Behind the doors of one of the world's top product design companies

photographing the creative people who work there

A Photographer's Case Study shot in London and New York

In late 2016 I was approached by Smart Design in London to see if I would be interested in producing 60 portraits and some environmental photographs across their London and New York offices. This page describes the process, challenges and outcome of the project.

 I've shot more than a few headshots for business people, artists and actors over the years, but I'm certainly not known for making corporate portraits. One of the reasons I jumped at the opportunity to do this job was the reputation of the client and the nature of their business. Smart Design are one of the world's most respected product design companies. Focussing on improving the user experience, their designs cover a diverse range of products from kitchen tools and New York taxi's to healthcare equipment and airline entertainment systems. My work was already familiar to the company's London based VP of Design Heather Martin who, in addition to working on her many other projects, was overseeing the production of their new website. She wanted to show the staff in a natural and realistic way and was keen to avoid the kind of artificial facade often found in company bio's. The shoot was to include around 60 portraits, a number of product shots and many environmental images of daily working life in both the London and New York offices. Of course the other reason I wanted to do this job was the chance to spend another 8 days in New York, working in one of Chelsea's most iconic buildings, the Starrett Lehigh. I was invited to tender for the job and after winning the commission, the VP and I set about planning the approach and logistics of the shoot.

Designing the shoot

It was clear that the portraits required were to have a natural feel, and not be over-produced, showing the 'Smarties' (staff who work at Smart Design) as the bright and approachable people they are. To that end we decided the portraits would have a selection of office backdrops as opposed to the commonplace white or grey studio set. The style and level of image processing was also discussed, portraits were not to be overly retouched, people had to look as they were in real life, warts and all. This guidance happens to fit perfectly with my own distaste for 'perfect portraits'. Other creative considerations which were decided in advance included a variety of lighting options which ranged from daylight via the huge windows available in both offices, to a blend of available light and portable studio flash. For the latter set up I went with my large Octabox on the strobe to give a natural, daylight feel to the portraits. The VP was keen to utilise my passion for limited depth of field and, as office backgrounds are rarely attractive spaces when 'in focus' anyway, I was happy to oblige. A schedule was then drawn up allowing me up to 30 minutes with each subject. 

When it came to the environmental images it was clear from the outset that 'authenticity' was to be my goal. Images could not look too 'staged' and if anyone became self conscious and overly aware of my presence, the resulting image just wouldn't make the cut. The ethos at Smart Design is a little different from many companies. The offices have a spacious, open plan feel with big kitchens, state of the art coffee machines and a wide range of interesting meeting spaces. Set amongst this backdrop, lie the products past and present, designed by the team, resulting in the most unexpected combinations of high tech equipment and everyday objects. The work spaces were equally as diverse. Located on the top floor of one of Manhattan's largest buildings, the ceiling of the New York office must be over 30 feet high. From the open plan hot desks to the curtained off quiet spaces where people can brainstorm in relative seclusion, it was easy to see how these varied spaces could promote a creative working environment.

Shooting Smarties

The London office was the smaller of the two, so it served as a useful trial shoot for the larger one in New York. It was in London where, after presenting the VP with a range of portraits with varying degrees of subject engagement and a range of backgrounds and lighting, the general direction of the portraits was agreed. By far the most pertinent factor in the client's final selection was the person's expression and how much the photograph looked like 'the real them'. The final London images were supplied to the client in colour, but for my own preference I have shown most of the portraits here in monochrome with a slight selenium toning.

Undoubtedly one of the main pluses in doing this job was meeting the people who work at this company. Perhaps if I had been asked to photograph a firm of accountants I might have thought twice, but these were some of the most creative and engaging people I have met. The company also seems to foster an informal atmosphere where the staff can express their individuality in terms of clothing, attitude and 'desk adornment'. Although I am definitely unqualified to really comment, I have a pretty good idea I met more than a few creative geniuses during this shoot. The staff were also a truly international bunch and if any 'corporate shoot' was ever going to turn up some interesting faces, this was it.

Hurdles and Challenges

This commission could easily be split into three areas with distinctly different sets of photographic approaches and challenges. 

1) Portraiture: This was the largest part of the job and probably the area where I felt most comfortable. I've been making portraits for many years and I was being hired to produce something very similar to what has probably become my signature style. My preference is to shoot using natural light where possible, but a good source of daylight cannot always be relied upon. Most of these portraits were made alongside an ideal, diffuse blanket of cloudy skies, and the one day the sun actually did come out, ended up being the most problematic. The Elinchrom flash unit I used, with its HS sync capability, enabled me to employ much higher shutter speeds than would have been possible with the standard system. This meant that even when the sunshine poured in, I was able to keep the background out of focus and maintain a consistent, balanced ratio of light between the subject and the background. 

