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Hairlight Helper

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Headshots can be a bread-and-butter item to a commercial photographer.

They come in all varieties and styles.

Actors and models, for example, often need a variety of headshots, showing them in different poses and attitudes, to best show off their range of emotions and physical attributes. Many times a model or actor will combine several different headshots into one composite – often four smaller images on one 8x10 sheet.

Authors need headshots for their book jackets as well as for publicity. Recently, an article in a national publication opined that a really cool headshot could be as important to the success of a book as the actual words contained therein. [What this says about our society and its predilection for appearance over substance is best left to another column. The point is that authors need good headshots too.] In fact, an author who finds a headshot he or she really likes often will use that shot over and over. That can be flattering – as well as lucrative – to the photographer who made the shot, even if audiences attending readings or book-signings are surprised to find that their favorite writer has aged a bit.

In Washington, DC, especially – where law firms, national associations and lobbyists – dominate the downtown real estate – headshots are a must. Big national and international law firms, for example, routinely put together "face books" so that people in satellite offices – not to mention clients – can put lawyers' faces to names. For years, my wife Judy and I were the official facebook shooters for one huge downtown law firm with offices all over the world. We'd come to the offices every six months or so, set up a mini-studio in a conference room complete with grey seamless backdrop and studio strobelights, and make portraits of new hires. Over the course of many years, we also found ourselves re-photographing longterm staffers whose hairstyles or other physical features had changed – or who simply wanted a new picture.

In the old days, facebooks were literally that – books. Big thick things that either were printed in house or jobbed out. Now, of course, most if not all such "books" are offered online, on a company's or firm's website.

That's precisely what will happen in a few days when Judy and I will set up shop at another downtown law firm to make headshots. It's what we did a few weeks ago at a nearby association and lobbying group. In both cases, the work we produce will end up being seen mostly on the firms' respective websites.

If all this sounds like a way to make fairly easy money, keep mind that digital technology has, if anything, made it more difficult for commercial photographers to make and keep clients like these.

After all, if a firm needs headshots (usually in a hurry) for, say, its own website, why not have Joe or Mary the in-house camera buff bring in his or her digital happy snap and stand folks up against a wall during lunch? No muss, no fuss – and who wants to pay a professional photographer anyway?

Or...let's say Bigdome, Bailey and Braunschweiger has used a photographer in the past, who has provided prints for the facebook. Where in the past the firm could be counted on to regularly re-order prints that had to be sent to publications, or used for visas, or other purposes, what's to stop BB&B from simply scanning one 5x7 glossy and storing that image for easy transmission or printing over and over and over without the photographer's knowledge, much less compensation for usage?

Not a damn thing, as it happens.

Actually, there are two issues here. Unless a photographer somehow gets a client to agree never to re-use an image without compensation, there really is nothing to stop anyone from scanning, transmitting or reproducing a picture, especially in the privacy of one's home or office. That simply is one of the realities of this brave new digital world that so many love and embrace. Give a client a print or a digital image and, as a practical matter, you most often have given up your rights to it. The depressing truth is that it often is too much trouble to keep tabs on such unauthorized re-use.

But in the case of a firm doing things on the cheap and having an in-house amateur do the work that once had been done by a pro, there is a difference.

And that difference is in quality.

Old-fashioned as it may sound, I really believe that quality will out.

When Judy and I do headshots, for example, the lighting can involve as many four strobelights, fired from different angles – a far cry from the piddly little on-camera flash on a point and shoot camera. Or, heaven forbid, from an available light shot in which the subject is lit by overhead fluorescent lights and, owing to color shift and deep eye shadows, winds up looking like a green raccoon.

The four lights we have available for headshots are: a main light and a fill light, of different intensities, often placed at a 45-degree angle to the subject and almost always diffused through an umbrella or a softbox; a background light placed on the floor to shine light up at the grey seamless to separate the subject from the background when necessary; and finally a hairlight. As the name implies, a hairlight lights up the subject's hair to, once again, provide separation and contour. Often, a strobe used as a hairlight is fitted with a beam-directing grid-spot, often a honeycomb-pattered sheet that helps focus the beam more directly where it is aimed.

Of all of these lights, the hairlight can be the trickiest. Since it often is the brightest and most direct light in the shoot, it can be overpowering and therefore intrusive if it is not aimed well. In the studio, with a subject lit only by the modeling lights of the actual strobes involved, it is comparatively easy to see how the hairlight is hitting a subject.

But in the real world of office location portraiture – with window light and overhead fluorescent light muddying the lighting equation – the effect of the hairlight can be more difficult to see. This can lead to wasted time, for Polaroid or digital proofing, and adjusting the hair light each time until it is right.

Enter the laser pointer.

I use a laser whenever I lecture, and especially when I give a slide show or am judging a camera club competition. The intense directed beam of my red laser pen beats the heck out of my sticking my finger in front of the projector lens as if I were making shadow puppets and trying to point out and discuss a particular element in a picture.

The laser's intense direct beam led me to think I could use it to see exactly where my hair light was falling during a location portrait shoot. And it worked like a charm.

The key is to hold the laser pen exactly in the middle of the hair light reflector and aim it as closely as possible to the exact angle of the strobe. (See photo).

The end result was that Judy and I were better able to make first-rate portraits more quickly. Portraits that were infinitely better than anything that could have been done by an in-house amateur – and which made it much more likely that we'd be called back by this client in the future.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Frank Van Riper
It may look like something out of a Buck Rogers sci-fi flick from the 40s, but trust me: this is not a Martian death ray. In fact, it's a simple laser pointer being pressed into service to help me better direct the light from this grid-spotted studio strobe onto my subject for a more effective hairlight. In many portrait situations a hair light helps separate the subject from the background and creates pleasant highlights that improve the final picture.

© Goodman/Van Riper Photography
Note how the hairlight here adds a bit of snap to what, frankly, is a pretty standard headshot. But standard headshots can be a bread-and-butter item to commercial photographers, especially in a town like Washington. Doing them better than someone in the office wielding his or her digital happy-snap is what helps separate pros from amateurs.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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