1.01.2014

Myth debunking. The "five minute marathon" with CEO's...

Mr. Rick Ellenberger, former CEO of Cincinnati Bell/Broadwing.

I've read a lot of books and articles by corporate and commercial photographers and there seems to be a pervasive mythology running through many of their narratives about the necessity of being able to do a portrait of a CEO, president, mover and shaker in five minutes or less. Most dress up the story by pushing the time limit to seven minutes just to make it all more believable.  It's almost like a "humble brag" (thanks, Lynn Cartia formerly Missy MWAC).    As in: "I was sweating bullets to photograph the president in four and a half minutes since I'm a pretty slow photographer...."

It's a really fun myth that makes photography seem more daring, the stakes higher, the drama more dramatic. At stake is the reputation and career of the poor photographer, exposed to the vagaries of everyone else's schedule changes and preferences. It plays well with less experienced photographers because at some point they want to believe that eventually they will develop skills that will allow them to do the super-tightly scheduled shoots that are out of the technical reach of mere mortals. Oh my, a new barrier to entry against the masses with iPhones! The need to meet, greet, photograph and say "goodbye" to the power elite in our society inside supersonic deadlines. A new kind of Olympian.

But I'm feeling like I should do a little debunking because I've been photographing CEOs and governors and even former presidents for about 25 years now and I can count on one and a half hands the times I've had to rush through a shoot and delivery perfection in five minutes or less. 

Sorry, very few of the shoots (even with the very top of the crop) are done spontaneously and instantaneously. Nope. It goes something like this: 

Accept assignment weeks in advance. Scout locations days in advance. Work with art buyers or PR team on the kinds of poses they want to get out of the shoot, how we want the subject to dress, which glasses to wear, what to put in the background and who will do the make-up. Really. This stuff is all lined up so well in advance. Right after the money is discussed and the agreement form is signed. 

In almost every situation in which we photograph a CEO we're asked to do multiple locations and multiple poses/expressions. We generally ask for an hour of "in front of camera" time and end up getting forty five minutes or so. 

After all the details are nailed down in....detail we bring in a crew of assistants and cart loads of lights and modifiers and get to work the day before or the night before the shoot and set up lighting for each location. We have people stand in so we can fine tune the lighting. We put white tape on the floor to indicate where the big man or woman will stand. We even write the f-stop and shutter speed on the tape in each location for quick reference. Every set up is approved before we leave the location and get a good night's sleep. 

On the day of the shoot we get to the location (usually company headquarters or flagship factory) about two hours ahead of time and help the make up person get set up and ready. We double check the lights and make sure the settings haven't drifted as a result of maintenance moving our stuff around. 

We greet the CEO and introduce him to the make-up person all the while confirming his time commitment and our schedule. The PR chief runs interference so the CEO's time with us is not infringed upon by V.P.s and other folks looking for impromptu face time. 

Once the make-up is complete we walk the subject to the first location, pose him, and get to work. Then we smile, say, "We've got this one, we're ahead of schedule, let's move to the next location." If the CEO has spent a lot of time in front of cameras it's actually an easy job. Yes, everyone around him can be filled with stress but if he's experienced and we've practiced a couple hundred times there's not a lot left to chance. 

Thirty to forty-five minutes later we're shaking hands and I'm telling him how great he was in front of camera and what pleasure it has been to work with him. He smiles, says something gracious to the PR director and he's gone. We pack up and go home.

Sometimes plans go out the window and schedules change. We were down in San Antonio making a portrait of the CEO at USAA a few years back. We agreed to do three locations within his office suite in 30 minutes (after set-up and make up) but once we started chatting the CEO and I remembered that we attended high school (rival schools) at the same time in San Antonio and had competed against each other for four years in a row as competitive swimmers. Once we rediscovered the common interest everything changed. Two hours later we did a leisurely pack up, laughed, smiled, shook hands and promised each other we'd stay in touch. 

The times  we've been pressed for time have generally been on editorial assignments and generally where an editor is looking for one perfect shot on a quick deadline with a subject that's been scheduled in a rush. And even then the subjects know that it's to their advantage to do it right.

