Happy Halloween Everyone! And you know what happens when a photographer and his Hair and Make-up Artist wife celebrate Halloween?
One of the most gratifying feelings for a headshot photographer is seeing evidence that your work, well…works. What I’m referring to is the feeling I got when I recently saw the movie “Joy” starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper and was happily surprised to see 7 of my clients, 2 of whom were cast in strong supporting roles! That in itself is an exciting feeling, as anyone knows who spots a friend or family member in a film, show, or commercial. But the icing on the cake was seeing that the qualities that I had zeroed in on in our session and worked to evoke in the photos were the very qualities that got them in the door for their parts. That validation of our vision keeps me fired up and working to constantly “up my game”. And “Joy” is a beautiful, emotional, inspiring film, one that any actor would love to be associated with.
Here is Ken Cheeseman. Ken is an amazing character actor based in Boston. He teaches acting at Emerson College and is known for his work in Next Stop Wonderland, Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Joy where he plays the crooked weasel, Gerhardt. He needed something raw, lanky and intense with drama.
And here is Bill Thorpe, seen in In Your Eyes, Edge of Darkness, Mystic River and as the mysterious, crooked bully “Dallas Man” in Joy. Strong, threatening, confrontational.
If you’ve seen Joy, then you know how great they both were! If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor, Joy rocks!
As a professional photographer, I hear more and more clients say that they can retouch their photos themselves. And they are dismayed to find out that my policy is to require that any retouching be done in house. “But why?” they protest, “I can easily do my own retouching!” As a matter of fact, it’s rare to find someone these days who doesn’t know how to wrangle a healing or cloning tool, or at the very least run their photos through an app or plug-in that blurs skin like it’s been being viewed through an early morning fog. For a short time, when viewing photos on Facebook, I thought I was developing cataracts because so many people looked impossibly smooth, soft…almost featureless. Not a good look for earth dwellers.
Retouching is one of the least understood and most misused aspects of the headshot process. And because I take pride in my work and because my work represents my aesthetic, I want to retain the right to decide how the photograph will appear in it’s final presentation state. It’s true I can’t stop someone from monkeying with my shots once they have left the studio, but once my clients see the final result of my work, they usually don’t have the desire to change it and respect my wishes.
Here is an attempt to clarify what retouching is and how to best use it to improve your photos:
There are two distinct ways to look at the purpose of retouching. The first is that retouching is an opportunity to remove minor temporary distractions that draw the viewer’s attention away from the main impact of the photo. When a sitter is frozen in space and time, there are details that draw the eye because they are out of place, and no matter how carefully someone shoots, there are always little distracting, nagging details that pull the viewer’s attention like a magnet. Stray hairs, temporary blemishes, wrinkles in clothing are all examples of minor distractions which go mostly unnoticed in real life because we are animated and interacting; moving targets to a viewer’s eye. Laugh lines or wrinkles can seem to be more noticeable because they are suspended in time and not part of a fleeting expression that we witness in real life. Those can definitely be downplayed to bring them back to how they feel in reality. Only the staunchest purists of portraiture would argue with that approach. So, in that case, the purpose of retouching is to balance out the effects of being frozen in time, and to make the representation of the person match their presence in real, animated life. In general, I think that is a useful option and results in a more realistic, less distracting impression.
The other way to approach retouching I call the “because it can be done, it should be done” school of retouching. In this approach, retouching is used to alter the look of the subject to represent more what the sitter wants to look like, as opposed to what he/she really does look like. While a minor degree of this approach might be useful to counteract the effect of an imperfect pose, or a lapse in posture, retouching the photo to drastically alter the weight or age of a sitter becomes more a representation of the subject’s ideal image than a true representation. Yes, we all want to be younger and thinner, but there is a thin line between presenting an ideal and revealing an embarrassing disconnect from reality. Don’t be the guy in the toupee who is the last to realize that nobody’s being fooled (sorry to the guy in the toupee, but someone had to tell you).
