Lose the Smile for More Versatile Headshots

If you are going to go to the trouble to shoot a head shot (or, "mug shot," as we called them at the newspaper) you may as well set up good light. This can elevate a head shot into a portrait and yield a photo suitable for many more uses.

And if you are going to make a portrait, shooting a range of expression can further expand the ways in which the portrait can be used.

Hit the jump for a very good, current example.

British photographer Platon (whose site we accidently overloaded when we all showed up to watch his videos a few weeks back) photographed Eliot Spitzer before he became better known as Client #9.

(At least, I am assuming he shot Spitzer before that, as pretty much nobody has been near Spitzer with a set of lights since. I would think that not even Platon is that smooth...)

The photo, seen above, appears as lead art, running full-page on a two-page spread on pages 24-25 of the March 24th U.S. edition of Time Magazine.

Platon's photo was lit with a simple, two-light scheme -- soft source directly above the camera, back light aimed at the background. He usually uses a medium-format camera, with a moderately wide-angle lens, which creates both intimacy and lots of detail in his portraits.

Reverse engineering notes:

The location of the nose shadow (butterfly position) reveals the position of the front light source: above the camera. We can also see the front light source reflected in a specular highlight on the forehead. The softness of the highlight-to-shadow transfer area further reveals it as a soft light source.

The even quality of the background light tells us it was almost certainly behind the subject. It was either between the subject and the background, aimed toward the back, or behind the paper, aimed forward at the paper.

Where is the chin light coming from? Looks like the shirt, to me. White shirts kick a ton of fill in at close range. And it would have been awfully hard to hide a mini softbox under Spitzer's chin.

But what about that expression? The same photog who famously got Bill Clinton to "show me the love" (resulting in another much talked-about photo) captured Spitzer in a quiet, downcast moment, not even making eye contact with the camera.

Generally, you do not get much time when shooting celebrities and other famous people. So you have to spend your ammo wisely. You want to get a photo that connects with the viewer, but you don't have to hold the button down and dupe that look continuously for the whole three minutes you have them captive in front of you. Do you really need that 37th version of a canned smile with eye contact?

Instead, when you are shooting a headshot, spend a little time grabbing the smile (that's what they'll be expecting to do anyway) and get it out of the way. Then spend the rest of your time exploring different expressions -- quieter expressions, no-eye-contact looks, etc. It is a little more difficult, because you have to create the conversation that evokes the various looks.

But it is worth the effort. Neutral expressions are far more versatile in what they connote. A smile say only a couple of different things (maybe a couple more, if you have a dirty mind) but the quieter expressions can make much more powerful photos.

I would go so far as to say that this photo probably was not the final edit from the original shoot. It is very appropriate in the context of Spitzer's sudden collapse in the wake of a prostitution scandal. But it hardly would fit for a photograph of the "Sheriff of Wall Street" even a few weeks ago.

The fact that Platon had the presence of mind to both evoke and then capture the contemplative moment of Spitzer yielded a stunning photo which may turn out to be the iconic image of an imploded politician. Kudos, too, to the picture editors and designer at Time Magazine for spending the square inches to give it the weight it deserves.

Nuts and bolts takeaway: Not everyone you shoot is going to get caught at the Mayflower hotel with their pants down. But if you are going to go to the trouble to light someone, make sure you take the time to work some different looks into your session.

Related Links:

:: Platon's Website ::
:: Original Article: Time Magazine ::


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Anonymous Amy Dragoo said...

My thought was not for the lighting, but for the usage rights to the out takes from the orginal shoot.

Here is a prime example of the negatives of a work for hire contract. (With no knowledge of what his contract was.) If it was WFH, no added income from the sudden value of those portraits.

Just food for thought.

March 24, 2008 3:43 PM  
Blogger Colter said...

I'm diggin' the reverse engineering "box" you've created. I see someone's learned some new html!

...or maybe I just haven't been on strobist in a while...


March 24, 2008 3:52 PM  
Anonymous Rob G. said...

David, what about the slight highlight on the right side of his face? just a reflection from the lit background ? BG vignetting doesn't look natural, I would say it has been added in PP, it follows his face's profile. Sometimes, in case of a plain background, it's better to light background evenly and add vignetting later for a more flexible choice..

BTW, David, i really like this kind of articles, to talk about every aspect that makes a good picture, other than lights, elevates the great quality of this site even more :)

March 24, 2008 4:05 PM  
Blogger Nerdie McSweatervest said...

Maybe it's just me, but it looks like the main light was not directly above the camera, but a little to the right. Look at the nose shadow, the ears, the forehead highlight, the collar, either side of the jaw.

March 24, 2008 4:23 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I'm pretty sure I've seen Platon say that he adds the background light in post production. As for how, I'm guessing that the entire background is lit and he creates the illusion of it being a spotlight by simply adding vignetting in post.

