I Took Headshots Of 80 People In One Day. It Hurt

You know that moment when you agree to do a favor for a friend and it turns into something a bit… well, more? This weekend I ended up taking headshots of 80 people during six non-stop hours of shooting. Here is the story, what I learned, and some random thoughts on the experience.

I Took Headshots Of 80 People In One Day. It Hurt.

I’m not a professional photographer (I don’t accept payment for my work), but I do enjoy it and spend quite a bit of time on it. A few months ago a friend planning a single day DC area startup networking event asked if I’d be willing to spend two hours doing simple headshots of people who wanted updated pictures to use on their Linkedin profiles or bio pages.

I agreed because I’ve never had the opportunity to take photos of other people with a full studio style light setup and knew it would be an immense challenge and incredible opportunity to gain a lot of experience in a (theoretically) very low stress / low expectations scenario. I also like helping people out and seeing them happy about seeing a good picture of themselves, and we all know how much lighting matters there.

Finally, I realize that most people have no understanding of what it’s like to work with a professional photographer or why it’s worth paying someone for good work, and I saw this as an opportunity to plug professional photography services – give these people a taste and convince them to work with professionals (not me) in the future.

I discussed this with my friend and we determined I would set up and take headshots for two hours on a first-come first-served basis. We figured 10-15 people would be interested and I thought with ten minutes per person I would be able to at least get some usable shots. I would be setup in the corner of a ballroom without natural light with a white wall which I’d decide whether or not to use on the day.

I decided to use a continuous light setup instead of strobes for the main lights to avoid any annoying problems with batteries, remote triggers, etc. I tested out the light setup I use for video interviews and it worked well enough, so I built a checklist of gear to pack up based on that.

gear checklist

In order to avoid those frustrating situations where you think a photo is crisp on the camera LCD but find out it’s shit on the big screen, I brought a laptop and a 24″ monitor so I could shoot tethered into the laptop and review the images quickly as needed. In testing, I found that Adobe Lightroom was way too slow for me to review the images in anything close to real-time, so I ended up shooting into the Canon EOS capture app for immediate review (2s vs 5s+) while Lightroom auto imported on the back end. All of this turned out to be moot though, as the sheer quantity of people and pressure of the pace meant I did 99% of the reviewing on camera.

Up at 7AM. Zipcar loaded and on the move by 8:30AM, on-site and setting up by 9AM. By 9:30AM I was all set up, everything test fired clean, and I decided to use the white background with a single strobe fired remotely onto it to lighten it up (Big Mistake #1: I should have used two, one from each side).

I was slated to start at 10AM, but at 9:45AM while joking around with a friend of mine someone came up to me and asked if I was ready to start shooting. I looked up and realized there were already nearly twenty people in line waiting for me… and I hadn’t even started.

The rest is a blur. For each person, I’d give them a card with a URL written on it where they’d be able to get their pictures later and give them a little speech about it. Then I’d have them hold it up like a mugshot so I could track them, after which I’d adjust the lights to get the best look for the individual. I’d give them a little speech about posing, then let them do whatever look they wanted while I took a few more shots to check and tweak the lighting. Once I was all set, I typically had them start with a serious look straight on, then joked with them to get some smiles, switch them to a slightly sideways shot, and call it when I was pretty confident I had at least a few good images.

MUGSHOT

Some people required a LOT of help (especially those with massive forced grins), and I can’t even remember how many times I asked people if they were pushing their tongue against their teeth. The most successful responses I got seemed to be from asking people to “mean mug me” which almost always resulted in nice little half smiles ‘cuz apparently these people weren’t mean. I had two subjects that knew exact what they were doing and I spent maybe sixty seconds on them and done, perfect photos – but I had a lot more people who I had to constantly coach and make comfortable and calm them down for a couple minutes before I could get anything.

At noon, after two hours, I finally looked up and was going to call it when I realized there were still nearly thirty people in line… and they had already waited an hour or more. We determined I could keep the space for the rest of the afternoon and I just kept shooting. A friend of mine grabbed me some tacos and I ate one in a quick break around 1PM, a second around 3PM (when a nice gentleman insisted I take five minutes to do so), and the third when I was tearing things down at 4PM. I only stopped at 4PM because we were literally closing down the hall – I still had people in line and was desperately rattling off last minute pictures.

When I got home, I counted it all up – just over 3,000 images of 80 people using up almost 80GB of space. I started sorting and preparing to edit and laughed as I checked my e-mail to find I already had a couple messages from people saying they’d gone to the URL I gave them and the pictures weren’t there yet! Augh.

