Headshots – The End Of Black And White?

Headshots – The End Of Black And White?

London Headshots asks – Death To Monotone?

Disclaimer: This update is one man’s opinion, and doesn’t in any way disparage some of the amazing B&W professionals out there who capture that beautiful metallic quality, that intensity that only properly realised creative mastery of monotone can achieve. I admire their work, and it continues to influence me. 

There seems to have been a marked shift in requirements in the headshots industry of late. 12 months ago, I barely shot any colour headshots. Granted, I barely shot any headshots at all (Less than 5 a month), because I was only shooting headshots as a way to fill in the days in between commercial shoots, but regardless, there has been a sizable shift towards colour.

First off, let me state that I shoot colour. I prefer it, I positively love it. I love working with different skin-colours, and clothing, and background colours, I like making them all match, I love how window light looks against pale pink skin, or how intense sunlight looks against olive skin, or how deep yellow/orange dusk light  lights up blue eyes. Colour, for me, is king.

In the last 6 months, I haven’t taken a single job in which the actor’s agent didn’t request that the majority of the headshots be shot in colour. This was rare in 2010, and unheard of in 2009. There’s a very big reason for it though, and that reason is CastingCallPro.

Not saying I don't sometimes shoot headshots in blackd and white

Not saying I never shoot in black and white, like this shot of mine, above, or that I don't like it, only that there's a time and a place, and hopefully, that place in headshots is slowly running out..

In November of last year, CastingCallPro announced to it’s 40,000+ users that they could now, for the first time, submit colour headshots as their main profile pictures. “HOORAH!” cried a relatively small amount of people who didn’t now feel slightly pressured to get new shots done.

As a colour photographer, I fully, completely and wholeheartedly support the user of colour in headshots, and for many reasons. Most of them valid, others merely pigheadedly self-indulgent!

I’ve got a few issues with black and white photography, and always have had, especially in headshots. not least because it has only hung around for so long because in the days of film, B&W was much cheaper.

Anyway, as I said above, I didn’t get a great deal of headshot work in 2010, because I was spending a lot of my time working on other areas of my photographic career. As such, I felt slightly detached from this side of the business, and was so able to look in from the outside as a keen (and utterly biased, colour-sympathising, RGB-loving CMYK-nerd) observer.


C’mon, you know they do! I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard someone say “I had a headshot session with x”, only to take a look and see yet another bunch of the same monotone headshots. There’s only so many ways you can point the sun at someone’s face before they all start to merge into a relentless collage of off-whites. I hope it’s not just me who thinks this.

Headshots, to me, are a bit like wedding photography. The people involved in purchasing services are hugely passionate about the work, but the low outlay needed to become a headshot photographer or wedding photographer means that they have to wade through a large swamp of people who suddenly decided they were going to “become” a photographer. It’s easy to trip up, pick the wrong person, and end up with a bunch of mediocre shoots you regret posing for. This is a stark contrast to commercial work, where you see much less charletons, because they simply aren’t prepared to lay out the capital needed to have a fully equipped studio taking on large briefs and picky clients. Commercial photography is a microcosm of skill, and possibly one of the last avenues not yet accessed by people with cheapo cameras and a couple of ads on Gumtree.

But I digress, I’m going somewhere with this–what I’m trying to say is that it’s easy to BE a headshot photographer. It’s quite hard to be a GOOD one.

Whenever I take a picture I don’t like, I always, always, ALWAYS end up converting to black and white “just to see what it looks like”. Often the most horrendously crappy picture can suddenly come alive by removing the colour and increasing the contrast. And THAT is my issue with black and white headshots.

They are too easy!

It’s true. It’s way too easy to make someone look good in black and white. Especially with a bit of shadow.

converting to black and white creates drama, possibly false drama.

A relatively mediocre picture that takes on an air of drama and intensity when converted to black and white. Not really representative of the scene, or the fact that the image is actually a bit crap.

If you slightly overexpose a shot, even by 1/3 of a stop, you wash out the skin tones, smoothing the imperfections, and knock about ten years off the subject. Throw a bit of directional shadow, some low-depth of field, and you have the recipe for a pleasing shot. But there’s a problem with that.

Someone can buy a camera and start shooting headshots tomorrow, it’s that easy. Kind of like how it’s easy to set yourself up as a “portrait photographer” in a little home-studio, never changing the light setup, and fleecing unaware mum’s of hundreds of £££’s for some shots of their kids trapped in the artistic North Korea that is the photographer’s conveyor-belt-of-drudgery creative progress.

With a colour headshot you’ve got to work harder. You’ve got warm tones, you’ve got cold tones, colour casts altering skin tone-and mood-you’ve got a myriad of new possibilities (and dangers). You’ve got to watch out for clothing clashing with the subject, the eyes clashing with the background, or the background clashing with the skin tone. Blemishes in the skin show up red, and sleepless nights show up deep blackish-yellow, things have to be watched out for (or corrected–another skillset). Is the colour that’s hitting the background the same as the colour that’s hitting the skin, if you underexpose too much, are you going to desaturate the face and give it that murky blackish-brown shadow that often cannot be rescued??

Essentially, what I’m saying is that there’s more ways to mess things up, and as a result, a keener eye is needed. My ultimate hope is that this will drastically reduce the number of people who just decide to shoot headshots for the hell of it. The people who rely on our work are hoping that these headshots will be the difference between them working on TV or working in Tesco, or some boring office job. They don’t know the danger of hiring some cheapo photographer who charges 60 quid for a session, shoots everything black and white, gives you five images, but really gives you nothing.

Hopefully we’ll see the end of the fly-by-nights in headshots, as one more layer of complexity is added, and one more hiding place of theirs removed; one more hurdle for the fauxtographer. Only in photography are part-timers so widely accepted as a whole. I’ve never heard of anyone trying to set themselves up as a cheap heart-surgeon or a budget dentist.

So yeah, Hoorah to casting call pro for changing the rules and ended the 80 year tyranny of monotone!

If you disagree with me, call me up to tell me, and I'll give you £20 off your next session! I don't pretend to have the only opinion, and I accept that I may very well have the wrong one! Thanks for reading.

PS. The black and white shot above, it didn’t look amazing in colour, so I converted it to black and white for the exact reasons I stated above. It saved the image.

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