The goal of a finished, retouched photo should never be to broadcast that the photo has been retouched. If retouching is obvious in a photo, the photograph becomes more of a rendering than a capturing, and is counter-productive, especially to the purpose of a performer’s headshot, which is to serve as a preview to the presence of the real-life actor. When that disconnect with reality becomes too much, you are setting your real life self up for being a disappointment to the viewer of the photograph. To thine ownself be true, and to thine casting director, be even truer.
Kerry-Lou is my wife and chief Hair and Make-up Artist. We’ve been working together for over 16 years and have done thousands of shoots. Those of you who are lucky enough to have worked with Kerry-Lou know the skill and care that she brings to every shoot. Today, we are proud to announce the launch of her signature custom make-up brush line! A year in research, planning and production, Kerry-Lou’s Make-Up Brushes are the finest quality, designed based on years of experience and made for professionals and personal users alike. Please take a moment and check out her website, Pro-Style-Crew, and her instructional videos on youtube. They are available for purchase today, either as a full set or single brushes! And thank you to all of our clients and friends for your support! All photography by Joe Henson.
Shooting comics is a blast! We’ve done sessions with Rita Rudner, Lisa Lampanelli, John Henson (of course), Soupy Sales, and we recently had a super fun shoot with world class comic, Brian Regan! Brian is coming off of the first live stand-up comedy TV special in Comedy Central history, “Brian Regan – Live from Radio City Music Hall“! We love Brian’s humor, it’s innocent, humble and above all, so funny you risk cardiac arrest watching him work. Best to watch wearing a bib and a diaper! Shooting Brian was a photographer’s dream…turn camera on, point it, click repeatedly. It’s hard to keep someone in focus when you’re laughing! The photos will be used for his webpage, posters, and billboards. Watch for them and send us a photo or screenshot. Here are some of the shots that came out of the session and some behind the scenes stuff. Brian even took over the camera for a while :). Check out Brian on his website and YouTube, and if he comes to play near your home, by all means get there!
The most mysterious and fascinating aspect of portraiture and headshot photography is “Camera Presence”. “Camera Presence” refers to the ability of the subject to make direct contact with the viewer of the photograph. You, as the viewer feel the impact and immediacy of their gaze, a connection is established. The sitter becomes an active communicator, making their attention felt, instead of being the “victim” of the photograph. 🙂 “Camera Presence” is a very good thing to have!
But, what is it? And how do you get it in your headshot? Is it about charisma? Is it about beauty? Does it come from intelligence, from confidence? Can it be learned or is it somehow ingrained?
I’ve spent my entire career learning how to encourage the intimacy and power that comes from my clients’ eye contact. And I hear over and over again from new clients that they chose to shoot with me because “there was something special in the eyes” of the people on my website.
It is certainly an aspect of my photography that I spend a great deal of effort on. And it’s not just the result of a trick; eye contact or “Camera Presence” is attained through a combination of techniques, emanating equally from the photographer and the subject.
My role starts with setting the atmosphere for the shoot. I want my clients to feel totally at ease, loose, and safe to be playful without fear of judgement, so I make it clear both through my actions and attitude that although we are going to work with intention, we are going to have a lot of fun doing it. And I remind them that we always have the delete button, should we choose to banish a particular photo to the void. Our studio is a relaxed and upbeat place. Yes, serious work will take place, but we will be your partner and your support team. People let go of their concern when they see that we know what we’re doing. I love shooting headshots because it combines the excitement of meeting people and getting to know them, with the magic of photography, my chosen profession. And I enjoy learning something new everyday to extend my ability to take beautiful photos. But that is just the beginning of the process. I see myself as a translator, taking our ideas about what the photo should convey and breaking that down into a mix of photographic elements; lighting, setting and background, body language, and camera angle. Then we add the final ingredient, which is to help each subject present themselves to the camera in an instant of time that feels fresh, immediate and makes their attention palpable and evocative. I can certainly motivate with the direction I give, but the subject can also have a strong role in the creation of “Camera Presence”.
Recently I shot a headshot session with Tamara Johnson.
