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On Assignment: Photography for Social Media

I have been getting a new type of assignment over the last few months that I would have never anticipated even a year ago: Shooting corporate headshots and portraits specifically designed to be used in social media.

If you are a photographer who is savvy with Facebook and Twitter, you might do well to hook up with forward-thinking people who are heavy users of social media sites. More, inside.

Ahead of the Curve

For me, the first thought of social media headshots was in an email exchange a while back with fellow blogger Ben Popken. He was sporting a cooler-than-thou avatar pic, and I asked him about it.

He told me that he "had it done," by photographer Nikola Tamindzic [NSFW]. In an instant, this made total sense to me. We register visual impressions in a fraction of a second, and Ben was smart enough to make the most of that for his online presence. Think of the number of images that hit you on a given day, and how efficient you are at making subconscious assessments based on image content and style.

Ben's avatar is current, cool and loose -- a perfect fit for his highly visible job Consumerist. But also is part of a group of photos at the ready for the speaking gigs and TV appearances that are part of his duties.

Take a moment to check out the bottom/right sidebar at Consumerist, which features Ben's headshot as seen above. Just below him, Meghann Marco's photo is also from a pro shoot, albeit a tight crop. It's from a cool group shot by the same photog of the (then) three editors at Consumerist:

The other sidebar shots are more typical of what you would normally see used as a bio pics or avatars. And to me, there's a huge difference in the first impression left by the different types of photos.

Consumerist doesn't have a gazillion bucks to go out and fund a big shoot. But even in 2007, they were smart enough to give themselves an instant leg-up on projecting a cool image.

What's amazing to me is that even in 2009, some much better-funded companies using social media still don't get this. In fact, some companies actually are using employee I.D. badge photos as avatars for their Twitter folks. Talk about penny-wise and pound-foolish.

If you are corporate social media type -- or just very visible on the web in your profession -- how much is riding on that first impression? Should you really be letting some guy down in security make your avatar photo on his ID-O-Matic mugshot machine?

Have a Compass Point

The trio of headshots up top came from a recent shoot I did of a social media team at a financial services company. They work directly with the public, and wanted to project an attitude of being fun, smart and approachable. Not exactly your father's corporate headshot. One of the ideas I tossed up for this shoot was a "Fast Company" look, based on the very smart Biz 2.0 mag of which I am a big fan.

As good as Fast Company is, one of the things that irks me about them is their willingness fall back on the same Jill Greenberg-style cover, say, 6 times a year or so. But that does give them a look, and one that is recognizable to even their non-photographer readers. This common knowledge is helpful in finding a visual compass point before the shoot. And they went for it right away.

I'll confess to having a love/hate thing with that Greenberg style. I like where she starts out, but frequently do not like where she ends up. Way too much over-lighting and post work for my taste.

My preference is to go with the natural, 3-D look of that wrapping style of light, and go lighter on the post work. I'm just not a big fan of the highly Photoshopped, alien-looking plastic skin thing.

Here is a pullback for Suzanne, the subject on the left up top. We kept this lighting pretty consistent throughout the shoot, which involved six people on that day.

As you can see, there is a beauty dish for key, and two gridded strips behind her for separation. Not a lot of juice on the strip lights, either. Just enough to define the area rather than nuking it. What you cannot see is a diffused (bare-bulb) SB-800 close to the collapsible backdrop, and an ABR-800 / Moon Unit for on-axis fill.

That last light is important, as it allows you to dial the contrast up or down as needed right from the camera position. We nixed the fill altogether on Rob (on the right) for instance. And if you don't have a ring you could use an umbrella right behind the camera in a pinch.

This lighting scheme gives a lot of control, as you are pretty much lighting every plane in the photo. Thus, there is a volume control on everything. But by keeping the ratios close, it all just look very crisp and 3-D -- and not so nuclear as in the Fast Company fronts.

The files were pretty close right out of the camera. I only added a little bit of high-pass filtration with hard-light layers to punch it up a little in post.

Bring Some Attitude

In the end, the edited photos set the tone for what should connote a fun, person-to-person feel in a social media environment. So while you should definitely start out with some standard corporate neutrals and smiles, get past that stuff quickly and work a wider variety of expressions. Then you have the ability to make choices in the edit later.

For these, we decided to go with more of an impish, fun look for the avatars, with a range of expressions inside on peoples' profile pages. When you think about it, everything in business comes down to person-to-person relationships. And being willing to open up a little bit in a corporate environment can pay big dividends in social media. It helps that this particular group of people were smart, funny and outgoing.

Which, of course, also makes them the ideal type of person for this job. Clarky, in the center, is hard-core social media. She had tweets timed to drop in while the shoot was happening. (FWIW, I sometimes use Future Tweets to space mine out, too. Keeps me from looking like a freak by dropping in tweets at 3:00a.m. when I frequently am actually awake writing.)

Just Do It.

If you are interested in building a social media portfolio, the best place to start is by photographing people in your circle who are already blogging and/or on Twitter. It's great for them, obviously. And done right, you will already have the beginnings of a viral marketing arm for your work.

Come to think of it, if your goal is to spread the word you might want to find the people who are already social media hubs in your town and work with them right off the bat. Being the chatty, social types they are, the first thing they'll probably do when they throw up the new photo is to talk about and link to the photographer who shot it.

But the important thing is that you get a subject and they get a photo. Lather, rinse and repeat until you start getting a better comfort level -- and a better, more targeted portfolio. Then you'll be ready when the word of mouth starts to come back to you.

This is an area I am interested in for several reasons -- not the least of which is because it is an intersection point for several areas of my professional life. So I have been shooting friends and colleagues to create the beginnings of a body of work in social media.

Which, in turn, has also led me to what I think will be the most interesting project I will be working on in 2010. Not ready to talk about it here yet, but suffice to say that the serendipitous aspect of just jumping in and making things happen can be very powerful.

Your Examples

Knowing that a lot of you are on Twitter, I'd be curious to see some of your choices for cool avatars there. It's a small amount of real estate, but some folks are creating a kickass first impression with it.

For instance, I like Tim Ferriss's avatar, which is perfect for the globe-trotting lifestyle engineer that he is.

Whose avatar -- other than your own, of course -- do you like? Hit us with a comment, and include a fully-formed URL (i.e., in the comments.

Next: STB: John McIntyre


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