More often than not when creating an image library for a corporation or organization, I am called upon to create portraits or headshots. It’s logical, since the library is often part of a more ambitious overhaul of a website and that includes the “About Us” page.
But because they don’t reside on the home page, these portraits don’t always receive the same creative consideration. You would expect that to be a creative goal to create consistency in branding, so I’m always prepared for that to be the case. My modus operandi has always been to answer the question, “What is the end goal here?”
This all comes to mind on two recent shoots, where careful consideration was, indeed, given to crafting a look for photos of individuals. In the top example for a healthcare company, the agency showed samples of different headshots, had discussions, and issued a creative brief. On set, the agency creative director and the company’s creative reviewed the images on the tethered laptop to make minor adjustments. The goal was more about color and light but not so saturated in color that it set up an odd pairing for the mature leadership. The background was different but similar, to account for what could be future photographs taken in other environments. Thematically, they had to work together without being identical.
In the lower example, the headshots were taken at a Working Not Working creative gathering. Discussions ahead of time were about how they should be a little more moody, muted with a dark background but not so dark as to create jarring juxtaposition with a smiling, happy person. It was to be more personal and intimate. Again, samples were offered but I was given the flexibility to bring whatever look I thought was appropriate within those guidelines. Practically speaking it was also very quick, since we were doing dozens of subjects and it was taken in a corner next to a crowded bar! But it was a crazy fun time.
Both were a success and an enjoyable experience, in part because of creative direction. To me, that element always been essential in order to align expectations. One reason there is a “Create PDF” link in the left column on my website is because it’s a very useful function in creating a mood board. Clicking on the image shows all the images in the website, allowing a person to create a PDF by selecting images that might pair with the creative look and feel they have in mind.
You would think after all this, the only thing missing from having photographs achieve a creative goal is to have creative direction. Yet unfortunately, the head-scratching truth is that there are photographers who don’t know how to follow a creative brief. I don’t get it. I was on a recent multi-city project where a very thorough creative brief was given to different photographers shooting in different cities. It called for a white background, even lighting but a light source not too hard, very shallow depth-of-field, a certain type of expression. Examples were given. I understood what was needed and rented equipment as appropriate to the project. Afterward, the project manager was happy with what I had done but circled back in a group email (mercifully bcc’d) in which he complained to the other photographers about their lack of follow-through while holding up my pictures as an example (with my name redacted so no one ended up hating me later). Honestly, I don’t say this to brag. How can you brag about something as basic as following directions?
This is perhaps fodder for a different post, but in the end, it appears to me that many photographers are not comfortable shooting outside their creative comfort zones. I understand this to some degree. There are natural instincts as a photographer that take over when faced with uncertainty on a shoot. You solve problems a certain way. You subtly adjust to repeat past success. The insecure impulses associated with a challenge can be hard to fight. But having been a generalist for much of my career in which I have been expected to emulate different looks for different editors over the years, I don’t get caught up with what I’ve done but what I need to do. As with the examples above, I echo what Gregory Heisler used to call the “appropriate response.”
So it’s a two-way street between a photographer and a creative director. It’s fantastic and a relief to have a brief written by someone used to directing photographers but it’s up to the photographer to read between the lines of any project description or brief to ask questions and offer synonyms for ambiguous words such as “candid” or “edgy” to get everyone closer to acting from a shared vocabulary.
The example here is portraits and headshots, nothing terribly complicated. But once expectations are aligned and creative flow is moving forward, it makes the process a lot more reassuring for everyone, no matter the size of the shoot.