I'm a headshot photographer based in Cardiff and I work in the studio and on location at workplaces and offices and other business premises. I use many different types of backgrounds in my work - some of them more portable than others - and in this post I'll outline what I think are the benefits of each type and what effects they have on the look and feel of headshots.
This is traditional headshot territory.
- It's clean, it's minimalist and non-distracting.
- It does a great job of isolating a person so that the focus is on their face and nothing else.
- It can tie in very well to a specific industry, in particular scientific or medical professions.
- It's portable for a photographer (a white paper seamless roll or pop-up background is relatively easy to carry to location).
- It's easy to add new headshots to a suite of images. If your company has a Meet the Team section comprising of headshots against white it's easy to add headshots of new staff members to it, as shooting against white is straightforward and easily replicable.
- White can be a sensible choice if you have high staff turnover and anticipate needing to have new headshots done on a regular basis.
- Photographing against white makes it easy to extract a person (cut them out) so that a different background can be used (handy if you want to use some of the photographs in publications and promotional materials).
- Because white is traditional it's everywhere. A lot of business headshots are shot against white. It can be a little bit samey (but this depends a lot on expression and 'feel' of the headshot).
- This is my personal opinion: I don't think white backgrounds work very well in black and white headshots. The eye tends to be drawn to the brightest part of an image, and in black and white the scene is comprised of different tones of grey; having the brightest part of the scene be the background can be overwhelming and can compete for the viewer's attention.
- White - whilst being clean - can be too stark sometimes and can be less warm than, say, grey. But, again, this depends a lot on the expression and feeling captured (the headshot above doesn't feel cold at all for example - it's the opposite - because the expression is so warm and engaging).
When white might be a little too bright for the feeling needed in a headshot, grey is a great alternative.
- Like white, it's clean, minimalist and non-distracting, but tends to be warmer - there's less contrast between the subject's face and background.
- It provides a great job of conveying professionalism whilst cutting through the clinical feeling that white can sometimes give.
- Again, like white, it does a great job of isolating a person so that the focus is on their face and nothing else.
- It's also portable for a photographer (a grey paper seamless roll or pop-up background).
- It can look more modern than white and can stand out amidst a suite of headshots shot against white.
- The preference when it comes to the lightness or darkness of the grey background is subjective. You need to think carefully if you want a warmer feeling (this tends to be towards the lighter end), or a more serious feeling with more gravitas (a darker grey). This will affect how the photographer lights the background.
- It can be more difficult to tie in new headshots with the established suite of photographs. This is because with white the photographer tends to 'blow' the background out, so that it's overexposed and white. With grey more shadows are introduced, to control the lightness or darkness of the grey background. When photographing subsequent headshots to add to a suite of photographs it can be difficult to accurately match the new to the old, particularly if the photographer is different from the one who did the first photographs.
I've always loved shooting low key headshots and portraits; it's the style that I gravitated towards when I first began photography in 2006. Backgrounds can be black or dark paper (like white and grey), or other materials. I've always painted my own canvas backdrops as I like the character and texture they bring to photographs. But darker backgrounds need to be handled with care.
- Darkness completely isolates a subject, much like white. But with dark backgrounds there isn't any brightness around a person's face to compete for the viewer's attention. The bright parts of the image are reserved for the eyes.
- Dark backgrounds can convey a 'heaviness', gravitas and professionalism (as can be seen in the above photograph). They can help to convey authority and can work particularly well for older subjects.
- Dark backgrounds allow a photographer to play with shadows a bit more, using them to create mood, drama and character.
- Sometimes low key can be too heavy and serious.
- Backgrounds can be less portable, if the shoot is to take place on location. Some of the canvas backdrops that I've painted are almost 3 metres wide. They can fit in the van, but they're not as easy to handle as paper or pop-ups!
- Photographing low key headshots can be tricky technically sometimes. A lot depends on the space available for photographing, and how much ambient light there is (and how controllable that light is).
- People are more isolated in low key headshots, with the focus drawn completely to their faces and expressions. This often results in more honest and revealing headshots. It's therefore important to capture authenticity and honesty. This takes time. It's very rare that people relax enough in front of the camera to create headshots like these quickly, so additional time needs to be factored in to the session.
NATURAL OR CINEMATIC
Headshots don't have to have traditional seamless and clean backgrounds - anything can be used! One good thing that came out of Covid for me was the fact that all of my shoots moved on location for a while whilst my studio was closed. This forced me to look for interesting backgrounds that added to rather than distracted from the headshots that I was photographing.
- Limitless choice. This offers so much creative potential to a photoshoot.
- Certain backgrounds can contribute a lot to a headshot, tying in to the branding and feel of a business. Photographing teachers in a classroom against an out-of-focus wall covered in students' colourful work, for example, could create a more personable feeling than photographing them against white.
- There tends to be much more depth to natural backgrounds - white or grey is less dimensional.
- A cinematic look and feel can be created when combining natural backgrounds and flash photography. The headshot above was photographed against a large mirror, fairy lights and blue gelled flash, with another flash lighting her from the front. This wouldn't look half as dramatic if it was lit using only natural light.
- If photographing outdoors with natural backgrounds the shoot could be dependent on the weather.
- If a suite of images is needed (headshots of multiple staff members), careful consideration of the background is needed in order for them to work together and provide a consistent look and feel. There could be less conistency than with a white, grey or dark backgrund.
- If headshots need to be extracted from the backgrounds, this is far more difficult when shooting against busy backdrops compared to clean, seamless ones.
I love photography, and I'll talk about it all day. Backgrounds and the roles they play in the look and feel of headshots have always fascinated me. They're closely linked with lighting: the right choice can elevate a headshot and a... less right choice can distract. There's rarely a wrong choice because ultimately it's the person who's being photographed who's important: the expression and engagement that's created will always demand the attention; leaving the background in the background.
If you're a business in the South Wales area in need of new headshots but not sure which background is best for you please get in touch - I'd be more than happy to advise you.
If you're a photographer and have anything to add to this post about headshot backgrounds please feel free to leave a comment below and join the discussion!