Making Good Head Shots

by William Lulow

The portrait is as much about the photographer as it is about the subject. Many of the world’s greatest photographers from Karsh to Avedon to Halsman to David Bailey all photographed the same celebrities. Yet each of their portraits was different because of their individual style.

Head shots, on the other hand, serve a commercial purpose. They need to show casting directors what the actor or actress looks like. The trick is to make the actor’s personality somehow stand out from the thousands of other head shots they receive every day.

One of the tricks I have used for years is to set up a very informational lighting, usually with a main light and a fill-in and one or two accent lights and try to let the person “perform” within that environment. (You can see some of the previous blog articles for actual setup instructions).  Actors, singers, personalities are all performers. The thing that will make them stand out is not necessarily the lighting, but the photographer’s ability to capture something of their performance. You have to take into account the person, what the person is like, what kind of performances he or she gives and arrange your set up accordingly. This does not mean that if you photograph a singer she has to sing. Or if you photograph a speaker he has to speak. It just means that whatever “set” you use, has to be able to showcase the person at his or her best.  Your aim should be to let the personality shine through the pictures. That’s what will catch the casting director’s attention.

As with a portrait, the photographer must be at one with his or her equipment. Everything should be set up in advance and be flexible enough to change when the photographer sees an expression, a nuance of angle or any other small detail which will allow the person to “perform.”

Another trick I always use is to talk to the subject a lot.  But, the trick is to listen at the same time (not always easy for people to do). But, if you hear  something that your subject  is saying, you need to be ready to catch the expression or pose that happens with it. I make suggestions as to poses when I see something interesting. I don’t always look in the viewfinder, but my face is always close to the lens so that the person appears to be looking into the camera. I sometimes find that if the photographer is always behind the camera and looking into the viewfinder, some connection with the subject is lost. It’s as if the camera is almost in the way.  This can unconsciously make the subject feel uninvolved.  If it is an actor I’m photographing, I begin the conversation with what kinds of training she has had – where she went to school and what kinds of roles she likes. I’m also curious about what the actor has done in the past – where they’ve performed and what kinds of roles they are in currently.  All of these topics serve to engage the subject and bring them out a bit. It also serves to relax them during the shoot itself. It is very important.

For me, the idea of a head shot is to get a real natural-looking shot within the confines of the studio space. I don’t like doing this outdoors. I find that various backgrounds are just confusing. Casting directors are simply looking for shots of what the actor looks like at any given point in time. But the shots have to be something special to command attention. That means, something in the expression or attitude of the actor has to say something about them.