On Assignment: 150 portraits in 3 days


One of the more ‘interesting’ recent assignments I had* was a series of corporate portraits – by series, I mean 150, with full makeup and retouching. We had 150 to do over the course of three days – which isn’t a particularly punishing schedule, but when you have to work around the subjects’ schedules, then time tends to contract into mad rushes interspersed by soporific periods of inactivity while waiting. Made worse was the fact that there was no formal scheduling – the subjects were consultants. The real challenge wasn’t so much the shooting as getting all of the subjects to turn up at all: between egos, vanity, laziness and general contempt of management in some cases, my poor client – the management – had fun trying to cajole, threaten and bribe them into showing up. In the end, I think we got about 110 of the total, with about 15-20 being on leave or at other locations, and the rest simply refusing to cooperate. It’s amazing how such educated people can sometimes be so incredibly difficult…

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*It seems that one’s career never turns out as expected despite the best intentions – although I’m still doing a good amount of architecture and watch photography, food is almost nonexistent, and I seem to be doing more and more location commercial/ stock/ portrait-type stuff. It seems that not that many people in this country can use remote speedlights well or produce studio-quality light on location…or at least that’s what the clients are saying. Personally, I just treat everything like a really large watch: where do I want my highlights and shadows, and how much diffusion do I need?

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From a lighting point of view, we used a simple two-light setup; primary light to the right at 45 deg to the subject, with a rear kicker to fill background shadows and provide some back-of-head definition 45 deg behind – so subject and two lights formed a straight line. Both flashes were umbrella’ed, with the rear operating 2 stops lower than the front.

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The setup – shot with the Ricoh GR1v I happened to be carrying in my pocket at the time. Flashes triggered by setting to manual/ SU4 slave mode, and the built in on the Ricoh at -2EV.

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Makeup at work. Also with the Ricoh GR1v.

I had originally intended to use a fixed prime – the 85/1.8 G – but the huge variation in heights and body sizes made this impossible if we were to keep the amount of frame occupied by the subject consistent. In the end, I landed up using my 24-120/4, which proved to be both versatile and optically excellent around the 85mm mark (give or take 10mm either way). I acquired the lens a few months back for an architectural job, but it’s turning out to be a lot more versatile than expected. Finally, shooting wasn’t the hardest part by any means: after the vast ensuing retouching, I had to take a several-day hiatus from photoshop…MT


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  1. I wonder if some applied behavioural economics can make participants more cooperative. For instance, give the participants three choices:

    1–They can submit their own photos, or
    2–They can have their portraits taken by professional (company foots the bill), or
    3–If neither of the above are delivered before the deadline, then someone in corporate security will trawl social media for a photo.


    I truly enjoyed this blog post, having had to ensure mass cooperation. Heck, your blog and Thorsten’s pushed me to devote a significant chunk of my net worth on rangefinders. Thanks, Ming, for making this hobby more enjoyable!

    • Doesn’t work from a branding/ corporate comms/ image point of view – there has to be some standardization of professionalism.

      Haha, I can’t claim responsibility for rangefinders – I don’t own one at the moment and haven’t done so for about six months – but medium format might be another matter… 😉

  2. ivanmuller says:

    hi, fine portraits and nice lighting! I have also done ‘mass portraits’ like these before. I limited myself to 2 images each and didnt use the camera viewfinder at the time of the exposure to see if they closed their eyes or not…something i picked up on my days of 4×5 view camera portraiture. The first time it was over 200 portraits and second time about 120, (done on two morning sessions!) Client didn’t want ‘posh’ portraits, more a record of the staff for internal publication etc etc. so there was not much emphasis on the right clothing or makeup etc…One thing I found interesting with your portraits are the many hands held in front of the body..I try and ovoid those poses as I find that they make the subjects look very ‘timid’….and I usually instruct them to change the positions of the arms…maybe its a cultural thing?

    • I told the subjects to feel comfortable – if anything, it looks awkward if they’re forced to pose in a way that isn’t natural to them.

  3. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Apologies, I realize I should have said “comic strip”.

    • Haha, either type is good! 😛

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Well, the blog engine (?) said “comment awaiting moderation”, so I thoght I had used some “trip” word.

