The Almighty Headshot


Headshots.  At some point as a working professional you’re going to need them.  It seems like such a simple concept – a basic shot of your mug so people can associate a face with your name, in many cases without even meeting you.  Yet, given what’s at stake and how important that first impression can be, is a headshot really as simple as it seems?


I think a lot of people do headshots begrudgingly and have the mentality that it’s something you tolerate and have done just for the sake of having it done.  Once you have your headshot,  you can check it off the list as something  you no longer have to worry about doing for at least a few years.  That’s OK.  As someone who chose specifically to be behind the camera, I am probably the classic example of someone who takes this notion to the extreme…almost to a detriment as seen below:


Don’t worry. This is not what you’ll see if you book a headshot session with me.

However, taking this approach really sells the concept of a headshot short, as it – in a way – undermines what a headshot is actually supposed to do for you.  If you look at it from the standpoint of someone viewing your headshot, you’ll probably want to take a few minutes to think about the first impression your headshot will make.  For instance “What kind of headshot defines me as a person?”  It sounds kind of silly but unlike the dining set in the movie Fight Club, your headshots should, and do, define you as a person – to some extent.

A headshot is very often the first visual impression a person gets of you.  Everything in that photograph plays a part in forming that impression.  Expression, clothing, environment – all of these factors come together to form that critical first impression that viewers will use to form an opinion of the kind of person you are – if even subconsciously.  Kind of scary, isn’t it?  Well here’s the good news – you have the opportunity to control ALL of those things to carefully craft a headshot that will not only impress, but ensure a meaningful and lasting first impression.

I had the opportunity to explore this concept when Michael Frederick from The Frederick Group contacted me about a headshot session.  Michael told me that he was overdue for some updated headshots and needed a series he could use for his website and other types of correspondence.  What really excited me about this session was the fact that he wanted to do some shots at the Capitol Building.  I haven’t had many opportunities to shoot in the Capitol and I’ve been wanting to do a session there for quite some time.  (Well, inside the Capitol I should say – I’ve shot around the exterior of the Capitol plenty of times.)  It would be a perfect chance to get a series of photos that range from basic headshots to environmental portraits.


For the studio shots I knew I would be taking a more conservative series of photos.  These shots would be the “safe” shots to be used in situations where a persona-defining shot might be considered excessive.  Much like writing a resume, sometimes a headshot should be tailored to the specific job.  The studio would serve to provide a smorgasbord of photos to use for these purposes – correspondence, bios, press releases, etc.

The first series we shot was against a simple white background. Not only is the high key background a nice clean presentation, it’s also ideal for extracting the subject should the need for inserting the subject into a composite image arise.  The white gives flexibility for use on web pages where white is a primary design aspect and it’s also easy to change the color to virtually any color pallet.


The next series was against the grey textured wall in my studio.  With a little splash of light, it becomes a classic old-masters-ish background.  Considering this was left behind by a previous tenant (who was NOT a photographer), the fact that it has become one of my favorite features in the studio is a bit serendipitous.  Anyway, I think the results speak for themselves.  These shots could be used for some of the same uses described above, but it’s an entirely different look.  It’s a classic professional headshot that is appropriate for a number of uses.


And now for the grand finale: the Capitol!  First, shooting in the Capitol wasn’t something I was familiar with.  I wasn’t even sure I could do a session in there without some sort of high-level permission.  However, Michael was kind enough to make the necessary calls and get permission to shoot there.  Second, I was concerned about getting the gear up to where I would need it and powering it.  Fortunately there are elevators, but I didn’t want to run extension cords everywhere considering the sheer amount of tours given there on a daily basis and risk a potential tripping hazard.  For this reason I chose to take my speedlight kit.  It’s lightweight and battery powered, the latter being both a blessing and a curse.

I kept the lighting pretty simple and made sure to balance with the (very low) ambient lighting in the rotunda.  The tungsten ambient created what I think is a nice contrast with the daylight strobes and really makes Michael pop from the background.  The pinkish-cream colored walls really intensify the warm tones of the ambient light.  If I had the connections to hire Morgan Freeman to provide a narrative I’ll bet he would say “Michael Frederick – an honest man willing to venture into the intense fires of government to fight for the will of the people.”  (Imagine it in the Shawshank Redemption voice.)


Michael Frederick – an honest man willing to venture into the intense fires of government to fight for the will of the people.
~Morgan Freeman (I wish!)

It’s an extreme metaphor and a very dynamic picture…and technically, not even a headshot.  But if the intent is to get attention and create and impression, then this image certainly does it.  I would say this shot is great for use on the businesses website landing page.  The following image has another specific use in mind:


Yep – you guessed it.  The Facebook cover image.  In fact here would be a good place to mention that headshots don’t need to conform to the traditional 8×10 aspect ratio.  With the advent of social media, the image size requirements are all over the board.  If you’re planning to use  your headshots for social media, the return on investment from consulting a designer on all the various image requirements can pay off big time.

While I’m on the subject of planning, as one of my favorite photography professors once said “you don’t take pictures, you create photographs.” The creation part of that implies a process of pre-planning, execution and final use.  Believe me, the first part of that process is hands-down the most important part as it assures the success of the last two steps in the process.  You as the client have a part in the process, so I encourage you to feel free to discuss any ideas with your photographer.  You might be surprised what ideas may develop with a short conversation with an enthusiastic photographer. Instead of dreading having your headshots taken, you might actually come to the session excited about the results!

I hope you’ve been inspired to look at your headshots in a different way.  Headshots should be an exciting opportunity to show the world who you are when you don’t have the chance to do it in person.  With a little creativity and planning, your headshots can help you stand out from the crowd.