Getting a large number of people to smile and look happy was probably made easier due to the relaxed working atmosphere in this company, I imagine it could be a nightmare with disgruntled staff. There is of course much more to getting subjects relaxed, enabling them to give you an appealing version of themselves. each photographer will approach this in their own way. Some photographers have what they call in the US, a 'shtick'. I'm not quite sure what I do exactly but I certainly wouldn't call it a shtick! I just try to be myself, fairly low key, explaining what we're going to do and being ready to capture any response to something I might say. I try to never ask them to smile, you're almost guaranteed to get a forced smile as a result. If I make some light hearted observation, I'm already focussed on their eye, shutter half pressed, ready to go. Even, given the right chemistry and a light scattering of profanity, causing subjects to laugh hysterically, can prove beneficial. What I'm looking for is not the 'hysteria face' but the downslide from that point back to their normal face. Its just before they reach 'normal face' where you'll often find the most natural expressions. In any event, a broad smile is not always necessary for a good portrait, but it tends to suggest 'this is a good place to work' on a company website. What was most important on this job was getting something that looked natural and was a true representation of the individual. As long as the person's eyes are smiling, that usually does the job.

2) Environmental Documentary/Reportage: I've shot a number of subjects where this genre of photography has been a large element, but this was the first time I had tried to make something of an office. Being the kind of photographer who tends to look for the aesthetic beauty in scenes, whether they be natural or manmade, I have to confess that I found it very difficult to see the beauty in an office environment. At first I could find no symmetry, no harmony and very little that my brain could make use of. Whilst happily working away day after day on the portraits and feeling confident I was achieving the results I wanted, I was simultaneously all too aware of being in a bit of a hole when it came to the environmental images I was expected to produce. Eventually, day after day, I slowly built up a collection of images I felt happy with, although I would have given my right arm for a few more days. I found release from my creative block by heading to the areas I feel most comfortable with, light and people, looking for dramatic lighting and interactions between staff. I know this type of image relies less on aesthetics than it does on narrative, but I still don't find it easy to subvert the search for something beautiful. 

3) Product Photography: With the product photography I was working in a field I had little direct experience of but I was fortunate to be coached throughout the shoot by the VP. She had art directed many product videos and shoots and had a very clear vision of what she wanted. That being said, I would have loved to have had a bit more time to experiment, but our tight schedule prevented it. It was a lot of fun working with such a diverse range of products especially the space-age looking light therapy mask above. Each product required its own custom blend of ambient light and flash to avoid the wrong type of reflections.

Editing and Processing

It's said to be one of the key areas where photographers undercharge or underestimate. Having spent many thousands of hours editing portraits over the years, to one degree or another, I had a reasonable idea of how much time it would take to edit and process each file into a deliverable condition. When it comes to retouching it actually takes more time to create an authentic looking 'imperfect portrait' than it does a 'perfect' one. Authentic portraits are just not possible with off the shelf 'one click' software programs which have a tendency to eradicate peoples' unique character. Only the lengthy process of retouching by hand can differentiate between what is a distraction and what is essential to the character of the person. When you are photographing strangers on the street who you will never see again, you have a certain license to create images that suit your agenda. When you are working with people who are going to have to live with your picture in a professional capacity for several years, you have an obligation to 'keep it real'. I shot over 8,000 photographs throughout the 10 shooting days of this job. Most evenings in New York I spent several hours editing initial selections and after returning to the UK I spent the best part of a week stuck in my chair, processing the final images, my chiropractor on speed-dial.

Equipment (geekzone)

To make these images I used an Olympus OMD EM1 Mk2, Olympus PEN F and Sony A7 Mk2 mirrorless cameras. The main lenses used with the Olympus bodies were the Leica Nocticron 42.5mm 1.2, Olympus 25mm 1.2 PRO (headshots and environmental),  Olympus 12-40mm PRO, Olympus 7-14mm PRO, Olympus 40-150mm PRO, Olympus 75mm 1.8 (all for environmental shots). With the Sony A7 Mk2 camera I used the Leica M 50mm Summilux 1.4 ASPH and the Leica M 75mm f2 APO with the Techart AF Adaptor. Lighting was made with the Elinchrom ELB 400 kit and a Quadra HS head put through an Elinchrom 175mm Octobox and triggered with the HS Skyports for Olympus and Sony cameras. I carted it around New York and London using the Think Tank Logistics Manager 30 rolling case.

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