Tamara is a repeat client who I have photographed every few years since 1988. Tamara is a super talented actress who has worked consistently on Stage and in Film & TV for her entire career. Writing a piece on “Camera Presence” was on my mind and I was acutely aware of the way Tamara addressed the camera in our most recent session and how clearly she was able to make consistent contact through the lens. I wanted to understand her side of the process, so I asked her directly, “Tamara, do you know what you’re doing to achieve these moments of contact, specifically how you present yourself to the camera?” Her answer was a simple “Yeah”, so to that I said “Good, tell me, so I can tell others!”
Here, in her words, is her process : “People can easily be intimidated by that cold, black, unmerciful cyclops aka the camera lens. How do you make friends with that? I think some people expect the photographer to ‘pull something out of you’. My belief is that talent should come in with their own inner monologue ready to pitch, and hopefully you’ll have someone as skilled as Joe is to encourage it, craft the visual elements, and pitch it back to you.
What we’re ultimately going to be talking about is energy and how to direct your focus while he’s shooting. When I see the camera lens, I view it more as a tunnel that I have to go deeper into. I focus my eyes and energy to reach beyond the lens. When I look into the camera, I both use and lose Joe’s presence behind the camera intermittently. Joe’s job is that of capturing, framing, lighting – getting all the technical elements of my shoot to perfection. My job is to keep sending wonderful thoughts into the camera. This is the fun part, after all the work of wardrobe analysis, shopping, timing of haircut & coloring, plucking, bleaching, manicure and packing for multiple changes.
On my commute to the photo session, I make a conscious effort to raise my body’s vibration to its highest level. Being grateful for everything that’s going right in your life is an easy way to do that, just count your blessings for 5 minutes. I do this often as a habit especially while out walking. Some talent can become stressed working with a photographer they don’t know well or psyched out by the importance of this event. If I ever find myself in that realm I always go back to my mantra, “You’re in either one of two places, in fear or in love, so choose Love.” That puts things into perspective quickly and puts you back in a place of power. I tell myself, “You’ve never looked more beautiful than you do today.” Instant higher vibration! This is easy to do coming out of Kerry-Lou’s make-up chair.
During the photo shoot, I’m always actively thinking secret, sweet nothings like, “I know a secret, wanna know what it is?” I’m not saying this to Joe necessarily, but he becomes a conduit to those I want to communicate to. I’m thinking of my best friend, or the future Casting Directors who are seeing this photo for the first time and thinking, “What’s that sparkle in her eyes?” Joe is there to capture the essence of the thought, to time the shot to catch my energy at it’s zenith. He is also a coach in the session providing encouragement, head adjustments or just telling me to stretch out my face muscles, or to break contact and bring it back to keep things fresh.
Joe is about 5 feet from me while we’re shooting. With my vibrations raised and my thoughts jazzed, I take these thoughts and laser beam them further than just the lens of the camera in front of me. With intention and energy I pierce past the lens, through the tunnel of the camera itself, past Joe’s eye and into the center of his brain. It’s like making Star Wars cinematography with my thoughts. That’s the focal point where I want my sweet nothings delivered. It’s amazing to see how much difference that makes on the camera. Most people set their intention only as far as the front of the lens and sometimes even that falls short of reaching the target.
So, that’s my secret weapon to creating great camera presence. I think it’s this deeper projection of intention and thoughts that makes for a productive, fun, rewarding photo session. And let’s just keep this between ourselves, ok? 🙂 Best wishes on your next headshot session and to a thriving career. Shooting with Joe and Kerry-Lou make getting a great headshot easy and enjoyable. I love this team.”
So, there you have it, from the perspective of both the photographer and the subject. “Camera Presence”… it isn’t a mystery, it can be learned, employed, encouraged, and captured. And it can actually be fun! Come shoot with us and get “that something special in the eyes”!
I remember reading Andre Gregory’s description of an impromptu headshot session he had with Richard Avedon (who sits at the head of the table in my Pantheon of the Photographic Gods), wherein Avedon riffed through aspects of Gregory’s presence at warp speed – moving a light here, changing an angle there, tossing out direction like a possessed artist, serving up masterpiece after masterpiece capturing the diverse aspects of Gregory’s persona. It was a powerful performance showcasing a photographer’s ability to de-construct his sitter and use light, pose, and expression to crystallize elements of his subject on film. And it provided me with a lifelong goal of learning all of the elements of portraiture to better capture each client in a unique and personalized image.