I’ve spent around eight hours so far sorting and processing the images. I’ve finished the first forty people, so I’m halfway done. I was very glad to see that I got at least 4-6 good pictures of each person. Here are two contact sheets of the first forty people with my personal favorite images from each one (though some are just fun):

contact sheet1
Contact Sheet 1, People 1-20

contact sheet2
Contact Sheet 2, People 21-40

contact sheet3
Contact Sheet 3, People 41-60

backdrop strobe batteries started to fade and they started doing weird things with the light during this set, and somewhere around 50-55 I had to move everything to the left about ten feet to make room for some other stuff scheduled at 3pm so lighting got a lot less consistent – and I started spending a lot less time with people to speed things up, less than 30 shots person on average during this set vs 40+ before)

Some things I learned:

  1. When you’re editing free photos of 80 people, you start making compromises. Big time. I simply could not be bothered to smooth out the background of each image, though I did at least mostly clone stamp out the lightboxes. These people have to be content with gray gradients.

  2. Not having full control of your lighting conditions sucks. The main lights for the ballroom were orange/magenta halogens about 30 feet up that apparently could not be turned off. There was basically nothing I could do but shoot through it and try to drop it out as subtly as possible in post. When I started I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal because I’d only have a few skin tones to fix, but when I went to edit 80 people I just gave up and accepted that no one is going to have a perfect skin tone. Damn orange lights.

  3. Always build in breaks to monitor your setup. I felt so pressured that I kept shooting non-stop. I didn’t check how full my cards were, I wasn’t monitoring my images in detail to see the strobe lighting up my backdrop falling off more and more as the batteries died, etc. This led to some awkward moments with someone standing in front of the lights as I had to switch cards or deal with stuff and stressed me out more than it should have.

  4. I expected to have time to review images with each person and get their feedback, then maybe put them back in front of the camera to tweak things. Didn’t happen. As a result, had no need to import images into Lightroom and all that was just extra overhead. People did like seeing their pictures, but it was just a brief check before I went on to the next.

  5. On the other hand, having the images show up on a big monitor facing the line of people seems to have been one of the reasons I had so many interested people. I could at times get a feel for whether or not an image in a sequence was good because there’d be an increase in murmuring/commentary from the crowd who was watching the monitor. Weird feeling.

  6. I did not stop to take a picture of my setup. Or the line. Or, well, anything. This annoys me.

  7. Whenever people see my photos, they often assume I’m a professional photographer. When I explain that I’m not, they always seem surprised. “Why not?” they ask. They always laugh when I tell them it’s because I can’t make a living taking pictures of people who think photos should be free. Sometimes, though, I saw the thoughtful look in their eye when I explained how much better the images would be if they got a true professional, worked with them, and paid a fair rate. I hope a few more photographers in the DC area will have some business in the coming months as a result.

Bleh. Thanks for letting me vent. If you read this, you cray.

Clarification

I don’t take money because I’m not a pro and I want to deliver whatever I want – a pro works with you to get exactly what you want. It’s not that I can’t charge for my work, it’s that I prefer the freedom of not being accountable to a client. I’m basically my own patron. I understand that not everyone can do this, and it’s why I continually stress to people how much more they can expect from a good professional and why it’s worth it to go that route, and tell them what rates to expect. Many people I’ve worked with have hired pro’s as a result of this, when they wouldn’t have considered it before.

Aftermath

My buddy saw the reddit thread (sup Adam) and gave me a call. We know each other well so he knows I was sharing this most because of how much I enjoy challenges and writing about them (he was going to join me for awhile on a six month motorcycle trip around South America until he tore his ACL), but his response was effectively “none of us realized how popular this would be – now that we do, if we do it again, we’ll make sure you make some good money.” So there you go.

About The Author

Peter Waterman is an IT executive at a small technology company, an amateur photographer and videographer, and he teaches parkour. you can find his site here, his facebook here an his youtube here. All definitely worth a follow.
Here is some goodness from his about page:
I’m always on the lookout for interesting photo and video opportunities and prefer to donate my time to those who can benefit from great photography without being able to pay for it. If you have a cause that would benefit from a good guy with a camera, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. This post was originally posted here.

  • pmurph5

    If I could make a few suggestions, as a high-volume photographer of singles and couples at elegant events…

    1) If you can’t control the background lighting, use strobes and not continuous lighting. Try something around f5.6-6.3 at ISO 100 or 200, 1/125 second, then take a photo without the strobes. It should come out very dark or black. That’s good; when you introduce your strobes, they will be the only source of light. No problems with off-color room lights, and only one source to white-balance.

