This is the first of potentially many more client case studies. (I’m re-shuffling my blog categories around as there’s some upcoming remodelling of my website and blog!) For these case studies, I’ll focus less on the story of my subjects and more on the assignment itself, the photography, and the logistics. The first one here features the staff headshots I took for McGill’s MacDonald Campus. This could be useful for prospective clients and fellow photographers / freelancers.
When the new Dean joined the Macdonald Campus of McGill University in Ste-Anne de Bellevue, she led a charge to revitalize the faculty website. I still remember applying to grad school years ago, browsing through dozens of webpages of professors from different universities and comparing them. For many professors, their page was my first impression of them. Here’s what the website looked like before the intervention:
Because all photos were staff-submitted, there was no consistency among photos. Most photos were of very low-quality, and many had poor lighting. Some staff members were even unrecognizable, either due to the photo quality or because the photo was simply very outdated.
Description of the assignment:
Update the faculty and staff headshots for the Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences of McGill University (5 departments: 120 professors and non-academic staff). Requirements for the headshots: consistent in style, composition, and quality, with a variety of different out of focus backgrounds.
Challenge #1: Professors are extremely busy people.
Most professors were extremely busy. We therefore had to create a very strict shooting schedule, where each subject had a designated 10-min time slot. I knew that I wouldn’t even be given 10 minutes from each of my subjects, so my aim was to work as fast as possible. I was able to photograph many subjects in less than two minutes (and sometimes, I wasn’t given a choice). In an ideal world, my subjects would have more time with me and would all be excited with the idea of being photographed, but I understand that it’s not possible when you have 120 busy people. I made sure that my camera equipment was ready to go before my subject arrived, I constantly kept checking how the sunlight changed, and I made sure to greet them all subjects with a warm welcome - I only had a few seconds to get them to be comfortable with me!
Tips: If you have time-sensitive subjects and need to work very quickly, plan and scout locations beforehand (this should be part of your work and in your contract). I pre-selected several locations and noted down the optimal times of day for best lighting and I also paid attention to the amount of student traffic that each location had. When so many busy schedules are at stake, plan very carefully and prepare contingency plans in case of bad weather, people showing up late, and people not showing up at all. A single subject arriving late can trigger a domino effect. Run different scenarios in your head and decide beforehand what you will do if it happens. Make sure your contract addresses the possibility of these issues if necessary.
Challenge #2: Multiple stakeholders in the assignment.
In a typical headshot session, the person controlling the budget, the person being photographed, and the person I communicate with are all the same person. For this assignment, my client was split in three: 1) the Dean (who had a vision for the project and took budget decisions), 2) the 120 subjects to be photographed, and 3) the contact person (my only direct contact throughout the planning). Situations like this can create potentially competing interests among the three client heads.
Tips: Any time your client is split into multiple parties and stakeholders, you have to be extra alert with your communications, making sure that the important information is passed down to the relevant people. When interests compete, understand whose decisions you should be following, and manage expectations as best you can.
The new portraits have been added on the website. (Some of the staff could not be photographed, so their pages remain as before unfortunately.) The new staff headshots result in a more professional look in my opinion. More importantly, the people who hired me are happy with the results!
- When you only have a few seconds with each subject, make sure you do everything you can before the subject arrives (prepare equipment, scout before). Make sure you're also ready mentally. You have only a few seconds to make an impression, to get them to trust you, and to create a good headshot.
- When you have assignments that have multiple stakeholders, make sure you're on point with your communication with everyone, anticipate any competing interests, and know whose requests to give priority to. Understanding each stakeholder's point of view will make it easier to explain clearly your inability to fulfill all requests.
- Make sure your contract covers everything! Don't just think about the photography, think of what happens before and after a shoot and the amount of time you're putting in different tasks such as planning, scouting, delivering images, creating galleries, etc.
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