Great Promotional Head Shots What’s Next?

Great Promotional Head Shots What’s Next?

At Church Street Studios we’ve been photographing head shots for actors, models, dancers, musicians, and business people for almost 30 years. During that time, the physical nature and style of the head shot has gone through many  changes. It started with the studio session in vertical format using film, with the final product being a printed 8 x 10 black and white photo on glossy paper. It was the “classic” standard for many years. Then the photographic revolution began.

As color photography and color print making became more sophisticated and less expensive, models and their agencies began to gravitate toward color. Hair color, eye color, and skin tone were important to fashion design, cinema, and advertising. The actors, musicians, dancers, and business people continued with black and white, since color was not really as useful to the people who hired them, and since the cost of black and white photography and printing remained much less expensive than color.

Photo sessions continued to take place primarily in studios with studio lighting and backdrops. Most photographers processed and printed their own black and white film. It was part of the craft of photography and contributed to the unique image quality produced by each photographer as a signature of their artistry. I remember how common it was to have a dark room in every  studio. That was also the day when every serious photographer had their own studio.

With the advent of digital photography and the internet, things began to change dramatically. First, the difference in the cost of color photography vs black and white photography suddenly disappeared! A digital image file, whether it was a color file or black and white, cost the same to produce…virtually nothing! Prices for printing color images remained higher, but with the internet, the need for printed promotional materials began to diminish. Then with mind boggling changes in print technology, the cost of printing everything, fell dramatically. The cost differential between color vs black and white also decreased.

What ended the reign of the black and white promotional headshot was the not only the sharp decline in the cost difference between color and black & white, but more importantly, the fact that color had more impact when displayed electronically on internet web sites. The media of the electronic screen favored color over black and white. So we kissed black and white good bye, except for fine art images, and got all our kicks from color.

What followed was an avalanche of digital color head shots as the cellulose mountain of film photography crumbled into billions of megabytes of actor/model faces and torsos. Head shots often appeared with gruesome tints of green and purple, and then more commonly with tones of jaundiced yellow and orange as digital photography fell into the hands of hobbyists shooting  cheap easy head shots in their living rooms and backyards, knowing little about lighting techniques and color temperatures.

About the same time, right on cue, the art colleges and institutes of America jumped into the frenzied boom of digital photography making billions by graduating hundreds of thousands of new photographers on government loans with the illusion that they would have an easy time building a sexy career as a photographer. The plethora of start up photographers did not have studios or studio lighting gear. They did not have an easy time building a sexy career. They did however have the lowest prices.

Enter the era of “the brick alley headshot”.  Sun light and city streets are free. The concept of shooting a promotional headshot in the streets, after years of studio head shots, was “new and exciting”.  After the recession of 2008, actors and models with almost nothing in their pockets, wholeheartedly embraced a generation of wannabe photographers shooting in the streets and charging practically nothing.

What followed was a tsunami of head shots, photographed in the streets of America, washing over every casting director’s desk, crashing through the plate glass windows of the modeling agencies, until it seemed like every actor and model in the country was a street person. They were shot wandering up alley ways, or leaning against brick walls sometimes with smoldering, wanton looks in their eyes, sometimes smiling like happy children. The actors and models of the digital age appeared to be existential vagabonds lost in American cityscapes.

To understand why this style of headshot has become so common, consider the fact that  photography studios are disappearing due to skyrocketing rents and dwindling photography fees. Also factor in the high cost of professional studio lighting equipment and the experience needed to use it creatively. Is it any surprise that the days of “the brick alley headshot” seem here to stay, even though they no longer produce a sensation? When you bombard casting directors and model agencies with street shot faces for over 2 decades, the yawn becomes the reaction of choice.

To attract attention is one of the most important criteria for good promotional photography. Everyone knows that to attract attention, promotional photography needs to be exciting, contemporary, different, novel, even futuristic. The question in your mind should be “so what’s next”?

Is it “the talking headshot”?  you askChurch Street Studios introduced the concept of a video headshot in 2003, demonstrated it on our PhillyFaces talent site, and received an interview and write up in the Sunday New York Times Theater Section as the next new wave. The New York Times editor was wrong. People looking for talent don’t have time to listen to a monologue. The pace of life has accelerated beyond expectation or belief. For talent and business promotion, the talking headshot can be a great adjunct, but will not replace the still photograph. So what’s next?

Great studio photography, because it has been on a back burner for so long, because it is more difficult to achieve, more unusual, more exotic, is the next Wow!…and that also includes classic black and white with contrast levels skillfully adjusted for the electronic media. The promotional headshot photographed in studio with the accurate skin tones and stunning effects of carefully controlled studio lighting is the next wave of Awesome. Not easy to find? Try looking for it on Church St., in Old City Philadelphia.