A Show of Hands

Most headshots live up to their name—tight portraits cropped closely around the head and shoulders. Small image sizes on most websites and social media dictate that portraits need to be pretty tight just to get a good view of the face.

Recently, I have been doing some portraits that are a bit wider. This is driven by companies doing web design that feature team member profiles with larger images, allowing for a wider view without totally losing the face. A benefit of having a larger canvas and more flexibility to shoot wider is that you have more options to communicate personality in a half-length portrait that includes the hands.

Our hands say a lot about us. How we stand and express ourselves with them says a lot about our confidence level and openness to others. I love shooting tight portraits of faces. But I find that when I pull back and include the hands (as well as more of the body and posture), I have more tools to capture the unique personality of the person I am photographing.

I first started thinking about the impact of shooting hands, when photographing these two tech industry veterans at their new venture in San Francisco:

A recent shoot with the principals of an East Bay architecture firm also seemed to communicate the role of hands in expressing personality in a portrait:

Note that in the client examples displayed above, some portraits don’t even show the hands prominently. But having them in the frame of the photograph speaks to the personality of the subject.

And here is just one more example. Several years ago a designer hired me to photograph a team of visionary scientists and engineers at a green energy think tank. The creative brief was to literally get these people talking, gesturing and explaining their work. What resulted were some very dynamic portraits where the hands played a huge role. The designer from that project just hired me again last month to photograph two new members of their team. Since it was just two people, they came to my studio this time instead of me going to their office. But we followed the original creative brief:

Party for a Cause

In December, as is always the case at the end of the year, I got booked to shoot several events. Most were company holiday parties. One, though, was a party for a special cause. Two causes, actually.

A long-standing corporate client of mine was sponsoring a fundraiser dinner, to be hosted in a private home. The fundraiser was to support two foundations that provide services largely to women and girls–Tahirih Justice Center (providing legal services for refugees) and The Mona Foundation (providing education services abroad).

The event was great, and was both more fun to photograph and more rewarding than a traditional corporate event. The intimate home venue made the vibe relaxed, festive and social. There was home-cooked food, lots to drink, and everyone was in great spirits.

You may have noticed a famous face in that last photo. The event had TWO celebrity guests: actor Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute from “The Office”) and musician Andy Grammer. They are pictured on the left and right, respectively, in the photo below.

Rainn and Andy were not just there to lend their famous faces to the fundraising efforts. They are both intensely involved with the foundations being featured. When it came time for speeches, they each spoke eloquently about their respective causes. Tahirih Executive Director Layli Miller-Muro also gave a moving presentation. The speeches gave everyone an opportunity to understand why the event and its causes were so important to so many women and girls around the world.

After the networking, meal time and speeches, things drew to a close on a light and entertaining note. Andy Grammer gave a live and entertaining musical performance, after being introduced formally by the evening’s host.

Andy was a hit, particularly amongst a certain demographic…

As people wrapped up the evening and headed out, everyone had the opportunity to take a “red carpet” photo with the celebrity guests, in a portrait station I had set up near the home’s entrance. Andy’s young (and not-so-young) fans took full advantage.

At the very end, I took a portrait of the two celebrity guests with the host. As I reflected on the evening, it was more than just a corporate event, or even a fun and entertaining event. It was an opportunity to see people and organizations doing meaningful work to address important but underserved issues.  I decided to donate a portion of my fee for the evening to the two foundations being represented that evening. I felt good about the gift, and grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this special event.

Nice Wheels

I recently had the opportunity to make some unique portraits. I was contacted by a non-profit in Berkeley that provided information and resources for the disabled. The organization had originally tried to purchase stock photography for its website, but contacted me after experiencing an interesting (and frustrating) problem: stock photos of “disabled” people are almost 100% photos of an able-bodied model sitting in a wheelchair. Such imagery would ring false with the organization’s clientele, so original photography was a must.

This was an exciting opportunity for me. Aside from being interesting work for a great client, I would obviously be filling a real void by creating portraits of real people with a wide variety of real disabilities.

My client was located on in the newly built Ed Roberts Campus, a state of the art hyper-accessible facility housing several disability rights advocacy and service organizations. These groups had both clients and team members with disabilities, giving us a great range of portrait subjects, right inside the building we would be working in.

