When Not All Portrait Photography Is Alike

Understanding Different Portrait Specialties

No, this isn’t a blog post about one photographer being better than another or why you need to look for a photographer with specific training or portfolio. It is about understanding different types of portrait photography, so that you can best choose a photographer. Since this is not a subject many non-pros think about, I believe it is worth mentioning.

I recently was asked, “how do you handle reshoots?” It occurred to me the individual was potentially confusing portrait specialties. The caller was looking for a group rate for up to 40 corporate executives and other business professionals. The images would be used for print and web marketing. I explained I don’t offer reshoots at no charge, because I shoot tethered and clients choose images for retouching during shoots. This also means time must be allocated per person to do this.

Different Types of Portrait Photography

Apart from the obvious different portrait specialties (e.g., newborns, corporate, wedding, environmental and more) some portrait photographers specialize in photographing large groups (e.g., schools, sports, teams). Several photographers arrive at a location and execute what might seem like a wildly chaotic, unorganized, illogical process that is, in fact, more of an unrecognized art form. Their processes, gear, and setup allows them to photograph, track, and process many people in one day – hundreds … maybe even a thousand…, depending on the number of photographers the studio hires and the gear they use.

These studios who specialize in photographing many people very quickly may own or rent powerful lighting equipment – typically strobes like a B1 – capable of photographing hundreds of people in a day consistently, rapidly, and evenly. The lighting needs to recycle quickly and put out enough even power consistently to produce images that can later be quickly post processed in mass – images that don’t require a great deal of individual tweaking. The studios may spend little or no time adjusting lights once they are setup initially. The studios may spend only a little time – a few minutes – posing people and coaching them. (This plan works better on adults than noisy youngsters with classmates looking on.)

Overall, these studios do a great job with the conditions under which they work – minutes per person many times in large open, too cold, too stuffy, or too hot facilities and many times very noisy areas. They are photographing hundreds of people in a day. That is their unique charge. It’s tiring. Exhausting. Grueling at times. And there are pros and cons to shooting this way. It is a specialty designed to work well in specific scenarios.

These same studios tend to use one common lighting setup that doesn’t get adjusted for individual shoots. People stand in one spot and are posed specifically so images can be consistently post processed, many times by an outsourced company or another retouching studio using bulk actions. Outliers only are manually adjusted. There can only be a few of them (the nature of the word, yes) due to the thousands of images handled on a regular basis. If and when this doesn’t happen consistently, a studio either has to raise rates or they will go out of business if they can’t find a way to work around the massive additional work requirements.

These same studios tend to shoot in JPG vs. RAW. These group portrait photographers may subcontract post processing out to other companies if they are shooting on green screen, for example. This then allows the other company to extract subjects from backgrounds quickly and composite unique backgrounds onto somewhat mass produced images.

When images don’t turn out like a subject expects, a studio may offer a reshoot day or two for flexibility. These group photographers who photograph hundreds of people in a day typically don’t shoot tethered or spend time with each subject picking out a best image, one later retouched in post. They may do this instead using the back of a camera for isolated individuals, but generally not for the hundreds unless they are allowed sufficient time per person under contract.

Usually people receiving photographs taken in mass understand these limitations. It can be a crap shoot, really, depending on the conditions under which a shoot takes place. Three photographers needing to photograph a thousand children of various ages and developmental stages in one day can produce one set of images potentially with a higher number of reshoots than three photographers photographing 600 children. External variables can make a shoot easier or more difficult. But in general, no one expects perfection. Sometimes subjects receive it, but other times not. Most receive an attractive photo that captures a point in time at a nice low group rate. It is a unique specialty with pros and cons for both photographer and subject.

The other extreme example might be an heirloom portrait of an individual taken with a comparatively unlimited amount of time available, ideal studio conditions, ideal composition and posing, ideal lighting, wardrobe, and makeup and time required to post process to perfection. Images and session are priced accordingly.

Most portrait photographers who offer group rates fall somewhere in between. I offer a group photography rate for those needing more than 12 portraits. The exact number of people I recommend photographing in a day varies based on how images are used and who subjects are. A group of corporate executives, for example, who desire marketing images warrant more time per person in my opinion. Since I don’t include the cost of reshoots in my budget price, I instead prefer to shoot tethered. I prefer to make sure I capture an image a subject likes during a session. I prefer to have a subject choose an image for post processing during a session whenever possible. And most photographers who offer group rates do so at a rate per day that works with their workflow. Some photographers offer free re-shoots. Others don’t because they may not be applicable.

The group photography I offer is also different than studios who specialize in photographing the masses. (I can do this, but I would have to hire other photographers, rent gear, and care for other things to prepare properly. I would likely pass the job on to someone who specializes in this and work as a second shooter for the day.) My group rate allows for me to travel to a corporate site, set up for a day in a specific type of room, shoot for a day or more, and individually post process images minimally.

I shoot in RAW, and I custom edit each selected image based on a conversation about the degree of retouching a person prefers. And this conversation, too, might be different than what you expect. Usually I discuss things like moles, age lines, and imperfections individuals decide whether to remove, based on how the image will be used. Some people are very proud of their age lines and feel they have earned every one. Others feel they are spending money to have an image that makes them look like a cover model once in their life. They want one image that makes them feel their best to cherish for a long time. This conversation requires time and a little privacy. I recommend that companies allow time with each subject. (The quantity of retouching time is based on the plan selected. Group rates provide a minimum amount of time, but enough for most basic group portraits. The Gold plan offers more, etc.)