March 24, 2008 4:27 PM  
Anonymous cdburgerjr said...

The reverse engineer box is exciting. I learned more from the small details it made me look for than the logic itself. For example, where you talked about the chin light, I wasn't getting it. I looked, and reread, and looked again. The "chin"? How is light getting from his shirt to his chin facing away from the shirt? OH! That sliver of light underneath!

It certainly is a lot like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Sherlock knows how many steps are outside their apartment. Dr. Watson never thought it was important.

I'd finally decided reverse engineering is something I will only learn if someone is with me pointing to the picture details. So, I really liked this particular entry. I got slightly more practice at observing details.

March 24, 2008 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Platon creates some of the most unflattering portraits I've ever seen. While an unflattering shot of a scandal ridden politician may fit the story, it boggles my mind why people sit for him in the first place.


March 24, 2008 5:50 PM  
Blogger David said...

Anonymous @5:50 p.m.-

I'd have to disagree with you. I'll grant you that his portraits are unconventional. But I think they are very personal and very compelling.


March 24, 2008 6:00 PM  
Anonymous Jan said...

@ anonymous:

Well that's why the magazines hire him, because his portraits have something interesting, they're not the average headshot.

I don't think this was shot with a wide angle, because you can clearly see his ears, and his face is not distorted. I'd say 85mm (35mm format) or there about.

March 24, 2008 6:37 PM  
Anonymous Rod said...

Can someone explain the term butterfly lighting to me? I know the lighting, but I don't understand, what it's gotta do with the animal :|

March 24, 2008 8:03 PM  
Blogger Djon said...

"...it boggles my mind why people sit for him in the first place."

Avedon used to be sought-after for portraits by important people...Eisenhower, Billy Graham, George Wallace, Adlai Stevenson...and his deal was $1500 for the sitting (I'm sure it was that little), $X for the prints, he retained the negs, and he retained the rights to use even the ugliest of shots...which he did, in his famous book with James Baldwin.lxlgnsv

March 24, 2008 8:53 PM  
Blogger Courtland said...

Rob G.,

I think the face highlights casting blue show that the background was light from behind. Like the light falloff from the backlight is just at the edge of lighting the sides of his head.


March 24, 2008 9:24 PM  
Blogger Don and Marian said...

I like to shoot 'between' the shots. Occasionally telling the sitter to take a break or to look away... shake the face and stretch the mouth. I will then make a shot or two as they are disengaged or thinking about what is next. Rule for me is don't take the camera too far from the eye. Stuff happens.

March 24, 2008 9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My take is a 15-20" softbox right over camera, and pretty close to subject.
Chin highlight compliments of the shirt.

What I cant figure out is the bluish highlight of his right and left temples.. particulary his right. Doesn't look like a rimlight was used. Was this done in post??

March 24, 2008 9:50 PM  
Blogger LERtastic said...

This post was awesome. It's nice to get some advice that may be from a little bit different direction than the typical lighting discussions. I will be watching the looks and poses more now.

March 24, 2008 10:30 PM  
Blogger Pamela Vasquez said...

I am quickly learning that to stand out you must be different...Plato is different ..and not different wierd, but different cool...the different that makes you stop and look at it a little bit longer, from head to toe (kinda like women when they see some other woman they think is a little too attractive). I like him...and want to find my own "different".

David..I too really like the analysis of the picture and where the lights were placed. I have never been good at even noticing that and realize that is a huge part of learning (being able to identify where the lights were...that is).


March 24, 2008 10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic advise coming from Mr. Hobby yet again.

I heard a studiolighting.net interview once (can't remember the photog, d'oh!) where the portrait photographer who was featured mentioned that if you want to do a model any justice in their industry, make sure to get a range of expressions... i.e. suprised, excited, sad, mad, confused, etc, because you don't know what this model will be "selling" in her potential future career. If you look at ads, do you just see people smiling?

For most of us, evoking various emotions out of our subjects isn't second nature to us, but we should start to try. You have to be cognizant of these underlying forces in the beginning to start to make them one of those behind the scenes actions. As with anything, we should practice this at every portrait shoot, because with experience comes that "no effort execution".

Just some mental notes from my personal experiences...

BTW, David, I tried searching with no success – so.... what does the $!##% -30- mean?!!?



March 24, 2008 11:28 PM  
Anonymous Zeke K said...

Another great post. I love the part where you said you have to get in a conversation with your model to get those non-smile expressions.

Last week I posted an article about that on my blog here:


Love the new insert box for the light breakdown.

March 25, 2008 12:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

to the other anonymous:
-30- means:

Used to indicate the end of a wire service story.[2] (Possibly a corruption of German fertig - "finished, ready" - or in journalistic context "end of story"); in several Superman stories from various titles, failure by a Daily Planet employee to use this signature proved to be a plot point revealing a character's impersonation, mind control, etc.

