Creating an executive portrait can be a challenging task. The photographer is frequently confronted with a situation offering limited time in a limited space with an individual they’ve never met. While there are many unique challenges to this type of photography, they can be overcome with a planned, calm approach to make your client feel comfortable while yielding the best possible results for your client.
Theory and Approach
Principally, the idea is to produce consistent results that make your clients look their best. It’s often good practice to explore the technical mechanics of your photography before you begin photographing that subject. Often, portrait photographers will use a mannequin or mannequin’s head as a ‘stand-in’ to practice lighting on. This makes sense, since it’s free labor that you would otherwise have to pay an assistant to do.
Using a subject as a stand-in, the photographer can begin to construct the lighting setup for tried-and-true results. Often, when a valuable lighting setup has been constructed, the photographer will record the equipment location and critical settings such as shutter speed, f-stop, ISO, distances in feet – such as the distance of the strobes from the subject, how far the subject is from the background, and the distance between the camera and model – as well as the strobe power settings (e.g., 1/16th) in a sketch book.
Creating an executive portrait is a challenge not only because of the technical knowledge required to produce it, but also because of the delicacy of the subject. When your subject steps into your space, I believe it is your responsibility to make them feel great about themselves, while at the same time remaining sincere. It’s no secret that people come in all shapes and sizes, and everyone has a pre-existing concept of how they think they should look. Most executive’s simply do not have the time to waste on a photograph, so when you’re creating an executive portrait, it’s important to be prepared for people of different height, weight, age, and ethnicity.
Creating the Executive Portrait
My best advice is to be yourself. I have an outgoing personality, and I care to make an effort to be likeable. That means smiling, introducing yourself, shaking their hand, explaining where you’d like them to stand, and helping them relax. You can imagine how intimidating it can be to walk into a room with lighting equipment, reflectors, softboxes and a camera on a tripod. People in general can become very self-conscious when they’re having their photographs made, and that will reflect in the photography if you cannot quickly develop a rapport with your subject.
That having been said, on picture day, I’ve already tested my lighting on my assistant by the time the first executive portrait is ready to be made. The subject steps into the room, I go through my paces to make them feel comfortable, modify the lighting slightly as needed, and try to get them to open up. I’m interested in seeing the real person that stepped into the room, and lifting that veil of intimacy for even a moment can be a difficult task. Personally, I’ve found humor to be the easier approach. At the time same, you have to be delicate to a person’s sense of humor during this process.
Below is a simple executive portrait I created of my friend Josh on a white seamless background. It was an easy lighting setup using two strobes and white umbrellas to diffuse the flash. Before I created the image, friend and photographer Dalton Aiken stepped in to model the light. I was happy that he did, because small adjustments – like the positioning of the chair, which affected the models torso and shoulders – helped to improve the final image. After exporting into Lightroom and making further improvements, this was the final result: