How I Got That Shot: A Glamorous Group

November 5, 2012

© Floto+Warner

For the portrait of the board of directors of the cosmetics company Estée Lauder, Floto+Warner had to transform an unoccupied office into a set that suggested backstage at a fashion show.

Photographer: Floto+Warner
Client: Fortune
Director of Photography: Mia Diehl
Deputy Photo Editor: Alix Colow

For the annual Fortune 500 issue, the New York City photography duo of Floto+Warner (Jeremy Floto and Cassandra Warner) were assigned to shoot group portraits of six boards of directors. Each shoot had to coincide with the companies’ annual board meetings, so between February and April, the photographers were on call and prepared to fly to each board’s location with little notice.

Shooting large groups successfully is always a technical challenge, but groups of high-powered and busy executives added extra logistical challenges. Yet neither Fortune nor the photographers ever considered photographing each subject separately and creating composites. “We preferred shooting everyone together to create natural interaction and energy amongst the group.” Floto adds, “We got as much as we could in camera. We find that an easier way of working.”

The duo, who are known for photographing architecturally grand spaces, had previously shot for the magazine, and were given few dictates on how to handle the group portraits for the Fortune 500 issue. However, each board had to approve the concept for their portrait. “We did a lot of photo research, a lot of photo referencing, to show composition and feel,” Warner says, and also sketched plans on paper. Because the images would run as a spread in the magazine, their compositions had to work around the publication’s gutter, Floto notes. Their digital tech, Eran Wilkenfeld of 5Leg Digital in New York City, created a comp in Photoshop, so the photographers could double-check the placement of each individual within the page layout.

The members of each board wanted to spend little time on the shoot. “Everyone comes onto the set saying, ‘We have to get back to work,’” Floto notes. For each of the six portraits, the photographers spent one day pre-lighting the set. Their two assistants and members of the Fortune staff acted as their stand-ins as the photographers tweaked the lights and made sure they would be ready to shoot as soon as the subjects arrived.

Warner says, “For all these shoots, we were using a generous depth of field,” and needed to keep each subject in sharp focus. “We were aiming for f/11 at least, so we didn’t have to have people stand in a straight line. Our digital tech didn’t like to go above ISO 200, so we had to max out the light.”

Their rental order to Foto Care in New York City for the Estée Lauder shoot was typical for their Fortune 500 assignments. It included 12 Profoto heads, eight Profoto Pro-7a 2400 packs, four Profoto grids, six Photek umbrellas, two Elinchrom Octa lightbanks, a framed 12 x 12-foot silk and four Profoto soft light reflectors: “pretty much the kitchen sink,” Floto says.

Because the busy board members were taking time from their annual meeting to sit for their portrait, none of them could travel far from the boardroom. In the course of the Fortune assignment, Floto+Warner worked with set designer Peter Gargagliano to set up shoots in the eBay lunchroom, the produce aisle of Whole Foods (see photo below), the General Motors plant and other locations convenient to each board of directors. At the Estée Lauder headquarters in New York City, the board had suggested using the office lobby, but the ceiling was too low to accommodate the lights. Instead, the photographers asked the manager of the office building if there were any unoccupied offices. They were given a tour of a completely raw space: “There was no ceiling, no electrical plugs,” Floto explains.

They decided to stage what looks like the backstage at a fashion show, where models might get made up before walking the runway. Gargagliano found lighted mirrors and makeup tables. He also built a set where the left and right walls were angled toward each other, creating a forced perspective. Fortune hired electricians to run enough power to the space.

The photographers set up a framed 12 x 12 silk to camera right, about 15 feet from the subjects. Behind the silk they placed four Profoto strobes with umbrellas. The silk, Warner explains, “creates a beautiful, even light over an entire space.” They then placed four beauty dishes in front of the silk, close to the subjects, to provide more specular light. For fill, an Octa lightbank was set to the left of the camera.

They also placed three heads behind the subjects; these acted as rim lights, and added to the atmosphere of a backstage shoot. “We really wanted it to be dramatic and to have a gritty feel instead of the feel of a glamour shot,” Warner says. One head was in the center of the frame, about eight feet from the floor, directed at the camera. The other two were on stands, close to the ceiling.

During their pre-light day, the photographers tweaked the lighting for each stand-in, who had been chosen to match the height and weight of each board member. On the shoot day, when each member of the Estée Lauder team arrived with his or her own stylist, two women were wearing white, and so the composition was slightly changed “so we wouldn’t have a cluster of white in the frame,” Warner recalls.

Camera: Floto+Warner used a Phase One IQ160 back on a Hasselblad H1 body with an 80mm f/2.8 lens. The Estée Lauder crew was shot at f/11 at 1/16, ISO 200.

During the shoot, Floto+Warner took turns behind the camera and directing the subjects. “They were a playful bunch,” Warner says of the Estée Lauder board. “They had an easy rapport with each other,” she adds, and enjoyed playing with makeup brushes and applicators in front of the camera. Once the subjects took their seats, the photographers say, the shoot took about 20 minutes to complete, and they shot just over 100 frames.

Post Production: Fortune’s deputy editor of photography, Alix Colow, who had been on set for every shoot, made color laser copies of each frame, then reviewed them with the photographers. “We hung them on the walls at Fortune,” Floto recalls, “It was like working on a lightbox.”

They looked through each shot, and made notes of which images showed each subject looking his or her best. They then sent the image files and their notes for the final composited image to Herve Lafond at 4th Floor, a retouching studio in New York City. “We didn’t create a moment in Photoshop, but we made sure each person had their best face forward,” Warner says. “In terms of retouching faces, we tend toward realism.” After the studio finished the composite, and smoothed a few creases in the subjects’ suits, the image was sent to the photographers, who then did the final color correction and exposure adjustments.

Below, the corporate board of Whole Foods, shot for Fortune by Floto+Warner.