    2) Get the lighting set up right to start with. If you have only one light on the background use it behind the head as a halo or hair light instead of trying to evenly light the background for “drop-out white”, which takes more equipment and space.

    3) Take test shots. Have a subject hold a black, white and gray target. Check your histogram so the white is not blown out and detail is visible in the black. White balance using the gray. Once the exposure and WB is where you want it, lock that in. This lets you shoot JPGs since the exposure is nailed. If you really are cautious, shoot RAW + JPG and only go back to the RAW files if you really messed something up.

    4) Don’t shoot at the highest resolution if the pictures are for Linkedin bio head shots or small prints (4x6s, 5x7s). Smaller files will save space and processing/editing time.

    5) Ten minutes per person, for Linkedin head shots, is excessive. Remember, the end result will be one headshot on a web page — it is not a portrait session.

    If my company had done this, the shooting time for 80 people would have been about 80-90 minutes, there would have been about 160-250 photos and the total file size of all the JPGs would be around 1 GB. People would not have to stand in line for an hour, the photo would have been well lit with no color shift from ambient lights, and would be suited in size and quality for the end purpose (a Linkedin bio shot, in this case).

    It is great you did this as a favor. Thanks for sharing what you learned; I just wanted to add a bit more info to help others in a similar situation.

  • bj

    Great article. Also an amateur who gets asked why I don’t ask for people for money. I usually say so that I can take the pictures I want and not the ones they want.

  • bj

    These days, I think having a decent headshot should be a skill that everyone should acquire. I’m trying to teach the kids I mostly take pictures.

  • David

    I really enjoyed your article. I did a similar thing for an amateur theatre production of Cats a while back and a lot of what you said resonated with me.

    I do have one question. You said you ended up with 3,000 images of 80 people. That’s over 35 shots per person. Did it really work out like that, or did you have a few hundred shots at the beginning of the same person as you set up your lights? And if you did take about 35 shots per person, was this because of the posing issues you mentioned, or something else?

  • E1

    great article.
    thanks for sharing.

  • joemama

    Awesome article. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • Mantas

    Nothing special. We’ve done this numerous times before. Like shooting 60 portraits in two hours, photoshoping then the next day in three hours and submitting the images to the client the same day.

  • akshayjamwal

    When I do headshots, I typically spend an hour at the very least with my subject(s), so I have a tremendous amount of respect for your courage and energy in shooting so many people in one day. Coaching people usually takes a lot of time and energy for a usable shot; people are either conscious or have a warped idea of what they think they look like when they’re posing.

    As somebody who solely relies on photography as a source of income, however, I cannot say that I condone your choice in working for free, regardless of your reasoning. It sets precedents in the market, whether you realise it or not. You are not the only IT Executive/Banker/Doctor etc. who does this in their spare time -the comments below even attest to this.

    I also disagree with “pros work with you to get you whatever you want”.
    Pros that have been around for a while learn to trust their own vision and sell that to their client, and put their foot down when pushed.
    Saying that you get to shoot what you want is just another way of saying that if you take a few bad shots, it’s not really your fault.
    When money exchanges hands, it forces you to treat your shoots like a production.
    If you HAD charged these 80 people (even if it was $5), you’d probably have felt compelled to check the location, the lighting conditions and whatnots before actually shooting anybody. One cannot anticipate every problem on the day, but one can certainly prepare for the obvious ones (e.g. annoying coloured ambient light) beforehand.
    Charge money, dude. It betrays the skills you’ve developed when you don’t. Your reasoning would fall through rather quickly if you’d, say, dropped the camera, a lens, your 24″ monitor or laptop.

    I can only see thumbnails, but the headshots you’ve taken are better than those taken by some pros that are starting out. Working for free when you’re good at something is selling yourself short. Or not at all.

    • ikke

      Even if it was $5? $5 for just a few jpeg’s? Not even a print? Than you can be sure of one thing, the line will be gone! That’s why people only go to a pro when they need a new passport! If you’re going to ask money, you need to give something touchable in return. But maybe I’m outdated.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=636725434 Miles Simon Cave

    That is pretty extreme but it sound like it was kind of fun. Some of the shots look really neat and alive!
    I tried a similar project last summer but I found it very hard to get people for their picture. They just couldn’t believeit was free!
    I certainly got a decent amount of people but over the course of weeks, not hours. Must of had been one heck of an experience! Congrats on pulling through!
    (it’s “The Cambrils project”, a silly idea I had one day)

  • Karl Berg

    I work as a school/kindergarden photographer and can shoot up to 200 kids in one day, portrait and group, i don’t do the editing doh.
    You get extremely effective, and i don’t let a kid go until im satisfied with the result :D