The Initial Search for a Professional Headshot Photographer
Criteria to Use When Searching for a Best Portrait or Headshot Photographer
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.
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.
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.
Composition and Expression
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 if you are studying photography.) 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.
Headshot vs. Portrait
If the image is a tight headshot, more emphasis is on the expression than a portrait showing more of you from the waist up. If you are going for a moody and dark headshot with squinty eyes because you are a character actor and this is consistent with the type of roles you seek, then this type of headshot photography might work for you. If you, however, are looking for corporate work in a traditional environment, you might consider a friendly smile and expression.
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.
In-studio Lighting Options
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 might 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
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
Commercial Photography Studio or In-house photography Studio
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 always get great images. There are several chain portrait houses (well known) that offer cheap images (inexpensive photoshoots) captured by people hired off the street and given space and some gear. (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 a little training on how to use these things.) Some of these shooters do go on to become serious pros. While you can find someone who is very serious about growing their photography skills, there are others for whom it’s a side job. (There is turnover in these types of walk in 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. Ask if the image on the wall that you like a lot was captured and created by the person with whom you are booking.