anatomy of a headshot :: with ellis walding

On more than one occasion, I've posted about how to nail that money maker. The headshot that would make Peter Hurley take a double squinch.
Today, rather than simply show you the final shot, I'd like to take you on the journey of how a perfect headshot is achieved.

Today's Subject :: Ellis Walding

Before I begin today's discussion, let me first introduce to you my brother from another mother, Ellis Walding. Shit, Ellis and I go back at least 12 years. In that time we've been trough just about everything; good times, bad and all times in between. Times that, had lady luck not been on our side, probably would have me writing from an 8x8 concrete dwelling rather than from here in the new Fishtown studio/office space. I digress.

Professionally, you may have had the opportunity to see Ellis in recent films such as Backwards and Future Weather and you will soon be able to see him in the upcoming film produced by, whom you may recall reading about [here] a couple posts prior, Brian Gallagher :: Zombie Killers : Elephant's Graveyard, starring Billy Zane.

Ellis has certainly been earning his keep in the world of cinema.

Around here, on MICHAEL ANTHONY MURPHY :: BLOG, Ellis has made more than a few appearances, the most popular being [headshots 101] and [headshots 102 :: run and gun with Ellis Walding :: All Hallow's Eve].

Again, in those posts you get to see the final images. Today, I take you from the starting to the finish lines.

As I know all of my fellow photographers will greatly appreciate this uncensored approach, I'm thinking that Ellis will feel a bit differently. In fact, I'm guessing that he will be wanting to beat me with Betsy for being so candid here today.

Hey, what are friends for right?

The Starting Line


Not unlike any other shoot, be it for a headshot, environmental portrait or whatever the case may be, the lighting and exposure need to be dialed in. You'd think that after shooting for some years now, that there would be hard copied notes on which exposures settings would be needed for a shoot as textbook technically drilled down as a headshot shoot on white seamless. . .

. . . You would think.

Actually, I prefer not to work in such a cookie cutter style. For that type of shit, you need to drag your ass to your nearest Kmart. Why? Because Kmart sucks. Or Sears. Or, well, you get the point. walk into a place like that and the cookie cutter, boring, elementary school portrait, just plain old BAD lighting, all preset, along with the exposure with a acne faced teen, with zero understanding of what an f-stop is, being paid minimum wage to tell you to stare at the camera and say cheese. UHGH. Horrific. That's totally what gives photographers a bad rap.

It's actually been my motto lately. If you want Kmart photos at Kmart prices then go to Kmart, don't call me. On the other hand, if you want different, bad ass and pimped, you need to contact me immediately :: info@michaelanthonymurphy.com.

Where was I?

Oh yes, not working from a predetermined exposure.

Look, all of my subjects/models are different. Different skin tones, hair color, eye color or whatever the case may be, I work the lighting and exposure based on how I'm feeling that particular client looks best. Do I want to blow out the white seamless and the subject with big nuclear light or do I want to move in super tight with the Westcott Apollo and work that Inverse Square Law to get that background a nice rich gray color?

Is there any science based on my photographic decisions for that particular person on that particular shoot? NOPE.

Granted that I have total creative control, the choices, although they may involve their physical attributes and/or variables, are based upon artistic drive.

On the other hand, if the client has specific demands, which is totally cool, I am sure to give them what they want, with my personal touch. Why? My friends, if you are called for a shoot, it's because the client likes what YOU do. So do it as YOU would.

Wow, I sure am a rambler today.

Let's focus on the task at hand, making Ellis look awesome.

To my surprise, Ellis showed up fully bearded that day (we shot both bearded and shaven). I suppose beards are strong in today's fashion world. I mean, I would totally love to grow a beard with my hipster style but I grow facial hair to the equivalent of a 16 year old girl. Just sayin'.

Along with the beard, he came dressed in a V-neck T-shirt. Totally cool. For corporate headshots, sure, the suit and tie works but IMHO, for a theatrical headshot, I think the more casual dress holds more water than one may think. I approve his attire.

Before getting to work, I like to chill out a bit before shooting. The subject may have just come from a long, traffic ridden car ride, developing stress along the way. Or, maybe they just got into an argument on the phone with their significant other. Who knows. What I do know that a stressful face will be evident on camera. I never pry but when a client shows up, I always like to chill out, have a beverage, appetizer and some conversation before getting to work.

