I've been asked to do a lot of headshots lately, including some environmental portraits (which I loved doing), to corporate headshots for a company wall, to studio work (if by "studio" you count my living room...). Right now, if I had to choose, I think simple shots like these are my current favorite style. This approach is strongly influenced by Peter Hurley, a New York-based actors' headshot specialist who has his style and method of interacting with clients down pat. Hurley's lighting approach is bright, broad, and flexible, giving his clients room to move and interact with him to get the kinds of expressions that get his clients booked. Lighting-wise, Hurley uses four banks of KinoFlo fluorescents with accents as needed; he shoots with a Hasselblad. So there's about $40 G's right there. For me, it's my trusty Qflash mounted in a socked Kacey beauty dish, with different kinds of reflectors underneath, and two 580EXII speedlites providing blow-out white on the backdrop. The camera is my old-school Canon 5D, with a 24-105mm f/4 or the 135mm f/2.
We started out with the white backdrop and a white fill board underneath, to open up the shadows under the subject's chin in a classic butterfly lighting pattern. In this case, the subject is Alyssa, a talented and powerful dancer who's looking forward to a professional dance career. She needed a headshot for an agent. So we started with this basic setup, and got this:
Okay, a nice, serviceable frame. An engaging, forward-looking expression that says, "I'm here and ready to show you what I can do." It's probably not the headshot you want to submit to the agent, but it's a good place to start. So we move things around, get some different expressions, including the one at the top of this post. We back up a bit, and get a vertical with more of Alyssa. This one has her posing on a piece of white foam core. What you don't see is my long-suffering wife Karen, who's sitting on the floor, holding up the foam core for Alyssa to rest her arms on.
It's always fun to take a break from focusing on facial expressions, to loosen up a bit and do some hair flips. The flash duration on the Qflash isn't exactly bullet-stopping, but it's short enough to do these. You're always at the mercy of the moment, but if your timing is quick and the hair cooperates, you can get some fun images like this one:
From here, we decided to change things up. Off go the two speedlites, and the white backdrop goes gray. Why? It's the inverse square law; look it up. So we also need a change of wardrobe; the blue tank contrasts nicely with the gray back. Placing Alyssa off to the side gives her "room to breathe". It also provides an opportunity to overlay some text in the negative space on the right if you want to do that in your headshot.
The thing about this image is THOSE EYES. Alyssa can give you any number of looks, but the best ones are those where her gaze fixes right down the center of the lens. She could have three arms, and your focus would still go straight to the eyes. As Hurley would say when he gets one of these: "SHABANG!" This was probably my favorite of the shoot. Alyssa chose this next one, but cropped to vertical as requested by the agent (I still prefer the horizontal orientation shown below).
As mentioned above, the off-center orientation of the subject is usually best from a photographic perspective for a number of reasons, but sometimes a face screams to be centered. It's rare that a person has a perfectly symmetrical face; that's why people have a "good side" and a "bad side" for photographs. If you were to take a picture of yourself, cut it down the middle, reproduce one side and flip it over onto the other side, you'd be amazed at how different it is from reality. But Alyssa's face is quite symmetrical, and she can easily stand up to a centered frame. Plus, when you have THOSE EYES, you want to maximize their impact on the viewer. So this next image owes a lot to Scott Kelby, who teaches this version of clamshell lighting, replacing the white fill board with a silver reflector to open up the shadows even more, and to put some additional pop into the eyes. This kind of photograph is very commercial and "graphic" in style; you want clean lines, minimal wardrobe distraction, and pulled back hair to really focus on the face.
We were at it for only about an hour and a half, but it was time to pack it in for the evening. We decided to end with a few more hair flips, to see if we could get some lucky combinations of hair, eyes, and expression. I liked this one best. It shows the Alyssa I know, fun-loving, quirky, and great to be around.