great benefit of having hair and make up is that it does add a sense of occasion to a shoot. It gets the subjects relaxed into the idea, so that by the time they’re in front of the camera, they’re less confronted by the whole procedure. They’ve sat down and their hair and make up has been done. People have been fussing over them a bit already. When they get under the camera and the light, the rabbit in the headlights factor is somewhat reduced.
How would you best describe the photos that are intended for a consultant’s website?
The most important aspects are having an engaging image and getting the subject to appear approachable. They got to feel friendly or at least looking like you could have a conversation with them. It doesn’t mean they got to be smiling but they don’t want to look intimidating.
What are the biggest challenges for you in getting those shots?
Nervousness and self consciousness are the big ones. Our self image doesn’t always match reality. We do our level best to make a flattering portrait of people, but sometimes if they’ve got a picture they’re in love with from 10 years ago, it can be a challenge.The bar’s pretty high occasionally. The bar may have even been set high by a portrait that’s been done in their youth!
How do you use a photography brief from a website designer?
There’s a lot of aspects to a photography brief now. It includes the look and the feel of a website. We do work for a couple of law firms and they want to look quite serious.
There is also a colour palette people are looking for. Whether it’s a predominantly blues and whites or whether maybe it’s a tourism thing in the Kimberley where people want to use some reds. We talk closely with the designer about those issues.
Plenty of other clients want to look pretty happy and upbeat. That might come from the overall communication strategy of the website and where they’re positioning themselves.
There’s also a lot of technical considerations in websites now particularly in mobile and mobile responsive sites. We increasingly need to produce images that can be used in both portrait formats and landscape formats.
Serious vs. Happy
Can you talk a little about that?
On the one hand it can mean that we’re very limited with where we can position the key information in the shot. On the other hand, it can mean we’ve got to produce both portrait and landscape versions of the subject that are just as good as each other. So instead of having one hero shot, we’ve actually got to make two or three that are all just as powerful.
How can you choose the best location? What are the factors that make a location work?
Again, it’s driven by the brief. You can break it down into interior spaces and exterior spaces.
If you’re indoors, small spaces do not work. Bigger rooms give us some space to get some lighting in the background that’s not affecting the subject in the foreground. That’s where we can start make things look real and bring it to life. Also with these shoots we are generally wanting to leave backgrounds out of focus; keep focus nice and sharp on the subject and the image. Usually we’ve got a bigger space so we can leave the background kind of furry.
If you move it outdoors you got have to be careful about a whole host of considerations. The first one would be time of day. The winter is not bad in Perth, but in summer, you’re pretty much confined to working very early morning, very late evening to get the best, most flattering result on the face.
Choosing a location that’s relevant to the client’s business is great. Something that actually tells their story a bit as much as the words do perhaps.
I was once involved in a photographing a hydrologist. Even though he didn’t have anything to do with the oceans, as I recall, he was interested in using that as a location just because it’s such a mass of water, and chaotic water. It illustrated something about his interest in that sort of dynamics.
A lot of people nominate Kings Park. You know, “We’d like to have our picture taken in Kings Park.” The question is, why? What’s that actually communicating to your clients? Generally, it’s not doing anything. It’s just a nice idea. But, if they have to think about it, they can generally figure out a better location, something that’s actually going to tell something more of a story about their business.
Inside vs. Outside
Squinty eyes are a challenge outdoors. Often wind, particularly in Perth. It’s the windy city. If you have people with any length of hair, wind is a bit of a challenge. I suppose, weather in general.
Just one last thing on outdoor locations, often they are public spaces. As soon as we put a tripod down, we need to get a permission from whatever authority is responsible for that space, be it a city council or a public authority, like if it was Kings Park and Botanic Gardens. We actually have to go through the rigmarole of getting permission and sometimes paying a fee to use the location. A lot of authorities actually have, on their websites a system set up for people booking a location shoot.
Can you describe the preparation that you do before a shoot?
There’ll certainly be a conversation between me and the designer and quite likely between me and the client. Often about some of the practicalities that we’ll discuss around locations and around what to wear and around hair and makeup.