Photographers who are training clients to expect a five minute miracle are just another obstacle to doing the business correctly for everyone who comes after them. It's a professional encounter, if you need time, it's just professional to ask for it and push back against unrealistic expectations. 

Just my two cents worth. 

Have you ever noticed that most people have one eye that's bigger than the other?


Scientists tell us that no one has a really symmetrical face, or, for that matter a symmetrical body. While I left the image above un-retouched to show this it is one of the reasons that I like retouching programs like Portrait Professional. Many people know this software program because of their web advertising in which, I believe, they do themselves a tremendous disservice. The folks who market Portrait Professional like to show off the maximum effects possible with their product so they end up showing "before images" that make people look horrible and then "after pictures" that are totally overdone. Skin goes from rough and scaly to smoother than a baby's butt to as featureless as a Barbie doll. Cheekbones get accentuated like animated elves, lips dramatically increased in size and ballooniness and eyes end up rendered like the eyes in paintings of sad waifs on black velvet. Giant eyes totally out of proportion with faces....

But the actual product is highly controllable and when used by operators with even a modicum of good taste it allows for fast correction of things like mismatched eyes and too many wrinkles. Just because the advertising is over the top doesn't mean the program isn't a valuable tool for portrait photographers!

If you want to go old school then put the smaller eye closer to the lens and put the bigger eye on the highlight side of the lighting configuration. Hard to do if your subject is looking straight into camera.

That's the prescription but in art there is no absolute right or wrong. I routinely leave the eyes the way I found them, only correcting if the mismatch is an obvious impediment to the aesthetic value of the portrait. Accuracy?  We've never done that here and we're not planning to start.

unrelated musing: 

We're starting off 2014 with articles about portraiture but you know it won't last. In a few days, maybe a week we'll be off on some other tangent that will make some of our readers grind their teeth and others nod in agreement. And then there are the tourist readers who drop in unannounced because someone with an agenda has linked to one of the articles that supports their talking points on a forum. At that point all hell breaks loose and I become saint or satan, depending on which side of the argument the visitor's audience embraces.

Will the web change? Doubtful. Will we respond? Well, you may have noticed that we've been moderating comments all year. Saves you from wading through bathos and pathos on a daily basis and it helps keep my blood pressure interesting. I think it just goes with the territory. At least I have you guys here to watch my back....

To everyone else....."HEY! IT'S JUST A CAMERA. IT'S NOT A RELIGION... "


Focal length, while a personal choice, has lots of impact on your portraits!

But then so does working distance!

I was playing around with this image and remembered that I used a Pentax 120 mm Macro lens on a 6x4.5 cm negative. I like the lighting and tonality of the image but I'm not at all happy with the way that lens, used too close in, accentuates Rene's nose and draws out her chin and mouth. While it's entirely personal taste, every time I get too close (closer than 6 feet?) with a lens I find myself disturbed by the way faces are rendered.  This image would have worked better for me if I'd used a longer focal length or stepped back a few feet and then cropped in during post processing.

This is, I think, totally independent of format. I am equally uncomfortable using a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera if I step across that imaginary line at six feet. Too much foreshortening. Given the focal length equivalents on cell phones we tend to see a lot of foreshortened social media images and eventually (sadly) the general population will come to regard that look as normal and appropriate.

Again, everyone's taste is different but for my satisfaction the longer the focal length (up to a point) the more flattering the image for normal faces. My all time favorite film combination was the Zeiss 180mm f4.0 on a 6x6cm Hasselblad. Currently, when shooting portraits with a full frame Sony camera and their wildly good 70-200mm f2.8 G lens I find myself constantly ending up at about 120mm on the zoom ring. And when I shoot in m4:3rds I like a 50mm, really like the 60mm and love the 70mm focal length. Images done with that optic are generally done from further away from my subjects and the final result is a bit of flattening which de-emphasizes the nose and, with good posing, can also make chins look more normal. The longer focal lengths also allow me more control over depth of field and finally, with the best of the older lenses, even in smaller formats the bokeh (or the quality of the blur produced) can be very calm and lovely.

Why would I show a photo I find fault with? So we can talk about the possibilities.

