Portraits versus "Headshots." Images made expressly for commercial and social media consumption versus portraits made for more thoughtful consumption.

I had an interesting week last week. Over the course of three days, in a temporary studio "constructed" on location, I made headshots of 85+ people. Some of the engagements were hurried. At times people were waiting in a line to get in front of the gray, seamless background where they would flash their best smiles and try for a good image to put up on LinkedIn or Facebook. Some encounters were more leisurely with people coming at random times while their business comrades were huddled together in break-out sessions and seminars. 

When time permitted we could make finer adjustments to the lighting and spend more time in conversations meant to put the subject at ease and reveal some side of them that would make for a more pleasing headshot. But, in my mind, a factory approach to portraiture never renders more than a headshot. Only with great luck will one pull from quick, almost fixed light, sessions like these anything that approaches what I think of as a portrait. It's the not necessarily just the lack of time that limits the final quality or depth of the image but the intention to make so many consistent headshots in a set way; and in a set time.

During the busy periods the routine went something like this: I would be at the camera position holding my tethered GH5 with a 12-100mm lens on it. (This was a departure for me as previously I tended to always shoot from a tripod. But with a line of people, some tall, some short, some with glasses, shooting handheld meant I could more quickly line up a composition and position the subject in the frame with a measure of consistency and adaptability).  I was using a Phottix 48 inch Octobox as my main light and a 48 inch, white umbrella as my active fill light. It was a simple lighting set up mandated by our lack of space and need for a lighting scheme that was instantly adaptable, at least enough to suit all kinds of people. I could vary the lighting ratio by increasing or decreasing my fill light. I could move a light a bit to the left or right to get rid of reflections or enhance a shadow...

We were shooting against a steel gray, seamless, paper background and were unable to put it nearly far enough away from the camera so I changed gears and worked closer to the background, illuminating it with the spill from the main light. 

Ben manned the laptop computer and kept an eye on two pieces of software: The Panasonic Lumix Tether app and Adobe Lightroom. I'd shoot and Ben would make sure the files were brought in by tether to a watched folder and then into an open Lightroom window. From there the images were displayed on a 32 inch 1080 HD TV screen so people could see multiple images at a time and make a final selection from there. Ben guided each person through a selection process that was relatively quick and painless. We'd note their choice on a paper form and go back to the studio at the end of the day to retouch their file and deliver it via e-mail. That all worked pretty well and we ended up delivering about 115 images (some people couldn't decide between two final poses so we just did both). 

While I like to think of myself as a portraitist in my capacity last week I was resolutely a "headshot" photographer. And all week long I thought about the difference between the two. My idea and practice of portraiture involves trying to make each portrait image unique. I rarely set up my lights, camera or backgrounds in quite the same way. I try to find a background that matches the intended "feel" of the portrait and which is a complement to the lighting. 

When I light a portrait I move back to my preferred style (as opposed to an expedient method of lighting for consistency and faster throughput) and I play with the lighting throughout the session, making adjustments in response to what I see in the frames as I shoot. I might move the main light closer to get a softer look but one with a quicker falloff from light to dark. I might increase the intensity of a background light on a darker gray background to get better separation.

But the important difference to me between the headshot and a portrait is one of intention. In the first instance I'm basically creating product. What's called for, generally, is a good representation of the person in front of my camera, inserted into a uniform background and a uniform presentation with the premise that each of these images will live on the same web page as other people from the company and that consistency of presentation is a good thing in web design. A consistent headshot style can be part of a company's overall visual branding....if the people commissioning the portraits take time to think about what it is they want to convey...

A portrait, in my way of thinking, is much less about a corporate branding strategy than it is about making an interesting representation of the person. The singular person, separate from the social/corporate construct. 

Making a portrait that really works takes time. It's not a particularly efficient or time effective undertaking. There is a give and take that evolves over time and each frame taken builds toward a final image. A good session has to be open to failure during the process. Sometimes what worked for one person is anathema for the next. One has to experiment to the point of failure and then admit defeat on that track, drop it and start over again in a different way. 

