Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Head Shots That Don't Suck (Part Three)

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Just yesterday, while eating lunch, I read something that caught my attention in big ways. It's in a book I'm currently reading: "Art & Fear" by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The authors make an observation that, in my opinion, is so spot-on-the-money in terms of today's photography that I highlighted the words with a yellow marker.  Their simple words speak volumes to me regarding so much of what is seen in photography these days; from head shots to glamour pics to portraiture of all kinds and beyond.  I'll quote the words from the book but please feel free -- in fact, I encourage you -- to substitute  "photography" for the word "art." made primarily to display technical virtuosity is often beautiful, striking, elegant... and vacant.

When you're shooting head shots, "vacant" is about the last thing you want to produce. In the context of head shots, the word "vacant," of course, refers to expression and emotional projection, i.e., the lack of it.  That's not to say technical virtuosity is a bad thing or a thing that has little worth, but it's not the only thing that counts in terms of head shots that don't suck. In fact, technical virtuosity counts for far less than filling those potential vacancies: vacancies which might result when expression and emotional content are given too little care and attention because so much care and attention was focused on technique. (Especially, when people are the subjects of the photos)

Peter Hurley, a New York City-based head shot photographer, one who has gained quite a bit of recognition as a head shot shooter in recent years, didn't become the #1 go-to head shot guy in NYC because of his incredible skills with lighting and composition coupled with an all-around technical virtuosity that is nearly peerless. Trust me when I tell you there's plenty of shooters in NYC, indeed everywhere, who can light, compose, and process a shot as well as Peter Hurley can do so. Instead, he's become that go-to guy because of his abilities to fill the potential vacancies of expression and emotion via his skills at getting appropriate and engaging expressions and emotions out of his clients and recorded by his camera. 

Technical virtuosity is achievable by anyone who picks up a camera and is willing to engage in the process of learning and practicing with an eye towards achieving such virtuosity. There are many, many photographers these days who have achieved a high degree of technical prowess, both in their production and post-production skills alike. We see their (technical) virtuoso photos posted on social media regularly.

But if you think those sorts of skills alone are the skills that will make you a stand-out head shot shooter,  you're missing the point about head shots. Head shots are, above all else, intended to say something about the subject. Something that fulfills the purpose of the head shot. Something that reaches out and touches the photo's viewers in ways that "sell" the subject. You don't need super-exceptional technical skills, special wardrobe or props, or cool shooting locations to achieve the goals of head shots that don't suck. What you need are the right sort of people skills, that is, skills and abilities at drawing memorable expressions, attitudes, emotions and more out of your head shot subjects.

What are some of those abilities and/or how do they manifest themselves when you're shooting?

You access them by creating confidence via rapport with your subjects: confidence in you as a photographer and in themselves as the subject of the photographs. If you're unable to create confidence in themselves as the subject of the head shots -- and frankly, some people aren't ever going to be confident while posing in front of a camera -- then you do whatever else you can to "trick" the right expressions and emotions out of them; be it with jokes (they don't even have to be good jokes), with personal anecdotes or stories about yourself, by asking your subjects to recall certain events, feelings, whatever from their own lives... in other words, whatever you need to do to extract those expressions and emotions out of them for that very small fraction of a second, i.e., the duration of your shutter as needed to capture a well-exposed photograph.

Terrific head shot pics are rarely the products of a timid, overly quiet, barely interactive photographer even when that sort of photographer has notable technical virtuosity. You need to communicate. You need to use your words and actions to sometimes drag the right, make that the best expressions out of your subjects. (Best in terms of them being best for the head shot's primary purpose.)  Head shot subjects aren't simply relying on you to produce technically superior photos. Yeah. They want that too. But they're also counting on you to help them deliver the right expressions and emotions. Not only help them, but to make it easy or easier for them to do so.

Anyone who thinks head shot shooting is all about photography has another think coming. It's as much about psychology and human interaction as it is about photography. In fact, it might very well be more about those non-photographic skills than it is about actual photography skills.