On the day of the photo shoot, I arrived and set up in a large multi-purpose room. An open call had gone out to a couple dozen specific people, plus their wider network. The folks who came and participated had a wide range of physical and intellectual disabilities. But each one—like all my clients—had a unique story to tell.

We had a non-stop flow of people for several hours, and the whole experience was terrific. When all was said and done, and I went back to review the images, those that stood out to me were the people in chairs. I had never really thought about how a wheelchair could be unique, but there was an endless variety. Each chair was a different size and shape, and had customizations and accessories tailored specifically to the owner. Thus, the chairs became like distinctive pieces of wardrobe, showing off the wearer’s personality. This added depth to each portrait.

Here are some of my favorite portraits from that day:

Holiday Cheer

Fall is upon us, and the holidays are fast approaching. For my corporate clients, that means holiday parties. Many of the same companies that hire me to make portraits of their executives and staff, bring me in again during the holiday season to photograph their big annual party.

Holiday parties are a treat to photograph, because the venue is usually very nice and everyone is in a good mood. There are also challenges, since I usually cannot control the environment or lighting, and it can be difficult to corral dozens or even hundreds of people. All in all, I enjoy it. And my clients find photography to be a valuable investment, because the photos can make a good giveaway to employees, and can be a PR or recruiting tool to help convey the corporate culture of the firm.

I look forward to this season’s batch of holiday parties.

Stepping in to the Ring

I recently got a call from the Marketing Director at a small start-up in headquartered in Berkeley. She needed headshots of their whole team for the website, and wanted relaxed and candid posing, with a more “punchy” look than the standard corporate headshot, reflecting their young and dynamic company culture.

After a short phone conversation to discuss her goals, and reviewing some sample images that she liked, I recommended going with a “ring flash” look on a pure white background. A ring flash is a specialized lighting tool with a circular flash tube that is mounted around the lens of the camera. This results in a perfectly centered, shadowless, crisp light. It is also a compact space-saving lighting option, which was perfect because the start-up was housed in a small office with limited space. (I ended up setting up in an entryway next to the elevator!)

On the day of the photo shoot I arrived and set up quickly, and photographed the small team in just a couple of hours. I then sat down with the Marketing Director, and we made image selections for everyone on the spot. I ended up recommending a square crop, which would further differentiate the look of their portraits from a traditional corporate headshot.

Here are a few sample images:

I own a ring flash, but rarely use it for corporate work. I appreciate my client’s vision for their photography, and openness to going a little bit outside the box. I am very pleased with the outcome of these portraits, and am inspired to try this look more often.

Modern Family

I have met some talented people while making my Improvisors portraits. While I was at an improv retreat earlier this year, I took a workshop with the wonderful Dana Powell. She is a great teacher and a terrific improvisor, and I had the opportunity to photograph her for my project during the retreat.

I just found out that Dana recently joined the cast of the hit TV comedy Modern Family. I caught an episode via HULU, and it was great to see Dana displaying her incredible talent to a wide audience. Congratulations Dana!


There is no greater dog-lover than me. Dogs are the best. I grew up with a delightful female golden retriever who lived to be 16.5 years old, so I am particularly fond of sweet old doggies.

Early last month, I had the pleasure of making some portraits of my friend’s 14-year-old dog, Ollie. (That’s 98 in dog years!) She was a sweet and gentle old lady, and exemplified the great qualities of dogs. Particularly impressive was her resilience and joy, despite debilitating illnesses and injuries related to extreme old age.

We went to a park near Ollie’s home, and made some portraits while strolling around the lawn in the dappled late afternoon sunlight. My two favorite images are displayed below.

Ollie died last weekend. She had a good long life, but her loss was still tremendous for everyone—myself included—whose life she touched. I feel lucky to have had the priviledge of making portraits of Ollie in her twilight. The photos from that day serve as a reminder of the power and value of photographs.

Getting Outside the Studio

Variety is the spice of life.” – William Cower

The majority of my corporate headshot clientele want their photography done indoors with a studio set-up—and with good reason. Studio lighting and background is the most easily controlled, the most versatile, the most consistent from shot to shot, and is repeatable months and years later and regardless of the set-up location. This last factor means that my clients can maintain a consistent look for all photography, even as new hires come on board over months or years.