Emotionally, too, I think a good portrait session is a building process. In a technical sense one creates a foundation for the session (lighting, lenses, etc.) and builds in the details, but it's also a building process in the way that movies build to some sort of conclusion or climax at which point you understand the actor's journey and the story's resolution. Not as dramatic with portraits but one does find a moment at which there is something more revealed and one must be ready to react at that moment and make the shot. And sometimes it's the taking of that particular shot the breaks the spell both sitter and photographer have been working to create. You have to get the pivotal moment the first time because, in my experience, it's impossible to build back to that moment in anything approaching the same way. Or with exactly the same feeling.

Pre-social media our industry had curators and gate keepers who made assignments for editorial portrait photographers. Corporations filled the same functions with in-house creative teams that understood the art of presentation and the value of a unique and powerful image of a person. Except for the highest reaches of corporate communication that understanding and embrace of  visual value is being forgotten or left untaught and unappreciated. 

In a sense the need for cost efficiency and the impatience with the unmeasurable process of connecting, "human-to-human" is rendering most conventional (outside of the art world) portraiture into a diminished and diluted replica of its former self. It's become a rapid distillation process that boils down so many possibilities into the blandest and most homogenous approach to cataloging humans' faces for quick, online documentation. 

I cringe now when new, potential, clients call and ask me to bid on multiple "headshots" in a day. The clients, driven by profit goals and bosses who view everything as a commodity, are largely more interested in finding out the cost per head than in finding a value proposition in which the actual aesthetics of the work provide enduring value. Their dream bid is an "all you can eat" approach in which they want to know just how many people they can cram into a day at a fixed day rate. Can you do ten? How about 50? How about 300? Do they understand, at all, how long it would take to retouch all those images?

Fortunately, my experience tells me that there will always be a market for people who have the discrimination to demand work that falls out of the narrow commercial boundaries. They understand the value that differentiation brings. They understand the benefits of customized approaches to lighting, engaging and post production. It's our responsibility to supply these clients with wonderful, amazing, compelling and engaging work. Perhaps these clients will lead others by example...

I have two quick stories about both customization and commoditization as it applies to portraiture and photography. The first is about a photographer named Aaron Jones who created a very stylized and technically innovative style of lighting back in the 1990's. He used time exposures along with selective lighting and selective image diffusion to create images that wowed people. He commercialized his approached by making a machine called, "The HoseMaster" (a light pipe or "light hose" that had a shutter attached to open and close the device, and the stream of light, at will) which he sold to all the thousands of photographers whose clients demanded that they copy (sometimes slavishly) Aaron Jone's style. Within months the style became ubiquitous and, since many copy cats had little understanding of aesthetics, most of the work was crap. The style died completely soon afterwards. A cautionary story for the legions of "shooters" who believe that lighting faces with ring lights is revolutionary? (Actually artists like fashion photographer, Anthony Barboza, were using ring lights in fashion and portraiture decades ago; it's a style that keeps revisiting us--- like the flu). My point is that copying a prevailing style isn't the same as forging your own path and, in the long run, will instantly date the work done for clients who demand it. 

My second story is about a close friend who is a great portraitist and an even better on-the-spot adapter. He was commissioned to do a photograph of a doctor for a magazine. It would be a cover shot and he was chosen because his work and his lighting was impeccable. He and I had many conversations about photography and his main point was that every situation is different and you must remain mentally flexible and try new things if what you are doing doesn't work.

In preparation for the doctor's portrait he set up his studio with state of the art electronic flash lighting in various modifiers which he had designed and perfected himself. The doctor showed up and they got to work. The photographer soon realized, and the doctor confirmed, that the doctor could not tolerate flash and had fast enough reflexes to blink on every single exposure. The best they had gotten after 15 or 20 minutes of trying was a photo with droopy, half-opened eyes. It just wasn't working. 

My friend didn't miss a beat. He opened the black out curtains on the North facing windows of his studio, rearranged the background and set his camera to shoot at five frames per second. Minutes later they had a card full of perfect images. The continuous light worked. The magazine was thrilled. The doctor was thrilled and to my friend it was just another day of problem solving and style shifting. 

