Head Shots

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BrittanyTaylor-headshotCOVER“Theory and Practice for the Portrait Photographer”
Written by Rick Trottier – RJT Images


Head shots have existed since photography first burst onto the scene in the 1839 with the Daguerreotype. In its beginning, the new medium sought to accomplish in an even more realistic manner of what portrait painting had been doing for millennia; producing a reasonably accurate depiction of a subject’s countenance.  And as the decades passed and technology inched forward and then later sprang forward, photography became a method of capturing likenesses in fashions that had never before been possible. But as lenses and shutters, camera sizes and flashes changed and evolved, one thing has remained the same for almost two hundred years, we create head shots of people of all walks of life, maybe more now than ever before.


While “the selfie” has actually codified the reason for the existence of head shots in a crude and self-absorbed manner that no one ever saw coming or was properly prepared for, the purpose for head shots has evolved quite a bit since the 19th century. Initially, head shots taken by portrait photographers were essentially what “selfies” are today, an instant in time captured and preserved for posterity that the subject finds appealing. But as photography metamorphosed from a pastime to being part of the advertising and commercial landscape of the world, the advent of a new vocation came into being, that of the commercial/promotional model. And head shots were not only something that could now potentially sell a product; they became a manner in which a model could make a living. As such, head shots in today’s world may serve several purposes, making the craft of creating one something that can’t be left to chance, but needs to be done with skill and understanding of all the varied components binding art, photography and graphic design.

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IMG_12 - Lily MarieUnderstanding how to best arrive at a superb creation of a head shot is dependent on comprehension of the types of head shots and why they exist. While various photography historians, art philosophers and imagery aficionados may debate subgenres and arcane classifications, there are in essence three types of head shots. There is the Portrait Photograph which can be done in a casual, formal or glamor style. There is the Agency-Industry Shot which tends to have very strict parameters and there is the Artistic Head Shot which employs the most innovative license in its creation.


Portrait Photograph – The entire point of a Portrait Photograph is to create a likeness. The style of that likeness may vary or the underlying purpose for “having” that likeness may be disparate but in the end, creating a photographic representation is the essential motivation and determining which style best fits the needs of the client will dictate composition, lighting, pose, attire/makeup and post-processing of the image. The Casual Portrait Photograph is simplistic in nature, the term is self-explanatory and as such the rendering of such an image requires a unpretentious, straightforward approach in all manners. Lighting should be gentle and fairly natural whether it is outdoor or indoor lighting (natural appearing studio lighting can be created if actual natural light is low or poor). Posing and facial expressions should be relaxed and genuine in nature, often elicited by the most jocular of tones and atmospheres during a shoot. Makeup and attire should reflect the nature of the subject’s personality and should be as unaffected as possible. And the post-processing really should be left up to the whims of the client. While most photographers might say that as little editing to a picture as possible should be done for the Casual Portrait Photograph,  and I agree that is the best approach, clients may have their own personal concerns or fixations that they wish to be addressed and listening to the needs of the client is a photographer’s job. It is the client’s image after all. One step up in complexity from the Casual Portrait ir the Formal Portrait. The Formal Portrait Photograph has changed since the inception of photography in the 19th century. Back then, nearly all portraiture was formal in nature. Now “formal family pictures” are rare and the most common place where formalized imagery can be found is website images for businesses, and also formal school pictures, formal wedding photography and other styles of capturing a very specific, very specialized moment in time. All of the basic approaches of the Casual Portrait Photograph come into play, but just need to be refined to meet the needs of the more specialized occasion. Lighting may still be fairly natural whereas composition and pose may be far more sculpted in a student portrait for example, while in a business portrait, the lighting may be far starker studio style illumination, but attire might and composition may be extremely simplistic. In the Formal Portrait Photograph, the entire point of the image is to capture a likeness that crystalizes the reason for the portrait session. Precision is the byword as opposed to the Casual Session where there is a far more open-ended feel to arriving at an end product. The most complicated portrait is the Glamor Portrait Photograph, which is all about creating a fantasy. As such, lighting, pose, attire, makeup, composition and post-processing are all dramatic in nature. Provocative studio light is often times the province of the Glamor Portrait Photograph , but even if natural light is used, finding ways for the light to trace the lines and curves of the face, highlight the shape of the hair and the contours of makeup as well as sparkle in the colors of the eyes, it is all about creating an alluring, tantalizing and mesmeric image. The Glamor Portrait Photograph is the diametrical opposite to the Casual Portrait Photograph since the entire point of a Glamor Session is to create a mood that engages the most intense of emotions and elicits powerful responses. The Casual Portrait Photograph is impressionistic in nature, a moment without any real story to tell, but leaving you with a very gentle feel for the instant in time. The Formal Portrait Photograph tells an exact story, leaving nothing to chance in the minds of the viewer. The Glamor Portrait Photograph invites you to make up your own story based on precisely crafted responses to stimuli. But in the end, each one of these Portrait Photographs is a likeness created for the client’s specific wishes and it is the job of the photographer to render that likeness in the manner that has been requested.