I was thinking about Avedon’s session with Andre Gregory when my next client arrived, Steve Jones.
Steve came to New York City in 1991 to pursue an acting career. Having a knack for both zany comedic roles and serious dramatic ones, parts came his way ranging from Alexi the dog at The Living Theater and You Can’t Take It With You (Ed) to Julius Caesar (Brutus) and Dancing at Lughnasa (Michael) at regional theaters. Adept at impressions, he was also Nickelodeon’s “voice of Bill Clinton” for a few years.
After taking a 19-year detour to pursue other interests, Steve was no longer able to deny acting is his true passion. And, of course, getting new headshots had to be the first step in re-entering the business. Here are two photos that Steve sent me as a visual to work with in order to make suggestions for types and clothing.
Steve had a very malleable face and a wide range of interpretations came to mind when I was thinking about how to shoot him. We discussed actors who had similar qualities with names as diverse as Keifer Sutherland, John Lithgow, and Norman Fell. There was a wide range to encompass, so I decided to see how many different ways we could capture his presence in our scheduled 4 look session, but stay true to his persona.
Below are the images that came from our 4 hour session.
And then we decided to really open it up and play with more specific expressions and characters, just because we were having so much fun.
It was a super fun and productive exercise. And it solidified my belief that variety in headshots is the spice of life. No one single approach can capture the range and diversity of actors out there, or even the range within one actor. Thank you Richard Avedon for pointing the way, I am just a pilgrim on that trail :).
I make my living as a portrait photographer, specializing in Headshots for actors, performers, corporate executives, politicians, writers, families, children, and anyone who needs a compelling, attractive, and accurate image to present to the world. The best technique I know of to keep my style fresh and my skill-set expanding is to experiment and constantly push myself to learn different tools and implement their use. I use my personal work as a laboratory where I conceive of an image and work it through to completion. My current interest is using light and shade in a more dramatic and contrasty way. With the advent of digital photography and the availability of lighting lessons online, the amount of people who can slap a softbox on a strobe and create a soft even light has made it feel overused and boring to me. It takes more skill to carve and shape with light and shadow. And it takes practice to learn which modifiers to use and fine tune how to place the light for maximum effect.
This year we met Sarah Gaugler, the owner of Snow Tattoo, a unique private tattoo studio in Chelsea. Anyone who has met Sarah or perhaps seen her perform in her band, Turbo Goth, has felt the impact of her charisma and creativity. And Kerry-Lou and I have been wanting to collaborate with her on an image, and finally had the time to develop a concept and shoot it. A “Succubus” is a mythological female demon who visits men at night and steals their souls (and perhaps tattoos her brand upon their vanquished bodies). Shout outs go to Sarah Gaugler as the Succubus, Flynn Skidmore as the hapless victim, Sarah’s Hair, Make-up and Horns by Kerry-Lou Brehm, and Flynn’s Hair, Make-up, and Tattoos by Nicolae Rita. Here is “Succubus”…
I have been a professional headshot photographer for more years than most of you have been alive. At last count I have photographed over 17,000 clients including celebrities such as Tyler Perry, Annette Bening, “King Ad-Rock” of the Beastie Boys, Selma Blair, Dick Cavett and about 16, 995 others. I’m not the loudest, or the most Internet savvy, or the latest flavor of the month, but I have learned a thing or two about headshots in my tenure, and I’m happy to share some of that information here in hope of helping actors everywhere traverse the minefield of getting their headshots done. Here are the most common pitfalls, and how to avoid them.
1. Not Getting Headshots Taken Often Enough
Your headshot is your presence in the acting market. It represents you to anyone whose attention you have drawn. It should be accurate and up-to-date and represent your current look, not what you looked like 2 years ago, or even 2 months ago if you have noticeably changed your appearance (hair cut or color, weight loss, gain, etc.). To be properly cast, you need to properly represent yourself.
