How take a flattering portrait of my boss?
May 8, 2007 2:28 PM   Subscribe

How to take a flattering portrait of my boss when I have about an hour and very little control over the conditions?

This is what I have got to work with: a Nikon D70, 18-70 mm f/3.5-4.5G lens, SB-600 flash, an office with high ceilings and no nice windows that I can use (the windows are all in the ceiling). I have very limited experience with using the flash, unsure how (or whether!) I should use it for this session. I am experienced at fixing up portraits in Photoshop but obviously want to have a good starting point. Any advice?
posted by dinkyday to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Go outside!
posted by loiseau at 2:40 PM on May 8, 2007

If going outside isn't an option, put it in the best area (under a skylight, near a window if there is a window anywhere) and, if you can, bounce the flash off of a wall or ceiling. Or detach the flash if you can. You can make an easy flash bouncer-type thing with a sheet of paper or cardboard, and it'll make a huge difference above direct flash. Dim office lights if they overpower natural light (it's a stationary shot, you don't need to flood it with light)
posted by tmcw at 2:51 PM on May 8, 2007

Forgive me if this is really obvious: take as many shots as possible, and take them at the highest possible quality settings.
posted by box at 2:54 PM on May 8, 2007

Take many (30+) pictures. Make you boss turn and tilt his or head in several different ways. Otherwise, you'll have 30+ pictures that all look the same.
posted by GarageWine at 3:05 PM on May 8, 2007

This is a really easy way to make a picture's colors look a lot better if you have access to a recent version of Photoshop. I was able to use Photoshop CS2 to do this really easily, and I am not by any means a Photoshop expert.

Improve your photography with classical art.
posted by Jupiter Jones at 3:06 PM on May 8, 2007 [4 favorites]

Do smiles with and without teeth.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:11 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

tmcw writes "You can make an easy flash bouncer-type thing with a sheet of paper or cardboard, and it'll make a huge difference above direct flash."

Yep, if you can't get enough natural light through those windows, you want to use a bounce card with the flash. Very thorough instructions here, although that guy maybe goes a little bit over the top. You just need some white paper, or an index card.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:13 PM on May 8, 2007

A "flattering" portrait? Worry a little bit about the setup and tech, but focus more on capturing your boss's humanity. Of course this advice might not be appropriate for certain uses, but try to capture a variety of real emotions. Catch something candid, just talk to him, joke around. Don't "pose". I always have photographers shoot when the subject isn't expecting it, and those are usually the better images.
posted by wubbie at 3:15 PM on May 8, 2007

Stand at an angle to him. Ask him to tell a third person a joke. Take shots of him telling the joke, close enough to get his expression. Now do the opposite (have someone tell him a joke). Pick the best shot. Hopefully, it's lively an animated and shows him being human and not sitting for a portrait.
posted by frogan at 3:19 PM on May 8, 2007

Try to go outside for some if you can. Or you could shoot anywhere in the building that there is a big window, so the boss would be lit from the side by the window light.

Pick a background that's not "busy".

Do some smiling and some not smiling. (and some teeth and some no-teeth)

Think of couple of silly inoffensive jokes to tell if he/she needs to be loosened up to smile naturally. (Did you hear they're building a restaurant on the moon? Yeah, the foods's good, but there's no atmosphere.)

Do some looking at camera, and some looking off to the side.

Ask boss if he/she tends to blink in pictures. One thing that sometimes works with blinkers is to tell them to blink right before you take the picture. "One - two (blink) - three (snap)".
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:19 PM on May 8, 2007

You get free off-camera flash with the sb-600, as detailed here. If you don't have access to a flash stand, get a friend/helper monkey to hold it for you. Bounce it off something white or through something translucent. You have an hour, so take some time to play around, look at your histograms and see how it goes. See here for a simple headshot-in-a-corner setup to get you started.
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:32 PM on May 8, 2007

Direct flash can be very unflattering, especially if it messes up the white balance in the shot. I'd try half with it, half without, and definitely do bounce or diffuse the flash on the shots where you do use it (above links).

Take as many shots as you can fit on the card. Also try shots with longer and shorter focal lengths as this can compress / elongate the depth of facial features which may give you a better starting point.

+1 on the "go outside" comments. Frogan's suggestion is also excellent.
posted by 0xFCAF at 3:33 PM on May 8, 2007

You need to practice using "fill flash" - this is how professional photographers do it (particularly press/wedding photographers, who work to get great shots in far less time than you have).

