by Gary Rabenko

In this article, I want to talk about headshots. How much of the photographer’s time do headshots take? How much should they cost?

Headshots can be a funny topic. Often the results look funny, too. All kinds of humorous titles come to mind, such as heads-up, putting on a good face, facing the future, facing your fears, not losing face, using your head to find your best face — the options seem endless, including something I once wrote called “mindless headshots.”

But I know that most people do care how they look and take the importance of a headshot seriously. The exception, it seems, is when they are shopping for a photographer to do the shoot! How they will look is often not their prime concern or, as I might say, uppermost on their mind right then. Right then, what the headshots will cost is often the paramount concern. So, what should they cost?

I’ve always liked doing headshots, because I have always appreciated the opportunity of meeting new faces, and the unique universe of potential they bring to the artist’s canvas. So I keep headshot prices very reasonable and have a sliding scale of investment for those who want more than the basic. Often, people who come to me for headshots have been unhappy with their past photographers. They care how they look and they do want to put their best face forward.

It is important to understand that a headshot and a passport photo are two very different things.

Passport photos are meant to show the physical only, and involve a relaxed, rather blank expression that is not intended to show any personality or create any emotional impression. It is also devoid of any lighting pattern to enhance, augment, or minimize any feature.

On the other hand, headshots are portraits which, in a practical sense, introduce you to the viewer. They should be of help in getting the viewers to feel like they know something about the subject. A headshot can be considered like the packaging of a product. Manufacturers and marketers spend much time and attention carefully crafting the face of their product. The photographers who are then tasked with photographing both fancy and plain packaging can vary widely.

Catalog photographers will just drop a product onto their already set tabletop and with a simple push of a button make the photo, utilizing the exact same light configuration and complete setup that made countless previous photos of similarly sized and packaged products. Companies that understand how much more effective better photography can be in making their product more desirable will invest in more skilled, customized photography to make the item so much more desirable and interesting. Headshots vary in the same way.

There is a huge difference in price between an approach that involves dropping your product into a scene that’s already all set and an approach that from scratch introduces one lighting component at a time to custom-build a set intended to present this special product most appropriately to the potential customer by paying close attention to all the details that will make the product appear as special as it can be.

If you value your face as being an important part of how you present yourself to others, you might value what a real photographer can do. I often see very terrible headshots online and on business cards that certainly are not doing the subject any favor. They no doubt seemed like a bargain but turned out really costly. Rarely does a person feel like doing a second shoot with a different photographer. They don’t have the time or the emotional courage! Sometimes they may just be unaware of their headshot’s shortcomings.

The photographer who replaces one product with another on a tabletop setup and then pushes the button may not have any photographic skill, training, or awareness. And if you are OK having such a person package your best face for presentation to the public, you might be happy with what is a mass-produced approach to a personalized result.

So how much should you pay for a headshot? What investment do you think compensates the photographer for the time involved? In an age when you can make your own headshots, it is easy to imagine that a photographer might make your headshot in a few minutes and figure it should cost only a few dollars. But not so. Here is how I do it. I don’t see how or where I can reduce the time it takes.

People come to me for the techniques that make my work special. I am not doing a repetitive task, not dropping your face into a preexisting lighting and lens setup, and not doing the same shot I just did. The following breakdown of time begins with an introductory call, calls to answer questions and schedule a visit, what is usually an initial in-person consultation to observe subject’s mannerisms, hear her concerns, and learn from any possible past experience with other photographers, and discuss the goals of the headshot.

It takes about 20 minutes for a subject to forget they are being photographed, so my photo session is generally an hour. I have no preset approach, and I tailor gear and technique towards each individual client. Often, people are either late or they need some time to groom/dress before the shoot. The images are then uploaded, selected, adjusted, and tweaked, backed up, and processed for client’s pending in-person review, or uploaded for viewing. Depending on the number of shots, that can take an hour or two. Next, the client will generally spend close to an hour reviewing all the images with me, selecting her favorites and discussing what can be adjusted for maximum effect.

After the client leaves, her selection is then pulled from the source files, further customized and retouched, and then output in a useable file for her purposes and either e-mailed or uploaded. Even a single image can easily take 30 minutes. Sure it can be rushed, but rushing often leads to overlooking some stray hair, facial line, or other detail, which then would leave the client disappointed and require more time to reload the source file and rework the needed change, so it is not a good idea to rush. We do a customized product. It takes time and I figure the above can easily take more than three hours! For this I charge $250. Occasionally for a student or a shadchan I will lower the price.

But the fact is that no studio is going to make money on headshots at these numbers. Headshots are an interruption of the photographer’s other projects. I care that the client is thrilled, and I will redo a shoot if she is not. This is not a mass-produced or automated approach. Sometimes we are able to schedule several back-to-back sessions, but as most clients only need a few photos, it is very hard to evaluate if they are even worth the effort to do. I feel good helping a client feel good about herself—that is a wonderful feeling. It does sadden me when callers find the price off-putting. Those callers do not realize why a good headshot cannot be an automated cookie-cutter task. It is a personalized and customized product, and the process is time-consuming, so finding experienced and concerned photographers is becoming more and more difficult. Those who think that a good headshot is pricey cannot know how much work is involved, what a good deal it is, or how costly alternatives can be. 

Rabenko Photography & Video Arts is located at 1053 Broadway in Woodmere. To learn more, contact Gary@Rabenko.com, 1-888-RABENKO, 888-722-3656, or visit Rabenko.com.

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