The Initial Search
Finding the best portrait or headshot photographer near you is not easy these days with photography skills varying greatly and advertising dollars influencing top search results. Recently I searched online for the best portrait and headshot photographers near me – at least according to the Internet and those paying to appear first – in order to find who my competition was, who was rating “best” photographers (along with criteria used), and what I might do to increase marketshare. I searched for a list of photographers and clicked links leading to a couple well known sites. I did this in several geographic areas, and I looked at recommendations from two sites that train and promote their photographers. Since portrait specialties vary, I thought I might be able to identify gaps in my imagery or offerings. Did I display enough of a contemporary look in my portfolio? Did I need to show more ¾ length portraits? Did I need more headshots vs. portraits? Did I need more images with different color backgrounds? Did I need to add environmental portraits, and so on.
My initial assumption was that searching for a list of “best” by zip code would lead to a display of excellent images. Unfortunately, for the most part – with the exception of the specialty sites that train photographers – it did not. While I did learn a few things about what types of images I wanted to include going forward, overall what I found bothered me. I found “best photographer in …. zipcode” results passively misleading and in one case actively deceptive. Overall based on portfolios, my search most commonly revealed poor to average photography quality (IMO). With this impetus, I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post on what to look for when checking out portfolios for those in the market for headshots and portraits.
Criteria to Use When Searching for a Best Portrait or Headshot Photographer
Consider what your overall initial impression of an image is at first glance. Do you find it pleasing? Does it draw you in and make you want to study details? If the image was laid out on a table with 12 others, would it stand out? It should, if it is in someone’s professional photography portfolio as a sample of their best work. What do you like about the image and why? Now, hold that thought and consider what follows.
When you first glance at the image, where do your eyes fall? Take a moment to think specifically about your answers. Think about what you are looking at. Try it again. Look away at the image and then back. Now consider what might have been done differently to improve the image. Would a different background with fewer distracting elements work better? Would a modifier removing distracting elements of light help? Is there an obnoxious line or tree branch coming out of someone’s head in the background? Do your eyes go to a bold color, perhaps a busy tie, a piece of dangling jewelry. They should go right to the subject’s face, his or her eyes. Also, eyes should not be overdone. Highlights in eyes should not overpower an image. They should draw you in, but not make you cringe because they are over done. Eye whites should be natural, not colored white, etc. Striking, stunning, beautiful, captivating, yes. Over done and fake, no.
Exposure, Highlights, Lowlights, Trends
Is the image properly exposed for its style? There is a style of image popular these days in which what appears to be blown highlights are part of a sunny background look. If that is the style reviewed, there should still be data in the lightest area. Likewise some images are shot to be very dark and contrasty. Some black and white long exposure photography is created to be very dark. But even then, the image should have data in all areas, not areas of total blackness. Highlight areas with no data, when printed, will have no ink on the paper. Translating this concept to point-and-shoots and other cameras with highlight settings, have you ever looked at the back of your camera and had an image you shot flash at you? Those are casually called “blinkies” and contain areas of blown data. You as the photographer are supposed to then adjust camera settings to make them go away. If you are looking at a portrait of someone in a bridal dress that is all white, you should be able to make out details. The dress should not be blown out. Regarding portraits, while you want a face lit with light falloff, there shouldn’t be blown areas of highlights. Even images intentionally borderline (very bright or very dark) should still reveal data – white or gradations of dark – so that when brought into Photoshop or Lightroom for processing they can be corrected. If you are looking at an entire portfolio with over or under exposed images, go on to the next photographer. Check back on the portfolio a year or so later. Photographers are always learning and growing. Even if the photographer has been around for years, technology changes and portfolios improve.
Make sure the problem isn’t your monitor. (OK, I admit it. This is a little out of sequence … but it is probably worth mentioning at this point.) As I mentioned, some images are properly exposed but intentionally dark or light. If the image is on the borderline of being over or under exposed and the monitor is not calibrated, differences in light and dark will become areas of white or black. Dark images with subtle shades of dark gray will appear only as solid black. Same for bright whites/highlights. Some pros calibrate monitors monthly. Do you have an old monitor? Older non-calibrated monitors can shift and alter the look of images over time. If you like your monitor and want to keep it, consider investing in a calibration device.
RAW vs. JPG
Again, many but not all images when shot in CR2 (“RAW”) have areas of extreme lightness or darkness that can be corrected in post. Does the image you are reviewing have facial features with blown highlights or which are too dark? Does this appear to be by accident or was it intentional? Is your monitor calibrated? Find someone who shoots in RAW/CR2 vs. JPG (or the equivalent based on the make of camera). You can’t see that when you review images, but you can ask.