So, by all means. Develop your technical skills and continue working to make beautiful, striking, elegant head shot photos. But don't do so at the expense of emotions via expressions or in ways that produce "vacant" head shots. In other words, head shots that lack the sorts human elements which truly make them shine (i.e., not suck) no matter how technically superior they might or might not be.

The pretty girl in the head shot at the top is Daisy. I snapped it in daylight, adding a single, off-camera flash-- a strobe modified with a 5' Photoflex Octo.  Canon 5D1, ISO 200, f/9, 125th, 135mm focal length. Very little post-processing because, with some models/subjects, not much post is needed when you get it right in the camera. Daisy is very experienced in front of a camera but that doesn't mean that when I'm shooting models with the sort of experience models like Daisy has I'm  not doing/saying whatever I can to get the right sorts of engaging expressions out of her. In fact, sometimes it's even more difficult with experienced models because they often go on auto-pilot, only giving you the sorts of expressions and poses they already know work well for them, even when those poses and expressions may not work for purposes other than the sorts of photos they are normally (or mostly) featured in.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Head Shots That Don't Suck (Part Two)

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For my Part One on this subject, I wrote about the importance of determining the primary specific purpose of the head shot. In it, I mentioned that, once you've determined that specific purpose, many other questions about the head shot practically answer themselves-- things like posing and expression (you know, the stuff that projects the emotional impact of the head shot) and on to more practical things like wardrobe, shooting environment, lighting, and more.

Still, there are a few suggestions I'd make about those practical elements of head shots I listed above. I'm going to save talking about posing, expressions, and emotional content for Part Three because, bottom line, that's the most important stuff for shooting head shots that don't suck, i.e., the importance of getting the right emotions, expressions, etc. out of your subjects, plus some ideas and advice for doing so.

When it comes to things like wardrobe and shooting environment, always remember who or what the most important element of the head shot is-- that would be your subject, of course. That means that things like wardrobe and environment, even your masterful skills at lighting and processing, should never "upstage" the subject.

"Upstage" or "upstaging" is an acting term, if you didn't already know. It's a term that refers to when something or someone, often another actor, does something, says something, or is something that draws an audience's attention to themselves or to itself at the expense of the actor or actors being upstaged by them/it.  It's said that W.C. Fields hated performing with kids and dogs. Not because he necessarily hated kids and dogs, but because he believed kids and dogs, by virtue of the audience's built-in feelings about them, couldn't help but to upstage him, and that they did so without even trying.

Okay. Some tips about wardrobe:

1. Solid Colors Often Work Best. (Except White!) Avoid "busy" patterns and prints. They

 2. Avoid Brightly Colored Wardrobe: Bright colors can also sometimes distract. (Unless your finished image will be B&W) Pastels and shades of gray are generally preferable. Muted colors and earth tones also work well.

3. Wardrobe Should Be Clean, Freshly-Pressed, and Free of Wrinkles: A head shot featuring a subject wearing clothing that appears as if they may have slept in it is generally not a good thing. A good idea for head shot photographers is to bring along a lint brush or one of those sticky-tape roller-things to remove lint, hair, dandruff, or whatever else might be revealed on your subject's wardrobe.

4. Avoid Jewelry or Other Shiny Distracting Things That Compete: That's not to say jewelry should be altogether avoided but the bigger and shinier the jewelry, the more distracting it will be. In
general, jewelry in headshots is best used when it's kept at a minimum.

5. Your Subject's Clothing or Wardrobe Should Fit Properly: I don't think much of an explanation is necessary. Have your subjects bring wardrobe that properly fits: Nothing too big and nothing too small is usually the best advice. Also, comfortable clothing is often best. There are many reasons your subject may be uncomfortable when being photographed. Their wardrobe shouldn't be one of them.

How about props? While props might sometimes be something the subject prefers to use, I think
they should generally be avoided. More often than not, props compete-with and distract-from the subject's face and the intent or purpose of the image. Props can also be cliche.

