What should I look for in a headshot photographer?
Isn’t that the question? Another way to answer this question is to ask, “what makes a good headshot?” I believe that a good headshot has the following:
- a strong connection to camera, a compelling expression in the eyes
- good lighting, with shadows and contrast that bring out your best features
- good composition, so that the viewer is drawn to your face
Now, how do you figure out whether a photographer can do these things? The first thing to do is to check out the photographer’s work. Just by looking at the photographer’s pictures, you can figure out whether a photographer is technically competent. Look at the expression, shadows and composition. The photographer’s book will also tell you how creative he or she is, which may be important to you. But that’s only part of the answer. Read on.
Okay, the photographer’s portfolio looks great, but how do I know that he or she will take good pictures of me?
I know someone who’s a model and has done dozens of professional shoots. Although she had great modelling pictures, she didn’t have strong headshots. She researched, visited photographers, looked at their books and asked the advice of friends, agents and managers. Finally, she picked one and spent $550 on the shoot. Out of four rolls, or 144 pictures, she got one or two usable shots.
I have another friend who was pushed by her agent to get new pictures. She asked around, looked at books and finally picked a photographer that cost $600. Her agent didn’t like any of his photos, and the photographer refused to do a reshoot.
How does this happen? Well, the honest answer is that a photographer can be like an actor on screen – you don’t know if the actor gave a good performance, or whether the actor just had a good editor and director.
The only way to know whether an actor is really good is to know how that actor works on set. The same is true for photographers. You need to know how a photographer shoots, and to see the unused pictures as well as the ones that were published.
In the days of film (yes, those days are fading fast), it was easy – just look at a photographer’s proof sheets. The raw shots tell you a lot how a photographer works and how he shoots. For example, I’ve gotten headshots done with a very expensive photographer. In one of his proof sheets, 32 out of 36 shots are in exactly the same pose, with only minor differences in expression. This photographer was technically excellent, but didn’t try to work with me to get the best expression or connection with the lens. He was clicking away, and by taking 32 shots of the same pose, he was playing the odds and betting that one or two would turn out well.
Now, with digital, there are no proof sheets, so you can’t do that anymore. In fact, with digital, it’s very hard to tell who’s a good photographer – anyone with a camera can hang up a shingle, take lots and lots of shots, and spend a lot of time in photoshop. What to do? Here’s a couple of do’s and don’ts:
- Make Sure that the Photographer Takes A Personal Interest in You. This is huge, I think. You want a photographer that can see your individuality and that cares about getting you a good photo; you want someone who will choose to make your session personal.
- Don’t Be Fooled by Glitz, Star Studded Portfolios and High Prices. I can’t tell you the number of people who have shot with expensive, “name” photographers with fancy studios, and will never do it again.
Somewhere along the way, it’s easy to say, “Oh, if he’s shot all these famous people, he must be good.” Or, “If he’s that expensive, he must be good.” Or, “what a nice studio, he must be worth it.” If you think about it, none of these things guarantee you a good shooting experience.
- Look for Creativity, Uniqueness and a Specific Style in the Portfolio. When you look at a photographer’s porfolio, do you see creativity and variations? Or do you see similar poses, expressions and setups repeated in shoot after shoot? Look at the photographers non-headshot work – is there a unique perspective or voice? Does the photographer have a style, an individual voice? If you look carefully, it can be very easy to spot.
Truth is, when I look at my own work, it has an unintentional, but specific style. I wasn’t even aware of it when I was building my portfolio; I just liked certain things and shot them. Now, if you look over it, I think you’ll see that there is a common style and point of view. If you hire me, that’s essentially what you’re paying for.