I do not consider myself a rapid fire photographer. Other than when I helped out a school photography studio once or twice in order to gain experience and empathy for the process, when working alone I don’t attempt to photograph a large number (e.g., 40+) of people in a day. Again, I can, but it will cost money – more than the budget price I offer at my website. Typically the final rate would not be consistent with those seeking a budget price.

What does all this mean for you, if you or your organization are looking to hire a group portrait photographer? It means be sure to ask about and consider:

  • How many people you want photographed in an eight hour day
  • How many days of shooting you need
  • The entire workflow and how “best” images are selected
  • The degree of retouching you want per person – very little, none, the person to look the best in a lifetime, or shot as a magazine cover
  • Whether all subjects should receive the same work flow and degree of post processing
  • How you want to use the images – for printed marketing materials, the web, or on a wall
  • The location of the shoot (whether the room is large enough for lighting equipment, backdrops, and stands and whether the room’s ambient lighting can readily be controlled).

In general with photography you get what you pay for. It also means always look at the portfolio of the photographer you hire to see how they created the image. Notice the composition. Look at the lighting and where it falls. Look at backgrounds. Review wardrobe, makeup, and retouching. Look at the likely use of the images. That is, after all, what you are paying for – great images to fit your needs and budget within a given time frame for a specific use.

Recommendations

For group portrait photography, based on current gear and workflow (meaning no additional rental costs are incurred, no hired assistants, no additional photographers, etc.), I recommend allowing time for one photographer to setup and adjust a room, adjust lighting, setup backgrounds, setup lighting modifiers – and then allowing an additional 45 minutes to 1 hour per person. And then be sure to allow time at the end of the day for the photographer to break down the room. I prefer to work this way for several reasons:

  • First, people tend to be a little uncomfortable in front of the camera the first 15 minutes, and this shows on faces. You can help people relax and produce better photos if you capture a few images and then show them to a subject. You can sometimes explain why you want someone to sit a certain way or have a specific expression on his or her face. It is easier to coach someone if a subject can see what you the photographer sees. For most people, doing this requires allowing a time for people to relax, have conversation with the photographer, time to review images, and time to shoot a few more if desired. (Doing this generally requires more than one to five minutes per person.) It means taking time to study an individual and determine his or her best side, best look – and choosing an image based on how an image will be used. It means thinking about a background, colors, wardrobe, makeup, hair, expression, composition, etc. and getting it right for each individual person. It means adjusting lighting per person. All these things take time. Overall, I much prefer “individual” group shoots than mass photography shoots simply due to the quality of image I can produce for a client. Good photography takes time. As a rule, the more time you allow a photographer to work with, the better images turn out.
  • Second, corporate head shots and portraits of executives warrant more than one to five minutes. They tend to want high quality, perfectly retouched images for marketing. They don’t want rapid setup-n-go photography. These higher end desires are more costly than a group budget plan allows. Consider an individual shoot for some and a group photo rate for others.
  • Third, I shoot portraits tethered when possible. Clients have the opportunity to review the images and pick one to retouch. Portrait reshoots are not applicable, because we take the time upfront to shoot, … reshoot, and select a best image.
  • Fourth, this amount of time includes time to choose from two basic looks, that is, it allows a wardrobe change and choosing between a formal business portrait and a more casual business look. Depending on the package selected, clients can then choose based on how the image will be used.
  • Unfortunately, some inquiries ask for both rapid fire photography techniques and gear, budget rates, high end portrait results – and free reshoots for all. I don’t know many pros who will agree to this at a budget rate. Some might. Some won’t. Just understand that the ultimate impact will be on the time allowed per person. And that can impact the quality of the images you are paying for.

    Group portrait photographers who specialize in photographing the masses will be more efficient than those who do not specialize in large groups. Likewise, portrait photographers who are experts in individual retouching and offer group rates will produce “individual” custom portraits, albeit at a slower rate. There are extremes and those in the middle. Not all portrait photographers are alike – and not considering skills but workflow and portrait specialties.

    Other Variables – Facilities

    There are variables that impact the amount of time each photographer recommends, particularly the room. For example, a large bank of ceiling to floor windows on an exterior wall that can’t be controlled well and lighting that changes over the course of a day means a photographer will need to spend time adjusting lighting at the start of a shoot – and in between subjects. Allow time for this based on the room needs. If you don’t, your images may be negatively impacted.

    Photographers may want to preview the room a shoot is going to take place in. They need to know what gear to bring and what supplementary items are needed to counter facility issues. Plan to either allow a photographer to view facilities before hand or send images of the room for review.

    Summary

    The professional portrait photographer you hire likely cares a great deal about producing the best images for you. He or she is on your side. Plan to work with the photographer to help ensure you receive the best images a budget allows.

    Choose a portrait photographer based on your overall group needs and individual photo usage. Is it more important to have someone fast in order to photograph many people in one day or are individually customized images a main goal?

    Most portrait photographers can work with different scenarios, but start from different places. They can adjust to varying degrees. They can outsource, rent gear, seek out other photographers, etc., … but recognize their starting place and expertise comes with a price adjustment that can also impact quality.