        • No, it does odd things sometimes when it comes to auto-moderation – it should be set up so previously approved commenters can post without issue, but it seems that sometimes it has a mind of its own…

  4. Kristian Wannebo says:


    ( Dpreview introduces this strip, and they started with this:
    http://whattheduck.net/strip/1382 )

    Here is another one,

    • Oh, the irony 🙂

      WTD is a great strip. I know Aaron and I’m happy for him that it’s working out; DPR on the other hand…let’s not even go there. I think they’ve given up trying to make their own halfway decent content…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        You are probably right, DPR invited (?) the giant and got trapped…
        I go there for news and description of equipment,
        their assessment of cameras was a lot better before Amazone took over.

        • Well, it seems they hired a lot of people, but none of them are photographers, and it shows. Some of the news they post these days is just rubbish.

  5. Good job Ming. Like you, I never set out to do portraiture but the almighty $$dollar forced me there on occasion. I always ask the subject if they want me to make them look better or worse than in real life ( I can give you the long answer if you’re interested ). Anyways, I pretty much use the same lighting as you ( except that I use small portable studio flash with a 250w modeling light so I can see what I’ll be getting ) except that I add a back light as a hair rim light to add some hair definition and separation from the background. 2 minutes per person is the time schedule if I’m on a tight budget ( who isn’t nowadays! ). For those portrait shoots, I still use my ( $ 8000. ) Kodak 760 with the 6 mp chip. I shoot tethered with the great Kodak software that came with it. My Nikon D700 does no better and the files are usually too big for the purposes needed. The Photoshop retouching is a whole other story! I especially don’t envy wedding photographers. That I never did for all the money in the world ( well, almost! ).
    You’ll be amazed at the types of photographs you’ll be taking in your career!

    Take care,

    • Very, very true. Ironically one has to portray themselves as a specialist of sorts – then you land up getting hired for other things and spending very little time on your true specialization. In any case, the fundamentals of composition, lighting etc. are all transferrable…

  6. Vincent says:

    Love how your pictures and candid comments about your clients brought back some memories for me.
    Went through the same experience directing a shoot of 100 medical specialists 5 years ago.
    Now that I’ve retired; I can say that some were really a bunch of children!
    You, on the other hand, are not retired yet. 🙂

  7. I personally like the shadows myself, but I’ve also gotten similar feedback when shooting corporate photos in that style; basically that it was too dark.. they weren’t satisfied until I brightened the image almost to the point of over-exposure >_<
    Thanks for sharing this "BTS" article, I always find these kinds of posts fascinating (though I do miss your food photography as well).

    • Thanks Jeff. I thought I’d do a few alternate variations for personal satisfaction.

      As for food…haven’t had any of those assignments in a while. Wonder why…

  8. Ming ,,it seems that in several of your posts you are “really” starting to like the 24-120F4 more and more…Maybe a review is around the horizon with the D800E???? Personally I would have thought that if you could not use the 85 1.8G,,,that the 24-70 2.8 would have been a better alternative??

    • I’ve been using it for some time as a Swiss Army Knife of sorts. It’s a solid performer. I need the reach over the 24-120. I should do a review, but the trouble is I tend to use it on run and gun assignments and don’t have anything to post because of client embargoes…

  9. Jorge Balarin says:

    Thank you Ming for your article. It is very interesting for me.

  10. What photographer copyrights did you retain?

    • Full rights to use the images for personal/ professional portfolio and promotion. No model releases were signed, so they’re of zero commercial value to anybody by the client anyway.

      • I certainly didn’t think there would be commercial opportunity in the images but am wondering if there were limitations on the client.

  11. John Lockwood says:

    Well done Ming! Working with people, as you point out, is much different than inanimate objects. As a Westerner, I tend to main light from the left, as it is more natural for the viewer to survey an image from top left to bottom right. From what I understand, other cultures read “backwards” 🙂

  12. nico1969 says:

    Did you discuss the lighting style with your client? Don’t get me wrong – from an artist’s point of view I do like the pronounced use of light and shaddow. There are many clients out there who would have preferred you to set the main light a bit higher to try to avoid those almost horizontal shaddows (on the guy with the tie, fo instance).

