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I've been commissioned to do a series of corporate portraits.

This is something I've not done before, but, quite frankly, the money was too good to turn it down! So, now I have to get my skills and confidence levels up so I make a passable go of it.

The company wants a half-body shot of each of its executives — some 60 people spread across four offices. The executives will be seated at a "desk". They can rest their arms on the desk surface, or not, as they choose. Each image will be cut-away from the background and placed within a black box on the company's website. The bottom edge of this box will replace the desktop so it will appear the executives are resting their arms on the lower edge of the box. It's important, therefore, that the desktop does not appear in the shots other than the front edge, so I'll need to shoot head-on to the table.

I'll have a room in each office that I can use as a impromptu studio. I want to keep things as simple as possible and buy as little kit as possible. Also I have to lug everything about myself so my kit has to be light enough for me to travel with and compact enough to allow me to go by train and taxi. I do have a light but sturdy sack-cart I can use.

My plan is to buy a white backdrop. Either some sort of folding screen, or a portable hanging-system to take a paper roll. I think I favour the screen, although I'd need to keep it in place somehow — any suggestions? Or any recommendations for the type of system to go for?

I also plan to light the person using two Westcott 43-inch white-satin umbrellas each fitted with a Canon 430EX II flash on portable light stands. I'll have each umbrella just out of shot at 45° either side of the subject and raised so that the centres are slightly higher than the subject's head. I can't think of a simpler set-up! Hopefully, there'll be enough stray light to light the background without the need for an additional flash. The background will, after all, be cut away, but it does need to be lit evenly enough so it's easy for the web-guys to do the cut-away.

I'll either shoot with my Canon 5D-III and a cheap (but sharp) 50mm f/1.8, or I might try using my Fuji X100F with a 50mm conversion lens. The advantage of the former is I can use my PocketWizards to trigger the flashes. For, the latter, I'll have to run PC sync cables to both flashes and use two PC adapters.

My main question is: (1) What background system (type, not brand — I know the rules here!) would work best?

But, also, I'd like to know: (2) Does this seem like a reasonable plan? (3) Are there any obvious holes or oversights? (4) Any tips or comments anyone cares to offer!

Many thanks!

  • I am not sure the X100F+TCL is up to compete with the Canon 50 1.8. I suggest you make test beforehand... At big aperture, they don't really compete, imho... Maybe they are more comparable when you close the aperture a bit. I love the x100f... But it's better for street than portraits, again, imho. – GhislainCote Jan 20 at 13:51
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    @GhislainCote In the end I went the Canon route. I was at f/5.6 and f/8 as I needed a fair amount of DoF. So, I think the X100F + TCL would have worked out quality-wise, and, especially so, as the client didn't need, or want, full-resolution files. The main disadvantage with the F100X is that it is a little flakey with my PocketWizards, whereas with my Canon the PocketWizards are rock-solid and never ever miss a shot or misfire. Also, I couldn't quite figure out how to tether the X100F using Lightroom. I know it can be done, but not without some work-arounds. Canon is simply plug-and-play. – mooie Jan 20 at 20:42
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[We don't do answers as comments, but this only addresses one small part of the setup]

If you're going to be eliminating the background & desk to black, why not give yourself a head start & use a black backdrop & another covering the desk.
You may get some shine/light patches on the desk covering, but the background should be easy to knock back to black, especially if you can get some distance between the subject & backdrop.

If you mean the final presentation will look as though they are leaning out through the box, then perhaps replace the black desk cover with green screen - but you might need some good software to kill the green reflected onto the subject that way.

As you can get cheap but perfectly serviceable backdrop cloth for about $£€ 10 it would be worth experimenting on yourself at home first.