As for backgrounds and locations, avoid backgrounds or locations that compete with the subject. Avoid environments that are cluttered, overly busy, or might somehow “upstage” the person featured in the head shot. Backgrounds should compliment but should never distract.

The B&W head shot at the top is one I snapped for an aspiring actress. It was Golden Hour when I shot her and I used a single strobe, modified with a shoot-through umbrella set on-axis in front of her to help balance my exposure with the hard intense back-lighting the late-afternoon sun was producing. I like her subtly mischievous smirky expression. But then, I like mischievous people in general, as long as they know where "the line" is and they don't cross it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Head Shots That Don't Suck (Part One)

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Although most of my work has been shooting pretty models in various stages of dress and undress for the past couple of decades or so, I'm no one trick pony, photography wise. No siree. I have a range of skills. A range that goes beyond pretty girl shooting. A range that also includes shooting head shots and, uhh, head shots and...  Okay, most of my photography boils down to two genres: 1) glam, tease & nudes, what I like to call pretty girl shooting, and 2) head shots.

Head shots -- IF. YOU. MUST. KNOW. -- were how I got started shooting pictures for pay. That was way back in the day, like 35 years or so back in the day. Thirty-five years ago wasn't when I first started my life-long love affair with photography, that began when I was 12 or 13, but it was when that love affair started turning some profits. Cash profits.

You see, my ex was an aspiring actress and actors (I'll use the word, "actor," as if it's gender neutral) are always needing new head shots for their acting careers. Regularly needing new head shots meant regularly spending money (we didn't have) on them. Worse, it seemed to me that every time she got some photographer to shoot new head shots for her, those head shots sucked. Leastwise, I thought they sucked.  So, I decided to start shooting her head shots myself. After all, I had a live-in guinea pig to learn with. And that's what I did.

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As a result of that decision, I've been shooting head shots for actors and others to this day. I don't pursue it the way I did back in the day, but I still shoot them from time to time. Mostly, for aspiring actors and, for the most part, as a result of word-of-mouth marketing.  (I love word-of-mouth marketing because it means I don't have to do much, practically nothing in fact.) Also, lest you might think otherwise, I don't limit my head shot shooting to female victims subjects. I shoot guys too. On the right is a head shot I snapped for an actor of the male persuasion just recently.

So, why am I writing about shooting head shots on this 9-year-old, 1,000+ updates, glamour photography blog?  Because it's something to write about; about photography, that is. In fact, I'm already thinking this might be a multi-part post because, even though I wrote an 111-page ebook on the subject about three years ago, GUERRILLA HEADSHOTS,  I want to post some info about shooting head shots here, on the blog... cuz I'm a sharing caring guy that way.

Okay. So how do you shoot head shots that don't suck?

First off, you need to do a bit of pre-shoot planning: in concert with your client but also a lot of it in your head. What does that planning begin with?  Questions. Questions regarding where you will  shoot the client's head shots? How will you light the client's head shots? What kinds of production or post-production trickery you might throw at a client's head shots?


Before asking yourself those other questions, important though they may be, you first need to ask (and answer or get answered) one simple-yet-wildly-important question. Once you do, once you answer it, all of the rest of your questions will fall into line. In fact, often enough they'll practically answer themselves.

The question is -- drum roll please --  WHAT IS THE MAIN PURPOSE OF THE HEAD SHOT? (i.e., what, SPECIFICALLY, is the PRIMARY purpose of the head shot?)

Most people don't want or need head shots just for the sake of having some head shots. They have SPECIFIC REASONS why they want or need head shots. They have SPECIFIC NEEDS for those head shots and for what, they hope, their head shots will achieve... FOR THEM!

I know that sounds awfully simple. I know it sounds rather no-brainer. But I've seen more than a few head shots that were technically good, even great, but they sure didn't seem to match the purpose the subject was using them for.