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IMG_3 - ChrissyAgency-Industry Head Shot – The Agency-Industry Head Shot is a strange hybrid that combines elements of the Casual Portrait Photograph and the Formal Portrait Photograph. In the end, what makes it different from both is the viewer that is receiving the message of the image. Models need to have very specific types of imagery in their portfolios for finding work, whether they are signed to an agency or are freelance in nature.  Of the several types of images (full length fashion, bikini pic, fitness image, lifestyle image), at least two images should be head shots (one smiling and one serious). Like the Casual Portrait Photograph, these head shots should be as natural in their depiction of a model’s realistic appearance as possible. The lighting should be fairly gentle, makeup and attire should be simple and unobtrusive, poses and expressions should be unaffected and genuine and post-processing should be LIGHT in nature. The entire purpose is to create an image the accurately reflects the looks of the model so that at casting calls, auditions and interviews for modeling/acting gigs, the images in the portfolio match the appearance of the prospective candidate. Head shots that are not accurate depictions of the model reduce the likelihood of getting hired for work for any number of reasons. So unlike the Casual Portrait Photograph, the Agency-Industry Head Shot has a very specific purpose and a precise story to tell as truthfully as possible. Its reason for existence is to relate the looks of a model to prospective entities so that they are best able to match their needs to the talent available in the hiring pool. And that is why the Agency-Industry Head Shot is NOT part of the Portrait Photograph category. All Portrait Photographs are created to serve in the interests/needs of the subject being photographed, even if it is a portrait for a business’s website. The images of the people working in an accounting firm are not on the website to bring in business. Most thoughtful people do not choose their accountant based on what they look like. But an engaging image may influence the final decision if the person looks friendly, trustworthy and professional. In the end, the reason for choosing an accountant is based on the skills of the business, not their appearance. BUT those people looking to hire a model for a potential job ARE going to be HEAVILY swayed by a superb Agency-Industry Head Shot. Certainly those hiring the model will look carefully at the resume of the candidate and listen to answers given at the casting call interview, but the final piece of the puzzle is the imagery in the portfolio. Superbly rendered professional Agency-Industry Head Shots will make the difference. So in the end, what separates the Agency-Industry Head Shot from a Portrait Photograph is the reason for which it is created grafted to the audience for which it is intended.

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IMG_7 - KristaArtistic Head Shot – The Artistic Head Shot is a distinctly different animal of its own genus, but often incorporating all of the prior mentioned approaches/styles or none of them at all. The end product is a creative expression of the artist, the model or both, produced for the purpose of rendering a likeness that fuses imaginative concepts and experimental designs that will make an artistic statement. The image created can be very simplistic in nature if that is the intention of the creators, but most commonly there are varying levels of complexity whether it is in philosophical conception, artistic execution or post-processing. What sets this image apart from its portraiture cousins is that it subscribes to its own creed when it comes to lighting, composition, attire/makeup/pose and all of the other components. The artistry of the image allows for extensive utilization of all kinds of expression leading to a result that can be conventional or avant-garde. But even more importantly, the audience is very different from the previous two categories. The audience for Artistic Head Shot is those viewers to whom the style appeals but also those persons who are open to having their creative horizons expanded. The Artistic Head Shot can both preach to the choir but be a firebrand, converting new recruits to the gospel of the statement being made. The nature of the artistry employed in creating this image doesn’t mean all rules of composition are flouted and thrown away. Neither Kandinsky nor Pollock ignored their training when creating their expressionistic masterpieces. Rather, an Artistic Head Shot allows for experimentation that cannot be employed in the other two Head Shot categories. There is a freedom and an opportunity here that can lead to greater understanding of lighting, composition, pose and all the other facets of photography and art.

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As I have preached in so many of the technical articles I have written, it is essential for the professional photographer to understand the purpose of the image they are creating. For example, in creating any type of head shot, the purpose of that portrait might very well dictate the crop of the image. However, if the features of the model’s face, physique or attire are important parts of the composition, that may cause the photographer to adjust the crop to accentuate very specific characteristics in this portrait, but that adjustment HAS to serve the purpose of the image. An extremely tight crop for a business portrait might not make sense if you are also trying to show how smart a lawyer’s suit and tie look, so getting in the bust might make a lot of sense. However, a very tight crop of a glamor image might bring all the attention of a viewer to a model’s sensuous lips and eyes, even though her bust line may be her most “tantalizing” feature. In that case, bringing those curves into play will distract from the glamorous focus that needs to be the entire strategy of the composition. So really ascertaining the purpose of an image and how to marry the needs of the image to the plans and methods of execution will determine success or failure. Head shots aren’t really all that different from other types of imagery but it is surprising how often they are poorly executed by those who do not understand why they are being created. Arriving at a comprehension of facts and philosophy before clicking the shutter will save a lot of aggravation and make everyone who wants to see a lovely face much happier in the end.
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    IMG_1 – Brittany Taylor COVER

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    IMG_2 – Lily

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    IMG_3 – Chrissy

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    IMG_6 – Brittany Lynn

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    IMG_7 – Krista

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    IMG_8 – Kailey

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    IMG_11 – Sarah

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    IMG_12 – Lily Marie

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    IMG_13 – Shauna

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    IMG_15 – Chrissy

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    IMG_17 – Katherine

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    IMG_19 – Brittany Taylor

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    IMG_22 – Absinthe


Managing Editor, GlamModelz Magazine I’m a Central New England photographer based out of Worcester, MA, just one hour west of Boston. I specialize in fashion and glamor commercial imagery as well portraiture of all types. My style is a blend of commercially viable work melded with artistic innovation, whether on location or in studio. I prize collaboration quite highly and am proud of the fact that most of my work displays the ideas and designs of my models as much as it does my skills, efforts and planning. Rick has published 80, articles with GlamModelz Magazine.

Connect with him on:

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