Photo Daily: Nicola Novellone, Sky Italia

Nicola Novellone, Sky Italia ©2011

Nicola Novellone, Sky Italia ©2011

“Can I make them look cool?” It was the first question I asked a few years ago, when I arrived to make a series of portraits of Leo Burnett executives.

I got the assignment a week before to photograph “some Leo Burnett staff members.” It wasn’t until I arrived the morning of the shoot that I discovered that it was a little more than staff members. I was shooting the various CEOs, Chairmen, VPs and other higher-ups from all of the worldwide Leo Burnett divisions, who were in Chicago for one of their annual meetings.

I’ve shot many executives over the years, a genre I sort of fell into about 10 years ago. It’s one of those things that I never expected to be doing, as a lot of my work up to that point was not exactly very executive in nature. But a good photograph is a good photograph and something in my work indicated to the people hiring me that I might bring something unique to the party. Something beyond the usual corporate headshot.

When I asked my question about making them look cool, it was because I was genuinely very excited about the surprise upgrade of subject matter. I knew that these people were the leaders of one of the most internationally well-known creative powerhouses of advertising. I felt their portraits should reflect that. Maybe not quite cover of Rolling Stone in style, but in that neighborhood.

“Yes, you can make them look cool.”


Over the course of two days in a large ballroom at the Westin Hotel, and then again two more times over the next year, I photographed them all. Leaders from the main Chicago headquarters and North America, to Asia, Europe, Russia and South America.

I had less than 10 minutes with each. These are busy people. The challenge is always to make my subjects feel as comfortable as possible in the limited amount we have. Having your portrait made is a little unnatural for most people. Add to that the pressure that this single image is going to represent them, for years in some cases. Nothing like amping up the anxiousness.

My method is to greet every subject walking onto my set with my standard big Billy smile and hello. It’s the fastest way I know to let them know who I am. I want this to be fun. I tell them exactly what I’m going to do before I walk them to their mark. How many photos I’m going to take, so they know when the light at the end of the tunnel is going to arrive. Nothing worse than not letting my subjects know how long this is going to take. Are we half way done yet? Almost done? By letting them know in advance, it’s a bit like your personal trainer telling you, just four more! It makes the process more finite for them.

“I’m going to make about 20 photos of you,” I begin. “We’re just looking for one good one. And I may pause for 30 seconds here and there, just so you don’t have to hold your expression for too long. You know, to avoid the forced photo smile.”

“How should I stand?”

“What should I do with my hands?”

These are the most common questions I get. What I’m trying to do is to made a natural photo of each subject. I don’t want it to feel like a photoshoot. So I’ve come up with a few ways to get them thinking about something, anything besides having their photo taken.

“Okay, imagine you’re at a party and you’re waiting for someone to bring you back a cocktail. How would you stand?” And just like that, they’re not in a hotel ballroom having their photo taken. You can immediately see on their faces they’re imagining being somewhere else much more pleasant. And it usually evokes a laugh too. Always a good thing.

Nicola Novellone was one of the executives I met on that first day. We hit it off pretty quickly. At the time he was the Chairman & CEO of Leo Burnett for Central and Eastern Europe. He looked great. The, what I imagine was a $5,000 suit, didn’t hurt either. Light really does reflect differently off of fine fabric.

I designed the lighting beginning primarily with one large five-foot Octabank, a wonderful soft light source, off to one side, that completely wraps my subjects in beautiful flattering light. By keeping the light off to one side, it makes everyone’s face look more interesting. Allowing the natural shapes of their faces to create soft shadows. More dimensionality than more flat, even lighting would do.

The rest of the lighting set-up consisted of a low powered fill light off to the other side, to prevent the shadows from getting too dark, and then behind them, a third light, positioned low and angled upward on my white sweep, which nicely picked up some of the texture of the paper rather than just blowing it out to full white brightness. A simple but effective set-up.

When we finished the few dozen pictures of Nicola, he walked over to my laptop to have a look.

“Can I get copies of these? I really like them.” Always a great compliment.

And apparently he wasn’t simply being polite, because when he took a new position a few months later to be the brand Communication & Innovation Director at Sky Italia in Milan, he used the same photo for  Sky Italia’s news releases.

He’s a good guy. And I really loved that suit.

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