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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