There are many rules of composition and shooting suggestions intended to help someone understand what can be done to strengthen an image. (Watch Scott Kelby’s training video “Crush the Composition” for a quick overview on some things to consider and what to do to improve your own captures.) For example, one well known rule is to never center a subject. Another is to consider using the rule of thirds. Another is to consider using leading lines to draw your eyes in and come in from the sides. You’ll see this with headshots. You see this with architectural images. Notice the composition and how the subject is aligned with the four corners. Does the subject appear not right in some way? Why? What might improve the image? Is the image a quick snapshot/accidental capture or controlled and planned? Pros have an image in mind before clicking the shutter. Snapshots and quick captures can be thrilling to view, but they can be more luck and based on being in the right place at the right time. Great snapshots of rare moments provide you with little assurance of high quality on your shoot date. Begin noticing differences in image details, if you haven’t already.
Was the correct lens used for the portrait? Most photographers who specialize in portraits and shoot in-studio use a 100mm, 85mm, 70-200mm lens, or zoom set to similar range. Again, there are some vary famous photographers who are exceptions, but what is the chance the photographer whose images you are looking at is equally skilled? Some environmental portraits might use a 24-70mm to create a different look that includes surroundings and telling a story, but that’s a different discussion. What matters is that you don’t see distorted facial features in the standard portrait. The photographer should have made a conscious choice about the lens and setup.
Photographers know that light is key to a great portrait. How they use and what lights they use is important. Look at the iris. To do this, zoom in, way in. Again. More. Keep zooming. Look at the very center of the pupil. In many portraits, you will see the lighting setup reflected. You can see whether a reflector was used or a large soft box. You can see things like clam shell lighting or ring lights. Light distribution should be controlled, rather than accidental. Does light illuminate the face? Is there a nice, soft natural fall off? Are shadows under the eyes controlled? Or does the image look like it has dark shadows and that no reflector was used to soften them? So much can be corrected in post these days – the software has really become amazing – that there usually is no excuse for bad lighting in a portrait other than a lack of time, laziness, or a lack of knowledge. What is lit in an image reveals much, too. Does what is lit appear controlled and planned or random? Are there distracting elements in the background taking a viewer’s eyes off the face that the photographer didn’t notice during the shoot or in post? Generally, the face should be lit, light should fall off naturally from the face, and there should be nothing lighter than the face in the image.
In-studio Lighting Options
Notice the type of lighting equipment used, if visible in the pupils. Was a soft box used? A ring light? Beauty dish? Natural light? Each has its own usage/purpose. Pros generally offer different looks, styles, and setups. In general, large soft boxes are general purpose and used on a variety of portraits and headshots for both men, women, and children. Natural light in window shots is most used with modifiers like a reflector or diffuser at minimum. Beauty dishes are typically used on young, tight skin that is naturally flawless, unless a different effect was desired. Ring lights are very popular and provide a contemporary look. The very center, the iris, reveals options. If in doubt, ask. And notice the different effects. You might find you like a certain look, even if you don’t know what the setup revealed in the pupil is called. Show the photographer the image so that s/he gets a sense of what lighting you like. Mention your preferences (if you have them) to your photographer.
Skin texture is so important in Portrait photography and reveals much about the photographer. So much can go wrong causing skin to look plastic, both during a shoot and the retouching process. Skin should always have texture showing. Likewise, skin tones should blend. No blotchy spots. No blemishes, … unless you are a natural beauty with flawless tight skin and you went for a no-retouching mini shoot. Typically mini portrait sessions are priced for brevity – short shoots, minimal retouching, minimal budgets. Someone paying for a 15 minute photoshoot isn’t going to get extensive retouching at a rock bottom rate. (This might account for why one image in a portfolio is not retouched. However, most photographers would likely not select a non-retouched image for a portfolio – unless the subject was naturally stunning or the photographer was a journalist who shoots in a very different style and set of rules than discussed here.) Consider whether you are looking at the occasional image that is not retouched or all the images are not retouched. You might want to ask about the services the pro offers, if only to learn what skills s/he has with Photoshop. Mastering Adobe Photoshop is something most portrait photographers do. It enhances the thought process when you are shooting, because you know and imagine possibilities. Photographers who don’t know Photoshop lack this algorithm. It doesn’t mean they are all bad photographers, just that they are limited to specific types of shoots and way of thinking. But what you should most watch out for is that it might also mean the person is starting out as a photographer and is an amateur with a nice camera. Portfolio images tell a story about the level of photography skill you will get.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the degree of retouching can vary by client and purpose. High fashion images might have every facial pore and line carefully retouched. It depends on who hired the photographer and how the image was intended to be used. Sometimes intent is apparent, other times not. Let the photographer know if you have strong feelings about retouching and, ultimately, remember this regarding the quality of retouching you see – photographers only post their best work in portfolios. It’s drilled into them. Is this one worthy? No. Get it out. If someone’s best work doesn’t look that great, how much worse will their ‘non-best’ work look?