I also understand that the purpose of a head shot doesn't sound like it has much to do with the art,  craft, and science of photography but, believe it or not, many things you might do when shooting photos for pay have less to do with the art, craft, and science of photography than they do many other things. For instance, when you're getting ready to scehdule a client's head shot session, there are some things you need to know about said client's needs for those head shots; things that transcend (or predetermine) how cool, artsy, crafy, technically-superior, or stylized your skills at shooting head shots, or anything else, might be.   Once you know the answer to that question, other questions about shooting a client's head shots, e.g., what the client should wear, where you should shoot the images, how you might light them, all become so much easier to figure out and a successful head shot session becomes so much easier to take place.

The pretty girl at the top is Tera Patrick. I've snapped many, sexy, glamorous, nude and non-nude pics of Tera but, for that shoot, she needed some head shots. She had some very specific reasons for needing  head shots, business and marketing reasons, and those reasons did not include featuring her, in the pics, as the sensuously-beautiful, knock-out glamour model that she happens to be.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Fine Craft Nudes

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I've been shooting nudes and semi-nudes for a long time. In all that time, I've never perceived my work as being art. (Fine Art Nudes, Erotic Art, or otherwise.) But I have and do perceive it as craft. In fact, I'm going to dub my work, Fine Craft Nudes or Finely Crafted Nudes, Crafted Nudes, or whatever floats my boat at any give moment, as long as it has the word craft in it.

While there are people who label my work smut -- finely crafted smut or some other kind of smut -- I could give a rat's ass about those folks. Their judgements roll off me like water off a duck's ass... sticks-n-stones and all that. And even it some of my work is smut. So what? At least it's craft-driven smut. So there! GFYs, ye who love tossing those judgmental stones.

Yep. I like the word craft.  I like it a lot. As a noun, it means, "An activity involving skill in making things."  As a verb, it means, "To exercise skill in making something."  That's not to say I don't like the word art. I do. I like art a lot.  I even sometimes try to make art, albeit not when shooting the sorts of pretty girl pics my clients pay me to shoot and I later feature on this blog.

Craft, of course, can be applied to many things: things that aren't often referred to as being art, artsy, or artistic in the traditional sense of those words, e.g., "Sailing Craft" refers to a sailor's skills in sailing a sail boat. Could you refer to sailing craft as sailing art? Sure. Why not? Knock yourselves out. But it wouldn't be a traditional use of the word art.

What I'm doing when I'm shooting pretty girls is craft-- that is, I'm employing craft skills when I'm making photos of nude, semi-nude, and scantly-clad women. There's an art to making craft. (There's also, of course, plenty of craft involved in making art.) But as words which describe things, art and craft aren't synonymous. One often refers to the process while also referring to the results. The other refers, mostly it seems, to the results.

Does it take talent, true talent, to be a craftsman? Probably not. What it takes is learning and practice. Lots of practice.

Does it take true talent to be an artist? Again, probably not. What it takes is learning and practice. Lots of practice.

Sure. There are people who are born with natural talents for producing art. All kinds of art! (The visual arts, music, writing, and more.) There's not a lot of them but a few, no doubt. But here's the deal: If art depended solely on people born with some natural, innate, overwhelming and obvious talent for producing good art, guess what? There probably wouldn't be much good art in the world.

Being born naturally-talented as an artist is not the same as being born with a natural desire to produce art. That notion explains, of course, why there's always been more people producing good art than people born with some natural and innate ability to produce good art. It also explains why art is taught. If all good artists were born with natural abilities to produce good art, we wouldn't need no steenkeeng art teachers or art schools, now would we? And we definitely wouldn't need experienced, skillfull, and craft-knowledgeable photographers teaching other photographers, new and new-ish photographers, to photograph in skillful, craft-driven, ways.

Anyway, just some thoughts on art and craft.   I'm currently reading the book, "Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking" and it's got me thinking about this sort of stuff because, in my mind, I've been reinventing myself as a photographer lately -- now that I'm semi-retired and all -- and, sooner or later, I'm going to try my hand at shooting art instead of craft. But when I do, I'll definitely be calling on my craft skills to attempt some art. We'll see how it goes.

