When Gangplank announced our Chandler Photo Throwdown in the spring of 2010, two photographers jumped on board right away. Nearly a year later, Peter Hart and Jeff Rivers have become star volunteers, assisting in building our Gangplank Studios program and taking fabulous pictures of our events. Recently, we hosted a headshot event that allowed Jeff and Peter to hone their portrait skills. We took a moment to ask about their experience and what they learned.
What got you started with photography?
Peter: As part of my undergrad, I took classes on photography/videography, so I knew some of the foundational principles. I knew that when I got a serious camera, it wouldn’t be a hobby, but I would put my head down and figure out how to make commercial-grade, creative photos. When I finally bought a DSLR, with its instant feedback, that when my knowledge and experience took off. I didn’t get into photography until it was digital.
Jeff: About 15 years ago, when I was looking for a hobby. I thought photography would be challenging to learn and rewarding if I got halfway decent at it. My first “real” camera was a fully manual Pentax SLR. It was no-frills – nothing like the DSLRs that we have now – but it forced me to think about what I was doing and learn to take good photographs.
Describe your ideal headshot subject.
Peter: As a photographer, it helps when a subject is relaxed and willing to try new poses. At this photo shoot, I had a few who were like this. Personally, all of the attendees at the photo shoot were ideal because they were all interesting people doing interesting things.
Jeff: Someone who’s fun and willing to try different things. Everyone at the event was great to work with in this regard.
What equipment did you bring to the shoot and why?
Peter: I used a Canon Rebel XTi, which is an entry level DSLR. I rented a 85mm f/1.8 telephoto lens to use for the shoot. I used my 50mm f/1.8 for when there were two people in the shot. I own three flashes and I borrowed one from a friend to give me more flexibility. 60” and 48” umbrellas spread the light from the flashes over a wide area. This softens or eliminates the shadows on your subject.
Jeff: I was a little paranoid that equipment might fail or I’d get set up and change my mind about the equipment I wanted to use, so I brought way too much equipment – nearly everything I own. In the end though, I went with a pretty simple set up. I used a white seamless background and one light – an Alien Bee B1600 shot through a Westcott Apollo 50″ softbox. I triggered the flash using Pocket Wizard flash triggers.
What is the most difficult part of taking headshots?
Peter: The subject. We all know the landscape of the human face so well that we can interpret a person’s facial expression instantly. If the subject is nervous, anxious, apathetic, or fake, no amount of equipment, lighting or Photoshop can take it away. The success of my photos is determined by my ability to bring out the true personality of the subject.
Jeff: For me, it’s trying to make my subjects comfortable and then posing them. I want the people I’m working with to be comfortable and relaxed. When that happens, everything else takes care of itself.
What methods did you use to make your subjects more comfortable?
Peter: Before I took a shots, I talked with each person. Nothing about getting headshots is natural or normal. I had done research on each person on my list beforehand, so I already had some questions to ask. With this group, conversations were easy because each person was doing something awesome. Once I felt they were ready, I took a few practice shots to set my exposure and to get them used to the process. I kept them talking throughout the session. I also played some awesome progressive music with a good beat to get at least one of us in the mood. Some (ok, all) of my sessions took longer than we scheduled, so thanks to Jeff for picking up my slack ;)
Jeff: Before we started shooting, we’d spend a few minutes chatting. I asked them about their job and what they were going to use their portrait for. Once the shoot started, I tried to give everyone clear instructions, even if I was just making it up as I went along. Once the event started, I was comfortable, so I think that may have come through as well. There were only a handful of times that I had to resort to threats and intimidation.
What did you learn from the event that will help you as a photographer?
Peter: My personal goal in this shoot was to learn how people relax. One criticism of my earlier work was that my subjects looked nervous. My lighting doesn’t matter if the person is nervous.
Jeff: I saw the event as a great opportunity for all involved – it was a no-brainer for me. I got some hands-on experience doing something I enjoy – working with people to find a pose or a stance that suited them best. I met a bunch of new people. And I got to provide the participants with a nice portrait. It’s great to see people using the photos from the event in their social media profiles.