Shooting Business Headshots

I was recently asked to shoot, what would turn out to be, a Headshot Marathon.

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By day I am a product photographer for a big ecommerce company in London. I have plans to do a series of posts on shooting and editing product images, so make sure to subscribe to the blog if you're interested.

In the meantime though I thought I would talk about a recent assignment at work. I was asked to shoot headshots for the company staff which turned out to be a challenging experience. 

Let me get the technical side out of the way first because I know some people will be interested:


As you can see my light set up was fairly simple. I placed one soft key light on camera right using a 1m softlighter, one hair light on camera left to give some hair and jaw line shape, and one background light which is hiding behind the fill reflector. This is the lighting diagram:


My camera (5DmkII) settings were 85mm, iso 100, f2.8, 1/125. 

So now that you know the technical stuff I wanted to talk about the experience of having to fire through 70 plus headshots in a couple of hours.

I share the technical stuff briefly because that really wasn't the challenge on the day. The tough part of this assignment was the fact that I was given between 30-60 seconds with each person, and most really weren't that keen to have their photo taken. How was I going to get a rapport going, relax the subject, set up the shot, dial in the lighting, organise a pose, and capture, in half a minute, all the while having the distraction of their friends and colleagues looking on and cracking jokes, making the subject just want to run a mile? 

Well it didn't start off well to be honest.

The first few I took I immediately felt the pressure of making this experience as painless as possible for my reluctant subjects, and I rushed the shots. I have a strong empathy for people, and feel uncomfortable myself if I am the source of their discomfort as a photographer. I feel this failing often when shooting portraits with people and know I need to overcome it, and this day turned out to be a bit of a breakthrough. After I had cracked through the first 4 or 5 headshots, I had a moment of epiphony.

I may have thought I was being compassionate by rushing them through, but I was actually doing these people a disservice.

It was a case of short term / long term goals. In the short term I could have argued that I was helping them by making the process as brief as possible; but in the long term I was taking pictures which were not as good as they could be. The pictures would last. The discomfort they felt would only be extended by seconds and it could mean the difference between an image they like of themselves, and one they never use or look at willingly again. The answer is not to rush and get them out of the firing line of my lens because they are squirming a bit, the answer is to keep the big picture in mind and help get them a great image which they will get a lot of mileage out of.

That doesn't mean I should just ignore their discomfort though.

After getting the first 10 or so done, I found myself quickly developing a 'shtick'; a routine with each person which would quickly relax them, give them the info they needed, and keep them from overthinking the whole thing. 

It went something like this: 


Don't worry. We'll make this quick and painless for you. I promise it will be worth it. We've been getting great images all morning.

Can you just write your full name on this sheet for me so I can match your name to the image afterwards?


Take a seat up on the stool for me and face your shoulders towards this light here." 

Gesture to the key light.

"Turn your face to me a little.


Take a shot.

"See it's not that painful."

Take a second shot as they inevitably smile at that comment, even if just to be polite. Now you have the ball rolling.

"These are looking great."

Make small adjustments between shots to work on the pose and expression, keeping it light and casual. If the subject is very rigid and struggling then I would try this little trick:

"Ok lets try this. Close your eyes. I'm going to count to 3 and on '3' you are going to open your eyes and look right into my lens. 1. 2. 3."

The trick with this is to catch the eyes in the moment between their widest and before they settle. I find there is a moment of honesty before your face works out how to cover for you. It may sound odd, but I find it works for me. Give it a go.

"That was really good. Thank you. I'll let you know when the images are ready. You've been great."

That takes me to nearly a minute and the good thing is I have been giving clear directions, taking shots, and reassuring the subject the entire time. I found that the less dead space there was, the less opportunity there was to feel self conscious. As the session continued I was coming up with banter which hit more often and phrases which got my suject to the expression I wanted more efficiently. It was a great, compact learning experience to have to get through so many, so quickly, not that I hope to repeat it soon.

If you want to see a master of Headshot Photography check out Peter Hurley's DVD The Art Behind the Headshot for some amazing tips on posing your subject and getting the best expression out of them.

Here are some more shots from the day:

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Shooting Camera-Shy Clients

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to shoot an engagement session.


A friend of mine from school days (which I don't mind admitting is a while ago now) got hold of me because he had seen some shots I had posted on Facebook. This is one of the few times Social Media has led to actual work for me. I know it really helps some photographers, and I make the effort and put in the time, but it doesn't often pay dividends for me.

More about that in a future post perhaps.

That said, this time it did pay off.

We agreed to meet at Hampstead Heath in North West London, because it was full of outdoor options and happened to be close to where they lived.

I arrived a little early and settled in for a coffee while I waited. I fired up my iPad and googled around for images other people had taken in the area so I could familiarise myself with interesting shooting spots. This is something I now make a habit of doing. It's a way to give myself some space relax before shooting, as well as doing a bit of a virtual reccie of the area. Looking through other people's shots also inspires me and puts me in a 'shooting headspace'.

The couple arrived right on time and we got to talking as we strolled up the hill and onto the Heath.

And that's when she dropped it. The bride-to-be turned to me and said, "I just want you to know, I really don't like having my photo taken."


Now what?

