By Douglas Gritz
Lasers, baby! If you are a child of the 1980s like me, chances are you have an elementary or middle school headshot photograph that looks very similar to this one. Like many things we once took seriously in the 1980s (Vanilla Ice?), we now resoundingly regard as cheesy.
Nothing, I would argue. This style of headshot background would have been as poor a choice in 1984 as it is in 2016. The reason: distractions.
Our eyes naturally gravitate toward the brightest areas in an image — or even in a room. Ever catch yourself staring a TV in bar even though you have absolutely no interest in what’s on it? Usually it is because its the brightest light in the room.
In this headshot, the first place your eyes are going is to those dang laser beams. In a headshot photograph, this is the last thing we want. Instead, we want attention focused squarely on the head in the headshot and, more specifically, the eyes. When we talk to people, we focus on their eyes. Eyes communicate nonverbal trustworthiness and are also indicators of someone else’s attention and engagement.
So as far as background choices go for business and corporate headshots, you don’t get a much more distracting than lasers.
Let’s look at another headshot background choice, one that is popular more recently. This is the “environmental” headshot, where the “environment” is almost always somewhere in the client’s corporate office. Earlier in my career I did several of these myself. I now steer my clients clear of this as much as possible. The reason is, again, distractions.
In this example, the headshots photographer used a lens with a wide aperture and managed to get some distance between their client and the background, which allowed them to soften the background into something more of an abstraction. This is certainly less busy than a more sharply focused headshot background would be and there are some nice colors going on back there but no matter how hard you try to tame the background, you still risk ending up with distracting elements. In this case, the brown stripe bisects the frame into two halves as well as goes straight throw the subject’s head. And the white blob to the left of the subject is a bright spot that pulls our eyes to it and away from client.
Here is another type of “environmental” headshot background that is popular, one that is less of a background and more of a surrounding. This may be appropriate for a portrait where the goal is storytelling and photographing your subject in a relevant surrounding helps tell that story. But it is inappropriate for headshots. Remember, we want the attention focused on the eyes. Here, our attention is taken away from the subject and into a background that communicates nothing unique about this person. We are also seeing nearly his entire body. As I explain in a previous blog post on headshot photograph framing, arms, legs, and torsos just serve as further distractions.
So what is a good background choice for headshots? Something neutral. Here the photographer goes for gray. It definitely is not distracting, but it is not inspiring either and to me it’s neutralness is a bit too literal.
Solid white is the current craze. It’s not distracting, it is classic, pure, interesting, and conveys approachability. I dig it. And I am happy to use it when a client requests it.
But I still want something with more interest, which is what led me to developing my own personal background style, seen above, for my Denver headshots photography services. I use a plain white backdrop and then I direct a spot of light that I shape to bloom subtly around the subject. I like this because it adds a sense of depth and suggests and environment and/or surrounding without actually showing one. The color tone shifts toward a blueish gray. It could be yellowish gray, reddish gray, whatever. I chose blue because it is calming, soothing, corporate, and no one argues with it. Put together this is a style that distinguishes itself without being distracting. And in business, distinguishing yourself from the competition is a plus.
I use this backdrop for probably 90 percent of my headshot clients. Occasionally, a client has a specific idea of a backdrop for their business staff headshots. I listen and if I think it may be something too distracting I will suggest alternatives. A recent corporate client just moved into a new office with exposed brick. They were doing a website redesign and wanted to utilize the brick as a headshot background for their new, fresh look. They asked what I thought and I said that would be a great choice and let’s do it.
Now, you might say, wait! Doesn’t that choice for a headshot background have a lot of those distracting elements you said were no good? Yes and no. Yes, technically it is an “environmental” background, but in this case the design is uniform, yet varied just enough as to not be dull. And I worked carefully with my exposure ratio to make sure the light-toned mortar between the bricks was darker than my client’s faces. Finally, the desaturated nature of the brick keeps them neutral.
I’m really happy how these came out and if I could, I’d travel with a brick wall as part of my kit! Check out additional headshots from this session below.