Background & Bokeh! How They Affect Your Headshot. / by Christian Webb

One of my background test shots.  My usual preferred go to color and look. 

One of my background test shots.  My usual preferred go to color and look. 

"Art, is the elimination of the unnecessary."

~  Pablo Picasso

As a headshot photographer who shoots primarily on location outdoors,  I often have to contend with the environments I'm in and how they affect my backgrounds.   Because I shoot on a NYC street, the random cars and such passing by provide for some really nice highlights and bokeh here and there, especially when I'm shooting at later hours and car lights, street lights and such become more prominent.  Those lovely orbs of blurred reflective light of bokeh are what many photographers even strive to intentionally get in their photos.  Now I'm sure most reading this know what bokeh is but just in case,  there are probably thousands of articles you can pull up to study more about bokeh and get more in depth with it.  For our purposes here,  just know we're talking specifically about the points of light that get blurred and appear in an image background/foreground as blurbs of round light.   Also, for purposes of this article,  I'll be speaking on how that bokeh affects an actor's headshot only. 

HERE'S A SHOT OF A CLIENT WHERE I DIDN'T MIND SO MUCH  AS IT'S NOT TOO BRIGHT.  BUT....REALISTICALLY JUST WANTED THAT CLUSTER OF GREEN BOKEH REMOVED.

First thing first:  Background!  The background for a headshot is nothing more than the space your subject is framed in.  I shoot actors, not environments and backgrounds.  My focus is the subject in front of my lens, the actor.  To that point, there are many notable photographers today  and through history who shoot their subjects on plain white or grey backgrounds to isolate them on a an empty canvas.  Peter Hurley of course being one of the more famous these days.  It's clean, non distracting and the focus is 100% on the subject.  There is absolutely NOTHING competing with the actor.   If however you're shooting without a plain background and are indoors or outside on location, you'll need to give some attention to the direction you'll be shooting and what, even when blurred, appears as background with your subject.   

WITH THE CLUSTER OF GREEN BOKEH REMOVED.   IT'S NOT ALWAYS A MAJOR THING BUT THERE IS A SLIGHT AMOUNT OF IMPROVEMENT HERE AS A RESULT. 

Real quick, let's talk about casting directors.  They get tons of headshots.  TONS!  Whether submitted and viewed online or actual physical photos.  TONS. They browse through them rapidly looking for what they're looking for.  

Headshot Rule 101 - Make them interested in the actor IMMEDIATELY and GET THEIR ATTENTION as fast as possible.  

They look at headshots for a few seconds at most and all they want to do is know whether the actor in the shot COULD be the one...or not.  They don't care about the photograph overall and they could care less about the tiny details that other photographers may look at when analyzing a headshot for "perfection."  (perfect white balance, random hair out of place, the button or zipper on a jacket etc, etc.)   This doesn't mean though that they're not affected by a bad headshot / bad photography.  If an actor's headshot has a ton of other things going on in the image, it'll distract the person looking at the shot.  Could be just bad framing and too much negative space, random things in a background that stick out, overwhelming colors and objects and/or.....what I call BAD BOKEH.  That's not because casting folks are perfectionists and judging the photo by it's quality per se'.  It's because it's science pretty much: 

Photography 101:  The eyes will always be drawn to the brightest parts and usually colorful parts of an image first. 

Now this brings us back to the bokeh.  While those orbs of light in a headshot may work well to provide a certain drama and beauty to a regular portrait, in a headshot they really are nothing more than distractions that will instantly draw attention away from the subject.  Especially if you're talking about multiple colors and especially if they're bright.  I don't want ANYTHING else in my headshots to be looked at other than my actors!  Period!  There are entirely too many variables as to why someone will toss a headshot and not give that actor the time of day.  A bad morning. Bad night. Fight with the girlfriend, boyfriend. Doesn't like this. Doesn't like that. Can't stand their job at the moment.  Haven't had lunch. Not feeling well. Whatever.  Nothing and no one can nail it down to the point where we can figure it all out.   Think of it this way,  if the logic is that a casting director only gives a shot a few seconds, then I don't need ANY of those seconds wasted by having their focus immediately drawn to a bunch of colorful, bright  balls of lights behind my actor or anything else for that matter.  Especially if it's a random mess.

This is an throwaway test shot from a session where the client showed up too late and it got too dark.  But here's a great example of what I call bad bokeh or...useless bokeh.  It does NOTHING for the client at all, therefore, had this shot been useable, I would have removed or at least toned the red down. 

Here's an unedited shot with a bunch of bokeh!  Mess! This shot wasn't used at all, but, had it even been an option,  I would have immediately removed the orange blurb along with the white/greensih mess to the far right. Oh, and the red behind her head.  Bokeh touching my client at all....big NO NO!  That's a SUPER NO NO for any type of portrait really!  Things sticking out of heads or the body of a subject......no go! 

Here's a shot that has a bit of bokeh going on behind her but it's very, very subtle and okay. 

That said, let me be clear,  if in fact there is bokeh in the shot, so long as it's subdued and not glaringly obvious and it's relatively unobtrusive in relation to the actor it can work fine. (as in the shot above.)   I do in fact have headshots where the blurbs are light are present, it's just that I try to keep them to a minimum and if they're too out of hand or prominent,  I take them out.   Dylan Patrick shoots this look exceptionally well in some of his shots where he's shooting more edgier, darker ambient, night time looking headshots as shown below.

Photo: DYLAN PATRICK NYC HEADSHOTS 

Dylan keeps this all under control by lowering shutter speed and making sure the ambient isn't too dark.  It's not an easy look to get and takes some practice.  The time of day makes a difference in how the look is achieved and the best time is about 10-15 mins after sundown. You can learn more about shooting these styles of headshots from him on his tutorial The Cinematic Headshot brought to you by the guys over at FStoppers.  

Alright so look, all of this is really nothing more than me rambling on about some of my peeves when it comes to headshots.  These are all just my humble opinions and my personal taste and take on headshots.  Some may disagree. To each his own.  In closing,  let me just say that so long as the person in the photo stands out and is truly striking immediately,  whatever is going on in the background will probably be over looked anyway.  Just keep in mind, you don't want any messy distractions or random things competing for attention with your main subject.   Hopefully this has shed some....light....on the subject or given you some useful info.  If so, feel free to LIKE, COMMENT, SHARE...and all that good stuff!  Much appreciated!   

Christian Webb