As a former musical theater actor, headshot photographer Ted Ely understands the importance of story, energy, and human connection. “I want to connect with them as much as possible,” he says of his clients. While beginner headshot photographers tend to focus on things like getting the right gear (lights, modifiers, backgrounds, etc.) or the perfect f-stop, Ely recommends putting your effort into something else entirely.
“You need to have a handle on lighting, camera settings, exposure, and composition to capture the energy within the person, but there has to be to point where you don’t think about it. An intuition.” Once intuition takes over, that’s when you actually start to work. To learn how to unleash your headshot intuition, check out some of Ely’s guidelines below.
Focus on the Person
“You don’t need to get the ratios right, perfect lighting,” says Ely. While he was obsessed with f stops, exposures, and gear in his early days, Ely now insists that connection is more important than a technically perfect set up. “It’s scary, but that’s gonna get a better shot.” Even with his corporate clients, Ely takes at least five minutes to connect with every person. Otherwise, you run the risk of a ‘deer in the headlights’ headshot. (“It looks like you, but do you really want a DMV headshot to represent you in your business?”) Focus on the person, not just the shot.
Work Outside the Box
There are a lot of trends in photography, including headshot photography. As a beginner, it can be useful to experiment using other photographers’ techniques. Ely himself liked to test “styles and things that I saw” when he first started out. Ultimately, however, it’s important to find your own way. “You feel like there are these unwritten rules in photography. I wish I had looked at them as guidelines earlier on.” Instead of following techniques exactly, work outside the box to cultivate your own style.
Communication is Key
“Come at a headshot like a conversation,” says Ely. He explains everything up front, so his clients feel more relaxed. First, he runs through how the day is set up, and then asks them personal questions to cultivate some positive energy, and to form a real human connection. Then, as he shoots, Ely lets the clients know what works. “You need to let them know,” he says. “Yeah, that’s it! That works.” Or conversely, “let’s try this, but [say] it in a kind way.”
As a rule, older people and actors often already know how to narrativize their own story through photographs. They might be willing to go a little deeper communication-wise than younger people or corporate professionals. So plan accordingly! Better communication translates to better photographs as clients open up and experiment. “It really becomes a conversation, a sort of spinning force.”
“I care so much,” says Ely. When you care, clients open up. For him, empathy translates to “an unwavering present focus on the person who is in front of you.” It’s truly caring about how your client feels in the moment, rather than just the outcome of the shoot. “A level of caring and presentness allows people to open up and not get caught up that’s going through their minds.” When people actually respond to empathy, it’s a “euphoric state,” says Ely.
Ultimately, making clients feel heard and comfortable is more important than the best gear or even the perfect exposure. “That’s the secret sauce,” says Ely. “It wouldn’t work if they didn’t feel open to play.” So, play! Experiment with new techniques, connect, communicate, and practice empathy. Don’t take yourself too seriously, either. The best headshots are about the shoot, not the perfect shot.