headshots 101

That's correct, today's discussion will be about headshot photography. And without further ado, my approach on the headshot conundrum. The reason that I mention conundrum is that there are multiple styles of headshots that an actor may want or require. At the same time, the actor may not know what they actually want or require. And, to confuse things a bit more, the photographer should know what style works best for each specific subject. Not only should the photographer be aware of style but understand the model's body and how to shoot that body. I feel like I'm rambling so let's get down to brass tacks.

The model/actor that you are seeing is one Ellis Walding. You may have seen him in another post. I used one of his fashion shots for a black and white photography discussion. Ellis is an actor based out of Philly. His career began as a model, with his resume including but not limited to, countless romance novel covers and the Camel cigarette guy. As his modeling career progressed, he slowly transitioned over to acting. He played parts in everything from a Philadelphia police drama, Hack to more well known shows, such as Sex and the City. He is currently filming a comedy called Booted.


The Subject


First things first. I knew in advance the body and bone structure of this particular subject (duh), since I've shot him in the past. Ellis is tall and slender. Knowing this, lets me preplan how I will light him. Different styles of light will work for different face shapes. As his face is thin with decent bone structure, I had more variations to play with. A face of this shape allows diverse lighting scenarios. On the other hand, given a rounder face (like my meat head), lighting scenarios become more restricted as you would want to take emphasis away from the bobble head (yes that is the medically correct terminology). Take notice of both photos of Ellis. Notice anything? Yes, he was clean shaven in one and scruffy in another. Hair was slicked back on the above and it is more towards the side, below. This is common during a headshot shoot. It is in yours and the models best interest to shoot in different wardrobes, including different hair and makeup. If they are unaware of that little fact, be sure, as a professional, to recommend this. I will increase your stock, in the client's eyes, exponentially. Another thing you will notice is that Mr. Walding is wearing glasses. For each wardrobe change, we shot half glasses on and half glasses off. I just happened to think that those, with the glasses, came out the best. That's just my opinion. Ellis, on the other hand, preferred the bare faced shots. I tried to argue, but he is the client and the client is always right, even if they are not. That is not for here or now so let's move on.


Studio Setup


If you take a look at the diagram, you can deduce a number of things. First of all, you can see that the studio is converted from a house, my house. Next, you will see that the sofa is to the left. That tells you that to the left and out of frame is my beautiful entertainment system. Not sure how I went there but I did. Ok, next, you will notice a white background. White?! Yes, I said white. And I meant it. I'll get to that later. Behind the white background is a large, exposed brick wall. Very cool. There I go again. Finally, you notice the lighting setup. Everything was pretty tight. There are valid reasons for this lighting setup and we will get into that as well. Basically, everything is done on purpose. The tight setup, the distance from model to wall and model to light, everything. I decided to wear Nike's in this diagram with an unshaven face (they are not pimples).



Lighting Style


As mentioned, Ellis' facial features allow for a number of different lighting styles. I decided on butterfly (or paramount) lighting. The term "butterfly," refers to the shadow shape produced under the nose due to the position of the light. "Paramount" lighting is an alternate term referring to this type of lighting being very popular for Hollywood actors in the 1930's. To achieve this type of light is fairly easy. The strobe was place on a light stand high above the actor, aiming at a sharp angle, down over the middle of his head. To modify the flash, I used a Calumet 45 inch, shoot through umbrella. I wanted the light to wrap around his face and this mod would help produce this beautiful light. As butterfly lighting will produce some shadowing under the nose, I used a large with reflector to reduce the harshness of this effect. The reflector was placed just below the subject's chest and angled towards his face. I didn't have anything to hold the reflector so I had Ellis do the holding in many of the shots. Do not think that this is bad business. It actually will benefit the final photograph. Having a subject hold something keeps their hands busy and positioned to aid in your model's pose.

Warning: butterfly lighting is not flattering for all faces. Use only as directed. 




Headshot Style


This section will be quick and painless. There are different styles of headshots. Each has its own function for the client.

First, you have the glamour (also fashion or beauty) headshot. These headshots are used to flatter a model's face and sometimes large sections of their body. The model is usually evoking sexual poses and many times looking away from the camera and more towards the light source. This type of headshot is not typically used for acting purposes.

Next, are the actor headshots. Actor headshots can be broken down into two categories, theater and commercial. The later commercial headshot is used for just that, actors looking to be awarded a gig for a television commercial. This headshot usually shows the subject wearing brighter clothing, with a large smile draped across his or her face. Sometimes the photographer will shoot these at, what's called, a Dutch angle. The Dutch angle is a technique that a photographer uses to deliberately alter the angle of composition. Rather than shoot level with the subject, the camera is tilted to one side or another. The purpose of this style headshot is to portray the actor as a person of joyfulness and trustworthiness.

Finally, we have the theatrical headshot. This type of headshot falls somewhere between the glamour and the commercial. Although the posing is very similar to the commercial, they facial expressions should be more dramatic, like those in the glamour or headshot. The actor should be happy but refrain from overly smiling. Clothing is better in the neutral range. The proper theatrical headshot will evoke a sense of character and intelligence.

With that being said, you can tell by Ellis' posing that this is clearly a theatrical headshot.


Light and Exposure


Exposure for the shots were very deliberate. You notice that the top photograph has a much darker background than the later. This is a result of light fall off (Inverse Square Law) and light distance.

