Searching for the Perfect Headshot: Adapting Your Shoot On Location
Location photography work always presents unique challenges, and for us, it creates many opportunities to practice the principle of adaptation. Last Sunday, we shot some location headshots and a video interview. Bryan, the client, is an artist with a show currently running at the Fed Galleries at the Kendall College of Art and design. When we first discussed doing headshots, he mentioned he wanted some done in the environment of the show. While we often rely on studio photography setups for headshots, we relish the opportunity to get out on location and embrace the challenges of unpredictability.
The Original Plan: Traditional & Cinematic Headshots
Our initial impulse was to do a couple of cinematic headshots outside along with a more traditional three-light setup in the gallery (thinking that the room would have classic top-down gallery lighting with spots on the individual pieces). However, being as we live in Michigan, outside doesn't always cooperate. We got about 9" of snow that weekend; while this can create some wonderful lifestyle looks, it seems a bit too thematic for a general-use headshot, so we went inside looking for another shooting spot.
What to do when searching for the perfect headshot?
Scout the Shooting Environment
Upon scouting the show gallery, we realized that we wouldn't have enough room or ambient light for the style of cinematic headshot we had hoped to achieve. While the room was ideally set up for our video interview, we needed a little more room for what we wanted to accomplish with the headshot. A few doors away we found a lovely hallway that had the kind of room needed to get the desired background separation, but there wasn't nearly enough ambient light for the technique. We always bring HSS-capable strobes for location headshots, as we often need the faster exposures in brighter environments, but in this case, we needed to push ambient and didn't need to switch to HSS mode.
The New Plan: Adapt to the Environment and the Client
Always be ready to adapt to your environment and client when on location for a photo-shoot
After a few test images, we felt like we had the separation we wanted in terms of depth of field, but the background was still a bit too dark for our taste. We looked around to see if we could turn the principle lights on, but this wasn't an option - the building wasn't technically open that day, and utilizes an automatic energy saving system. Simply needing some ambient help, we grabbed a large LED panel and placed it out of range of the subject but close enough to provide some even ambient fill to the background. We had enough time to accomplish the scout and pre-light just in time for the client to arrive (always give yourself time). We often make suggestions as to what to wear for headshots, but with some clients (artists, musicians, executives) we like to let them present themselves as they wish. While the cinematic look we had set up really shines with brighter colored clothing, Bryan was wearing a sophisticated dark blazer. We knew we would get some images that we would like, but we knew we needed to find something bright to balance the seriousness for the second look.
Finding the Headshot Adaptation in Plain Sight
We passed this wonderfully bright yellow wall while looking for our first spot, and thought we could adapt our setup for something that would really activate the shot. We went with more of a clamshell-type setup for the key/fill on this, and placed a softbox on the ground behind the client to create a slight gradation to the yellow background (and hopefully provide some visual interest to the scene). Next to the yellow wall was a lovely green room that made the perfect setup for our third look. We used a similar key/fill as the yellow look, but angled our softbox (as we did with the cinematic look) to activate a corner and provide some interest.
The Results? The Perfect Headshot
What determines a successful headshot? Part of it is the experience, technique, and posing suggestions that we offer, but the ultimate determining factor is the client's willingness to be open to the process, and their collaboration in the crafting of the image. While we won't overwhelm a subject by showing them each shot as we take it, we will occasionally pause to show them some highlights, and to see their responses and adapt. What may be 'the shot' to us, might not tell the story the subject wishes to communicate. Being able to discuss expression, mood, and intent is an essential part of being a headshot photographer or portraitist.