There is more to this business than making commodity headshots. There are still clients willing to pay for good work. We have to be able to see the difference and up-sell our clients from "headshots" to portraits. But first we have to remind ourselves that there's a difference


Working on shallow depth of field with fast lenses on smaller formats.

The usual hit on micro four thirds format cameras is the lack of control over depth of field. Not that you can't get everything you want (usually) in focus but that you can't drop enough stuff OUT of focus to get the kinds of results you might be used to if you are coming to this format from a full frame camera and moderately fast lenses. The lens I have been pining for is the old Canon 100mm f2.0 which is fairly (but not perfectly) sharp wide open but really seems to be more comfortable when used stopped down to f2.8 or lower. It's a great focal length for my work and there are three contenders in m4:3 that I've been considering. I just initiated ownership of one of these three. It's coming from Amazon.com and I'll be testing it on a series of portrait assignments over the next week. 
If it doesn't meet my "stringent" test results I'll send it back and go on to choice number two and, if that doesn't work, choice number three (the choices being order by the decreasing desirability of increasing cost). 

I've been on a cheap lens buying jag for the last couple of months and I'm not really slowing down much. I (re-)bought the small and beautiful Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN Art lens because I've always liked the ones I owned before. I like this one as well but even at f2.8 there's more in focus than I would like in some situations.

I thought the Sigma 30mm f1.4 would get me into sweeter territory, and


The sun is shining this morning but the thermometer still reads 19 degrees. Packing up for our last day of shooting for our event client.

 We had a slow day of portrait making yesterday. The company we're working for decided not to schedule appointments but to let people show up on their own volition. We're set up in an area at the conference hotel at the end of a long hall and across from a small conference room that is being used for video interviews. We've been there for two days and so far have seen no one come for a video interview. The video team heads out into the hallways to try to recruit people but they end up settling for "man on the street" interviews, on the run, in the public spaces...

We're set up to do portraits and we've got our camera tethered to a laptop and then to a bigger screen so the portrait subjects can see their images as the photos hit the monitor and make a selection on the spot. It's a good system but one that requires a bit of time to first make the images and then to walk the "customer" through the selection process.

I'm sure the marketing team who set this up thought that booking three days would allow for good flexibility with everyone's schedules but it looks like everyone is waiting for the last day (which would be today). If human behavior is any clue we'll have a packed house in the very last hour we're scheduled to be there, with stragglers begging (demanding?) that we stay later and keep shooting.

Unfortunately we have a hard stop at 6:30pm. When we accepted the job we were scheduled to be done earlier and yesterday we got the request to stay right up until 6:30. We've already got something else schedule downtown at 8pm so it's going to require some precision to make everything work as it is.

Yesterday we averaged about 1.5 headshots per hour. Not a particularly scorching pace... Today we'll both bring books to read during the slow times and then try to wade through the last minute rush.

Here's my new set of guidelines for clients who might request this kind of service again:

1. Forget the three day scheduling and select one day and, more exactly, four straight hours.

2. If you figure out that everyone will come at once let us know and we'll arrange for at least one more photographer and workstation. More, if needed, so no one has to wait.

3. Make sure clients understand that schedules are not infinitely flexible for end times. We can work faster but not always longer. A hard stop is a hard stop and throwing more $$$ at it won't change the schedule.

4. Get as many people committed to scheduled times as possible to avoid the mad rush at the end. Perhaps offering "V.I.P." scheduling on the first day so people don't have to wait, and associate the appointments on the first day as a special privilege.

5. Put up signage to direct people to the temporary studio. If you are offering free headshots to your employees and partners then knowing where to go for one's portrait will make the process work more effectively.

6. All details and agreements before the shoot have to be via e-mail or on paper. We can't commit to time, budget or detail changes based on a hurried cellphone conversation in the car. We can't take notes at 70 mph.