Does the image have a clear focal point? Are the eyes in focus (nearly standard for portraits and headshots). The area of focus may be wide or narrow depending on settings, but there should be clarity in the eyes. Are they sharp? Well lit? Enhanced properly? Over retouched? Not cleaned up at all? Natural looking? Are the pink veins not heavily showing in the white parts of the eyes? Is there an extra spark of light (subtle) in the eyes that is attractive? Are the whites of the eyes too white? Or is there a tiny black dot manually placed in the center of the eye (not desirable). How someone processes eyes can say much about where a photographer is in his or her retouching. (It can also mean a client wanted the eyes that color so be sure to look at the entire portfolio.)
White Balance, Color Balance, and Color Profile
When you look at a portfolio image, do you see skin color that is too red, green, or yellow? Does the skin have a purple hue? I am not talking about literally red, green, or yellow skin, but rather a color cast, a film, hue, glaze or tint. Several things can cause this and pros know how to resolve this – whether they do it in camera or during post. During capture, the photographer may elect to leave white balance set to auto rather than manually adjust it. Also, some pros use color profiles and white balance tools as their first image, so that later they can easily adjust images. Also, during post processing extensive retouching can cause skin color to become more red. This, too, is cared for in post. Then, image color and white balance can be properly set during the shoot and in post, but the wrong color profile is exported and uploaded to an online site causing colors to shift. The image then just needs to be re-exported and uploaded in the appropriate profile. Finally, non-calibrated monitors can cause colors to be off so what you are seeing might be due to a non-calibrated photographer’s monitor used during post processing or due to your own which needs calibrating. When reviewing another photographers images, look at the color and hue cast over the skin and tones and overall color tone of the image.
Framing and Vignettes
If a vignette is used, it should not be so heavy and noticeable that the image has a large dark circle coming in from the edges. If you see this in a photographer’s portfolio, keep looking. Vignettes are so easy and simple to fix, there is no excuse except for lack of training. This means the person is not ready to be offering services to the public. Check back with that photographer a few years from now, after he or she has gained some experience.
Formal Education and Certification
You might notice I did not mention formal certification as a rule for choosing a portrait photographer. Why? You should never confuse a lack of certification as no education nor should you confuse certification as a guarantee for great images. All pros who are great have spent a lot of time and money learning to master their craft. They may or may not have done this by following a preplanned program leading to certification. Some of the top well known photographers in the world are self-taught (i.e., created their own plan for learning and honing skills). Likewise, some people can pass tests and gain certification, but produce lackluster photos. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen people with long lists of photography degrees and certification, visited their portfolios and thought, “this is what they produce?” I am not sure why this happens. I don’t know if they lack taste, judgment, or get so caught up in the technical that they forget to ask themselves if it is actually a great looking image. As a photographer focused on details, it is tough and you have to remind yourself to set your work aside and revisit it another day, in order to take a fresh look at it. The bottom line is that one (formal degree/certification) does not automatically guarantee the other (great images), nor does one automatically exclude the other. Always review a photographer’s portfolio to determine the quality of images you seek. You are paying for images, not paperwork. That is what matters most.
Photography has become a very challenging way to make a living. Many photographers have been forced to give up external studio space for working remotely or in home studios. In fact, most photographers work out of home studios or remotely. Some do this full time. Some go on to work other jobs. Overall, remember you are paying for images – not a location with overhead, walls, door, and large street-facing sign. Well, you might, you just don’t have to in order to get great images. Likewise, going to a studio does not mean you will get great images. There are several chain portrait houses (well known) that offer cheap images by people hired off the street. (To see what I am talking about, check job search sites for “Photographers.” See how many listings appear looking for someone with no experience who will be given a camera, studio, access to props, and some training.) Some of these shooters do go on to become serious pros and you can find someone who is very serious about growing their photography skills. However, there are also others for whom it’s a whim, a side job, and who have only passing full-time interest. (There is turnover in these studios typically.) Well known inexpensive studios I’ve seen don’t always offer great imagery. They can, but be sure to review the quality of images there, too. Look at those from the person who will photograph you.
For more on what to consider when choosing a photographer, be sure to also check out these two blog posts: “When Not All Portrait Photography Is Alike” and “The Value of Great Photography.” For help getting ready for a photoshoot, click here.