The Awe and Mystery that is Photographing People

Firstly, I must acknowledge that it’s been a very long time since last I wrote. Part of me is … just somehow less motivated to spend time here. Perhaps I’m just bone-weary from other aspects of my life when finally each day ends. Either way, I just don’t find myself in here as often as I once was. Despite that, I do have a bit to report. Recently my company has been kind enough to provide me some opportunities to photograph things that I wouldn’t normally get to take pictures of. Specifically, those things just happen to be people. There’s a meaningful chronology here so bear with me for a bit.

The first subject was a group shot of our executive team. Imagine if you will, a photographer who has done photos of people just about twice, with very mediocre results who is suddenly called upon to do a shoot with the four most senior people in the company which pays his bills each month. To say that this is intimidating is a vast understatement. People with whom you have to summon courage merely to speak are suddenly in front of your camera. Work life, meet personal life with a loud and resounding *clang*. Shooting the CEO of your company is just a *teeny* bit different than chasing butterflies around in a field. If you look at this whole photo set in order you can notice a definite progression. First we’re shooting background… just anything to avoid facing those really important people that we’re really here to shoot. la-la-la-la… whistling in the dark. Then we gradually start to overcome that and get more and more personal. We don’t ever really end up at true ‘candid’ in this set but there are a few here that strike me.

At some point I wanted to somehow represent leadership. When marketing approached me about these photos their request was for “larger than life” so that instantly made me go to my fish-eye. At least in part that decision was probably due to the fact that it was the most recent lens I’ve purchased but the distortion of it just screams to me, “larger than life.” Before the shoot ever started I wanted to get the CEO in exactly that position. I wanted to show him as literally, larger than everything around him. There’s a point during any shoot when tension falls away and the only important thing is to GET the SHOT you had in your head. It was at about that time that I took these two photos, internally quivering, right in my CEO’s face as he doubtless looks at me behind his sunglasses thinking, “What in the HELL are you doing?” The distortion works. Framed thusly, he is the biggest and most important thing in the universe. I imagine this as the visual definition of the leader of an organization.

From Misc Work Photos 4-25-12

His team falls in line behind him but ultimately, he’s THE leader.

From Misc Work Photos 4-25-12

All in all, I think it turned out pretty well in the end.

So, fast forward a bit to our company meeting a few days later. My role here was two-fold. Firstly, to take a group photo of the whole company and secondly to do a time-lapse of one of our group activities. The group photo was, at least from my perspective, a flop. It was supposed to be taken outside but due to the weather moved inside. The lighting was terrible which I didn’t really account for properly so my focus is desperately soft. Not a photo I’m likely to ever include in my portfolio if ever I create one. Lesson learned the hard way.

From T2 Group Photo – 2012-05-01

However, a few good tidbits did come out of this and those took root over the following days. The most important advice came from a former boss who said simply, “even if you don’t FEEL like you’re in charge, act like it.” During the shoot we’re trying to corral people and get them to pay attention and as usual I’m feeling self-conscious about the whole thing. Luckily my current boss stepped up to help out but my passivity was to the detriment of the moment. The crowd isn’t focusing, nobody’s paying attention, the whole thing is rather random. Ultimately it’s MY fault because as the photographer I’m not taking charge. As the man said, act like you’re in charge.

The time-lapse, however, worked out marvelously. The subject was a team-building activity in which the whole company packed food for starving families overseas. I set up the camera with the timer clicking happily away and gave one of the runners the instructions to “move the camera to somewhere interesting every few minutes”. He did a marvelous job of just quietly moving from place to place and the result is …

A few days later marketing requested sessions with each of the executives individually for a new version of our website. It was somewhere during the shots for our CFO that things started to come together in my head. I’ve noted about myself  that my natural reaction to the negative emotions of others is to enter an almost zen-like state. When other people are uncomfortable or angry around me then my innate response is to become utterly calm. I have no clue why I respond this way but it was magically useful to me when I suddenly realized the somewhat obvious fact that… people feel self-conscious when they have their picture taken. So my natural and quite inexplicable emotional reaction to that was to become significantly more gregarious in a visceral and rather unintentional attempt to put my subject at greater ease. There’s a certain part of the session in which our CFO actually seems to be enjoying having his picture taken. There’s a genuineness here that really appeals.

From Misc 572012 – From the Yard, T2

The last lesson of the week came from my boss’s boss. She’s the VP of our development group and thus the person most likely to fire me on a whim. Her lesson is that there’s a sweet-spot during any photo shoot. If you look at the whole series you’ll notice that the first few are stiff and posed and uninteresting. As the session goes on though we see more and more personality leak through until at the end there’s utter candor as if the camera isn’t even present. All the good photos happen in some vague period about 20 minutes in after the subject has grown comfortable with the camera but before they’ve grown bored and just want to go back to their desk and answer emails.

From 2012-05-08 – T2

I must say, that there’s much of psychology in photography. It has been an illuminating week for certain.


  1. Fabulous post Rob, simply fabulous. The photographs are perfect, people are my favourite subjects to snap, and you’ve done a brilliant job here. The video clip too, wonderful. Thanks for sharing this, I’ve really enjoyed it.

  2. I’d not ever thought about using a fisheye for portraiture, but that’s a really good idea and I’ll have to keep that in mind for future work. Lucky you that you got to photograph your CEO and got some face time with all of these people. I highly doubt the same thing would happen to me with my company.

  3. The time lapse and the leadership shot came out great! Those are certainly some intense situations for and employee/photographer! Profound and interesting lessons learned though — glad you came out of it with those.

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