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Capturing Masterful, Modern Headshots

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Headshot photography is hard work, and there is a reason why celebrities, actors, politicians and business people will pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to get a great photograph of their face. Often, you'll find that most headshot work will involve similar lighting, so what makes the Martin Schoeller's and Peter Hurley's stand out so much? That's what we'll explore today.

I believe the difference between a good headshot and great headshot is communication. You can set up some simple light diagrams, and take headshots all day, but it takes more than just nice soft lighting and a shallow depth of field to really capture someone's personality in a single photograph, so how does one do it?

The best way I've described it to people is that you have to become that instantly likeable person. Certainly you've been to a party and met a person like this, bumped into her at the grocery store or had him as your waiter. Those people that automatically make you feel at ease, often with saying little to nothing at all. The key to successful headshot photography is finding a way to make your clients feel comfortable.


I can say with confidence that no one feels completely comfortable when they're two feet away from a big camera staring them in the face. I've had the privilege to photograph some very successful and talented actors, and each one of them needs a warm up period to get used to the camera.

When doing headshot photography, what you're really creating is someones calling card. A single image that they'll use to get jobs. And they want to use these images for years to come.

Creating Consistent, Soft Lighting

For headshot photography, I prefer continuous lighting over strobes. This is because I sometimes find that the flashing of the strobes will interfere with the interactions that I'm having with the client. For headshots in particular, I prefer fluorescent lighting over LEDs or any other alternatives for its soft light, color consistency and lack of heat.

Just because I use fluorescent lighting doesn't mean that I have to break the bank for Kino Flos. In fact, the light banks I use can be built in a couple hours time, and about $120 spent at a hardware store.

It's important to select the correct color temperature bulbs, and not to overload the ballast with too much power. Doing so will result in flickering lights, making them unable to use them at higher shutter speeds.


Another wonderful feature with constant lighting is the quick fall off and low power ratings. Though my light banks seem bright, the falloff is very quick, and allows me to shoot around f/2.0 on my 85mm. This means I'm able to obtain a beautiful shallow depth of field in my headshots, bringing the attention to the eyes.

I use two large four-bulb banks on each side of my subject, about 10-15 inches from my subject. There really is no other secret to my lighting, other than also hitting my backdrop with a strobe. I shoot with my lights close to my subject to obtain large catchlights in the eyes, adding a point of interest to the picture, while making their eyes very striking.

Boldly Conveying Personality

Something commonly said by Peter Hurley in his Art of The Headshot DVD is that all emotion is expressed in the movement of three things on your face: the eyes, eyebrows and mouth. Using those three things, you're able to show a drastic range of expressions in your photos. So it's important to remember that subtle movements and changes in the face can yield some pretty drastic shifts in the mood of the photo.

Something as simple as a squint or adding tension between the brows can completely change the dynamic of the character. For practice, work with your own face in the mirror, and watch the changes you make to your face as you go from one emotion to the next.


Sometimes, you're with a client that is unable to express their emotion by saying a buzzword such as "jealous." These people aren't uncommon, and I've found the best way to get them into character is to help build a character for them. Roleplaying and developing roles for them will often help them with their expressions and help them emote.

You can try roleplaying their wedding day and marrying the man or woman of their dreams, instead of just asking them to be happy, will often help get them into character and be more genuine with the camera.

I often try to capture personality with my clients through flirting. Now I'm going to stop you right there, and better define what I mean by flirting. Flirting is defined as behaving as though attracted to or trying to attract someone, but for amusement rather than with serious intentions.


It's important to note that it is for amusement, and without serious intentions. I flirt with every client I have, whether it's a 25-year-old gorgeous female model, or a 60-year-old man. My intentions are never anything other than getting great photos.

In order to do this effectively, you must have some basic intuition on the matter. Obviously, if you sense that your client is feeling uncomfortable, then its time to re-evaluate your tactics. The sole purpose of my flirting is to get them comfortable in front of the camera, so that we're able to capture exceptional photos. If the tension is there, the photos will be grossly effected by it.


Honest Retouching

With actor headshots, my retouching is incredibly limited. In fact, aside from some light blemish removal, the only other thing I do with my actor headshots is some light burning and dodging to help bring out the contours of the face.


As you can see in the example above, the retouching is done only to add some depth and contrast to the photo, and the facial features and dimensions have not been changed at all. A headshot need to look like your subject, you subject on their best day. For this reason, the retouching is light, and the lens I use has minimal distortion. The lighting is consistent and fairly flat. This all makes for an honest image.

Be a Social Engineer

The challenges in headshot photography aren't often related to equipment, technique or lighting, but more so on the interactions with the clients. Being a headshot photographer means you need to be a social engineer, and capture a broad range of emotions for your clients to help them with their careers.

Hopefully, this piece has provided you with some tips and insights on how to improve your headshot work and bring your headshot portfolio to the next level. If you have any questions or thoughts, please leave me a comment.

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