As a photographer I am constantly hearing these words, “I’ll set up a session once I lose a little weight!” And while losing a little weight is a commendable goal for most of us, health-wise and attractiveness-wise, it’s not always the skinniest person who gets the job, it’s the actor who combines ability with believability. So, set that weight goal, give it your best shot, but set a date for new headshots to give your goal some teeth. If you haven’t lost the extra by the session date…you probably aren’t gonna. ☺ What’s better, not a perfect body shot, or no shot at all?
2. Choosing a Photographer with a Limited or Repetitious Style
When it comes to choosing a photographer, be aware that you are not the only actor he/she is shooting, and thus an agent sees 100’s of photos of different actors, all in similar poses, similar lighting and similar backgrounds from that photographer. That’s a bad way to stand out. It’s human nature to tire of repetition, no matter how effective the first exposure to something is. You are a unique presence in the acting world, and your headshot should be unique as well. That’s not to say that you demand that each and every shot be absolutely different from every other headshot the photographer has taken, but beware of the assembly line photographer.
3. Trying to Do Your Own Hair and Make-up
Some people argue that having a professional Hair and Make-up Artist work on you before your session is a bad idea because it doesn’t represent your everyday look at an audition. I would argue 3 points regarding that issue. First, having a photograph taken is to be the focus of intense inspection. Details that pass by unnoticed in the motion and bustle of life, a misplaced hair, or uneven eye-liner suddenly become glaring distractions when frozen in time and space, which is what a photograph captures. Second, you can’t be the subject of a photo and see yourself from the perspective of the lens at the same time. Having another pair of eyes watching for problems allows you to relax and concentrate on the job at hand – communicating something compelling to the viewer. Third, if you get cast in a film, TV show, or commercial, chances are there will be a professional hair and make-up artist putting you together for the shoot. Show the casting people and directors how you come together when you are done right. This is show business, not everyday life!
4. Following Trends in Headshot Styles Instead of Showcasing Your Strengths
The purpose of a headshot is to show yourself at your best, and most cast-able. Present your strengths; don’t just blindly follow the current trends in headshots. If your body type is an integral element in how or why you are cast, make sure you show it with a ¾ shot. If intensity is your strength, get that camera in close to capture it. Close-ups reveal layers of subtlety that are lost when the camera pulls back to a ¾ shot. Don’t just follow the trend to be trendy; you might be short changing yourself.
5. Choosing a Photo that Doesn’t Show You Clearly
Remember that the purpose of a headshot is so that a Casting Director can see what you look like. If you turn your head too far to the side or bury half of your face in shadow, you aren’t giving the viewer enough information to process and they don’t really know what you look like. So face the camera boldly straight on and let the photographer light you for maximum effect.
6. Making It All About Looking Good, Instead of Looking Right and Accurate
It ain’t always about beauty. It’s about impact and that comes through being true to your type and presenting it in the strongest way possible. Pride goeth before the fall, so don’t retouch a photo into a different age range, because remember who will be following that photo into an audition – little OLD you ☺. And distance your vanity from your viability. Not everyone has to be a romantic lead; there are plenty of character types out there for everyone. Learn where you fall in the casting spectrum (or find a photographer who understands that aspect) and make your photos about that!
7. Over Retouching Your Headshot
Just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done. With modern retouching techniques, pixel pushers and polishers can alter details in an infinite number of ways. And the most common transgression among headshot clients is to hyper focus on details and obsess over every pore, losing sight of the collective whole and finally sandblasting the photo into sterile oblivion. Other people don’t go over your photo with a magnifying glass, unless they are a hapless friend who has been imposed upon to help until they feel like the only way to justify themselves is to point out the microdot on the background that reveals itself through a CAT scan. Remember that the average headshot is viewed for no more than 5 seconds by an agent, casting director or director, then it’s on to the next or the resume, or lunch. In my mind, the less retouching done to the photo, the more real it looks and the more honest it is.
8. Retouching the Photo Yourself
Nowadays, everyone has Photoshop or some filter they can run their photos through. Unless you make a living at retouching, you are not going to have the skills or the perspective to do the job right on your own headshot. Skin is not clay or fog and Professional Retouchers work in incremental details on the skin, not through an automatic filter that makes the face look like it is being viewed through your Grandma’s support hose.