If you sense a bit of consternation on my part I have to say that it's partially self-inflicted. I had worked with a person in the marketing arm of this company for well over a year and we both had a very good (and matching) understanding of how to plan and produce a photo shoot so it worked well for everyone. Sadly, he left the company just a couple of weeks before this show. He and I had conferenced about all the parameters of this week's job but somehow his notes didn't seem to convey, linearly, to the next person at bat. There was much "winging it." Much wasted time. Much misguided energy.

It was almost like a job from the early days of my career when all of us seemed to be feeling everything out for the first time. But for many event situations like this it's too late to change the direction of the ocean liner once you get to the location. You just have to understand that at any moment you might meet up with the iceberg and need to abandon ship.

On the second and third days Ben and I both brought our metaphorical life vests along, and good novels, and we made the best of it; right up to the very end.

At a certain point you do come to realize that you've hit a point where endlessly re-training clients isn't exactly fun or cost effective. Then you realize it's time to do something different... or you can stay put and bang your head against the proverbial wall. Always your choice.


Making the weather call. This will seem silly to people north of Austin.

Martin Burke for ZACH Theatre. Austin, Texas. 

I just walked out to my driveway to find my car covered with ice. I don't have a real windshield scrapper but I know enough not to use a piece of metal. I used one of the plastic hand paddles we use in swim practice and, along with my rear window defroster, de-iced the back window and the windshield. The car's instrument panel indicated that the temperature outside is holding steady at 25 and we have a light peppering of ice/sleet (but not freezing rain) dropping down in staccato drops.

Our assignment downtown starts at noon today which means we should aim to be at the Westin Hotel by 11:30am, and that's where the Texas-Traffic-Roadway-calculus comes in. We're not precisely sure that we'll be about to make it out of the neighborhood and onto the main roads. If we do we're not sure how many cars we'll encounter, filled with baffled Texans, which have lost control and may be blocking intersections and roadways. We're not sure if all the overpasses have been closed. 

Ben and I have mapped out a route that requires us to travel over zero overpasses and transit only one bridge; the main bridge to the downtown Capitol. It's the Congress Ave. bridge. We hope that enough people have gone over it to provide some guidance ruts....

From there we wend our way through the one way streets of downtown. But, at least today, I'm reasonably certain we'll find street parking, and even more certain that parking enforcement will NOT be out today writing tickets for expired parking meter loitering.

Choice number two is to call the client and admit that we, like most level headed southerners, are frightened by the freezing weather and out of control fellow drivers and would prefer to stay home by the fireplace and drink coffee laced with bourbon and watch old movies on TV. 

We're an adventurous sort and will probably take the middle ground: be willing to give it all a go but ready to surrender to reality at any time and turn around. I'd hate to see a billable work day go fallow after my rough start to the year but I think health and safety trump micro-calendar cash flow issues.

To stay almost on topic I have to give a nod to the GH5's face/eye detect AF. It works well. It was one thing I didn't have to think about during yesterday's portrait shooting. 

If you are reading this in the northern hemisphere I hope you stay warm and cozy. If you are one of my wonderful readers in Australia I hope your heat wave has broken and you are staying cool and enjoying the great outdoors. 

The adventure continues. At least we don't have to shovel snow....


A zany day of shooting. More zaniness to ensue.

The GH5 worked well in our tethered shooting today. We used the new, Lumix Tether software and it recognized and shook hands with the camera instantly. We were less lucky with our final destination software, Lightroom Classic. Though we'd practiced the set up and connection routine a number of times in the studio something wasn't working this morning when we set up at the location. The one failure always happens when the clock is ticking down toward an impending start deadline.

Seems that the Lightroom Classic needs to check in with the Adobe mothership when going one I.P. address to another and, of course, I'd forgotten the password. That brought everything to a screeching halt until Ben reminded me that one could check in with Adobe products by using a Facebook account. We did so and for the rest of the day Lightroom was well behaved.

