Using fans to blow hair is one of the most effective ways to add a little life to a portrait or headshot. But it’s not easy. It’s not as simple as just throwing a fan, ramping up the power and hoping for the best – although that’s the method that seems to be most commonly used.
There are potential issues with blowing air at your subject’s head, though. In this video from photographer Joe Edelman, we learn what some of those problems are, and how we can get around them.
The biggest issue with using fans or wind machines with hair is that of perseverance. It’s not the kind of thing you’re going to get in a handful of shots unless you’re extremely lucky.
Hair is wild, with a mind of its own, and you’ll often have to keep shooting and shooting until everything lines up just the way you want it.
Types of fans
Different fans will offer different types of effect when they’re pointed towards hair. Joe has seven different fans, and which he uses depends on the look he’s going for. He talks about some of them in the video, as well as types of fan that you should avoid.
First, Joe wants to eliminate one of the most obvious and often first choice for new photographers, and that’s hairdryers. Hairdryers aren’t great for this kind of photography. For a start, they’re not very powerful, but the air they blow out is also very warm even when turned down low, often drying out eyes and causing redness.
Reflectors & Boards
If you want to start off inexpensively, though, then don’t worry. You can use reflectors, or even a sheet of foamcore to generate enough of a breeze to get the hair moving around. You’ll need an assistant to use it, though.
Honeywell HT-908 15″ Black floor fan – $30.99
This is not a particularly powerful fan, but it’s Joe’s go-to for 3/4 of full-length portraits. It offers just enough of a breeze to add some movement and give the hair a little more bounce while keeping it off their face.
Voice activated fan – under $20
These depend on having an assistant available. Yes, that’s right, these are “voice activated” fans in the same general way that they can also be “voice activated lightstands”. Joe uses a small AC or USB powered fan and directs his assistant to hold it where he needs it to be. USB ones are handy, because you don’t have to hook them up to a computer. You can use a simple USB battery to power them.
High velocity floor fan – $39.99
This is Joe’s “heavy lifter”. The large blades allow it to put out a lot of wind power for very dramatic effects. Because it has the potential to put out a lot of power, Joe also uses this fan for blowing material around in the air, too. Such fans are generally AC powered, offering three settings. You’ll use all three of those power settings depending on the look you’re after.
If you’ve got an excess of money, or you’re working in very large environments, wind machines such as these can be a great investment. But if you’re working in a small studio, they’re very much overkill and can often cause more problems than they solve. Joe generally doesn’t recommend people buy these, because the kind of people who need wind machines like these generally don’t need to ask what they should get for blowing hair around.
If you really want to get a studio wind machine, Joe recommends this smaller model from Cowboy Studio. It features a nozzle, a bit like a snoot, to help focus and direct the air for more control.
Blowit fan – $117
The Blowit fan was originally designed for drummers. It would attach to their kit and keep them cool while they spend a couple of hours pounding away during a gig. The Blowit clamps onto just about any stand or pole, and offers an articulated next for positional control.
Tips for using the fans
No matter which fan you choose, there are things you need to do in order to make the lives of yourself and your subject a little easier.
Considering your subject
This is common to all portrait photography, but if your subject isn’t comfortable, it will show in the photos. And there isn’t much that makes a model feel more uncomfortable in the studio than having air blown in their face the wrong way.
Joe suggests that when you get your first fan, set it three feet in front of you, yes you, and turn it on. See how it feels. See how long you can keep your eyes open comfortably while it’s blowing towards you without tears starting to form. See how long you can hold your eyes open without blinking while still being comfortable.
Then you’ll have an idea how your subject will feel in front of the fan and can plan bursts and breaks accordingly.
Have a small heater nearby
While blowing out warm air was one of the downsides of hairdryers, regular fans will generally cool the air in the environment. You don’t want your model to get too cold, show goosebumps or start shivering. So, have a small heater nearby to help just take the chill off the breeze created by the fan.
Does your model wear contact lenses?
Regardless of the answer, you need to let your subject know to blink naturally. To keep their eyes moistened at all times. When the eyes dry out, they start to go red and bloodshot, which can be a retouching nightmare if you have a lot of photos to process.
It can also make the eyes tear, causing makeup to run. So, tell your model in advance that if her eyes start to feel teary or uncomfortable, to turn away from the fan and tell you. Don’t have them just push through it, or it can ruin the rest of your shoot. Have tissues nearby, too.
Have your subject close their eyes during test shots
If it’s just a test shot, and you’re figuring out the right power, position and trajectory for the fan, there’s no point having your subject suffer through it. These aren’t going to be keeper shots anyway. So, have your subject close their eyes while the fan is blowing to help ease their suffering.
Where to put the fan
Joe puts the fans just below the camera, pointing slightly upward towards the subject. This lets the hair blow upwards slightly, countering gravity. If he wants a more dramatic look, he puts the fan behind the subject aimed up, with a smaller fan in front of the subject to keep it off their face. Sometimes he puts a fan to the side.
But there really are no rules when it comes to positioning the fan. Everybody’s hair is different. Everybody’s hair also behaves differently and reacts to air blowing on it differently. So, experiment with your subject to see what’s comfortable and looks good.
Yes, you really do have to stick with it. Joe shot the above image with LED lights to be able to slow the shutter down and get some motion blur in the hair. But to get that shot, Joe took nearly 60 photos.
It takes patience, and sticking with it. But remember to keep your model comfortable. If they’re starting to suffer from the fan blowing in their face, let them relax and recover, then try again.