However, as the quote says, mixing things up keeps things interesting. And sometimes a small team with a specific vision, and a desire to stand out, make the smart decision by choosing a “location” portrait.

A few months ago I was contacted by a high-end professional services company with just such a concept. They had a small but nice outdoor common area in their office park that they wanted to use as a backdrop.

On the morning of the photo shoot, we had bright sunshine. Great for a day at the beach, but not great for outdoor portraits. Furthermore, our shooting location was long and narrow, so there was only one orientation that would work, and it was in direct sun.

Luckily, I had come prepared with some tricks up my sleeve. My solution was to set up a 12×12 foot silk panel on a frame, directly behind my camera position, which softened the light on my subjects and much of the background. I also brought a battery-powered flash with a beauty dish reflector, which I set up at very low power to one side. This provided just a pop of contrast to make sure that my silk didn’t flatten the light too much.

Once we solved our technical problem, the actual photography went very smoothly. Everyone was on time, in a good mood, and dressed perfectly. (It’s so nice when folks actually follow the wardrobe guidelines that I send out before a photo shoot!) With the narrow green corridor to work in, the giant 12×12 foot diffusion on roller stands, my light, me, my subject, and and a handful of other people hanging around the area, it was a super tight squeeze. I wish I had a behind-the-scenes photo to illustrate! Alas, everyone was super busy and I had only a few minutes with each person, so I kept my eyes on the task at hand.

We did individual portraits, plus a group shot at the end (now that was a tight squeeze!). Afterward, we went back inside the office to review images. Everyone was pleased, and I left their office with final image selections in hand.

Logistically, this was a tough task for pretty simple-looking portraits. (Controlling nature is always tough.) But it was great to have a change of pace by shooting outdoors. I hope to do more location portraits like these in the coming months.

Wedding Bells

Readers of this blog will have noticed that my posts slowed to a trickle during the past few months. I had a busy Spring and Summer of work, with many interesting projects. However, the main reason I have been M.I.A. has been that I’ve been busy planning my wedding. My fiance and I planned an intimate event, but it still took the better part of a year to plan and organize.

I am pleased to say that our wedding last month went perfectly. All the little details were executed smoothly, but moreover, the weather was spectacular, all our loved ones were in attendance, and I got to marry the love of my life.

Photo by Amanda Tung, Blueberry Photography

One novelty of getting married for me was shopping for a photographer from the client perspective, and being exclusively in front of the camera on the big day. Happily, we found an excellent local wedding photographer who did great work.

I am very skilled at the kind of photography I do, but for various reasons I have never been oriented toward wedding photography. It is good for a photographer to recognize what they are and are not drawn to, since passion about the subject matter is what makes an artist achieve great things. Our photographer, Amanda, was perfectly suited to wedding photography. I enjoyed watching a fellow creative professional do high-level work—from our pre-sale consultation to the wedding day itself. It was a pleasure to give her our business.

Now that the wedding (and all the related planning and prep) are over, I am excited to get back to many of the normal activities that got pushed to the side this year—including this blog!

Stay tuned.

Camp ImprovUtopia

I started my Improvisors project just over a year ago, setting out to make portraits of improv performers in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. During the past year, I have gathered folks at my studio, photographed visiting performers at the San Francisco Improv Festival, attended the Committee Reunion, and even traveled to New York to photograph East Coast improvisors. I have had so much fun, met so many interesting people, and made hundreds of great portraits. What a great year. (Hopefully, the first of many!)

Back in May, I mentioned on this blog that I would be attending Camp ImprovUtopia, where I would be making more portraits during the Memorial Day weekend. I ended up photographing most of the campers over a two-day period—63 in total! Big thanks to Nick Armstrong and all the Camp staff for hosting me.

I was buried under a pile of great images after that weekend. The sheer volume, combined with an incredibly busy Summer of work, delayed the processing of the images. However, after almost four months, I am now glad to announce that they are finally ready!

Here are some of the best images from that great weekend:

Thank you to everyone who delivered great improv performances in front of my camera, taking time out of a very busy weekend already chocked full of improv. Nick Armstrong (pictured above, with the bandana) puts on a fantastic camp, and I’m already registered for next year, so I can have more fun, meet more great people, and make more portraits!