You can do all the usual stuff with Lumix Tether, as far as controlling the camera goes. The files go from the camera to a watched folder and Lightroom takes over from there. We did drop a connection two or three times during the course of the day but troubleshooting traced the issue down to Kirk's bad cord management. The micro-USB three connection was fussy. We'll fix that before we go back tomorrow.

The images on the calibrated laptop looked great. On the big TV monitor they were quite acceptable but a little cooler, more contrasty and subtly flavored with mild sharpening halos. The clients all thought they looked great. I can only wonder at whether they will like the final retouched files in the same way. After all, discrimination of quality tends to be subjective. And contextual.

The laptop and connected computer brought us a lot of speed and control as well as providing a third tier of redundancy (card slot A, card slot B and the laptop hard drive).  I'm finding that shooting tethered somehow puts the brakes on my rapid shooting style and I'm making due with 10 to 12 images per person instead of the 25-50 I usually shoot.

Ben is walking each client through the post process and helping them choose a perfect selection. We'll take each select and do a mild retouch overnight and then deliver via e-mail. It's actually a perfect compromise.

Tomorrow promises new challenges. I just saw a weather report that says we probably won't get above freezing for the next 36 hours (starting tonight at midnight) and new forecasts are calling for rain, sleet, snow and the possibility that the temperatures will hit 18 on Tues. night. People up north are used to this kind of nasty weather but in Texas we'll see hundreds of car wrecks, thousands of broken water pipes and a total shut down of all commerce and government. The schools have already announced closures everywhere.

Along with the client we've changed our schedule for tomorrow. We'll start later (noon, if we can get up the hill from our house) and go a bit later in the day. The premise being that by noon most of the roads will have been made passable by coffee addicts and workaholics who feel compelled by their addictions to get out early and tempt fate. My hope is that they've bought enough coffee and risked enough lives that they roads will have drivable ruts through the ice that allow us to reach the client by midday.

We'll bring extra food, blankets and a compass just in case.

Wish me luck, it's going to be a Revenent kind of day out there...

P.S. just heard from the swim club. No practice tomorrow morning! You know it's bad when they close the pool !!!

An Early Morning of Packing and Some Notes From the Week.

After the trauma and drama of my family's "holiday" it felt so good to get back to work last week. My first project back was to create video of an interview with Abe Reybold, who is one of the artistic directors at ZACH Theatre. I went "old school" with my audio, running two inexpensive Audio Technica AT70, wired lavaliere microphones into the Panasonic DMW-XLR-1 audio interface and then into the GH5. Say what you will about the miracles of wireless technology but the hard-wired microphones were very clean and the audio from the session is impeccable.

I chose to go with "lavs" because the room we worked in can be noisy and the close proximity of the omni-direction microphones goes a long way toward damping down background noise. There's also an argument to be made that fewer electronics (mic transmitters and receivers) in the pathway of the audio makes for a cleaner sound.

The next day Ben and I headed over to our favorite, big accounting firm to do another flurry of headshots for them. We set up the cordless monolights (Neewer Vision 4) and a neutral gray background and had a very pleasant morning just meeting new people and easing them into the process of looking great.

It was so much fun to have Ben there to help me set up, tear down and cover all the minutia that I find burdensome. From there the rest of the week was about post processing and video editing. We knocked out a two minute rough for one project (with Ben at the editing helm) while creating web galleries for our accounting client (my purview...).

Having distilled my selection of working cameras down to just the GH5's is very liberating. There's no question which cameras and lenses will be in attendance when we head out the door on an assignment. I keep rounding out the lens selection but keep coming back to the 12-100mm Pro and the 40-150mm Pro (both from Olympus) every time I fire up the cameras and point them at profitable subjects. The more recent lenses, and the primes, seem to be my "hobby" lenses.

I photographed an unusual children's play on Saturday. It was done with puppets and puppeteers. It was done in two languages. Again, the 12-100mm was the lens of first choice but I also got some shots from the 30mm f1.4 Sigma that arrived last week. I shot with that lens wide open or stopped down to as low as f2.2 and I was impressed by how sharp the resulting files are. The GH5 is perfectly adept at making good looking photographs at ISO 1600. Not too much noise in the blacks. Not at all.