It's good to get close. There's a line you probably shouldn't cross. Yikes, foreshortening. 

Why experiment when mismatched software can do that for you? ReneZ in quadrants.

Rene Zellwegger reprised.

 I recently upgraded operating systems and the lone victim of the exercise was a program I use called, Snapseed. For the most part the program still functions as it always did but I notice that when I use extreme slider actions or I use the "Grunge" or "Vintage" filters the images get all wacky. Uncontrolled wacky is generally uncomfortable for real control freaks but I'm trying to rein in my desire to control the universe so I decided to play with this image.  

It was originally shot in studio with a Pentax 645 camera and a 150mm lens on black and white film. I recently scanned a number of the negatives from this shoot in order to archive them in a second place. I chose this image mostly at random and twiddled the keyboard until Snapseed decided to go rogue. Shades of 1960's minimalist graphic design....

Here is the image as it was originally intended in black and white:


Just a note on a related subject... A note about the importance of playing and working... This image and many more like it were not done for a magazine or in fact any client. They were the result of play. I came into the world of photography as an amateur captivated by the idea of portraits. For the last thirty years I've made time to do work that's just for me and for the people on the other side of the camera. I shudder a bit when I read about people who seem just to do photography as a way to make a living. As a "cool" occupation. There's the old adage, "Work to Live, Don't Live just to Work." I think every photographer who is successful on many levels embraces some variation of that thought. 

There's not always a demarcation between the subjects we shoot for ourselves and the subjects we shoot for our clients. In the perfect world it's your "fun," "playful," and "personal" work that gets you your paying work and it's your paying work that informs your fun. 

Happy New Year! Here's one from the shoe box in the closet.

Alma. Former chef at Jeffrey's Restaurant.

I hope all the VSL readers had a wonderful time ushering in 2014. We looked at tea leafs, looked at the portents and the alignment of the stars and decided that the upcoming year will be a good one for many, many people. 

I spent the last few weeks of vacation time thinking about the year we just finished. I felt so scattered. Instead of concentrating solely on photography I seemed to be stretched in a bunch of different directions. We did more video than in years past. I traveled a bit for work. Spent time in Berlin and New York for Samsung and also had my web debut as an on-camera talent for the kind and wonderful folks at Craftsy.com. I felt like a writer, shooter, pitchman, actor and business guy all wrapped up in one slightly disconnected package.

With that in mind I was straightening up the studio today and paused to look at some transparencies in an old box. It took me back to the era when all I did all day long, all week long and all year long was the practice of photography. For profit. For Art. For Fun. It all seemed simpler back then. I'd get a phone call, we'd check the calendar and if everyone's schedules lined up the art buyer or art director would plow through the details of a shoot and we'd get started with the routine planning. Then my assistant and I would go out, scout, meet our subject, light up a space and then shoot until we knew we had something good. We used bigger cameras, bigger lights and bigger film back then so the physical part of a shoot was a bit more tiring but we had a good groove to work in and it was always, always fun.

This is an image I made for an article on Austin chefs back in the 1990's. It was shot on a Hasselblad 6x6cm camera with a 100mm f3.5 Planar lens. I was experimenting with moving away from my almost addictive use of the 150mm Sonnar lens that we used all the time.  Like most of my location portraits this one was done with a big, soft main light on one side and a passive fill, like a collapsible reflector, on the opposite side. We figured out a good exposure for the background with a Polaroid test and almost certainly "dragged" the shutter along with the flash exposure in order to get the background to read and add some dimension. 

We had dozens of expressions to choose from and I'm certain the art director used a different one than the one above but I wanted to see what this looked like big so I scanned it.

I decided to put it up on the blog today, at the start of the year, to remind me of my real passions in photography. I love portraits. I love making location portraits. I would like to do many more of them this year. I'd like to really dig into this type of photography and regain my internal feeling of mastery for the holistic portrait experience. A re-invention of sorts. Or maybe just a return to a well loved genre of image making...

It always seems to be good to start out with at least a vague plan. We'll see just how diligently I can stay with the program. 

I wish everyone everywhere a very happy year in 2014.