Fan Mail - My Headshots All Look The Same! / by Christian Webb

Christian Webb Fan Mail

Recently received my first piece of “hate mail” or…whatever you’d call it. (the screen shot above.)  Probably doesn’t qualify as hate mail per se’, but wasn’t very positive.  I take that back – it was quite positive.  I think the intent was to be negative but apparently the anonymous person who emailed me via a dummy email account had no idea that what they said was actually quite complimentary. I feel truly honored.

Let me first reiterate “many thanks” to the person for their recognition of my work.  It’s interesting that this subject comes up as only a few weeks back or so, I posted a blog with some similar subject matter addressed.   

But, rather than just completely rehash that blog, let me take on this subject with fresh perspective and hopefully make some sense of it all.   

One of the top and certainly most popular headshot photographers out there at the moment, and someone I’ve learned a good deal from and respect, Peter Hurley, has built his entire business and brand on shooting headshots that all look pretty much the same,  "just insert new actor!"  People on white backgrounds, same basic light, same set up each time.  The lighting, the set up and all inspired a TON of followers, students and other photographers to shoot the same look.  Peter has even built his own mentoring program where he teaches all about headshot photography and helps a TON of other headshot photographers with creating the same look for the most part - white background (or grey, but most of it’s white) and just “insert actor!”  His work is bad ass awesome and the whole repeated set up and style works!  

"Drops mic, walks away!"

I could end this blog post and response to my fan mail with just that bit there.  But let’s get into it.

As any good headshot photographer knows, getting a great headshot isn’t just about a lighting set up and what the background looks like.  It’s working with subjects and being able to get the right pose and expressions to best represent the client.  With that said, let me get to addressing the main issue and why we’re here.

Headshots are SUPPOSED to basically all look the same EXCEPT for the actor!  A headshot is a basic tool, the main tool for selling an actor!   The absolute single most important thing to look at in a headshot is THE ACTOR! Not the wall in the photo or the variety of gorgeous blurred backgrounds or whatever.   With a headshot, a photographer is shooting one thing - A tight shot of someone's face/head.  It's a shot to represent the person and their personality and to get an actor work.  While there are different opinions on landscape vs. portrait and studio vs. location, natural light or artificial, either way it’s a pretty basic set up each time and it's not about fancy or elaborate lighting set ups or clothing or shoes or jewelry, hair or styling. It's about that one person in front of the camera.

In contrast, shooting fashion can involve no lights, one light or twenty lights, a plethora of modifiers, tons of gels, reflectors and flagged off sections of studio or location space.  The actual job itself and/or the photographer's vision/client's vision dictates the lighting and overall look. There's a heck of a lot more room for creativity and you're not always shooting the same thing.  Not to mention the post processing, color grading and all sorts of stuff used to create the final images.  With fashion and even editorial photography, there’s much more room for artistic interpretation and style. In fact, it’s encouraged.  And with fashion especially, it’s NOT all about the model/subject, it’s about the story, the clothing/styling etc.  In addition, fashion photography seriously relies on having an entire artistic team who all bring their expertise and vision to a shoot as well.  

A headshot photographer who takes “artistic license” and adds red and blue gels to the lighting set up and frames his subjects off in the background with a soft spotlight hitting their face is most certainly in the wrong genre of photography and most definitely not serving his clients well.  That was an extreme example obviously but I have seen photographers shooting what they call a “headshot” and it’s entirely inappropriate for real world use because they wanted to add their "artistic" vision to the shot.

Moving on, I’m not saying there's a one size fits all set up or formula for every photographer but, I should think that within the realm of shooting headshots, even with different styles of lighting, the overall look isn't going to vary too much. If you browse the portfolio of a headshot photographer who only shoots natural light headshots for example, you’ll find that the shots all pretty much look the same…. except for…you guessed it THE ACTOR!  Sure the studio setting may differ, different windows, doorways, the backgrounds may be slightly different, perhaps a different colored brick wall… but overall the images will have an identical look. The look that that particular photographer has is why clients may book him or her to begin with.  

Quick question:  Anyone every do any casting work?  I have. I had to cast a small film I was working on and received HUNDREDS of headshots via the mail. (This was back in 2004!)  Flipping through them, they ALL looked alike…EXCEPT FOR THE ACTOR!  (Back then, I got a TON of black & white shots so they REALLY all looked alike!)  And guess what?  It didn’t matter!  I was looking at the person in the picture, reading the name, flipping it over and then looking at their attached resume.  I didn’t spend 20 minutes analyzing the photography. (probably due to the fact that I wasn't a photographer at that point either.)   Granted, there were some obviously bad headshots sent but that just meant I couldn’t take that person seriously or I just had to wonder what the hell they were thinking.

Look, I’m not suggesting that there aren’t photographers who have a particular style that’s part of their brand, in fact, that’s the ENTIRE point really of this post.  My particular style involves blowing out blue, cool tone backgrounds with my subjects cinematically lit in very close up, tight crops.  Period. I studied headshot photography.  I learned a style of lighting, mastered it and have tried to develop my own look and style on top of it. (might I also add...I've been shooting this way and focused on headshots less than a year)  People see it, they like it, I book clients, end of story.  It's consistent.   More important than my backgrounds and lighting though are my subjects and how I capture them.  When it comes to doing that, I can shoot in studio on white, black, grey, purple or whatever color someone wants. I can shoot natural light or use one speedlight and a point and shoot camera…either way…I’m going to nail a dope headshot that kills and brings my clients work.

 Headshot photography isn't for narcissists.  It's not about "oh look at my incredible, artistic eye for portraiture and how good I am with using light!"  It's about providing a service to clients and making sure the final images serve their purpose.  

More than likely, the person that sent me that email is probably another photographer. I’d bet anything on it.  Only an amateur photographer so caught up in the wrong thing and with little understanding of the headshot business would bother to pen such an email and attempt to belittle my work.  (I’d most definitely bet anything that it’s a headshot photographer for sure!)   So, with all of that said, I’d like to close with another “thank you” to my admiring fan and wish him or her all the best.  And to everyone else, I certainly hope this read gave you some insight on the matter.  If you’re a headshot photographer,  I hope to have made sense regarding all of this and maybe even helped you some. If you’re an actor,  I definitely hope that this has provided some insight on how to examine headshots and what’s most important in how they’re shot.

If anyone has more to add, please feel free to Comment below as well as LIKE, SHARE on social media.