To obtain a dark background with a properly exposed face, of the first photograph, I simply moved the umbrella in very very close to the subject. It was actually so close that the umbrella shaft was about to touch the subject's head. Also, I was in so tight that the bottom of the umbrella actually touched the top of the camera's lens. With that being said, I had to keep the flash power nice and low.

You notice that the background in the second shot is not quite as dark. To make the background brighter, I simply pulled the umbrella further from the subjects face, a tiny tiny bit and increased the strobe power.

The actors distance from background never changed in the two shots.


Exposure breakdown:

Shot one (dark backgound)                              Shot two (lighter background)

Shutter speed synced at 1/200                          Shutter speed synced and 1/200
Aperture at f/7.1                                                  Aperture at f/4.0
ISO 100                                                                ISO 100
Flash power 1/16                                                  Flash power 1/8


You can see that the only exposure changes needed to create the difference in light, were not drastic. At f/7.1 and 1/16, I was able to wrap the light around his face yet give me a nice dark background. On the other hand, by moving the umbrella back a few inches and opening up the aperture with a small bump in light power, I was able to properly expose his face while at the same time, brighten the background. If I wanted to, I could have backed the light up even more, tweaked the exposure and produce a white background. On the flip side,  I could have made the background black by moving the subject further away from the background with the same settings as the dark background shot. It is amazing what you can do with strobe positioning and strobe distancing. 

If you were wondering, and I'm sure you were, the darker of the two is my favorite. 


What About those Glasses?

No reflections? Remember the game of billiards. Angles angles angles. Angle the light the proper way and it will not go into the pocket (lens). This light was positioned in a way that the strobe of light fired down, hit the glasses and continued onto the floor, not the lens. No reflections.

Nuff said?


Post Processing

As I have matured as a photographer, my post processing styles have changed dramatically. In the past, my goal was to go for an absolutely twisted style in the digital darkroom. I would combine every shot with everything from HDR mixed with Lucis or super high sharpening mixed with tons of Gaussian blur. Take those two shots and composite into one hot mess. Now, I'm not saying that there is not a time and place for work like that but it usually is not good practice to take every single photograph on your hard drive and turn them into a hippy's nightmare. Trust me, nobody wants a photograph of their grandmother looking like she should be the poster girl for a rock concert. My point is that over the last few years, I feel I have gained more Photoshop wisdom than ever. Less is more. Bottom line. Taking a bad photograph and trying to throw every editing trick in your bag at it, will ultimately make a bad photograph, worse.

Take these photos for example. I wanted them to be as clean and natural as possible. How did I go about doing so? Well, first of all, I make my exposure corrections in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). After ACR adjustments, I open the file in Adobe Photoshop. I'm Currently using Adobe's CS5 Master's Collection.

In Photoshop, I always keep to a similar workflow. First, I like to remove color casting. I do so by opening the Curves dialogue. In the Curves dialogue, I use the droppers to find true whites, blacks and midtone grays. Once I've found those, I tweak the histogram, ever so slightly, to create an S-shaped curve.

Next, I like to do my basic sharpening. I do so by duplicating the main layer. Once that is done, I desaturate the whole image. This will avoid any color problems due to the sharpening. The edges are the only things you want to mess around with. With the black and white layer, I open the High Pass Filter dialogue. Drag that baby up high, in the 70-s or 80's, depending on your camera's resolution. Once that is created, I change the layer style to Vivid Light and drag the opacity way down to about 10%. This amount will give you just the pop you need for a nice sharp image. I've long since used the Unsharp Mask filter as my means of sharpening. Learn to use the High Pass Filter and you will never sharpen any other way, I promise.

Now that I'm looking at a pretty nice photograph/headshot, I look to correct any flaws on the actor's face. I noticed a few pimples trying to make their way to the surface of the skin. I had to destroy those bad boys immediately. I use two methods to correct skin issues. First is the Band-Aid tool. 60% of the time, it works every time. With those numbers, I use that only when I'm sure it won't fail. The other times, I stick to the old and trusty Clone Stamp. This Clone Stamp will work as well as you can tell it to. If you know how to use it, the possibilities are endless. If you haven't practiced enough with this tool, be careful not do mess with the wrong pixels.

I cleaned up the face and some stray hairs. Now, on to some color replacement. It was hardly noticable but the background was a little dirty. It had a yellowish tint to it. To remedy the situation, I duplicated the layer and took the saturation way down. I added a layer mask and took a black brush to paint away the parts that I did not want effected. That spot being the head and body. Once I had a non-yellow background, I flattened the layers and reviewed everything before saving.

It was good to go, except for one thing. I would eventually save this photo twice. One as is and one cropped. If you take notice of these particular images, the rule of thirds are slightly broken. A technically correct photograph would have his head framed a bit differently. The eyes should be closer to the upper third of the frame. I purposely left some room around the subject since it would have to be cropped later. Headshots are typically formatted 8x10 inches. I knew I was going to crop after the shoot, so I made sure that I would not have to crop any of his head off. Generally, cutting some head off is ok, in photography that is. For headshot photography, it is best to avoid omitting any of the subject's features. Some agents or talent specialists may think that the actor is trying to hide something, like a full head of hair. It is best to get most of their head in the frame.

Crop, save, send and wish them luck on their endeavors.


Done




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