I mean you called me right? You wanted photographs.

It's a strange phenomenon, and it happens a lot around weddings, that couples who really dislike being in front of cameras feel the need to put themselves there anyway because, well, you have to. Everyone does.

So you are faced with people who simultaneously desperately want good photos of themselves, whilst wishing they didn't have to be in them.

They were a lovely couple and we got on pretty well right from the get go, but I knew that I was going to have to work hard to make them both feel comfortable in order for them to come across naturally in the images. I find that a camera picks up discomfort very astutely. The frozen moment gives you the opportunity to more finely observe an awkward stance or expression, and then cruelly preserves it in time.

So I would have to put them at ease.

As the photographer that is my job. I am the one who lives in this space. Photography and cameras are my comfort zone (although I still don't like being in front of them that much either). It's my job to welcome them in to this space, like it would be my job to make them feel comfortable when visiting my home.

I can do this in a few ways:

Act like I know what I'm doing.

I kept telling them, "I'm good at this. I'll make it easy on you. This will be quick and painless, and even fun." That way they know that I, as the professional, will absorb all the pressure. It feels good to be in the hands of a professional in any sphere. If my computer breaks and I take it in to a technician who tells me that he is great at what he does, and he will get my computer working again soon, I feel instantly more at ease. His confidence gives me confidence in him. Admittedly, sometimes I have to fake that confidence myself, but I know it's worth it because the shots will show a more relaxed and natural subject.

Let them know they are doing a great job.

I had to learn early on that I couldn't look at the shot I had just taken and frown. They would assume I was frowning at them. Truth is I was usually frowning at the fact that I had just stuffed up the lighting, but they would assume that I was a professional and that they were more likely the problem. Being in front of a professional photographer's lens is a very vulnerable place to be. Remember that. Cover your mistakes and give them the impression things are going well, even while you're working out a way to make that true. Most importantly, let them know they are doing great.

Spark conversations which makes them talk easily.

I got them talking about their wedding and plans for the future, even while I was posing them. This is when they both became more animated and began to act more like they were just sharing plans with a new friend. At rare moments I think they even forgot they were being shot and those were the moments I tried to grab.

Use the 'testing the lighting' trick.

I do this often. I get my subjects to pose somewhere and tell them to just relax for a couple of minutes and chat to each other while I 'dial in the lighting'. What they don't know is that I am shooting the whole time, hoping to capture less guarded moments with shots they assume don't count. I have gotten some of my most natural moments this way. It's an old trick, but a goodie.

I'm sure you have a load more tricks, and I would love to hear them, but either way, it is your job to put your subjects at ease. Create a professional atmosphere, swallow your own insecurities, absorb the pressure, and make them feel at home

Here are some more shots from the day:


Personal Attention

I was recently contacted by a local up-and-coming actress named Brooke Burfitt.

She was interested in getting some headshots done for her portfolio. I didn't realise it, but actors and actresses need headshots done at least every two years, even more if their look changes regularly, because casting agents are looking for a bang-up-to-date representation when trying to fit potentials into a role. I suppose this is obvious, but it hadn't occurred to me that there may actually be a big market here.

Anyway, as we were setting up on the day Brooke was talking about her experiences with headshot photographers in the past, and how they made her feel like 'just another piece in a production line'. She would arrive at a studio and be given an hour, sandwiched between a slew of other performers. She told me how it didn't feel special, and that after hair and make up she only had about 20 minutes with the photographer, who then smashed out a few shot options in record time, charged her £200 for the hour, and only provided one final shot for the pleasure. Every additional shot she wanted needed to be purchased at a per-shot rate.

As I was fighting to open my old reflector with the broken zip, I made a mental note to ensure that this would be a good experience for her.

The location was a challenge. We were shooting in her friend's small bedroom, which had little natural light, but I had to work with what I had. Time to be resourceful. Whilst ordinarily I would have traded the locational difficulties for a professional studio and gear, I did like the fact that I could give her some dedicated time, and make her feel special, and not just like another item on a conveyor belt of would-be stars.

We had spoken briefly online before hand and she had told me she was looking for something feminine, sweet and virginal. I already had pastel tones in mind, and when I looked around the room I noticed it had an interesting green wall paper, which I thought may make a nice headshot background, and some nice pink bedding on the double bed.

The techy stuff:

Headshots: I ended up using my 50mm prime, shooting fairly close (not that I had an option). I used a speedlight in a softbox, on a monopod, held overhead by an assistant. I added a small handheld reflector just under her chest to give a nice catch light in the eyes. Pretty traditional clamshell setup.

Bedshots: I ended up exposing for the window light and then using a speedlight to fill from the other side by bouncing it off the ceiling from off camera. Even though I knew I would be fighting 3 colours of light in post I decided to turn the bedside lamps on to warm up the scene. I think it worked out quite nicely in the end.

The most important part of the shoot for me was that she had fun. We were there for a few hours (more outdoor shots from this shoot to follow) and we were able to take out real time and make her feel like this was 'her' shoot. I hope that even if I become a big shot I will always be able to build in real time with clients and make them feel valued. I never want people to feel like they are being pushed through Sean Tucker's Production Line.

Personal attention needs to become a value.