9. Saving your Money by Getting Cheap Copies
If you have gone to the trouble of paying for first class photographs, the last thing you want to do is try to balance your budget by getting cheap copies made. Most people are using less and less actual hard copies of their headshot. Since it’s much easier, faster, and cheaper to email or post something on the web than to send a hard copy, you are not going to need to make hundreds of copies and you might as well spend the money to make them good and retain the quality of the product you paid for in the first place. Not too many things of value come cheap. Don’t skimp on the quality of your little photo ambassadors.
10. And Finally…Not using your New Headshots to Market the Living Hell out of Yourself!
The saddest thing is to go through the entire process of choosing a photographer, defining yourself, picking out wardrobe, taking pictures, retouching them, copying them and then not putting in the effort to get them out there. There is no more effective tool that is available to an actor than marketing. Master the technical skills of posting, attaching, uploading, submitting, emailing, and using social media to push yourself to higher visibility in the world. Headshots are actor’s currency and the only way you can be almost everywhere at once. Find a way to project yourself into the market every day.
I hope that this article has helped you navigate around the most common pitfalls in the exciting high stakes world of Actor’s Headshot Photography. If you would like to view my work, please come visit me on the web at http://blog.joehenson.com.
We are based in NYC, but travel frequently to Washington DC and Boston. Please check the link on our website “Have Camera…Will travel” to see when we’ll be in a city near you.
Kerry-Lou and I recently had the pleasure of shooting Susannah Solis…yet again! Our first shoot with Susannah was over 9 years ago, and since then we have done her headshots every couple of years and worked with her on multiple portfolio shoots. Our longterm relationship has formed a wonderful friendship and also an inspiring collaboration. Shooting Susannah is always fun, but also magically productive. Her beauty is self evident, but she also embodies the multitude of qualities that make up a true Muse: fearlessness, energy, creativity, and trust.
You will see her photos sprinkled throughout my portfolio, I can’t bring myself to retire the older ones because I like them so much. The first shot was taken in 2007. It’s a perfect example of the fact that nothing matters in a photo except what is visible.
This photo was taken with Susannah seated on the hallway floor in a shopping mall in Bethesda! Shoppers were actually walking around us as we shot, but I knew the light was beautiful and the color of the tiles worked well with her coloring. The piece de resistance was the perfect match between her blouse and eye color. The high angle perspective gave her a vulnerability and wide eyed innocence.
A few years later Susannah got a new haircut, which prompted a phone call and a new series of headshots. It was a pleasant time of year with comfortable temperatures and I wanted to shoot the entire session outside using the sun as our main source of light. The dramatic dark background shot was taken in the hallway of my studio building against a freight elevator door, the light came from an open door to an outside terrace. The outdoor shot was under the beginnings of a scaffold on the FIT campus. The openness of the background gave the shot a fresh sparkle. Voila…
The next time we shot, a year later, I was playing with horizontal shots and white backgrounds: horizontal because that’s the orientation of the film and TV screen, and working close trying to capture intensity. White backgrounds work well because they are clean, crisp, classic and create beautiful skin tones. With a clean background the form of the silhouette becomes architectural.
Then an opportunity arose to test a new light diffuser. The company that manufactured the ellipical umbrella brought a few sizes and we experimented, finding the sweet spot for the light…I wanted to get a fun, upbeat shot for Susannah with very pure, beautiful, simple light. One light carefully placed…that was my mantra.
Most recently, her manager requested a new round of shots for her film and TV work. He wanted a natural dramatic shot, something strong and stripped down, a sophisticated professional ala Robin Wright in House of Cards, and a polished leading lady. Here they are…our latest installment…
It’s fun to watch the development of Susannah’s persona and the evolution of my shooting style over the years. In photography, stagnation is the enemy. Pushing forward with new techniques, new equipment, and a fresh vision keeps the work vibrant and productive! As actors gain experience, they begin to fine tune the qualities that casting directors respond to, and so the image they project in their headshot must adapt and reflect those qualities.