How I Produce Good, Commercial Head Shots!

by William Lulow

It seems that many people would love to shoot “head shots” these days. But what’s the difference between a head shot and a portrait? Aren’t they pretty much the same thing? You are just shooting the person’s head-and-shoulders, right?

Well, not exactly! As I have explained before, head shots have a certain purpose! They should show the person off in the best possible light! (Pun intended). Head shots should be designed to “sell” the person to whatever audience he or she wants. Therefore, they need to show the person’s face. The lighting has to provide full light to the face.  If it’s for an actor, the head shot also needs to look like the person actually looks! Otherwise, the casting director will not waste her time. So, this type of head shot needs to be updated regularly. But, an actor’s head shot should also attempt to say something about her in addition to showing off her photogenic qualities. The right expression or attitude is important here. But the lighting should be generally “high key” (informational and bright – not moody or dark). It should also include some hair and makeup treatment!

If the head shot is for a publication or even social media, it should be more like a portrait in that it should attempt to elicit a response from the viewer such as: “I’d like to find out more about this person,” or “I’d like to read his book!” This head shot can have much more “mood” to it. Here’s my portrait of Ira Levin, the author of “Rosemary’s Baby:”

This portrait is in keeping with the overall, macabre, tones of Mr. Levin’s work in general and it was very successful! It is not necessarily a good “head shot” because it doesn’t really show the person’s full face. And, there is probably too much shadow to give a good representation of the face. But it conveys a certain sense of who Mr. Levin was.

Here’s more of a lighter, but serious, head shot for the social media and/or press releases. It shows the individual as an interesting/interested person and highlights some of his photogenic features:

There are some shadows, but the picture is still informational in nature.

When I do a head shot, I first try to get a sense of the person’s facial features and how they show up with my lighting. I begin with a standard setup of mainlight, fill-in and one or two accent lights. Then, once the person begins the sitting, I look for various effects based on the person’s “look.” I am particularly concerned with how the light shows the person’s face. Once I find what I consider a good “lighting,” I then try to concentrate on making the whole image consistent with the look that the subject and I have created. In both portraits and head shots, I always try to involve the person as much as possible. If it’s a head shot, the subject needs to be happy with the results. If it’s a portrait, the ultimate judge of the success of the image may not always be the subject. In the case of a publishing company, the art director or editor is usually the final judge of the picture, so she is the one who needs to be happy with the image.

This is my normal beginning arrangement:

I finally decided to delete the low fill-in light and to move my main umbrella more to the middle. It produced this final shot:

This is a head shot with some interesting elements to it. First, the face is totally lit, but it also has two accent lights which add a bit of “pop” to it. Kodak used to say, in its portrait manuals, that hands really shouldn’t be in the picture, but I have found it useful to include them at times. It kind of serves as a prop in this picture. Second, the expression is serious, but has a certain “something” in the eyes that conveys confidence and stability.