First, A Quick Update
As some of you may know, I recently started the pursuit of my Master’s in Communication & Information Sciences at Rutgers University, so I’ve been pretty quiet on the blogging and shooting front lately. It has been an incredibly interesting process getting back in the swing of school and at the same time balancing work. In September when I was starting up, I found myself asking, “how do people even balance a full-time job and school?” The answer: by working their asses off! The amount of reading and writing that I have had to do between my two classes in this first semester of this program is easily equivalent to the entirety of my senior year of undergrad. Over the last few weeks I’ve finally started to find my groove and I’m starting to be able to balance being able to get out and shoot, as well as have a life again.
As I have started this new phase of my life, I have also taken up a new camera. For the last few years I have been using entry-level cameras, Micro Four Thirds cameras, and an array of point & shoots to create my images. Most of these cameras have been great, I loved theD5000 & D5100 I had used the last 3 years, and my trusty Olympus PEN E-PL2 has been a really great companion and provided me with ample opportunities to experiment with the way I shoot. However, as you know from this blog, over the summer the Sony DSC–RX1 exposed me to the wonders of the full-frame. That brilliant little beast showed me levels of detail and resolution I had only dreamed of, and the feel of each frame I shot was so engaging and gripping, I decided that the next camera I would buy would be full-frame.
At the time of arriving at this conclusion I didn’t need a new camera, the D5100 was serving me just fine and wasn’t giving me any trouble. But then, divine intervention strikes. One day while shooting an event early in the year, my camera slipped from my bag as I went to pick something up. It was odd to experience, I’ve never had a camera fall like that, they are usually strapped in tightly or attached to my body, but it just slid out and fell to the concrete. It wasn’t a huge fall, but it was enough. As I picked the camera up and tried to shoot with it, the mirror shifted and pulled in directions it shouldn’t. No images were captured, just blackness. It was gone.
A few weeks went by and in this time I searched for what my next camera would be. I toyed with the idea of the D5300 and the D7100; I thumbed the idea of switching over to Canon as well. Canon wouldn’t work for me since my working film cameras are mostly Nikon and I had collected so much glass already. I reminded myself that I wanted to live the full-frame life and narrowed my sights on the D600, D700, and D800. From a price and megapixel count perspective, the D700 was out right off the bat. I’m not a pixel counter by any means, but 12 megapixels after experiencing the 24 megapixels of the RX1 would be tragic. The D800 was just a bit too expensive for my tastes and I really didn’t see any huge advantages, in terms of what I needed, over the D600. The D600 provided the best price, resolution, and feature combination, quickly making it the clear choice. I’m going to save my more in-depth thoughts on the camera for a later post, but I’ll definitely say it was the right decision.
With my new D600 in hand, I was ready to find something or someone to shoot.
Working at a university, I get to meet a lot of students, and many of them need headshots, even if they don’t realize it yet. Some students have a good grip on the importance of their image, and how headshots can get their face and name out there. Donovan T. Smalls is one of those students who knew exactly what he needed and reached out to me to get headshots taken. I was lucky enough to meet Donovan during his first year at Rutgers when he modeled for us in our Rutgers on the Runway fashion show. Donovan has a great personality and upon meeting him, anyone can tell he will be famous someday. Reconnecting with Donovan during this year’s Rutgers on the Runway, we set up a time to get some headshots taken for him as he ramps up his search for work in the entertainment or communications fields. It was very serendipitous as it both gave me the opportunity to test out my new camera, gave me a chance to get back to shooting, and the opportunity to help Donovan out in his quest. During the shoot with Donovan, I started to think about headshots and portraits, and what elements I find important in both.
In setting up the shoot with Donovan, we both really wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t be forgettable shots. We have all seen corporate style headshots, captured in studios in front of a backdrop, artificially lit; they make the subject feel like they exist outside of our world. They are boring, stagnant; they all have the same feel and remove almost all personality from the subject. We wanted to avoid this. Allowing subjects to be themselves allows for much more dynamic, telling portraits. You get a better feel for who you are looking at as their personality shines through. Obviously, not everyone will see the importance in this, but as personality is integral to fit, and more people are taking this into consideration, it is becoming ever more important to bring personality to the forefront in the headshots job seekers are presenting to hirers.
In a traditional portraiture sense, it really helps to have a subject that has great control over their physical presence. People who have a mastery of their expression and body language can help you show off their personality in any environment. I was lucky that Donovan has an amazing ability to do this, but with other subjects, it can be really important to coach them or to make them comfortable enough to allow their personalities to come out during the shoot.
A great way to achieve this comfort is to shoot in an environment that the subject feels at home in. Often, this would be called environmental portraiture and it draws as much attention to the subjects’ environments as the subjects themselves. You can do a quick Google search to see some examples of this style of shooting, and you can quickly see how it frames either what the subject does or the type of environment that they can thrive in.
While my shoot with Donovan is a bit of a departure from this exact style, we wanted to achieve the same sense of comfort. While I shot with a shallower depth of field than is typically done with environmental portraiture, there is still enough context for you to get a feel for the environment that he is residing in. We wanted the shots to have a collegiate feel that led us to shoot mostly one of the prominent malls on campus, allowing elements like academic buildings and gonfalons, while not in focus, to help provide the backdrop.
I think it is really important to remind ourselves that when we are shooting headshots, it’s not just picture day in elementary school. We don’t want the subject to be boring, blend into the page, or look like everyone else around them. Backdrops can be incredibly boring, if not used in a satiric way, and create a vacuum that presents our subjects from really expressing themselves. With headshots we really have the opportunity to showcase who our subjects are, show their complexities, and allow them to both be comfortable and be themselves. When possible, we should leverage the environment around them, and help them present the very best version of themselves. It is our duty as photographers to prevent our subjects from being forgettable.
What are your thoughts? How do you compose headshots? What elements do you think are important to emphasize? Do you think location or environment matters?
All shots taken with the Nikon D600 with Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 24-85mm f/2.8–4D IF and edited in Adobe Photoshop CC.