Thinking Outside the Porthole

Let’s be honest, sometimes corporate head shots can be pretty dry. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in many cases a corporate portrait is a way to show professionalism and success. This usually means a portrait of the subject in a suit looking, well, professional and successful. The trick with corporate head shots is keep an open mind and look for opportunities to make a dramatic portrait when your client gives you a little more flexibility.

This is exactly what happened while working for Clayco, a construction management and design company based here in St. Louis. Unlike the standard cubicles and offices you find in most corporate headquarters, the Clayco building is a showcase of their architecture and design capabilities, and as such has a lot of really cool glass walls, industrial materials, open spaces and in general is a really fun place to shoot.

As I mentioned in my last post, I shot a portrait of a Clayco executive against a glass wall in the company canteen. While I was shooting the glass wall portrait, another of my client’s colleagues wandered past the canteen and stopped in to say hello. This man is a recruiter for the company, and my client immediately asked if we could squeeze in a portrait of him as well. Since this man is a recruiter, my client wanted something a little more informal, a little more fun for this portrait.

We had a very tight schedule of shots we needed to complete that day, and so in order to make room for one more I knew I had to find a location, set up, and shoot the portrait in a matter of minutes. This meant making use of whatever was close at hand – there wasn’t time for a lot of scouting. Luckily for me, the doors to the canteen that we were shooting in are made of steel, and each door had these really interesting looking portholes.

My initial idea was to shoot the portrait directly in front of the metal doors, maybe throw a strobe in the other room through the porthole for some drama. But when I got into the other room to set up the back light, I happened to glance through the porthole. I realized that my subject was perfectly framed through the glass pane, and I knew that was the shot I wanted.

Lighting Setup


The first thing I had to do was to light my subject. I wanted a lot of darkness to frame the subject – lots of drama. Since I had just completed the glass wall portrait, I already had my Photoflex octodome on one strobe, so I decided to use that for my key light. I positioned my subject, closed the door and lined up my shot. Then by yelling through the door I had my assistant position the octodome so that it illuminated the subject’s face, while being high enough and off to the side to be out of the frame. I balanced the light power, shutter speed and aperture so that all of the ambient light in the canteen went to black.

After a few test shots we had the this strobe keyed in, but the shadow side of my subject was disappearing into the darkness. I placed a second strobe across the room (well out of frame) with a grid. This light acted as a kicker and helped define the side of the subject’s face and give me some separation.

The shot was almost there, however, because I was over-riding the ambient light, my side of the door was completely black as well. I really wanted to take advantage of the metal surface of the door, so I positioned a strobe on low power with a shoot-through umbrella to the side and behind me, which brought up the foreground.

Unfortunately, some light from this umbrella bled onto my body as I was shooting, which caused a minor (but unsightly) reflection of myself in the glass of the porthole. If I had had more time, I probably would have experimented with using another softbox instead of the umbrella to control that spill a little bit more, but given our schedule I didn’t want to take the time. I made sure that my reflection was hitting on the completely dark areas of pane, well away from my subject’s face, simply by moving around a bit, ensuring an easy cleanup in post production.

I always strive to get the best possible image in-camera. That said, sometimes it’s the better part of valor to get the shot you want, even if you know you’ll have to make a few tweaks in post. In this case, we were on a tight schedule, and messing around with more lights and modifiers to completely eliminate the reflection could have compromised the other setups we had to shoot that day. Because I was aware of the problem and minimized it during the shoot, the retouching on this shot took less than fifteen minutes.

This image illustrates what you can do with a very limited amount of time, and get a completely different look with the same space. To see the other shot that I made during this session, check out my last post Glass Wall Corporate Portrait.

Clayco Corporate Head Shot

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