Why Retouch My Headshot? by Jonathan Barnes

A retouched headshot. Here, Brevan is looking great even though he had a little acne and some sleepy under-eye bags on the morning of our shoot.

A retouched headshot. Here, Brevan is looking great even though he had a little acne and some sleepy under-eye bags on the morning of our shoot.

I occasionally have headshot clients ask if they can have all of the proofs from their headshot session as high-resolution files. Depending on the package purchased, at least one retouched high-res file is included in the price; however, I do not send out unretouched high-res files. The conversation is not always an easy one, but I have strong reasons for the way I conduct this part of my business. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Client: Can you send all [150 or whatever number] proofs from my headshot session as high resolution files?

Jon: I actually only send retouched high resolution files, so unless you pay to have all 150 retouched, I can't provide them.

Client: Why not? I paid for the whole session.

Jon: I understand, but I only want the absolute best versions of these photos to be out in the world. That's why I retouch every single high-res file that you request.

Client: Okay, well, why do I have to pay $30 for each one? That seems like a lot of money for one photo.

Jon: Well, retouching is a very time-intensive process because I take great care with each and every detail to make sure that you get the best looking headshot.

See, the truth is that most headshot clients really only need one headshot. They don't need 10 different versions of the same photo. Unless you're a very diverse actor looking to book work in some varied fields, you only need one great photo.

Before sending any proofs, I actually go through and weed out any non-keepers. Shut eyes, unusable expressions, things like that. Then I might provide 150 low-res proofs of the same look to a client so that we can find their best possible expression or moment (I'll be writing another post in the near future on that subject, so stay tuned).

But that's only part of the story. What if I were to provide a client with all 150 proofs as high-res files? Well, that means they could go out and make prints of any one of those files, retouched or not. They could share any one of those files on social media, or even upload them to casting websites, or to their own website. Any piece of promo material graced with their unretouched headshot will now be out in the public eye.

So why is this a problem? Most clients come to me with their makeup and hair done and they're looking their best. I also use lighting and lenses that are going to flatter their features. Why retouch?

Headshots are close-ups. There's no hiding and every blemish and flaw may show up. You don't want anything to detract from the purpose of the photo: To show you off!

It's also peace of mind for a client. Brevan, at the top of this post had shown up the morning of his shoot with bags under his eyes and a little acne. I assured him and his parents that it wouldn't be a problem at all, and we were able to have a really fun and relaxed photoshoot.

I've gotten permission from two lucky contestants to use their before and after photos as examples to prove why you need a retouched headshot. First up, the lovely Kristine. Kristine has great skin and had her makeup done quite well. Her hair was in good shape and everything was looking good for the session.

Now, click through below to see the difference after retouching:

See the difference? A lot of it is pretty subtle, but retouching makes a huge difference in the overall effect. In this photo, I tamed flyaways & crosshairs, trimmed up eyebrows, removed blemishes, evened out skin tones, added contrast to eyes, lips, and hair, reduced fine lines and wrinkles, and even relaxed her posture a bit (look at the shoulders and neck). A little final dodging and burning helps to make the contrast pop even more.

Next up, Dan. I did pretty much the same types of things here. Again the differences are subtle, but essential to creating the best end-product. Dan also had a little fuzz on his shirt, which was really easy to remove, but would he have wanted that in his final photos? You can bet that he did not!

Notice in both examples that I am not greatly altering the appearance of the person. I'm not making them look a completely different age, or a different weight. You just want to create the best version of their likeness so that they can present themselves effectively.

There are a lot of photographers out there who will happily provide you with all of the high-resolution files from your headshot session. I'm not one of them, because I believe that you should be presenting the best product possible. Headshots are all about selling yourself right? It's advertising, so that's why we treat it that way.

And if my client wants several different expressions, that's totally understandable. I'll retouch however many they might want!

To Light Or Not To Light by Jonathan Barnes

One of my trusty old Nikon SB-26 speedlights.

One of my trusty old Nikon SB-26 speedlights.

