Do You Really Want My Opinion On Your Head-shot?

I am frequently asked all sorts of questions regarding my opinion on friend's photographs, usually taken by another friend or family member. To date, I have yet to see one that approaches the aesthetic values of a professional image. It's not to say there haven't been elements of good design that has caused me to consider that with a great deal of study the image maker could make something of themselves. But as far as putting it all together, I haven't see one yet. Following is my reply.


Hi "Joe,"

Okay, since you've asked twice, I'll oblige - but you'll learn not to do this again...

What do I think of your head-shot? Well, it all depends on what you're looking for. If what you need is a friendly snapshot, then what you've got is right on par. However, if it's for professional purposes, such candid images tend to work against one's intended objective.

For me to offer a thorough critique, I'd have to start at a place that would entail excavating several layers of photography fundamentals. Neither of us have time for that.

So then, suffice it to say, photography means WRITING with LIGHT. Though a pleasant smile, apt clothing and nice background are very much part of a good photograph, if it's not lit properly, none of it matters. NONE. The images you've shown me have little of what a powerful, persuasive photo requires the most - LIGHT (not to mention a third dimension, depth, which adeptly directed light affords). 

For the most part, people cannot articulate what constitutes an effective image from one that is not. This is because such a review (i.e. analyzing the finer attributes of aesthetics) is rarely considered, and is something not put to them on any sort of prevailing basis.

Regardless, people do make these sort of lofty decisions all the time. When? Every single time they look at an photograph. However, though they are very much making a smorgasbord of judgments about one's image, and doing so all the time, they are simply unaware of it. This is because they form these assessments at the SUBCONSCIOUS level.

This my friend, is the hardest principle to pass along to others - especially businessmen whose primary motive is frequently the bottom line (which translates to getting it done the cheapest and quickest - as opposed to top line mentality). The flip side is that there are no shortcuts to excellence. People may not be able to articulate precisely what it is that instructs them to trust or not to, but our subconscious is busy making such decisions every waking moment. Though photography falls under the heading of an "art form," and you may not always get what you pay for, for the most part, if you employ a master at their craft, you are pretty much guaranteed an image of quality - an image which reflects your character and the trade you wish others to engage.

Oddly enough, even when people initially vocalize a positive response to a request for feedback, after being probed further as to whether or not they truly approved of an image, they are highly more likely state they do. But this is not because they truly scrutinized the candid photo, but more out of social mores than their actual visceral response. That is, they accept the validity of the image without really questioning it and do so as sort of an embodiment of the fundamental approval needs or solicitous views of the group.

Their gut may be winching, but their heart usurps authority, and out comes, "Great photo!"

However, the vast majority of professional head-shots are not being asked for an opinion. They are just out there acting as the silent yet ever present ambassador to one's business and community connections. Those in business never hear the highly critical, subconscious reactions of their potential clients who are judging them with: "unprofessional, " "not credible," "squinty eyes equals shifty and unscrupulous," "dark eye shadows mean their hiding something" etc.  No, such head-shots never get a chance to hear any sort of gut-reaction - they are instead summarily rejected. The client simply clicks another link until they see something or someone who presents themselves in a "professional" manner, or at least one where their SUBCONSCIOUS whispers to their heart that they can be trusted.

Remember, people are turtles - and turtles don't stick their head out for anyone or anything until they first have the single most vital question answered: "It is safe?" Which, for business purposes, is translated to, "Can I trust them?" "Are they credible?"

Unlike turtles, people can, and do, hide from what they really feel. It's the one ingredient that makes endeavors such as exit polling so unpredictable. People might say one thing but inside their gut is telling them something else. As this relates to business, it's telling them to run!

A business head-shot, therefore, is much more than a smile  - it's about revealing the character of a person, which is best expressed and revealed through the eyes.

A great photograph is part expression, and part cosmetics, but the predominant determinant is LIGHT. All of which is evaluated by the guy on the street at the subconscious level. The typical client judges by emotion and speaks with their feet. With the internet, it's even worse - they take a one second glance, judge, and click to a more promising link.

Without dragging this on and going too deep, personality also has a great deal to do with image evaluation. That is, whether one exhibits either objective traits (i.e. the vast majority of any culture, who desire to be liked and get along), or the subjective tendencies (i.e. a small minority who don't really care and follow their own cadence - e.g. artists). Since most people work at getting along with others and want to be liked, chances are that regardless of how obvious the shortcomings in an image, they will more than likely say something nice. However, should you veer into the path of subjective personality type, you just might receive a long-winded letter and wonder from what planet they've descended...

As you might have guessed, I fall into the later group.

You may have also noticed that our culture doesn't, as a rule, carry scalpels around their neck or display awards for the challenging surgeries they've performed. Thus, most of us not only acknowledge we are not doctors, but that we also have great respect for the medical profession. However, put a camera around someone's neck, have a few pictures "blown-up," and what do you have? A culture that not only believes it knows more than the average bear about the art and science of writing with light, but that just about anyone with a camera can do it.

This is also why we never think to ask a carpenter what sort of hammer he wields or a chef the logo emblazed upon her cookware. I understand the illusion of associating the superiority of one's tools to proficiency. Regardless, either the ownership of a camera or the quality of it no more makes a photographer than the cut of one's hammer begets a master-carpenter.  We wouldn't even think to inquire of chef's pots and pans...

In such professions, whether it be doctor, carpenter or chef, we regard their talents and do so because of their degree of skill and the painstaking training required to effectuate their craft. And were any of us unskilled plebes brash enough to don their hat, the hapless results would be all the evidence we need not to parade under such illusions any longer. However, with photography, this not only appears to be NOT the case, from where I sit, it is getting worse with each passing year.

One last observation of a peculiar disposition. There is a distinct difference in the publics' response as to whether they are being asked to critique an amateur's image or a professional's. An image which is obviously amateurish will prompt the tactful, noncritical response - whereas a professional image has a much greater chance of activating the critic. Suddenly, they scrutinize a little closer and examine details they would have otherwise glossed over or ignored.

Depending on the personality of the person and the degree to which they fancy themselves as art savvy, what follows is largely insignificant characteristics blown out of proportion. After all, they had to say something! However, in reality, were the amateurish and profession images be put side to side, it would readily become apparent that the issues raised with the professional image were minuscule in comparison.

In other words, you can ask a hundred people about your candid photograph, and nearly all of them will instinctually say something nice (or remain silent). However, were you to present them with what appears to be a professional crafted image, the odds decrease that a thumbs-up response will be so automatic, but it is still weighted heavily in the positive.

In summary, though it really doesn't matter what others may think when it comes to a friendly snapshot, it is wise to trust a professional when one's profession is at the fore.

Should you want to talk in person on the specifics of your images, I be more than happy. :o)


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