The photo on the left is my ex. It's a scan of a photo I snapped of her, circa 1980, in my garage/studio and processed and printed in my little home darkroom.
Kathlyn, my ex, was pursuing an acting career back then and decided she needed an "evil bitch" shot to add to her portfolio. Unfortunately, the acting career didn't go as hoped. Today, she's a dean of a high school. She's also a psychologist and family therapist with a small practice. (Somewhat to my occasional annoyance, I seem to remain her favorite person to "shrink." But that's not part of this update.)
I thought I'd share some shooting tips for those of you who did not read my Guerrilla Headshots ebook but are interested in headshot photography. Remember, I'm talking about headshots, i.e., those mostly used by performers and business people and others to put their faces in front of others. It's portraiture but it's a different sort of portraiture, one with specific goals: usually to get the subject hired for something or to help sell the subject's products or services or talents or whatever.
1. Backgrounds and Locations: Avoid backgrounds or locations that compete with the subject. Avoid environments that are cluttered, are busy, or might somehow “upstage” the person featured in the headshot. Backgrounds should compliment but should never distract.
2. Props: While props might sometimes be something the subject prefers to use, they should generally be avoided. More often than not, props compete-with and distract from the subject's face and the intent or purpose of the image.
3. Wardrobe: Much the way props and locations can be distracting, so can a person's wardrobe. Wardrobe generally works better when it's closer to neutral in terms of colors and patterns and, to some extent, style. Wild, outrageous, or overly trendy attire also risks being distracting. Fad wardrobe can become quickly dated. While wardrobe can speak eloquently and can sometimes send a desired message to the photo's viewers, it should not compete with the subject for the viewer's attention nor should it be (for most of the headshots you'll probably be shooting) more interesting or dynamic than the subjects themselves. That's certainly not the case for most fashion photography but headshots are not fashion shots.
4. Use the Rule of Thirds: You don't have to use it in obvious ways but subtle nods to this compositional element is often a great idea, adding value and interest to your photos!
5. Be Aware of Symmetry: You might have to make posing adjustments to balance the symmetry in a person's face. You might also exploit asymmetry to add tension and, consequently, more interest in a photo. Remember the equation, Symmetry = Beauty. Since many of your subjects will wish to be photographed in ways that make them appear as beautiful or as handsome as they can be, S = B is a formula that might help you accomplish that.
6. Take Advantage of the Power of Diagonal Lines and Shapes: Lines are the most powerful element of design and diagonal lines are the strongest of the strong. That holds true for shapes as well. A canted camera, that is, shooting with Dutch angles, can also add diagonal dimensions to your headshots. Those diagonals, while not competing with the subject, can increase general interest in your photos and help direct viewers' eyes to where you want them to go: directly to your subject's face.
7. Consider Perspective When Shooting: Consider whether it makes most sense, aesthetically and from the perspective of the “message” the headshot hopes to convey, where you should be shooting from: From below, at equal eye-level, or even from above. For the most part, avoid extreme angles when shooting headshots.
8. Use Easy-to-Employ Lighting Gear Whenever Possible: Unless you're a high-priced pro (I'm not one, by the way, but wish I were) you probably won't be shooting headshots with assistants helping you. Don't allow gear, i.e., more equipment than you need, to multiply difficulty beyond necessity either in its deployment or use. Unless I'm shooting in the luxury of a studio, I try my best to keep my lighting-gear use to one-light or sometimes two. Better yet, if I'm shooting in exterior daylight and I'm able to get by simply employing a single reflector or a single lighting instrument, coupled with direct and ambient sunlight, that's the approach I'll try to take. When it comes to lighting gear for headshots, less can be more.
9. Call on Classic Portrait Styles: Learn the classic portrait lighting styles and how to create them, but don't let the classic nature of those portrait styles trump a contemporary “feel” and “look” to your headshot images. A subtle use, rather than obvious use, of classic portrait-lighting is generally preferable. There's classic for the ages and there's classic for today.
10. Low-Key vs. High-Key: For many headshots, lighting that approaches high-key or is high-key often seems preferable. That's certainly not always true but, often enough, it seems that way. Shooting high-key is not to say you should be photographing your subjects in front of a white or bright background. I'm talking about a reduction in contrast and shadow on subjects' faces for the purposes of the headshot. Low-Key lighting can be used effectively as well but, generally, low-key sometimes seems overly formal or artsy (headshot-wise) and might create unintentional downbeat moods.
11. Go Easy on the Post-Processing and Retouching: How much post-processing and retouching you apply to your images says much about you as a photographer-- more so now in the digital age than ever before. Many photographers' personal styles are built almost entirely on processing techniques. Still, I suggest resisting the urge to be heavy-handed when processing and retouching headshots. While there's a time and place for highly stylized work and utilizing less seen post-production techniques, most of your clients want headshots that reflect their appearances in ways that remain within the boundaries of reality and believability. Excessive processing can create suspicion: Suspicion amongst viewers of the headshot. Suspicion that they're looking at a photo that doesn't honestly reflect the subject's true appearance. Yes, help your clients look as good as they can but don't process and retouch their headshots to the point they no longer appear like themselves. Remember that skin looks like skin! It doesn't resemble the kinds of synthetic materials often used as “skin” on toys and dolls or in the manufacture of plastic trash bags.
Here's another scan of a print of my ex from way back in the day. This one casts her in a friendlier and nicer way.