March 25, 2012

How to shoot beautiful headshots

This week I did some more headshot work I'm really proud of, some with Erin Nekervis and some with Nellie Huggins.

First, Erin's. Erin is a longtime talented photographer of the Chicago comedy scene, and of Chicago in general. She's done a lot of good work for comedy folks, usually without profit. You can see her stuff on comedy album covers, magazines, and probably a million flyers and posters. She was gracious enough to come to my house one afternoon to be my guinea pig as I experimented more with shooting outdoors, but of course it rained, and we ended up doing most of the shooting on my porch. At any rate, we had fun, and she gave me a few pointers about my camera (which is still pretty new to me, and still slowly revealing its secrets to me).

Erin Nekervis headshots

Erin Nekervis headshots

And here are Nellie's. Nellie and I go back several years (and were actually roommates at one point). She's currently tearing things up as a Gapers Block blogger and podcaster, and a producer (she's producing the Atomic Comics series at the Mayne Stage), and she'll probably be ruling the entire world before too long.

Nellie and I were also hoping to shoot outside, but the day she came over it was raining buckets, so we changed plans and devoted ourselves to an indoor shoot, which turned out great. You'll notice there are more photos of Nellie, because she arrived with a bagful of tops and accessories and props, with the aim of getting 4-5 specific looks.

This is as serious as Nellie gets.
Nellie Huggins headshots

This one is cute but I wish I hadn't asked her to pull her curls up over her headphones, because they're almost invisible, which makes it look like she's randomly chewing on a wire, like a bored housecat.
Nellie Huggins headshots

Portrait of a comedy nerd! Tribute to Tina Fey.
Nellie Huggins headshots

And finally, her inner child stamps her foot, in photographic form.
Nellie Huggins headshots

Anyway, back to the title (and purpose) of this post. As some of you may know, I'm a relative newbie to the headshot game. True, I've been taking photos at comedy (and other) shows in Chicago for 4-5 years, and I've been doing some casual headshots for friends for about that long, but it wasn't until I made the jump from a nice little Canon point and shoot to a Canon Rebel DSLR at the beginning of this year that I really started getting serious. It was then that I really dove into photography, devoting hours to educating myself about my camera, lighting, technique, working with subjects who weren't performing in a show in front of me and therefore needed some direction, and more. For a nerd, the great thing about photography is that there are always new things to learn, and new ways to improve the quality of your work. (Also, since I do video work as well - with the same camera - I feel like my time spent developing myself as a photographer also benefits my work as a videographer/filmmaker.)

So, what are the key practices that help me continue to get good results with headshots?

1. Good lighting. I invested in an inexpensive kit of three softboxes ($140 on Amazon, if you're really curious). I pored over online tutorials about three-point lighting (key, fill, and backlight), which allows you to control the shading and shadows, and I spent a lot of time experimenting (usually with my Agent Dana Scully X-Files Barbie, because no human has the patience to sit still as long as I'd like to run around making minute adjustments).

Good lighting is essential to good photography, and it makes the difference between a nice snapshot and a real portrait photo. (I also use a big white piece of muslin as a backdrop most of the time, but, aside from my camera itself, that's pretty much the only "equipment" I have.)

2. Getting the best out of your camera. There are still a million things I need to learn about my camera, but I've finally gotten comfortable shooting in manual mode and adjusting the big three elements: ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop. (Don't quiz me on the definitions of each of these things yet, because I probably wouldn't be able to tell you.) At this point, I set the f-stop as low as it will go (for that nice fuzzy background effect), and first adjust the ISO, then shutter speed, as I do test shots, seeing which exact setting gives me the nice, smooth result I want, using the light to the best effect. Another thing I've learned is to use my longer lens (55-250mm), which necessitates me being a few feet away from my subject. (Apparently, using a shorter lens can sort of "squish" people's heads a little bit, and a longer lens makes for a more flattering photo.)

3. Making your subject comfortable and confident. You need to let your subject know (ahead of time and the day of the shoot), via your words, manner, and actions, that everything is in place for your shoot to go well, that you're going to do most of the hard work, and that they're going to end up with some great photos of themselves they're going to love. Have them bring several clothing options, including favorite t-shirts and other things that make them feel comfortable. Create an atmosphere that helps you both relax and enjoy the process, whether that means playing their favorite music in the background, having old Saturday Night Live episodes streaming on your Macbook you can both chuckle at, making cocoa, or having your subject bring a friend along to join in the fun.

4. Directing your subject and shooting from the best angle. This is the last part of the puzzle that fell into place for me, and it's every bit as important as the other elements. My best tricks: have your subject sit up straight and "stick their face out," (I learned that trick and others from this New York Times article, "Six Tips for Better Portraits"), and shoot from a nice high angle. The physical strain of holding their bodies and heads in this way is usually the only tough part for the subject, but final result is worth it. Because I'm not a tall person, for me getting the best angle usually means standing on a bench about a foot high, and shooting downward at the subject, often holding the camera up as high as I can once I have my settings and focus just right. (This sometimes means tiring out my arms, but again, the payoff it worth it.)

So, thus far, that's it! While there's still more to learn and new techniques to try out, those are the basics I've nailed down that are helping me get consistently good results. I feel like I've established some good habits and practices and I'm falling into a nice groove with each shoot. Now I know it takes me about 15-20 minutes to get the lights set up right, during which the subject can sit on my couch and relax, text, email, whatever. Before someone comes over to shoot I get all excited, running around and preparing all my equipment: charging up my batteries, clearing my memory chips, setting up the backdrop and furniture.

And I love what I'm doing. Without fail, as soon as we're done shooting, I begin downloading the images onto my computer, and immediately go through and begin editing the set. Generally I pick out my favorite few images and get them online before the subject even gets home. Also, with social media, there's the immediate feedback from the subject's friends, who usually start "liking" and commenting on their favorites right away. This is not only gratifying, but also sometimes helpful, as the comments and reactions from friends help me understand what people respond to best. (More than once I've posted photos on Facebook, and, based on comments from people's friends, gone back and cropped or otherwise adjusted certain photos to make them even better.)

I love all the techie aspects of doing headshots, I love the artiness of photography, and I absolutely love delivering the final product and giving someone really good pictures of themselves, that showcase the very best of who they are. The experts say the goal for a really excellent headshot should be giving someone a photo that shows them as confident yet approachable, that looks like themselves, but sort of a "best version" of themselves. I hope I deliver.

And finally, I can't write a post like this without thinking of all the lovely people who have helped me with a million camera-related questions in the last few months, whose support and advice and encouragement has been invaluable to my development. Thanks to John Maloof (yes, the guy who discovered Vivian Maier), Elizabeth Gilmore, Erin Nekervis, Monte LaMonte, Eliaz Rodriguez, Jim Rojahn, Ashlee Wells, Jeremy Jackson, Louis Wong, and others I am probably forgetting. Because as nice as it is, in the information age, to be able to self-educate, it's also nice to connect with actual human beings. And these particular human beings are some of the nicest.