Clearspire Law Firm business portrait guidelines

For the past couple years I have been doing some corporate photography for a Washington D.C. law firm called Clearspire, which has been a very interesting group of people to get to know and to work with. Starting from the ground up, we worked together to establish a unified look for the photography their website and materials that might promote this unique firm. From the start I’ve known that the firm would be hiring new members around the country and overseas, so this posting is done in order to provide some guidance about how other photographers, shooting in locations where new Clearspire attorneys are hired, might try to replicate some of the work that has been done so far so that there is a consistent look to the site as the company expands.

Photos on the Clearspire web site, showing the rollover effect

For all the Founders and also the lawyers and staff who have been brought in to Clearspire, we had two very specific types of portraits that had to be created:
A biography and larger image appear when the thumbnail is clicked.
First, there was a desire to create a nice environmental portrait of each individual that could be used as a thumbnail on the website, and when clicked on, would appear adjacent to some biographical information. Rather than trying to make these static portraits, there was a desire to make the people appear accessible and somewhat interactive, almost as though you might be seated across from them in conversation or at least in the room observing or participating in the action.

I approached these photographic challenges in a couple of different ways. I say, “challenges,” because in most cases there wasn’t much real interaction taking place, and the offices where we made these photos are somewhat spartan in their trappings. The idea behind the firm is that most of the lawyers can work from home, so the offices are mostly used for conferences and training and aren’t elaborately furnished or decorated.
In the photo above, another Clearspire staff member has stepped in to serve as the person being talked to by the main subject of the photo.
The training and orientation sessions did offer some opportunities to put the individuals in a context where they are around other people, and that was helpful. Thus I’ve been able to shoot over shoulders to suggest the presence of other people in the room and also to use objects in the foreground of the images to suggest a bit of meeting activity. In some cases, we have asked other Clearspire staff to stand in so that there is the appearance of a meeting or conversation happening.
In general, I am using one large umbrella (48”) with a speedlight about 45˚ off to the side from the subject, generally set so that it is only about ½ stop brighter than the ambient. But in the conference room photo above, I'm just bouncing a couple speedlights off the wall in relatively small room. In a few cases I’ve used a small speedlight in the back to light architectural elements or to backlight the subject so that there is a small amount of separation from the background, as with the woman above standing in the reception area of the office suite.
Diagram showing lighting setup for the photo above
In these photos we don’t want the background to fall off to black, so meter the ambient carefully and use that for your baseline exposure.

Diagram showing the lighting for the portrait of the woman in the doorway
With quite a few members of the staff, though, we have had to establish a more traditional portrait situation. Here also we have tried to not make the photographs too “stiff,” and this has been achieved by having the subjects adapt a comfortable and relaxed stance. The lighting for these has been about the same as for the “interactive” series: a medium-size umbrella (or less often, a softbox) filling in most of the front of the person from about a 45˚ angle. It has not mattered which side the light is placed on. The goal is to create a bit of sculpting with the light but not to make it look overlit. 

For portraits shot when the subject is seated, it’s often useful to have the person leaning in toward the camera just a bit, as though they might be stressing a point while chatting. And it’s often very useful to ask the subject to hold something. Clearspire is a very tech-savvy firm, and lawyers do much of their work from iPads and Mac laptops, which can make for decent props. In order to have iPad screens not simply appear black, it’s a good idea to ask people to turn up the brightness all the way and also to have some app running that is fairly bright (the “field” of apps as they float on the screen is pretty dark overall: books and publications are often good to have on screen, as they often have white or light backgrounds.) You can see here that the screen is not on at all, but so little of it is showing that it's not as distracting as it might otherwise be.
All of these environmental portraits have ended up running as verticals. On the website the viewer is first shown a color thumbnail cut from the larger image, so you need to keep the images uncluttered, and then when you click on the thumbnail or information link a larger version is shown in black & white. Shoot and deliver everything in color.  Some photos I've composed as horizontals, but with the awareness that they will probably be cropped, as the photo below was. As all these are being turned over to a design firm, it is good to give a little bit of variety while trying to stay within the guidelines I've talked about here. 
These portraits are often shot with a medium telephoto, for instance in the 135mm-200mm range, in order to throw the backgrounds out of focus a bit and to “stack up” any elements in the foreground to give a greater sense of depth to the images. Shooting with a longer lens (as compared to a wide-angle or “normal” lens) will also clean up the background and keep the focus on the people. For all of these images I have done a custom white balance — and also created custom DNG profiles, which is helpful but not critical — and then warmed up the skin tones just a bit from the neutral white temperature reading.

The other requirement has been to produce a series of three clean, simple variations on the standard mugshot for use in the company’s internal communication platform, which is accessible to some degree by clients, and some of the images are also used for the lawyers’ LinkedIn profiles as well. There are three settings that need to be created on a white background (I used a Savage bright white seamless): 
  1. A “straight-on” headshot. Generally I’ve had the subjects rotate their shoulders a tiny bit to the right to add a little bit of depth. 
  2. An “I’m on the phone” photo, where the subject holds an iphone up to their ear like they are talking. Again, the person is rotated a tiny bit to their right, so their right shoulder is back, and it’s a good idea to have them hold the phone in their right hand so that it doesn’t block off the body. Also, we’ve found that it’s better if the person holds the phone just a centimeter or so away from their face, because when it’s pressed right in to the cheek it both obscures the phone and can distort the cheeks a little. 
  3. An “I’m busy now, don’t interrupt me” photo, where the subject holds one hand out in the traditional “stop” gesture like a traffic cop would. It’s important to make sure that the hand is perpendicular to the floor, so that it doesn’t end up looking like a fascist salute in the 1930’s. 
For these photos, which Clearspire calls "Presence Indicators" on their site, I've used two 24" softboxes at subject-eye-level on each side and then a larger umbrella just to the side of the camera and above me. The softboxes are providing an exposure about 2/3rds of a stop brighter than the umbrella, to give some depth to the subjects' faces and to throw extra light on the white seamless. 
These three photos all run quite small on the company’s website (I’d be surprised if they were even 100 pixels), so they have to be clean and instantly readable. Again, shoot with a long lens. This is particularly helpful with the “hand up” photo, because it will be separated from the face more than if you use a wide-angle lens. Also, as you can see from the set-up photo, there were a number of other obstacles that we had to shoot around, working in a busy office.
Because Clearspire's clients may see a number of the lawyers on one webpage when they log in to the system, it is important to keep these images consistent. Though they run small, I've been shooting them a little bit loose so there is room to play with keeping eye levels consistent, for instance. And it's quite important to keep the white background pretty bright, because if it's even 1/2-stop dim it will start to look grey in comparison with the others pretty quickly.
I created my own naming conventions for these images, using the company name and the shoot date and then a sequence number. It is also important to have good information in your IPTC description or caption fields, such as "Joe Smith in the Dallas Office, photographed July 2012."I've been delivering these photos via the FTP facility I have through my website, but your methods may vary. Clearspire has been eager to get the new lawyers and staff on their site as soon as possible, so I've been trying to turn images around in a couple days for them. For the most consistency of color, I've been delivering JPEGS in sRGB color space for use on the web.

Many thanks to for creating the files that I used to show the lighting setups.