With outdoor locations you consider times of day. With indoor ones, I supposed we’ve got to figure out practicalities like where we going to park and all that kind of thing.
Sometimes we might look at pictures that the client or the designer like. They form part of the brief. You might develop what we call a Look Book. We’ve got a couple of web galleries on our website where we show people ideas of backgrounds. We might also give examples that help them decide whether they want it black and white or colour. It varies from one shoot to the next.
Colour vs. Black & White
Can you describe what happens at a shoot where you’re doing portraiture in workplaces?
If we haven’t met the subject of the shoot, we’d meet them. I always have an assistant for these types of shoots. The two of us would turn up. I would also have the designer there, and I’d also have hair and makeup. That’s probably about it. If it’s a really big shoot and we get really lucky, we might get catering. That’s more in the advertising end though.
So normally we’d have a trolley full of equipment to bring in. We might have anything from two to five lights to set up. If we’re doing it on a plain background, we’ll bring paper rolls and a support system to hold those up. We’ve got cables and tripods we need to put places. Hazards, like cables running across floors. An indoor shoot can be reasonably disruptive. People need to be prepared for that.
How long does it take?
At the most basic level, if we’re doing a head shot, one head shot in the studio, a person can expect to be here for 15 or 20 minutes or half an hour.
If we’re going out to a location, we’re battling to get in and out of somewhere inside two hours. By the time we’ve unloaded gear, got it in, set it up, done a few shots, packed up and go.
Are you more likely to get the shots you’re after in a workplace because people are in their environment?
It’s interesting. I would encourage people to come with work mates. People we do shoot with other people in the studio, often it will just be a new appointment or two or three new appointments. If they ask us, they just send them all at once. Because they know each other, and even if they don’t know each other, they all started this week, they’re getting to know each other while they’re here at the shoot. It’s actually easier having a couple of extra people floating around. Lightens the mood a little bit.
What are the things that people can do in advance to help the photographer achieve the objective?
There’s so much. What’s great is if there’s someone who effectively becomes a producer. Usually that’s the client. Sometimes it’s the designer. On a big shoot, if we’re shooting a lot of people, we might even get in an outside producer to run it all. They would develop the shoot schedule so that people would be clear about when they’re due to be ready at the location. They’ll organise the hair and make up if that’s happening. They might talk to the subjects about wardrobe. They might have even a bit of few spare wardrobe items.
We’ve got clients who are great, everything’s ready when we get there and that makes it easy. They know the place. You’re not wasting time chasing around seeing which room is free to put gear in..
Casual vs. Formal
What are the things that people can do during the actual shoot to help you get the right shots?
When I said it’s nice to have a couple of extra people around, sometimes, one of the things that can go wrong is they make too much noise. Then we have to get people to move to another room.
Sometimes we have subjects who really don’t want their photo taken. We need a person who can be there and insist that they stay. Because we do get people that say, “You’ve got enough. You’ve got enough from me.” They really are uncomfortable and they just walk away. That’s it. It is usually testy older men. So, someone who can wrangle difficult personalities is good.
The most important thing is to have someone looking at the images that are coming through on the laptop and making sure that they’re meeting their expectations.
What sort of post production work’s required after the shoot?
Most photographers will do a rough edit to get rid of blinkies and weird looking shots and send through low resolution previews. The client or designer or both will make selections then come back for the raw file conversion, which includes colour and contrast correction.
We’ll always do basic retouching. We’ll always deal with laugh lines and try to make them look a little bit younger than they really are. Not stepping into the realms of fantasy mind you. There’s some, everybody calls it Photoshop work. It actually runs over a few programmes, to make people look their best. Then we have the upload and delivery.
It’s several hours of work that’s involved?
It depends so much on the scale of the shoot. One person, these ones that we’re looking at here for a law firm, I’ll probably spend 15 minutes on each. That’s where it gets hard, with the hair. If there’s somebody with a weird bit of hair going on, then it’s difficult to deal with. That can take a long time. And it’s actually more expensive to fix it there in post production than it is to fix it on the shoot.
