The Art of the Executive Portrait

A successful company may be the sum of its employees, their work and its products, but the human face of a company will often be represented by a small number of people: the CEO, the members of the board, and the officers who make the key decisions. Shareholders, clients and partners may love a company’s brand — but they still want to know who lies behind the strategy and who is setting the direction. They want to know who they’re doing business with.

Executive Portraiture: More Important Than Ever

At a time when so much business is conducted at great distances, when it’s possible to enter into agreements with people on the other side of the globe whom you’ve never met and may never meet, the importance of a portrait that portrays exactly who runs your company—and shows that they’re professional, dedicated and trustworthy—has never been greater.

Executive portraiture turns a corporation into an individual, and it makes personal a relationship built primarily on the exchange of products and services. This is not something that can be obtained through a stock library or through any method other than the hiring of a professional photographer.

And not just any photographer will do.

Although every professional should be capable of creating a picture that reflects the subject’s appearance, an assignment photographer with experience shooting corporate leaders goes further. That photographer knows how to capture the executive’s personality, connect their look and image with the company they represent, and make sure the final images are capable of being used in all the different ways the company’s communications department might need.

Says Michael Robinson, a Black Star photographer with more than 30 years’ experience:

It is important to know what types of uses are planned for the executives’ portraits — so that the lighting and poses can be tailored to fit. If there is a designer or art director working on the project, there is often a style or technique that they are looking for.

Location, Location, Location

Part of helping to ensure that the image reflects that style comes by choosing the right location for the shoot. A portrait behind a desk can say a lot about the executive, but not necessarily about the company. An executive shot on the factory floor or surrounded by visuals that reflect the work of the corporation looks like an executive who is an integral part of his industry and of his company.

Choosing the best location is not always easy—or even possible. Often a company will simply bring the photographer into the executive’s office or the board­ room and expect them to produce — within just a few minutes — a portrait of their CEO.

It can be done, and our photographers do it more often than they’d like, making the most of the location and using different angles and lighting techniques to create photographs that produce a range of effects. Usually, though, it’s far better to select locations that add meaning and impact to the shoot.

Craig Sands, who has been shooting for Black Star since 1987, combines his experience in the media with his skills at portraiture. The result is images that reflect the personality of the executive — but which also tell a story about the company and the executive’s role within it. Explains Craig, who has worked for publishers that include The Kansas City Star and the National Geographic Society:

I continue to approach my work as I did in the beginning… as a photojournalist. A little research on the person and the business and environment, and a little planning always helps the shoot go smoother.

If we need to get it done good but quick, I have to have my gear ready and be analytical and decisive while picking the best options from the location. If I have someone willing to try something artistic and innovative, I certainly take advantage and let my creative side take over.

Avoiding the Rush

Of course, shooting situations are rarely perfect. It’s rare for a top executive to be able to block out a large chunk of time from an overfilled schedule to stand in front of a lens. In most cases, although shoots might last between 30 minutes and an hour, the executive will be keen to move on to the next meeting or in a hurry to get back to their desk.

While this is understandable, a look of impatience rarely makes for a good portrait. That’s why a good executive photographer also needs to know how to shoot quickly and how to put the subject at ease so that they’re not looking at their watch or wondering how much longer the shoot will last.

It’s a problem that Craig Sands solves by involving the executive in the shoot. He explains right at the beginning how much time he’ll need for the set­up, how long the shoot will last and how many images he’s likely to create—as well as what effect he’s looking for from the different lighting and angles. Says Craig:

These are smart people and pretty much everyone is interested in photography. If they understand what I’m doing and how long it will likely take, they will be more comfortable throughout.

Achieving that level of comfort is always key to a successful portrait shoot, but when executives are the subject, it can also present a unique challenge for the photographer—one that requires skills that go beyond technical knowledge of the camera and even experience at creating portraits.

Executives are used to making decisions and taking the lead. They usually set the terms, and they expect others to follow. Being in charge is their role in the company — and it will often form part of the impression the photographer wants to create in the image.

When sitting for a portrait, however, the executive is not in control. He has to follow the photographer’s instructions. The photographer has to feel free to make the decisions that will lead to the best image—and the executive has to be trusting and patient enough to allow the photographer to complete the work.

Michael Robinson says this takes skill, and diplomacy, to pull off: “Most high level executives are too busy and stressed out to be ideal portrait subjects.”

Advance Preparation by the Client and Photographer

Part of the solution is good preparation—not just by the photographer but also by the company. When the company’s communications department has properly briefed the executive on what will happen, and has set aside a suitable amount of time in his or her schedule, subjects tend to be more relaxed and the shoots tend to go more smoothly.

Good preparation can also help with locations, especially if the photographer is allowed on site before the shoot begins so that he can look for the best angles and begin setting up even before the executive arrives.

Preparation can prevent problems with dress, too — often an element to which the executive might give little thought, but which can convey a great deal of information. A vice president of marketing, for example, may need to be photographed in a business suit to show that he’s a part of the business world, but the head of research at a pharmaceutical company would portray expertise by being photographed in a white lab coat. The young CEO of a software company, meanwhile, might show that her firm has its finger on the pulse by looking relaxed in jeans and a sweater.

Ultimately, though, the client’s preparation should start with hiring a top-level professional photographer—someone confident enough in their own skills to take charge of the shoot. It takes someone who is not afraid to give instructions—even to a subject more used to giving guidance than receiving it—and someone who has the experience to deliver those directions in a way that creates results.

The preceding post is an excerpt from Black Star’s new e-book, “When to Use Assignment Photography.” Download the free e-book here.

One Response to “The Art of the Executive Portrait”

  1. At last, some useful practical advise. I'm doing my first Corp portrait session tomorrow and this is very helpful. Thanks for posting.

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