Fill flash means having the flash pick up the shadows under the brow and chin and anywhere else where light needs balancing.

To do this, set the flash to quarter intensity of the main light source (so if you meter f11 reflected light from the forehead of your subject, set the flash at f5.6) - I'd suggest experimenting prior to get it right, make the necessary adjustments in the environment and then shoot a lot of frames.

Another consideration: Put your camera on a tripod and frame your subject, stand next to your camera and talk to them during the shoot as you would in a normal conversation, you'll get a range of natural expressions. A natural smile is easier and more sincere than asking someone to smile for no reason (other than to look good in a photograph).
Take as many shots as you can.

I'd strongly suggest avoiding unusual light set ups unless you've done it already to check the effect (AND it looks good) - no professional photographer EVER experiments on the job.

When bouncing flash, particularly from overhead, you tend to make people with already large cheeks look like evil skeletor and you also lose catchlight in the eyes (which is a very important and flattering effect - without highlights reflected in the eyes, the eyes tend to look dark and dead).

Keep the shoot easy/simple - and both you and your subject will be relaxed. This last point is probably one of the most important elements in getting a good portrait.
posted by strawberryviagra at 5:13 PM on May 8, 2007

n'th-ing the out-of-doors option if it's at all possible - the light will be infinitely better and you can always p'shop out any extraneous detail if necessary. If any of my clients are on a budget, I always take them down to the local park.

You haven't said above what the brief for the photo is. Think beforehand about what the message you're trying to convey. Is it for an internal newsletter or an external promotion? Each of these has a different approach - the in-house magazine doesn't need an extra-formal photo, more of a nice picture of the boss looking cheerful and vaguely paternal/maternal. External marketing needs a bit more go-get-'em punch and formality. Have a clear idea in your head of the kind of images you're trying to create and the mood you're trying to convey. If you're not at all clear on this, talk to your boss beforehand and get his/her input.

If it needs to be office-based and strawberryviagra's tripod suggestion isn't viable, a technique I've found successful is to find a quiet corner with at least one window's-worth of natural light and for both photographer and subject to sit in swivel, wheeled office chairs - about four feet apart.

Start chatting and shooting (jokes are useful, but simply asking the subject about their day, their family, their latest project, their company, whatever, work equally well). Get the subject used to the idea that there's a person to interact with behind the camera. Shoot at least 10 'warm-up' photos in this manner (which will almost certainly be rubbish but will get the subject nice and relaxed).

Use your feet to maneuver your chair around the subject. Get as many angles as you can. If you can get a buddy to hold a makeshift reflector so much the better (but remember to give them a quick tutorial beforehand on not getting in-shot and how to watch the light). If your boss is a laid-back sort, you might be able to get him to hold the reflector/sheet of paper/whatever themselves...?

Get a variety of full-face, 3/4 and profiles. If you're feeling experimental (and time allows) try shooting from 6" below and above the eyeline of the subject.

Shoot lots. If your camera has a decent motor drive make liberal use of it to catch your boss in 5-shot bursts of emotion. Assuming you'll be shooting digital, make sure you've got enough clear memory in hand to get at least 50 (if not 100) shots in 20 minutes. If you're shooting film have at least 3 36 exp films spare (and have them handy in your pocket for quick changing, not over in the corner).

Obvious point, but remember to focus on the eyes (not the nose or the ears). Autofocus will generally go for the nearest point to the camera, which might not necessarily be the actual 'focus' of the picture. Either shoot manual focus or make sure you've got enough depth-of-field to get the eyes in focus too every time.
posted by dogsbody at 6:52 PM on May 8, 2007

Aside from the technical issues, those upthread who mentioned chatting and joking have it.

When I have to take portraits, I have the person stand/sit without much set up time or instructions, and I IMMEDIATELY start shooting like crazy. This alleviates the tension on both sides. Don't expect any of those to be any good, and do NOT LOOK at the preview after every shot. Just shoot shoot shoot for a minute or two, as you engage in conversation. Intersperse your chat with instructions, but then keep the conversation going, but very casual. You will start to see what is working, then you can increase the amount of your instructions. It might be a little tricky if you are not used to taking someone's portrait, but give it a shot. (HA!) Oh, and always use POSITIVE direction: "Tilt your head to the right", not "don't tilt to the left."