    Thank you, also, for your candid description of the people management aspect of such a shoot. You’re bang on. There are always those types who deem themselves to be too important to subject themselves to such a lowly activity like having their portrait taken. Also, when having to take 150 portraits, you get all sorts of people. Those, who refuse to smile, those who don’t want to show their teeth, those who believe to know which side of their face should be lit, those who rather like to discuss your choice of cameras (especially men in the tech business), those who – despite being told – have never actually looked at the lens (just slightly off – which you actually only realise when looking at the files in front of a big screen) etc. etc.

    I am not so sure with your “big watches” analogy. In contrast to watches, people as photographic subjects have a say in judging the photographic output. There is a set of rules for lighting each category of subjects. The watchmaker wants the photographer to show his work of horologic art, show all the complications etc. He doesn’t want you to create artsy shaddow plays that look cool but might make the watch look extremely different from what the buyer would see in the shop. (I remember your shot of Omega Speedmaster(?) where the wristband appeared to be black instead of silver which it actually is. It looked really really cool, I would love to have such a watch with a black metal wristband. From Omega’s perspective – I would guess – the shot might not have met the marketing department’s requirements).

    So again: did your client approve of your beautiful, but in a way artistically daring use of shaddows?

    • Yes I did, and what I delivered matches the contact sheet, not the B&Ws as has been mentioned already several times in the comments.

      Rules are if you want to produce the same images as everybody else…if you did, then you’d rarely be picked over the next guy.

  13. Did you give the client the color or b&w-version? While I like the dark look of the b&w shots, I also think they are a bit too dark for “normal business portraits”.

  14. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Interesting to watch their postures…
    Only 20 don’t hold their hands together in front of themselves and only one lets his arms hang straight down.

    The faces are much more dynamic and threedimensional than with the classic lighting setups in photographic schoolbooks.
    ( They are too afraid of shadows, and one wonders in what real environment a face could look like that. )

    As it so often happens, when someone enters from a different field things become more interesting.

    • I wanted something a bit more dynamic and less old-stodgy looking than than the usual soft light, but not as harsh as typical speedlight portraits tend to be. I think this is a good compromise.

  15. wjlonien says:

    A bit dark and chiaroscuro for my taste – but if your client liked it that way…

    • These were a few bonus extras. The submitted images were all color.

    • I definitely seeing chiaroscuro influences here. But I think that is what Ming was going for. Not all portraits need to look like a portfolio on model mayhem or a stock photograph. And the chiaroscuro effect does add something. Although, I have no idea why Ming choose this style, it is good for as it is and don’t think it should be judged in relation to standard stock photographs.

  16. I do sympathize with the difficulties that comes with working with people – especially uncooperative people. Some children just never grow up. Just smile and move on. In the best case, the smile begins to change them from the inside. In the worst case, you haven’t done anything to make the situtation worse, and the moment has been put behind you. So… Take a break from photoshop and shoot some more with that hasselblad. 🙂
    That or go to the beach and have a Mojito.

    • In the end the job was a success, I think – I did everything I could and the client was happy, so no biggie.

      Just shot a job yesterday with the Hasselblad, actually – Acros 100 pushes surprisingly well…increase in contrast, but no increase in grain. I like.

  17. Woah, nice.
    What’s with the guy third from the top on the far left? The perspective is closer than the rest?

  18. Yep — I know far too well how hard it is to get consultants to do anything — even something relatively simple like getting photos made. I’ve been on both sides of that transaction, so also understand how it is to be someone with (extremely) high autonomy needs. Still, I’m thinking that some day, some of the holdouts will be kicking themselves in the same way that I still am for not taking a plane up to Ottawa all those years ago and sitting for Karsh…and you came to them in this instance!

  19. The B&W samples look great, like giant watches! (And that’s meant in the nicest way possible!) I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m surprised how much of your look carries over to the portraits. Everyone should be so lucky to have headshots of this quality.


  1. […] usually not shared, obviously) or professional ones (I do have clients whose mainstay subjects are primarily human). Whilst curating images for a recent assignment, I had a couple of little personal epiphanies […]

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