I was recently approached to update the employee images on the website of a local business. Normally, this type of project doesn't give one much latitude for fun or experimentation. If you browse your run-of-the-mill business site you generally come across staid and safe profile pictures. I didn't want to spend a day running people through a photo mill and do a lot of post on images that all looked alike - that type of project seems like it's bad for the soul. And, luckily, I'm in the position where I don't have to take a job if I don't think I'll enjoy it. For me, this is just a hobby; photography by far costs more than I make from it, so I can reply to said business and offer them my idea for how to do the portraits and if they don't like what they hear c'est la vie and move on.
My idea was to do away with generic backdrops and use paintings, other art, or furniture from the office as the background. Also, I wanted the option to incorporate more candid shots - if a person was looking away in contemplation, for instance, and I captured something compelling there, I wanted the option to use it. Or, as it turned out, if someone were engaged in real and spontaneous laughter and if it made a good image, I wanted the ability to use it as well. The point was I wanted something different, but still professional in feeling and execution.
They liked the idea. This is Austin, of course, so the odds of you coming across a business that appreciates the idea of trying something new are probably better than your average city. Their old site had traditional portraits set against that one blue muslin that seem to be given away every time you open a bank account or something - you know what I'm talking about.
However, there is always one problem when dealing with employees - they are not models. I can talk all day preparing them for natural and candid shots, but once the camera comes out people more often than not clam up and start doing their approximation of a portrait pose or smile and the effect can be unnatural, if not unexpected. This happened often, let me tell you.
If I was having a hard time getting what I thought was a natural pose, I would do my best to coach something out of the subject. I could have them lean back to get comfortable, and fire off a series of images WHILE they formed their smile. It seems that when people start to do their "portrait smile," somewhere during the process they make a face that feels far more natural to me.
So, safely in their everyday environment, I would start each person's portrait with a conversation to get them used to seeing me and seeing the camera. During our talk, the camera would come up and I'd fire off a pic or two.
It's a process that seemed to take most of the edges off the "portrait taking experience" and give me something to work with.
And sometimes, it really showed off the subject's personality.
This was all well and good, but working in a limited environment for backgrounds, it didn't take long to run out of things to pop behind people. So I decided to use some background ideas more than once, changing up how I presented them.
For example, this office had nice large windows that overlooked the Texas Hill Country. As pretty as that is, it was going to get boring soon if the same stretch of grass and trees were behind everyone so I chopped up the scene. I shot one looking down onto a highway:
And another up towards the horizon:
And then, to completely maximize a location, I blew out the light from the window and high keyed the image:
That's three very different portraits taken from the same window. Not a bad use of limited resources if you ask me.
When we were done we had a collection of diverse imagery that complimented the employees and the resulting website looked unique and professional. More importantly, the client was happy.
Perhaps just as important, I enjoyed it.