Truthfully, one of the most interesting things that I've learned while becoming a professional headshot photographer has actually dealt with the way that people learn things. What I find interesting is that I am much more easily able to explain to an aspiring headshot photographer the process that I went through in order to get where I am. The reason for this is that as I learn new things, I can easily share that knowledge. Instead of making a huge jump from starting as an unknowing and inexperienced photographer to becoming a master, you're much more easily able to understand how it's done because you can see all the details and all the steps that took place in between that jump.
This article is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Many photographers ask me, “What are the best camera settings to use for professional head shots?” Initially, most entry-level photographers will set their cameras on a much more contrasty setting. The reason for this is because they believe that high contrast makes the image look more beautiful, and so they opt to shoot in that format. However, as the aspiring headshot photographer begins to gain more knowledge in the field, they begin to realize the power of post-production editing for photos. They will wind up making a choice between either shooting in RAW format or shooting in JPEG format and setting the camera settings as neutral (little contrast) as possible. By making the settings neutral, they are enabling themselves to make many adjustments in postproduction.
If I had written this article only a few months ago, I would've boldly recommended that the photographer shoots RAW or neutral JPEG. However, experience has led me to realize that this is actually not the optimum setting for the camera. Instead, I now realize that if I were to shoot in JPEG format, the images will come out looking the best when the adjustments are actually made in the camera. There are always trade-offs in photography, and there are ways to make the images shot in RAW or neutral JPEG look as good or better than the images shot in JPEG with the camera in the correct settings at the time of the shoot. However, I believe that the camera has excellent settings, and this, coupled with the fact that RAW images take up so much space and take a long time to edit, or that neutral JPEG images will take much longer to edit if you have to apply all kinds of filters to them to make them stand out more, I have opted to shoot with the correct camera settings at the beginning.
Shooting with a higher contrast setting will also make you a much better photographer. You have less latitude to work with, so you really have to be spot on when adjusting the exposure of the image. Another advantage to shooting with the correct camera settings beforehand besides the fact that it will save you a lot of time when you're editing later on is that once you burn the disc of all of the images to give to the clients, they will actually have usable images instead of extremely washed-out images that will make them think that you are less professional. Remember, clients don't understand all that goes into photography and if they think that the images don't look good, they won't understand why you shot them that way and they will think that you're a bad photographer.
Now, to get down to the dirty details:
I typically shoot my images slightly warm, with a high contrast setting and a slightly increased color saturation level. Adjusting the white balance in-camera as opposed to adjusting in postproduction will allow for a much more realistic looking effect. Notice that if you make the color bluish in the camera the image will actually look as though the settings were that way naturally. However if you make that same blue adjustment in Photoshop, the images will actually look fake, because things that were supposed to be true white will actually wind up looking blue. This is a dead giveaway to clients that you actually adjusted the image in post production as opposed to shooting it that way at the beginning.
I sincerely hope that this article was useful to you. As an aspiring headshot photographer, I am going through all of the different stages and I'd love to take you along the journey with me and teach you each of the things that I learned. This way, you will understand not only how to take headshots, but actually the reasons why you should do these things.
Professional Headshot Photographer