Why corporate portraits against a white background suck
Annual report season. It’s a time when most commercial photographers are dusting off their white and grey portrait backgrounds and getting ready to slowly lobotomise themselves. Don’t get me wrong I love a good white background portrait. Actually, I don’t. I bloody hate them. But they do have their time and place. It’s called the 90s. Photographing people against a white background means they could be anyone, working for any company, anywhere in the world. Conversely using a location that’s relevant to their job brings a sense of place to the images and often makes the subject much more relaxed.
I’m a big fan of corporate portraits that show people in situ – that is, the places that are actually relevant to their job. When someone is in a place they’re familiar with they automatically feel more at ease. As a photographer I’m a visitor on their turf and they know the landscape better than I do – they have some semblance of control.
I’m a ranga, so I allow them to maintain this illusion. But I can’t tell you the amount of times a portrait subject has taken a backward step after walking into a room where I’ve set up six huge lights and a camera, along with a roll of white background paper 4 metres wide that starts at the ceiling, drops straight down and covers most of the floor. It’s intimidating because it’s not natural. It has the effect of instantly making the whole process of having their photograph taken way more serious than they thought it was going to be. The result? Nerves are ramped up ten-fold.
Awesome! I’ve just scared the shit of out someone who already doesn’t want to be there. Ready? Smile! Yeah!
In many cases portraits against a white background are more complicated than photographing against an already existing background (i.e., something more interesting). They take longer to set up, they require more room and it takes much longer for people to relax. Besides, a white background may not actually achieve what you’re looking for. White background portraits are highly professional, definitely have their place, and are in fact the best option in some circumstances (which I cover here). And good photographers can help people get over the fear factor.
But it’s not natural. The only place we’re used to seeing people against a white background is in photographs of people against a white background. We’re used to seeing people as three dimensional objects in space with interesting lighting against a background that drops away.
My point is just because everyone else in your industry has the same look doesn’t mean you have to as well. Industry standards are great when you’re trying to measure yourself against your competition. They’re not so great when you’re trying to stand out from your competition.
A good photographer will listen to what’s relevant for your business and clients, help tease out how you want your people to appear in the images, and work within your brand guidelines and corporate style. They will take all this info and help you select a style which goes way deeper than just the background. Besides, the best photographers can make even a shitty fluoro-banked office look more interesting than portraits against a white background.