  • It's a good point you make. Why not use a black backdrop? One thought: with a white background I was hoping enough light would be kicked back so I wouldn't need a rim light. With a black background, that may not be the case. Or, perhaps umbrellas will provide enough light spread to separate dark hair and dark suits from a black background? Can anyone say from experience? I'll of course do a dry-run at home once I've purchased a backdrop. Perhaps a white/black reversible pop-up is the way to go. Then I'll have options! – mooie Jul 5 '18 at 17:09
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    I don't have experience with 'corporate' but I've done 'moody' against black with black t-shirts, leather jackets etc with no problems making the visual distinction. There's 'some light' in a black suit, compared to the background... though it might be simpler to just tell people not to wear black & explain why - that their corporate photo is going to be on a black background, so they need to be 'visible'. Every businessman has a non-black, dark suit ;) – Tetsujin Jul 5 '18 at 17:25
  • It turned out the company’s marketing guys wanted cut-away images so they can use the potraits in a variety of ways and on whatever background is appropriate. Experience had taught them a white background is easier to cut away than black. A green- or blue-screen background would have been better in hindsight. Although, I’m not sure I could have dressed the table using blue- or green-screen material for fear of it reflecting a colour cast on to the subject. – mooie Aug 31 '18 at 8:06
  • GreenScreen software is pretty darn good these days at dropping out not only the background but the colour-cast - though it's not cheap. PhotoKey is one I've used to good effect. – Tetsujin Aug 31 '18 at 8:15
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In the end I went for the simplest hanging solution possible: taping a length of “polar white” paper background to the wall in each of the offices I visited. To secure the background in place I used Magtape Matt 500, which is a low-tack residue-free tape I’ve had some experience with. I went to the trouble of asking for photographs of each of the rooms I had been allocated, along with the rooms’ dimensions, so I could be sure there was a suitable wall, free of clutter and furniture, to hang the background from. I also sought permission to use tape on the walls. Thankfully, all went well.

I ended buying a third light and stand to light the background and to serve as a rim light when needed. Ideally though, a four-light set-up would have been better as using a single light for the background and for rim-lighting inevitably led to compromises. But, as the background was going to be cut-away, I figured I could get away with the occasional unevenly lit background.

[I should have added previously (if only for Rafael's benefit ;) ) ...]

I ditched the dual-umbrella set-up as, on testing, it didn't give me a good enough look. Instead, I purchased a Lastolite Ezybox as the key-light and used a single umbrella for fill. The Ezybox gives a beautiful soft light and square catchlights that made images sing. I draped black fabric over the rear of the umbrella and over part of the front to give me some control and to stop excessive spill. Altogether, I was very pleased with the resultant images.

If I were to do the same again, I'd replace the umbrella with a second softbox, and use a separate background light. Someone suggested using a large softbox with a studio strobe as a background, which is interesting and, if the fee allowed, is something I'd look into hiring to try out.

  • @Rafael: Point taken, but, as mentioned above, the choice of the background colour was the company's who commissioned me, not mine. They specifically wanted white (and not black) so I had to roll with that. – mooie Jan 20 at 12:12
  • I probably misunderstood. You actually needed a white background, not a black one. :o) – Rafael Jan 21 at 0:18
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No!

Hopefully, there'll be enough stray light...

You CAN NOT just HOPE!

You can not let things at the chance. You need to practice your setup and get it right.

Are there any obvious holes or oversights?

Yes. A lot.

If you need the image to be cut to be used on a dark background... Use a dark background! or you will have not one real nightmare... you will have 60 nightmares cutting the hair.

can't think of a simpler set-up!

You do not want a "simple" setup... you want a professional setup!.

Your 45° with umbrellas is for high key setup, but you want a dark background... that is not a high key one.

Practice, and I mean to practice a 3 light setup, probably with a hair light. If you do not have 3 lights use one reflector.

Using umbrellas spills a lot of light, that is why it is good for high key. If you have enough distance to the background you will probably be fine with a low key one.


I can only tell you that you need to go and practice, take shots, compare, see them on the screen, cut the hair, put the idea into practice.

  • I just noticed that this question is one month old... – Rafael Aug 31 '18 at 12:09

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