Example? Ok, one recent client enjoyed a nice glass of Patron anejo while on another day, I chatted with another over coffee and scones.

[Note :: Prior to shoot day, I always ask what their culinary preferences would be.]

After we are all chilled out and feeling Zen, it was time to get to work.

With Ellis now standing in front of the white seamless, it was time to dial the day's awesome exposure.

I first popped a shot with the strobes and camera as they left the shoot before. I don't even look. Power up the strobes, turn on Betsy and the accompanying Pocketwizards and fire a few frames. At this point, in the photo above, the exposure was looking like this ::

Aperuture :: f/8.0

Shutter :: 1/250

ISO :: 100

Boomed Westcott 28 inch Apollo overhead as key and a 45 inch shoot through Calumet (R.I.P. Calumet) from below as a fill. Clamshell lighting.

Not flattering by any means. But in fact, this was just to get a baseline and with that baseline I could make some calculations of where I needed to be to get the look I wanted.

Getting Closer

At this point, some settings tweaked and we are starting to get into awesomeness territory.

Aperture :: f/8.0

Shutter :: 1/250

ISO :: 400

What changed? I cranked the ISO to two stops higher sensitivity. At this point, I didn't want to open up the iris too much as I was aiming for a pretty deep DOF. With Betsy, I have PLENTY of ISO ground to cover without the fear of unacceptable noise introduction into the files.

So at this point, we are pretty damn close. The background still needs some more light and Ellis' face? about 1 stop below where I really wanted him.

[Note :: The "ugly" shots have not been edited in any way, straight out of camera.]

I decided to open the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G from 8.0 to 7.1, not much but this would allow the strobes work more efficiently.

The Finish Line :: Almost


This is the final unedited RAW file, straight out of camera.

Aperture :: f/7.1

Shutter :: 1/250

ISO :: 400

After closer review, I had decided to work the file ever so slightly. Ellis' face was spot on but I needed to push the seamless. Along with the paper push, I thought he and his shirt were in the need of some contrast and pop.

After the upload, I opened the RAW file in the Adobe Camera RAW or better known as ACR editor. This is my post production workhorse. I know. I know. I'm not on the Lightroom bandwagon. Hey. they are both Adobe products so you cannot hate. Fact of the matter is that the ACR GUI and file handling are very similar to the Lr interface and handling systems. I just have grown accustomed to opening ACR and have a firm grasp on my post production workflow in that application. The bottom line? To each his own. Look, I don't edit a whole hell of a lot these days, I can use just about anything, as should you, to get the look I need.

Here's the bulk of the editing I did to get Ellis and the background popping ::


I know, that histogram ain't the prettiest thing in the world but it never is. I totally use the histogram, especially in camera, to identify my clippings but for the final product, I use my two built in tools, my eyeballs.

If I have corrupted your mind's eye with the poorly lit BTS shots of our friend, lemme refresh you here ::

A big difference, yes? Oh, almost forgot, I cropped to a 3:4 aspect ratio so that Ellis would not have any confusion when trying to print the industry standard headshot size of 8x10.

The Finish Line 

I'm totally looking forward to seeing Ellis along side of Billy Zane in Zombie Killers. The footage I've seen thus far is totally bad ass.

As for the headshot. Fellow photographers, actors, businesspersons or whomever is in the headshot process, be it in front of or behind the lens, let me leave you with this nugget of info.

Just as important as your technical decisions are, so is direction. I mean come on. Look at Ellis' expressions leading up to the winning shot. I've seen mugshots with more enthusiasm.

Trust me, direction your subjects is key to a great portrait, of any genre.

I was nailing my exposure and light long before I was comfortable directing subjects in front of my camera. And you know what? The poor results were obvious.

Poorly posed people with trump technical talent any day.

Now, I'd like to bid you farewell for the day and for one final final note, if I go missing, you know who the prime suspect will, be, yup, our featured actor today. Could you blame him? Shit. I'd kick my own ass for putting up outtakes of myself like I did to my good friend today!

Looking for headshots that don't suck? Give me a shout...

My Contact Info is [HERE]

Until next time...

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