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The Headshot: My Lethal Combination

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In this chapter from The Headshot: The Secrets to Creating Amazing Headshot Portraits, Peter Hurley explains how capturing that combination of confidence and approachability is the key to a great headshot.
This chapter is from the book

Jeff Appel

Confidence coupled with approachability is my staple. It’s my everyday grind. It’s what I live, eat, and breathe with headshot photography, and I will for the rest of my life. Getting somebody in front of my camera and capturing them with an expression that conveys confidence and approachability meshed together is the whole enchilada for me.

Infusing this combo into a headshot really is what creates a shabangin’ shot for me. It’s a lethal combo that, once I capture it, I have the ability to end the session at any moment. In that expression, I’ve captured the one look that I need and I can go home. I just killed the session in one click of the shutter and, for me, that is what it’s all about. It’s precisely what I go into my studio on a daily basis to try to accomplish. So, I really can’t stress how important this one expression is to me and the work I’m producing.


Tamara del Rosso

Injecting Confidence Into Their Personal Brand

Early on in my career, I would look at somebody in front of my camera and I’d think about what I really wanted from him or her. I didn’t know what it was at that time, but I knew I wanted a bit of their personality meshed into the image somehow. If they’re using the headshot for marketing themselves in some way, then it becomes their #1 personal branding tool, and capturing a bit of them is of utmost importance. I thought it would be pretty obvious to all my clientele that they would want to look approachable while simultaneously looking like they have their act together. Little did I know that they really don’t have any clue as to what they want to convey to the camera. I think most just want to get through the process, hoping they get a picture of themselves that they like. It has never dawned on them what the image will convey to others. When I explain the reasoning behind wanting to capture a shot that has the ability to convey confidence in them while hitting their approachable side, as well, they begin to understand its importance.

For me, it started with actors—I felt a casting director wouldn’t want to waste their time by bringing an actor in that didn’t look like they knew what they were doing. My goal became upping that actor’s game by giving the illusion that they are exuding confidence in their headshot and the industry started to notice. I saw so many headshots where people looked eager or spaced out, and wanted my work to be as far away from that as possible. I refused to let work go out of my studio where I didn’t capture my subject looking confident; it just wasn’t going to happen in my world.

A casting director for ABC at the time started sending me a ton of actors and told me that there was something about my work that she loved. She said publicly, “Peter makes actors that need headshots look like they’ve made it already—they look like celebrities.” When I heard that, I was floored. It was exactly what I had set out to do years earlier. That was probably the moment when I felt like I had arrived. I had blasted through the pecking order of headshot photographers in New York, and all my theories and what I stood for were summed up in that one sentence. I created headshots that spewed confidence and approachability all over these casting directors, and the actors that came into my studio benefited greatly from it. The news was out and my studio was busier than ever. It wasn’t because of the white background, killer lighting, horizontal, chopped off head format that I love—that really wasn’t why this became a phenomenon. I believe it was because my images oozed what we’ll call, from now on, C&A.


Max Elk


Brace Rice

  • Here’s a quote I’ve been known to throw around the last few years: “I believe it’s our responsibility as photographers to pull the best out of our clients; no matter how stiff & lifeless they are.” —Peter Hurley

So, for every actor that I shoot, the plan is to use the headshot to get acting work, and in order to do that, they need to somehow convey in a still image that they can act like you wouldn’t believe. If I’m shooting a real estate broker, they’re using it to try to get clients to pick them as their broker over the next guy. It needs to say, “Yes, I get the job done and you are going to love working with me to find your new home.” If I’m shooting a CEO, it’s pretty much the same: “I run this company and we not only get the job done for our clients, but this is also a fantastic place to work.” Basically, you want the person to look like they’re extremely capable of doing whatever it is that they do, and that they are fantastic to be around while they are doing it.

I shoot a lot of corporate stuff these days, so a really good example would be when I have a CEO come in front of my camera. Let’s say he comes in and immediately diminishes or avoids the camera altogether. I’m just looking at him and I’m thinking: “This guy runs a company? What kind of operation is he running in his brain right now? How the heck did he get to where he is and just fall apart in front of me? If I take this picture and he uses it in the annual report or something, he’s not going to look like the guy that runs the show at all.”

So, I need to figure out how to get him (or her—I shoot a lot of women that are CEOs and presidents these days, too) to snap out of it. How do I get this guy to up his game and get him to where he should be? It’s really just a different muscle for these people that has to be triggered. The guy may be great at his job, but he doesn’t possess the skill set of taking decent pictures while in front of the camera. At least, not yet!

This headshot needs to reflect that he is a powerful human being and good at being the figurehead of the company. But, as I’ve said, the way he behaves in front of a lens is totally different than the way he’ll behave in the office, and this guy is a runner. So, how are you going to let this person who has gotten to the top of their company look completely out to lunch in their headshots? You aren’t!


Alice Lee

You need to up this person’s game fast, and having the skill set to do it is priceless. If you get them where you need them to be with this C&A thing, it will not only make them look good in the eyes of the company and whoever sees the shot, it will also secure you as the headshot photographer of choice for their entire operation! This is where you’ll want to be. Turnover in companies often happens fairly rapidly and being the go-to headshot photographer who makes their people look great is the best recurring income you can have. Treat your clients like gold and keep them coming back for more. If you build up a handful of companies like this, you’ll really start to understand what it’s like to make a living as a headshot specialist.


Jenny Kedves

Our job as photographers is really to own our subject’s expression for them. I’m sick of photographers thinking that they just have to take a technically sound photograph. That’s totally ridiculous in my world. You can’t afford to have this guy walk out on you at the end of the session without having captured a confident look. I just couldn’t ever bear to do that—no way, no how, no can do, not happening in my world.

So, I’ve always put the fault on myself. If I don’t get confidence out of my subject, then it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with me and my direction. Even if they get in front of the camera and they don’t want to be there—they are freaking out and want to be out of there lickety-split—it’s still my gig and I own that turf they are standing on. They aren’t going anywhere. You have to hone in on getting the confidence out of them and get the job done no matter what.

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