We've all read magazine articles about artists, business people, politicians and other individuals of importance. Those articles are often peppered with various photos of the subjects, some action shots, some candid behind-the-scenes style photos and some portrait style headshots. Those headshots, at least the good ones, generally have a few things in common.
First of all, the subject is looking at the camera, ideally right down the lens. Second, there is a least a hint of a smile. Third, the face is slightly off centre, the body facing the opposite side of the frame. Fourth, the light source is not straight from an on-camera flash, but rather angular in some way, ideally with a strong back light to create a rim around the subject and pull him out from the background. Finally, and importantly, the subject's closest eye has to be the point of sharpest focus and the background has to be at least a little out of focus.
These things are easy to accomplish with a bit of practice. The bad news is that to get the best results, you need to invest in the right equipment. Unlike in landscape photography in which even the most basic camera - in the right hands - can take breathtakingly awesome shots, to get good headshots, at a minimum you need the right kind of sensor and the right kind of lenses. The right kind of camera is one that has a large enough sensor to allow you to 1) get creative with your depth of field and 2) capture a reasonable dynamic range. The right lenses produce sharp images and allow you to shoot at very low f-stops like f/1.8 or f/2.
The following photo was shot with a Canon 100D, an entry level DSLR camera, with a Canon f/1.8 50mm prime lens. Lighting was provided by the sun and my assistant holding a silver reflector. Note that this photo obeys all the rules stated above. In particular, look at the sharpness of the eyes and compare this to the softness of the background. This photo worked out perfectly. It's not the sort of result you could get on a point-and-shoot or even with the standard 18-55mm kit lens that comes with the camera.
The first picture was taken with the same equipment. While an excellent photo, if I do say so myself, I think a better result could have been achieved using a full-frame camera with the same lens. This would have made the background softer because of the narrow depth of field associated with full-frame optics, which would have made the subject look sharper in comparison. Also, the 50mm prime I was using is designed to cover a full-frame sensor, meaning the point of focus would be sharper. Finally, I could achieve the narrow depth of field while shooting on a stop that would produce sharper images, instead of having to shoot wide open (f/1.8 lenses are not sharpest at f/1.8, but at a smaller aperture, generally close to f/5.6).
The combination of an entry level DSLR and a 50mm prime-lens produced results that made the client very happy. If I'd been shooting an A-List actor for Rolling Stone, I think they'd have been happy too, but personally, given the choice, I'd rather work with the tools that afford me the flexibility to get exactly the image I want.
This is why the pros gravitate toward portrait and headshot photography. The difference between a pro and an amateur is obvious enough that people who need good headshots are willing to pay the premium. This is also why pros invest in equipment that is going to give them the best results.
Thanks for reading.
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Portraits and Headshots
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