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/30_(number)

March 25, 2008 2:16 AM  
Anonymous jmark said...

to anonymous #1 & 2,

That, plus in the case of the Strobist page, -30- indicates that there is nothing extra to read "after the jump."

March 25, 2008 2:47 AM  
Blogger Phil Hunton said...

This is a great shot in my view, the expression does what a portrait should and thats connect and communicate with the viewer.

A great book is "TRain your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Guide to Portraiture", it tells you to take the avedon approach to set your camera up on a tripod then use a remote release to trigger meaning all you do as the photographer is watch for the tiny changes in expression, a very good technique that helps (me anyway) look deeper at the subject.

March 25, 2008 4:58 AM  
Blogger Jenny Hill said...

Interesting article and a great image by Platon. Thanks for posting it David.

It looks to me as though the background "spot" is the result of work in post.

New to Strobist (how did I miss this?!) and like it a lot!



March 25, 2008 7:02 AM  
Blogger Starfish, darling! said...

Very interesting post!

I think you might also assume that, to get this particular image - and the highlight on the chin, which, considering the lighting described in the reverse engineering box - the slight from-below fill and the downcast expression are from a piece of paper Mr. Spitzer is looking at.

Keep up the good work!

March 25, 2008 10:42 AM  
Anonymous Tim Porter said...

I'm with David on this one -- love the shot. One thing I do when trying to move someone from their official "I'm being photographed" face to something more real is wait them out -- stop shooting for bit and just let them (and me) look.

I learned to do this from a reporter I worked with for a number of years in Berkeley. After asking someone a question and letting them answer, he would just wait, filling the air with silence until the person started speaking again. The best stuff, the best quotes, came after the pause. The first response was the canned one, the second the real thing.

The best use of a Spitzer photo for a cover, though, was this one on New York Magazine. A perfectly placed caption says it all: http://nymag.com/news/politics/2008/spitzer/

March 25, 2008 11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Platon only uses one light in all his portraits, so everyone is right, the backround is all post and some of the other things in the photo are as well. He has the light directly above his right shoulder.

March 25, 2008 11:44 AM  
Anonymous matt haines said...

i think he's holding a reflector on his lap, a la 'clamshell' lighting. if you look at the big image, i think it can even be seen reflected in the subject's right eye (camera left). note that the shirt is darker on camera left. yet the chin hightlight is solid across the entire edge of the chin. also it seems a little too forward to be coming off the shirt.

and yes, the softbox is definitely a bit to camera right. note the difference in brightness between aforemention shirt collar, and also the difference between the ears.

March 25, 2008 12:38 PM  
Blogger David said...

I also love the reverse engineering box. Makes for quicker browsing when you just want that aspect of the story/feature.

March 25, 2008 1:56 PM  
Anonymous Maurizio said...

I can say for sure that the blue aura/vignette has been added in photoshop. The shot has a single light, up center. If appears slightly off center it's only because you can't glue your subject to the floor, and humans tend to move (some more than others). All Platon's vignettes are done this way. He uses always a single light, even for ad work. Anyway, his work is astonishing. Best Avedon's son so far.

March 25, 2008 2:17 PM  
Blogger Jeff Grandon said...

Drat! Somebody said reflector on his lap first! Look at the color in his eyes, I don't think you would get that with a single light overhead and subject looking downward.

March 25, 2008 4:33 PM  
Blogger Nathan Marx said...

This is exactly the kind post that I love to read. I allready have started to try to build a habit of reverse engineering photos I see at the mall, billboards etc. I do it and try to imagine how I would reconstruct the scene I am seeing. On this photo (due to the photoshopping) I would have missed the suddel detials that a seasoned vetran sees.

Definitely one light due to the butterfly shape under the nose, but the back light reminds me of a ring flash effect. There are no catch lights that I can see so it makes it that much harder to figure out the light source.

The blue cast due to white balance choice (I guess) really adds interest. Cold feel with a touch of a smile to warm it back up. Given the recent news gives the feel of the cold heart with mischief up his sleeve!

Great post, great stuff!

Keep it coming!

March 25, 2008 9:56 PM  
Anonymous Ben said...


That Avedon book is really phenomenal; so is the James Baldwin text, which, though a bit rambly for him, is really just great.

I really like the starkness of those Avedon portraits.


March 26, 2008 9:34 AM  
Anonymous wedding-photographer-france said...

Excellent advice to work on different expressions. Since reading htis I have been introducing this in my wedding photographies with a rising success.


May 23, 2008 7:48 AM  
Anonymous Melissa McDaniel said...

Are you sure he shoots with the backlight or do you think this is done in post production? If so, how does he do this in post production - I can't seem to re-create it.


February 12, 2009 11:43 AM  

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