Supporting story from the days of film: Quite a few photographers (including me), some well known (not me), would often shoot a "fake roll" of film before actually loading any film. It gets the subjects used to having their picture taken, something none of us are really comfortable with.
posted by The Deej at 7:05 PM on May 8, 2007

I don't know how much photographic knowledge you have, so this might be a bit patronising, but if I was advising a fairly-new-to-this type...

1. Have your boss stand against the least cluttered background
2. Make sure they're not too close to the wall -- you'll get shadows
3. Check for light falling from the window -- is it making one side of their face much brighter than the other? This is bad, most likely
4. Set your lens to 70mm. A longer length will decrease big noses and the like, and is more flattering.
5. Stand as far back as required to get the framing you want, which is most likely head and shoulders.
6. Point flash at ceiling.
7. Open lens right up to f3.5. You want to blur out everything except the focus. If your lens is a bit soft wide-open, try taking 10 or 20 shots with it stopped down a bit as well.
8. Take lots of pictures, making sure your boss changes up a lot. Try turning them side-on to you, or 3/4 side-on. Or if you can, stand on a chair and shoot down at them. Tilt the camera. You'll know what's appropriate for your magazine style.
9. Always focus on the eyes.

Additional: A tripod would be good. Watch for the hands. We ignore them with our eyes, but they loom huge in portraits, they can be as big as the face. If they're out of shot, well and good. If they're not, have them curled, or closed, or folded or otherwise minimised.
posted by bonaldi at 7:10 PM on May 8, 2007

Step back and use your narrow lenses setting to feel closer, way more flattering then a wider angle (think "not fishbowl").

Nthing the bounce card to reflect some of the window light. A big piece or two of white poster board would work well, especially down low to counteract the ceiling level light.

Shoot from slightly lower (camera at approximately boss's chin level)--your boss will be happy that he or she looks taller.

Turn off the click sound if your camera lets you.......
posted by anaelith at 7:15 PM on May 8, 2007

Lots of tips here.
posted by markdj at 1:32 AM on May 9, 2007

The most important thing is to modify the lighting or background to take advantage of your boss's good features or to hide bad features. Without knowing your boss, generic advice may be bad.

Is your boss bald? Does he/she wear glasses? Have a big nose? Dark skin or light skin? Is his/her skin oily? How about deep set eyes? Lots of wrinkles?

Bounce lighting on a bald person is a recipe for head glare. Glasses require some well thought out lighting to see their eyes and to avoid bad shadows. If you want flattering pictures there is much more than point and click, f16. Get a good understanding of what you are up against before you try to tackle the problem.
posted by JJ86 at 6:23 AM on May 9, 2007

You have an hour? That's PLENTY of time. When I worked as a photog in a chain studio I had to crank out photos of ppl in 3-4 different outfits with a variety of poses in under 30 minutes TOPS. That's if it was a slow day. Normally I was only allowed 15 minutes max with a subject on a busy day. And don't get me started on group pics...

You've got the equipment, I assume you have SOME photo experience if you've been selected for this assignment. What I sense is that you're lacking confidence. Prethink your poses (studying magazine layouts is always helpful) and get a general idea of what kind of photo/pose you want to shoot BEFORE you go in. The worst thing you can do is not have any idea of what you want to do before you start (but I don't think that will be a problem since you're asking this beforehand!). You will then waste your session thinking of what photos to take rather than actually taking them.

Oh, and this is VERY important - your subject may be your boss, but while you are shooting him/her remember that the roles are switched. As the photographer, YOU are the boss. Don't be afraid to take advantage of this! I'm sure your boss wants the photos to come out great as much as you do, so he/she will be pretty compliant in whatever you want to do. DO NOT be afraid to physically move your subject into the position that you want if verbal instructions are not working.

Remember that the beginning of a session is always more awkward and uncomfortable than the end. I practically guarantee that your best photos will come towards the end of the shoot, so make sure to take PLENTY of photos while working up to that point to ensure that you and your subject can warm-up to your switched roles. (in this case digital is your friend!)

And what is up with this thinking that you do not have control over your conditions? Of course you have control! You already know the location, the environment, and the person you're shooting. You already have all the information you need to go ahead and make it a GREAT shoot!

posted by tastycracker at 8:21 AM on May 9, 2007

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