That is the question. I'd wager that the vast majority of home sellers, buyers, and real estate agents have no idea that a secret war is being waged by real estate photographers on internet forums around the world.

Yes, war. And oh, what a nerdy war it is. The argument over whether to use natural light (including daylight and fixtures), artificial light (speedlights, hot lights, strobes), or HDR (High Dynamic Range).

Without getting too deep into this discussion (do a web search and you'll find plenty if you're interested), I thought we'd do a quick comparison of the techniques in our lab. Before we get started, I will say that my preference is to augment the existing light with speedlights. Yes, I am a lighting nerd, but it goes deeper than that and we'll get into it. Especially with real estate shots, I like to use my lighting to mimic the existing natural light in the scene, if conditions allow. This way, the light can appear as natural as possible, but with the control that natural light doesn't always provide. We'll of course be using our handy-dandy living room lab to help us observe these different approaches.

First off, a natural light approach. Arguably the easiest (and possibly most frustrating) way to do things is to let the light come to you. Natural light at its best is the best, hands-down, but you don't always get to pick it. And when you have to do a real estate shoot, you don't always get the time of day that you want. Plus, what about the weather? Clouds, rain, direct sun, off-color light being bounced in a window off a neighbor's puce-colored house? Yes, puce, not puke.

You don't get any control with natural light, so you're at the mercy of the time of day and the elements. Good luck!

Natural light can be beautiful, but incredibly frustrating.

Natural light can be beautiful, but incredibly frustrating.

The light in the photo above isn't bad at all. I was lucky to have no direct sunlight streaming in, so it creates a soft overall feeling inside the room. When shooting interiors with natural light, you'd better have one of two things: Lots of windows, or some pretty well-designed/positioned light fixtures. In this case, the windows provide plenty of light, and a decent quality of light at that. The problem is that you can't really control your window exposure, so you will almost never be able to see the scene outside (not that you always want that, but it's nice to have the option). The workaround is to shoot closer to dawn or dusk, neither of which are always convenient (if an option at all).

With a little bit of post-processing, we're able to pull off a pretty decent real estate shot. In the photo above, I pulled up the shadows, toned down the whites and highlights, and so you can have a natural light photo with decent dynamic range (and my camera is 10 years old!).

Next up, HDR, which is short for High Dynamic Range. The oft-abused, yet overly popular stepchild of the photography world, HDR has become incredibly popular with run-and-gun real estate photographers. And you can understand why:

It's quick (not much longer than taking a natural light shot). It's easy (software does the blending for you). It lets you compress those highlights and shadows so that a viewer can see all of the details.

The problem is that it gets abused. Do a quick Google search of HDR photography and you'll see what I mean. Garish colors, angelic haloes around objects, flat lighting. Weird, but oddly attractive to many people.

There is a process called hand-blending where a photographer goes through the HDR process by layering multiple images in Photoshop, and then selectively revealing the different exposures to create a well-crafted final image. It can take an hour or more to hand-blend one photo.

On the other hand, the majority of HDR in real estate photography is done by loading the multiple exposures into software and letting the software decide which parts of each photo to blend together. The results are not always very pretty, and control is not its strong suit.

An HDR image created in Lightroom from seven different exposures.

An HDR image created in Lightroom from seven different exposures.

My HDR experiment went surprisingly well, actually. I took a 7-exposure bracket (one exposed "properly" and then three shots underexposed and three shots overexposed). Then, I selected them all in Lightroom and let the software do its magic. Lightroom exercised impressive control and created a not-all-that-garish photo; however, I had little control over the process.

My preferred method, lighting with flash, is all about control and that's why I love it. You're essentially creating two exposures in one, because the ambient portion of the exposure and the flash lit portion of the exposure are affected separately by the shutter speed. Therefore, you can have your windows and fixtures exposed where you want them, and then light the room with flash to create a well-balanced photo.

A single exposure lit with multiple off-camera flashes.

A single exposure lit with multiple off-camera flashes.

