What Makes A Professional Headshot Session Professional?
There is a common misconception among those seeking a professional headshot that the process of capturing a good one is a fairly easy thing to do; some are of the opinion that as long as the photographer has a really nice camera, that's all that's needed to produce a great image. Essentially, these people place the success of the session on the equipment rather than the artist/practitioner behind the camera.
They would be wrong to make this assumption.
As a novice headshot photographer some years ago, I wasn't aware of the amount of knowledge and experience required to conduct a successful session. Yes, I owned a really nice camera, some lighting equipment, a space to shoot and the requisite, this-is-a-piece-of-cake, it's-just-a-face-shot attitude.
Once I started working with clients, however, that false confidence quickly eroded under a tidal wave of questions that headshot photographers need to know how to answer.
Then, of course, there's the most important variable — how to coach clients to produce a variety of authentic expression on their faces.
As a young photographer, I would often become frustrated when I would review the images with my client and each image had the same expression as the last. I would cringe after seeing 10 consecutive images that looked like carbon copies — it upsets me now thinking back on it!
Fortunately, some experience, along with being mentored by great photographers, helped me grow beyond that awkward, adolescent stage in my career, and provided me the knowledge to work with a variety of clients and produce awesome sessions.
For those of you in need of a professional headshot that represents authentic aspects of your personality, the key is to connect with a photographer who will be able to provide true value during your session and produce amazing images that you love, and not just hand you a stack of images that look like glorified, passport photos.
By value, what exactly do I mean?
1. Mastery of camera, equipment and setup
It's one thing to own a professional-grade camera and great equipment, it's quite another to know how to use it.
The moment that a client steps in front of the camera, the last thing that he or she wants to experience is a frustrated photographer unsure of how to light and frame the subject, or, even worse, how to adjust based on an unexpected setback.
By endlessly tweaking the setup, or fiddling with camera settings, that eats up precious session time and counts against the client's investment, which, clearly, is not an ideal scenario. It's the photographers duty to have an expert-level knowledge of their tools and have a backup plan should something malfunction before clients start coming through the door.
2. Keep clients calm to inspire their personality to shine
It's quite common for clients to show up to their session anxious and uneasy. Of course, that's not the type of expressions with which they want to walk out with, so, it's the photographer's job to relax and focus them to the point that the scared, deer-in-headlights expressions exit their faces and true personality surfaces.
This process is easier for some clients than others, but, with an experienced photographer, he or she can employ several methods to get the client to relax...and even enjoy the session!
3. Identify the client's good side
It's not enough to stand directly in front of the camera and stare blankly into the lens. It's the photographers job to essentially work as a puppet master behind the camera, directing and moving the clients head and body around left, right, up and down in order to discover that sweet spot where his or her posture and head is in a flattering position to be photographed.
Sometimes, a negotiation between posture and head with other variables such as hair, clothing and excess bodyweight occurs, but, nevertheless, an experienced photographer can plow through these speed bumps and find the best solutions.
4. Create and maintain momentum during a session
An experienced photographer understands that even though clients are paying for only a handful of high-resolution headshots, the goal for every session is to overwhelm them with a boatload of options from which to choose. Nabbing a couple lucky shots with no understanding of how those images were captured isn't going to cut it.
By getting the client relaxed and angled flatteringly to the camera, an experienced photographer can rifle off a string of images and give the client a diverse set of headshots from which to choose...
5. Coach on-the-fly and be able to work with diverse personalities
...but sometimes, the machinery isn't running smoothly, and more adjustments than usual have to be made.
An experienced photographer immediately recognizes when a headshot session is a little rocky and bumpy. I usually know within the first 5 shutter clicks if this client is in need of some extra motivation and direction. It's the photographers job to immediately discover what will inspire the client to relax and not over-think and obsess.
Sometimes it takes a few choice words of motivation, a word association game, or just a funny statement to break the client's anxious spell, but, the photographer needs to figure it out fast.
6. Review images with client to see what's working
I don't understand how to conduct a headshot session without reviewing the photos throughout. I know some photographers operate in this manner, but, I believe it is a tremendous disservice to the client by not seeing what's working and, just as importantly, what's not working. By reviewing the images, the photographer and client can discuss what to continue to do, and what to avoid in the coming shots. Variables such as posture, jawline presentation, hair, expressions, etc. can be fleshed out during this process.
That is invaluable knowledge to possess.
By reviewing on the fly, there is no well, in hindsight, I wish I would have done this... type of thinking; all of the possibilities have been exhausted during the session, leaving the client satisfied with the results.
7. Retouching that's not too retouchey
Once the session is complete and the final images have been selected, the final step for the client is to await the completion of the retouching process. Now, for many novice photographers, retouching can become a minefield that inevitably trips them up...it certainly did for me when I started out.
I would feel inclined to retouch the skin in a way that was most appropriate for a beauty ad or a fashion magazine cover — long story short, I overdid the hell out of them. I retouched the client's complexion to resemble a shiny, porcelain doll rather than a human being.
As I became more familiar with the process, and received some great advice from other photographers, I realized that since the goal of a headshot is to present an authentic expression, retouching an image to present a natural, non-glossy, look is the best way to go. Smoothening out the skin to the point that the client has no pores left is not a good way to present authenticity - save that look for Cosmopolitan Magazine.
Although it's great to have all of these points to keep in mind when searching for a professional photographer to conduct your headshot session, how do you know if the photographer that you're interested in working with is this type of professional?
The first way is to simply look at the photographers work.
Look at how they present themselves on their website and social media outlets; is there a clear, consistent look to their work? Is the lighting, composition and background similar throughout each headshot sample? How about the clients' expressions? Are they diverse and vibrant?
If one image starkly differs from the next, you can not be certain what type of finished product you will receive, and that should give you pause before contacting that photographer. Part of being a professional is the ability to guarantee the client a consistent result based on his or her portfolio.
If you're looking for a particular style in your headshot, research a photographer that consistently produces this style, and go with that.
The second way is to request a consultation and have a chat.
Most professional photographers, including myself, offer free phone consultations to prospective clients to discuss the headshot session process from booking and scheduling to delivery of images.
Emailing back and forth is not an effective way to gauge the photographer's personality.
If you feel that the photographer vibes seamlessly with your personality, then, you might have a solid match on your hands. If not, no harm done - cross that photographer off your list and move on to the next option.
It's better to find this out before you drop a down payment and end up in front of the camera.
Speaking of down payment, you're paying for a lot more than just a retouched, full resolution image. You're also paying for a smooth, painless and fun process leading up to producing that retouched, full resolution image.
By studying the photographer's work, and getting a vibe for his or her personality through a purposeful conversation, you will be able to easily weed out the amateurs from the seasoned professional who is ready, willing and able to provide you your money's worth with a bevy of awesome images.