The voluptuous pretty girl at the top, crafted in a studio by me with a Canon 5D and an 85mm prime lens (ISO 100, f/5.6, 125th) while employing three light sources, is Cody. My main light was modified with a 5' Photoflex Octo and set nearly on-axis, plus I used a pair of Chimera Medium strip boxes on either side of Cody from slightly behind.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Reinventing My Photography

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I've been going through a slow, methodical, process of reinventing my photography. Much of that reinvention is going on in my head, more so than with cameras in my hands. (At least at this point.) Please note I didn't say that I'm reinventing photography. I'm simply saying that I'm reinventing *MY* photography, i.e.,  I'm reinventing myself as a photographer.

What does that mean?

For me, it means I work a lot less as a photographer these days -- paid work, that is -- but since I love photography (and I certainly don't want to give it up simply because it's become more of an avocation than a vocation) it means I'm steering myself towards different sorts of photography to satisfy my  photo-lust.

I'm not much interested in making a living from shooting these days. If I were, I'd reinvent myself as a wedding or event shooter, a seniors photographer, or something like that. Sure, those genres make more than a few people a few bucks. Some of them, quite a few bucks. Me? Not interested.  Not even a little bit.

I still get occasionally hired to shoot pretty girls. And I do like earning money well enough because, you know, I can then buy stuff with it. But my life isn't guided by money. It never has been. Leastwise, much beyond making enough to take somewhat comfortable care of myself and my family. So, since it's mostly just me I need to take care of these days -- my children being adults plus I'm unmarried and unattached -- I don't really pursue scoring much in the way of paid work. (If/when opportunities present themselves I'll take advantage of them, but I'm not really looking for those opportunities.  Color me lazy I guess.)

I'm far from being independently wealthy. In fact, I'm not too far into the plus side of the plus side of independently surviving. (Financially, that is.) But I am surviving. (Thanks to paying into Social Security for all those years, a private pension annuity from working 15 years for a large corporation, sales of my ebooks as well as other ebooks and photography training programs I occasionally promote, plus not having much debt.)

None of this reinventing stuff means I've forgotten what I know how to do. I can still shoot a decent pretty girl pic. I can also shoot some pretty good portraiture of various kinds. But that's the sort of stuff I've shot for a lot of years. That was work. Now, for me, photography is about play, not work. I was going to say it's about art but whether or not what I will produce represents "art" remains to be seen. Art is the goal. I'm just not overly confident it will be the result.

In terms of what I want to do now,  my reinvention as a photographer does not include continuing to shoot what I've been shooting for a long time. (No art nudes for me.) Besides, why would I do that? Been there, done that is the best answer I can give. I'm more interested in moving forward, not sideways or staying where I've been.

What I plan to shoot will certainly call upon the skills and knowledge I already have, but it's also going to mean developing new skills and knowledge that I didn't need when nearly 100% of my photography was shooting models of one sort or another, mostly of the "pretty girl" sort.

I'm excited! I love new challenges. Especially creative challenges. And I do plan to creatively challenge myself. Whether I'm up to the task... well, time will tell.

Anyway, sorry for the self-focused update. I'll try to get back to writing stuff that's more about helping this blog's readers elevate their skills and knowledge when next I blog.

The pretty girl at the top is Jennifer, snapped in a location house in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles.  The Silver Lake district is built around a reservoir in that part of L.A. The area was also home to Walt Disney's very first studio. It's something of a "hipster" neighborhood. I lit Jennifer with a 5' Photoflex Octo for my main, plus another strobe (modified with a small umbrella) camera left and behind her. (Actually, in front of her in the particular image I decided to post with this update.) The ambient in the room, courtesy of indirect sunlight from the window, provided some soft and gentle fill. I was shooting in fairly tight quarters in that small room. But hey! You do what you gotta do, right?