How to Capture Authority in an Executive Portrait

Executives portraits have existed for hundreds of years before photography in the form of paintings. Those executive paintings were very labor-intensive to produce, and only the wealthy and powerful could afford them. With the advent of photography, executive portraits have become more common. However, the methods to best capture authority have essentially remained the same.


This is the most important factor in creating authority. T-shirts and jeans do not communicate authority. You want your subject to be in a suit. Not just any suit cuts it either. It needs to be their best suit, something they look best in. This is a universal executive portrait rule.

The person should also be cleanly shaved, have their hair done, and look the best they can. You need to look great in order to communicate authority.

To Smile or Not to Smile

Executive portraits are split on the smiling issue. Traditionally smiling has not existed in pictures trying to capture authority. If you look at portraits of U.S. Presidents, you'll notice that they rarely feature smiles. In fact, smiling was rare in the early days of photography altogether. Saying cheese didn't happen until the 20th century.

But not smiling could also makes your executive look unfriendly and unapproachable. It might set a poor image for a company if their executive looks like a miserable version of Scrooge.

So to play it safe, shoot photos both with and without smile. Give your client both versions and let them choose which image to represent the executive.

Sitting or Standing

Standing looks more authoritative than sitting. But if you're subject is going to sit then make sure they're in a chair fit for a king. You need an authoritative chair for an authoritative person.


Where you shoot the subject also communicates authority. A backdrop is appropriate as long as it matches the corporate logo. An executive office can have the impressive authoritative look you need for your subject. Showing the person at his desk working communicates a hardworking authority figure.


You want the lighting to have some contrast and look dramatic. Keying the person from the front and giving some negative fill on the sides to create shadows on the edges of the face looks great. But there is a balance to keep. Too much contrast and the person might look villainous, and that is not good for the corporation or executive's image. Try to keep your key to fill ratio no more than 4 to 1.

Follow these steps and you'll get an executive portrait that communicates authority.

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