Hair is the biggest potential issue. I think most men don’t need much makeup, just a little bit to kill some reflection. Most women probably have a rough idea about doing makeup and again, if they don’t we can matte them down a little bit. But hair that’s not behaving can be very challenging to get fixed and looking real again.
Once your photos are made available for the website, how else do you see customers using them?
There’s social media. LinkedIn is one that pops up time and again. If people have speaking engagements, then often they’re asked for an image to put in the speaking programme. There are all sorts of things like proposals and tender documents. A lot of people will use the same portrait that they’ve got on their website, their Linked-In profile. I feel that people need something a little bit less formal for Facebook. You need something expressive, something with a bit of drama, by the the time you get into that level of social media, and the pictures are so small it’s easy to get lost.
What sort of budget do they need to put aside for a good quality set of website images for example?
Let’s start at the most basic. We could conceivably do an outdoor location, do a shoot within an hour and shoot a couple of different setups and provide a few files and that would probably be in the vicinity of $500.
3-4 Set Ups
Then if you wanted three or four set ups, it really depends how many times you got to pick the lights up and move them around to get a different angle. So if you’d wanted four set ups, even in one room or a couple of adjacent spaces, you might be looking at two, three hours. A three hour shoot with files would be $1300-1500.
Four hours with files would be something like $1500-2000. This might be where you need different photos for different pages of a website. A couple of changes of clothes is a good idea to have as an option.
Change of Clothes
A change of clothes is a very quick and easy way to make a very different looking shot. Even just doing something like turning off the background lights can make it look like you’re in a different location.
It is very tempting for people to go for cheaper options in photography. What are the risks in those situations do you see?
If they get an amateur looking result, it will reflect on their business. If they’re pitching to a visually literate market that see some great photography in people then it’s not a good first impression.
Risk of Needing To Redo
If they’re not happy then they’re going to have to redo the shoot. You do get situations where people don’t want to redo the shoot because they do not trust that the original photographer. It means having to pay again for someone else.
Narrowing Design Choices
The other challenge has got to be narrowing your design options. Websites are now so picture driven, image driven. A big part of the look of a website is the photography. If it’s not looking that great, it’s going to drag the whole site down and make it a lot harder to get a good result of the whole website.
If people need some photos for their consultancy website. How do they go about choosing a photographer?
I guess the first thing is to do a search for corporate photographer rather than a domestic portrait photographer. Somebody who is used to working in those sort of environments. Their webpages should have folio material. If you don’t see what you like there, you can always ask them to show you a bit more.
You can have a look at the AIPP, which is the nationwide professional body. It has members who have to go through a portfolio approval process. I believe they still have a find a photographer page so you can actually look state by state for people to do specific types of work.
Look At Folio Work
I would say if you’ve got someone you’re considering using and you don’t see what you like on their folio page, ask them to see a bit more of their material. That’s actually one thing we do. Part of our work is on the folio page, but it’s all that workplace photography. If people want to see head shots, I’ve got another hidden folio of head shots that I just send a link to. It helps them choose.
One of its great functions is it gives people a bit of extra confidence in choosing us, but it also helps them choose a background. Often clients don’t really know what kind of background they want. Whether they want a lifeless environment or some location or they just want a plain backdrop. So we send them a link with about probably 30 pictures, quite a variety. We’ve got colour and black and white ones in there.
We’ve got pictures of people, what I call camera recognition, where they’re looking at the camera. There are pictures of people looking away, they’re working or talking to someone else. And they can scan through those and they can quickly see what’s going to work for them. So I imagine other photographers would have something similar. If people find some pictures that they like, is ask your photographer to try to create a feel for you.
Camera Recognition vs. Looking Away
Do you have any final words of advice to share on photographer choice?
Photography – You Get What You Pay For
I know the biggest challenge for clients is the cost. They are spending a lot of money. Photography is a pretty significant cost. All I can say is to a reasonably large degree you get what they pay for. I’m not putting myself forward as the ultimate, but I think that if you cut costs with photography, chances are it will represent a cut in quality unless you just get lucky.
Photo Credits: Acorn Photo and Rob Frith
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