Just like HDR, it can be easy to abuse flash, so I have a few rules that I tend to follow when using flash for real estate photography. The first rule is that it has to look as much like natural light as possible. When I'm shooting creative portraits or even interior design, I can get much more creative with the light, but real estate photography has to look like the real thing. Prospective home buyers don't want to walk into a space and have it look nothing like it did in the photos!

I always try to have my flash come from the same direction as the natural light. In an ideal world, that means throwing some umbrellas outside of the windows to augment the natural daylight. Practically, I don't always have time for that, so it means bouncing a flash off of an area near the windows (but still out of sight of the camera). In the example above, my main flash was being bounced from the upper right corner of the photo (just out of view). It's not perfect, but it's close to that window in the photo and so the direction of the light seems logical. A second flash is being used as a very subtle kicker coming in from the hallway off to the left of the toy box. This mimics light that could be bouncing in from that hall (which has a couple of windows). My third flash is on the camera, being bounced into the ceiling. It's not really contributing to the exposure; rather, its role is to fire the other flashes through their optical slaves.

Sound complicated and expensive? Not really. It does have a bit of a learning curve, but it's easy to start with an on camera flash bounced into the ceiling and see where that takes you. As far as cost, it's easy to find old, used speedlights. My Nikon SB-26's with the optical slaves usually cost between 70 to 100 bucks. Cheap, as far as camera gear goes!

My Camera is Better Than Yours by Jonathan Barnes

Oh boy. If I have to hear one more time...

"My cellphone camera is amazing. It takes better photos than..."

"My cousin has a really nice camera, so I just got him to take the photos of..."

"I just bought this 36-megapixel camera, so I'll be able to take my own photos of..."

If there's one cliche that applies to all of the above statements, it's the old adage, "It's not the tools; it's the carpenter."

These days, everyone is a photographer, or so it seems. Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat. Millions, billions of pictures. Every new phone has a great camera, and everyone and their uncle has a DSLR or mirrorless camera. But it's not about the tools. Let's put it in action, shall we?

Enter our mystery guest "photographer" (the party in question shall remain nameless as to protect their guil—innocence?). I asked this mystery photographer to take a photo our living room laboratory. The mystery shooter used my equipment, without my supervision, other than to provide a quick demonstration of how to focus and zoom. I also set the camera to program mode (read: auto). This exposure mode emulates the same kind of autoexposure mode that you'd find on most consumer cameras as well as cellphone cameras. The only parameter I provided was, "Pretend you are trying to make this room look its best for a real estate listing." The shot, below.

A real estate photo. You see ones just like this all over the interwebs.

A real estate photo. You see ones just like this all over the interwebs.

Composition is a little wonky. Lines are little crooked, but not terrible. Vertical lines are a bit haywire. The camera actually got the exposure pretty close, but there's no additional light being added to the scene, so it's too dark inside. Compare to one of my photos of the same room:

Decent composition, straight lines all around, well-lit windows and room, clean and polished look.

Decent composition, straight lines all around, well-lit windows and room, clean and polished look.

"Well, Mr. It's-Not-The-Tools-It's-The-Photographer, why don't you just shoot with a cellphone camera?"

Good point. Because of control. It honestly doesn't matter what kind of camera I choose to use, as long as I can control the settings. I need to be able to control the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. I would like to be able to fire a flash. What don't I need? Megapixels, bells and whistles, the shiniest, newest thing. So, please don't tell me about your 50 megapixel cellphone camera with advanced facial recognition.

I hesitate to post this next part, but I think it fairly well underscores my point. Go ahead and google my camera body. Look up when it was first released, how many megapixels it has, and how much you can buy one for (used) these days.

Done? Yup, that's the camera I use for everything. Am I shooting billboards with it? Nope. Do I plan on upgrading in the future? You bet. But the point is that I can make beautiful images with that camera. I have studied and practiced technique, lighting, and composition. I have studied hundreds (if not thousands) of great photos. I'm not trying to toot my own horn, but it takes a photographer to make an image, not a camera.