Capturing Headshots, greatest secrets revealed

October 27, 2016

Specializing in headshots becomes an opportunity to capture the essence of people, agencies, and their unfolding dreams — allowing me the privilege to witness greatness. Over the next few months, I will be writing about different agencies and people who shape our society by offering unique services, products, and/or motivational life stories.

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Headshot of Rhiannon Foster by Carlos Taylhardat at Art of Headshots in Vancouver

Today, I am honoring my clients while at the same time revealing the greatest secret for capturing headshots. You may wonder why I am about to reveal my branding secret? It’s because of this: Although anyone can understand it, few will follow through.

My secret for capturing great headshots

“Do you remember the first time you met your wife?” I once asked a client.

“It was in room 101 during Math class in 1971, she was sitting across…”,

His smile was no longer artificial but genuine, enlightened, and engaging. Click, click, click went my camera, like a paintbrush dipped in a palette of genuine emotion. “We now have a son; he is a trauma orthopedic surgeon in Baltimore.” His smile widened, adding a new layer of complexity. I clicked and clicked with my camera but the real tools were our hearts, beating simultaneously. Few things are more delightful than capturing the soul of a cherished client: I cherish them all.

Need I continue to write any longer? Doesn’t his experience explain it all? Do you now know the greatest secret for capturing a headshot?

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Cheryl Headshot by Carlos photographed in downtown Vancouver.

“My girlfriends wanted to go to Mexico instead of Africa. I wanted to go to Africa but was outnumbered. And that is where I met him. I wanted to go to Africa and I met an African in Mexico who became my soul partner.” This particular client is an accomplished executive coach, the confidant of CEOs around the world. During our session she was at her best, retelling the stories of these cherished moments and glowing from the memories.

Every book on photography says the same things: lighting, equipment, cameras, lenses, distance. But no one covers the greatest secret for capturing a headshot. Sure, lighting, exposure, and equipment are crucial — without a camera there are no pictures to be captured. But most headshots out there are of emotionless human beings, photographed like a lump of clay. This produces what I like to call the ‘deer in a headlight’ style; yet some people criticize me for not photographing that way!

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Headshot portrait if Michelle by Carlos Taylhardat at the Art of Headshots Studio in downtown Vancouver.

Recently I photographed a sixty years old CEO who manages a team of scientists, and I marveled at her beautiful energy. She was strong, decisive, and full of life experience while, at the same time, feminine and just kind of — wow! I had all that character waiting to be captured in the headshot.

“If I was photographing a model for Vogue instead of you,” I explained, “it wouldn’t be as great.”

“I’m flattered,” she responded, “but why would you say such a thing?”

“Vogue doesn’t understand true beauty. They shoot fifteen year olds. Kids without life experience. They use a 200mm telephoto lens to photograph this fifteen years old at a distance, without a care about who or what she is all about.” Somehow we all want to compare ourselves to Vogue’s perception of beauty, some and end up looking like Michael Jackson ( 20 cosmetic surgeries later ).

Just to drive the point home, here’s a letter I recently received, following a session from another cherished client:

“These [photos] are absolutely perfect. Thank you so much for making me so at ease during my photoshoot. I also really enjoyed talking to you and sharing my life with you. I learnt a little more about myself which is incredible; and the point that you brought up about my father making sure that my family was financially set before passing brought tears to my mom’s eyes when I told her about it.”

Have I revealed the greatest secret for capturing headshots, yet? Should I write another story?

Why the secret works — The Afghan Girl

Sharbat Gula for National Geographic by Steve McCurry
Sharbat Gula for National Geographic by Steve McCurry

Thirty years ago, National Geographic had a cover image of a thirteen year old girl that would forever change their magazine. Every time National Geographic Magazine adds this particular image they increase sales.

Often, I would ask my photography students to analyze the image and I would hear the same typical responses: “It’s the color contrast that separates the subject matter… blah, blah, and more blah,” the same stuff we are all taught in Art School. Unfortunately, most students don’t know my passion for this image, captured by Steve McCurry, of Sharbat Gula in 1984.

All of my theories and musings about the great secret for capturing a headshot was initiated by my curiosity of what made this portrait of the Afghan Girl so mesmerizing, as well as years of working with youth and families apprehended due to abuse.

Afghan Girl – Wikipedia
Afghan Girl is a 1984 photographic portrait by journalist Steve McCurry which appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. The image is of a young woman with green eyes in a red headscarf looking intensely at the camera. It has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa…

Neuroscientists have determined that we will look at a portrait before any other content or picture, but with little or no idea as to why we do so. I believe that all of our senses get stimulated when we see a portrait because we have an uncanny, empathetic ability to recognize the emotions of others. For that reason, this portrait of Rahmat Gul — who was a refugee from Afghanistan — triggers all our senses and affects us on a deep level.

It’s not the color contrast, it’s not the exposure or the lighting that makes the Afghan Girl the most captivating portrait of all time. It’s everything, but more importantly it’s her story and our emotional response to her story. She is a little girl, struggling to become an adult, and she lost everyone in her life. We feel the truth of that story although we don’t know it consciously. And it’s that truth, that story, that I try to capture in all my clients’ headshots. That is the secret for capturing a great headshot.

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