Sunday was a day dedicated to family stuff. I headed down to San Antonio right after an early breakfast and visited my dad in the memory care facility. That was yesterday. It was a good visit; my dad was sitting in is favorite easy chair and was dressed in pressed slacks, a nice shirt and a sport coat. Yesterday, at least, he was telling me that he is at a very nice conference hotel and has been attending continuing education sessions about hospital management. He was a little embarrassed because he didn't have any cash with him but I reminded him that I had "borrowed" twenty dollars from him and brought the money with me to re-pay him. That was a big relief... His room is well appointed, large and filled with his own stuff. Family photos, books, knick knacks and a small bowl of Hershey's Kisses; his favorite. He seems to have settled into the "perennial" conference quite nicely but would like me to check and see what happened to his subscription to the New York Times.

I spent the rest of the afternoon pulling out bags and boxes of receipts from closets and drawers around the family house in order to get all my parents' financial papers together and stored safely in one of my lockable filing cabinets back in Austin. I think my mother's approach to filing and organizing financial papers was to put everything in a big stack in one room, toss in a hand grenade or two, and then close the door. At least that's the way it seems in the moment.

We've created a process for paper processing the involves three big boxes. One is for trash (store coupons, solicitations, junk mail), one is for financial papers and the third is for "memorabilia" which could be letters from grandchildren or cards or photographs. The last box are things I would normally toss but which need to be seen by my other siblings before any action is taken. Not in the business of generating regrets...

This morning Ben and I are packing up for our three days of tethered shooting. You are reading this because of a personal error I made this morning: I woke up and mis-read my watch. I turned off my alarm clock and took some satisfaction at having awoken without the alarm. I was drinking coffee and looking the news when I glanced at my watch and realized I'd gotten up for my shoot an hour early.

Ah well, I guess that gives me one more hour in the day.

We are packing too much for the shoot. We are setting up at the end of a public hallway, in a Westin Hotel, adjacent to a wall of windows. I asked that the windows be draped so we aren't fighting the sun the whole day but we'll see what happens. Since we are in a public space that can't be secured it seems like I'll be pulling down the set and packing the car for each of the next three days. Every shoot seems to present some glitches but this one has been glitchier than most. It stems from a changing of the guard. The person who booked us was a great client and one we'd worked with for the better part of a year and a half. With changes afoot at the company my ally decided to resign and start his own marketing firm.

The person replacing him was caught, I think, a bit off guard and has a lot on her plate. We have not been able to get the kinds of details we normally get when doing a project of this scope; headshots of large numbers of upper management and sales pros. We're more or less taking the creative reins and implementing our own style. This could mean "course corrections" at any time during the process.

Ben and I practiced our tethering techniques several times last night and Belinda designed us a log sheet that makes organization of the selected photo files a breeze. Now we'll see if the location works and the scheduling is effective. It's all random chaos now but then that's part of our purview: to bring visual order to corporate chaos. We relish the challenge...

A few tech notes: The 12-100mm f4.0 Pro Olympus lens continues to distinguish itself with a blend of flexibility and optical happiness. The Sigma 30mm f1.4 DC DN is as sharp wide open as advertised and super at f2.2, 2.5, and 2.8. Well worth the $339. The Panasonic "Lumix Tether" software works well and is very straightforward. The integration with Lightroom works well too.

The Vizio 32 inch TV/Monitor I bought could be operated while blindfolded and it seems like it will come in handy for all kinds of stuff down the road. A nice addition to the usual set ups.

All of this prep may be undone tomorrow morning when we are expecting ice storms and dropping mercury. The forecast for Tuesday's early hours is: "rain, ice, snow, and temps falling from 32 down to 23." In Austin that means all travel grinds to a halt. Snow tires? Never heard of them. Salt on the roads? Nope; only on the brisket. Fingers crossed......

Keep the coffee flowing and the shutters clicking and we'll settle back into the new normal. Thanks for reading along. I hope all of you have a great and productive day.