One of the things every photographer needs to get used to is the idea of taking a headshot.  Sometimes they are environmental, sometimes they are on white, sometimes grey, sometimes blurry backgrounds with F1.4, and other times all sorts of details at F10 or higher.  It’s a common thing for a photographer to shoot headshots, even though they may not like it very much.  Lets face it, taking photos of people smiling one after the other like the guy in the factory that stamps letters onto license plates isn’t necessarily appealing, nor is it the glamorous side of photography.  It is a paying side of photography though, and if you want to make a paycheck; sometimes you have to shoot headshots.  Usually you don’t know what you’re getting into until you get there; which is why most photographers will take a background of some sort with them for just in case.  For the particular project that brings this blog to the surface, I had a white backdrop in the car, however I deemed that the “ambient” backdrop would be just fine.  I can’t say I was wrong, but I can’t say i was right either, as the background ended up being a little hot, or not bright enough in a few of them.

(Canon 5D Mark II, 200ISO, 1/160th@@F6.3.  Canon EF70-200F2.8IS@150mm.  Single Elinchrom Ranger Quadra to above camera right plugged into the A socket set to 1/2 shot into a 42″ umbrella just skimming the front of my subject to give a softer light on their face.  Single Canon 580EX Speedlight on a stand behind my subject zoomed out to 50mm set to 1/4 power.  both lights were triggered by a Pocket Wizard Plus II Transceiver from a Pocket Wizard Plus II transceiver in the Cameras Hot Shoe.)

This set of headshots was done for the a leadership conference in Fishers Indiana.  I walked into the Fishers Train station not knowing exactly what I would find in terms of space, but there were already some tables set out in the way so space was somewhat limited.  Originally I was going to put a white background up, but then I had to make the decision to either go with the wallpaper, or blow the wallpaper out.  I kinda split the difference.  There is a slight gradient in the background of the photo above, and honestly I’m ok with it.  it’s not distracting and it gives the image a little bit more of a personal feel as opposed to either a super fake background; or an epic white one.  Here’s the setup shot below.

(click to biggify)

I’ve had my Elinchrom Quadra for a while now, and I’ll tell you what.  I love it.  I only have a To Go kit right now, which is a single head and pack; but for most of the stuff I do it’s more than enough.  A lot of the derby photos in this flickr set from last weekend as shot with the D4 were shot with the Quadra on a stand behind some hockey glass.  It’s got the power and punch to go a long way; or that killer flick of light to fill in some shadows depending on what you want. In this case, it was able to continually be the main light for around 100 people needing headshots at a few shots each in the lobby of a train station.  No battery changes for speedlights, no 100′ worth of extension cords cluttering the place up.  Just shooting.  Speedlights have their place though when it comes to portraits, whether you are looking for something on a solid color; or you’re looking for something fast with a more environmental feel like below:

(Nikon D3s, 400ISO, Nikon 85F1.4D, 1/100th@F2.8.  Single SB900 Speedlight in a 42″ umbrella to above camera left, single SB800 speedlight set to full power about 20′ to camera right aimed at the ceiling, and a SB900 set to full power about 30′ to camera left aimed at the ceiling.  All speedlights triggered with Pocket Wizard Flex TT5’s from a Pocket Wizard Flex TT1 on the camera, with a Nikon SU-800 in the hot shoe)

One of the potential downsides to speedlights is that you sacrifice recycle time, as well as sometimes actual amount of light.  It takes about 4 SB-900’s to equal a Monoblock and at that you’re looking at having to change 12 AA batteries when they die.  You can’t beat the portability but there is always something to be said for having just a little more power.  The shot above was for a senior community’s marketing booklet down on the sou side of Indianapolis.  Place called Bethany Village I believe.  Speed lights were a great choice here because I had 6 hours to shoot everything about this place.  Going from room to room, doing setup after setup was and will probably always be easier with just a few speed lights.  If you have a controlled environment and you don’t really need to move around though; nothing beats the big guns for power and recycle time.

(Nikon D3s, 100ISO, Nikon 50mmF1.4G, 1/200@F16.  Single Dynalite Uni400 set to 1/2 power shot through a 42″ umbrella from below the camera, Single Dynalite Uni400 set to 1/2 power minus 1/3 stop shot through a 42″ umbrella from above.  Both lights fired by Pocket Wizard Plus II Transceivers from one on the camera’s hot shoe.)

I set up my Dynalites or my Quadra for headshots to make the shoot go very quickly and to make sure I can pop the shots off, and whomever I’m shooting never has to wait.  People like photos when they can be fun, but having a headshot taken isn’t always on peoples top 10 favorite things.  I rarely have someone stand in front of my camera that’s excited about the prospect of an 8×10 of what is really almost a square on shot of their face.  I’ve told a few friends of mine as they eagerly await for their 36 megapixel D800’s that they are really going to enjoy changing their view of beauty because nobody is attractive at 36 megapixels.

I personally prefer environmental portraits, whether they are just headshots in a specific space or they are to show some kind of environment.  Things like this shot below, which an abnormal environment for the character.  This guys name is Terry Adams, and he’s probably one of the Top Flatland BMX riders in the world.

(Nikon D3, 500ISO, Nikon 18-25F3.5-4.5@18mm.  1/15th@F5.  Single SB900 with a 1/2CTO zoomed to 50mm held by Joe Lee over at Big City Photography shot into a white reflector I wedged into the wheel well of this 737.  Second SB900 zoomed to 70mm with a half CTO set in the wheel well behind Terry to illuminate some of the environment.  Both lights triggered by a Nikon SU-800 from the cameras hot shoe.)

Like I said above, I personally prefer the environmental approach as opposed to the flat on white.  I feel like the shot in the landing gear of a 737 like above is significantly more interesting than just a static shot on some obligatory color.  The shot above was done before I had my Quadra, but I probably wouldn’t have used it here unless I used it to light up the bike a bit more (which I wish I had done).  There’s always something to look at.  Always something to reconsider, always something to wonder about doing differently.  I had about 5 minutes with Terry, who loved the photo.  To me that’s what a headshot should be.  Something more than just an Identifier on a name badge, but something that gives a little insight as to who someone is.  Environmental headshots or portraits have their purposes too, I just happen to find them more gratifying to shoot, and pleasing to the subject.  Even though sometimes you can be creative with how you shoot a headshot, as you can see with this post I made a few weeks ago, it’s still not the same as shooting out someplace, and getting something truely original; as only you can see it.  Either way, as a working photographer sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, set up the white paper while boxing up that extra bit of creativity; and then snap away.  More Soon.