Finding the best portrait or headshot photographer near you is not easy these days with photography skills varying greatly and advertising dollars influencing top search results. Recently I searched online for the best portrait and headshot photographers near me – at least according to the Internet and those paying to appear first – in order to find who my competition was, who was rating “best” photographers (along with criteria used), and what I might do to increase marketshare. I searched for a list of photographers and clicked links leading to a couple well known sites. I did this in several geographic areas, and I looked at recommendations from two sites that train and promote their photographers. Since portrait specialties vary, I thought I might be able to identify gaps in my imagery or offerings. Did I display enough of a contemporary look in my portfolio? Did I need to show more ¾ length portraits? Did I need more headshots vs. portraits? Did I need more images with different color backgrounds? Did I need to add environmental portraits, and so on.
My initial assumption was that searching for a list of “best” by zip code would lead to a display of excellent images. Unfortunately, for the most part – with the exception of the specialty sites that train photographers – it did not. While I did learn a few things about what types of images I wanted to include going forward, overall what I found bothered me. I found “best photographer in …. zipcode” results passively misleading and in one case actively deceptive. Overall based on portfolios, my search most commonly revealed poor to average photography quality (IMO). With this impetus, I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post on what to look for when checking out portfolios for those in the market for headshots and portraits.
Criteria to Look for When Reviewing Photography Portfolios
Consider what your overall initial impression of an image is at first glance. Do you find it pleasing? Does it draw you in and make you want to study details? If the image was laid out on a table with 12 others, would it stand out? It should, if it is in someone’s professional photography portfolio as a sample of their best work. What do you like about the image and why? Now, hold that thought and consider what follows.
Exposure, Highlights, Lowlights, Trends
RAW vs. JPG
In-studio Lighting Options
Skin texture is so important in Portrait photography and reveals much about the photographer. So much can go wrong causing skin to look plastic, both during a shoot and the retouching process. Skin should always have texture showing. Likewise, skin tones should blend. No blotchy spots. No blemishes, … unless you are a natural beauty with flawless tight skin and you went for a no-retouching mini shoot. Typically mini portrait sessions are priced for brevity – short shoots, minimal retouching, minimal budgets. Someone paying for a 15 minute photoshoot isn’t going to get extensive retouching at a rock bottom rate. (This might account for why one image in a portfolio is not retouched. However, most photographers would likely not select a non-retouched image for a portfolio – unless the subject was naturally stunning or the photographer was a journalist who shoots in a very different style and set of rules than discussed here.) Consider whether you are looking at the occasional image that is not retouched or all the images are not retouched. You might want to ask about the services the pro offers, if only to learn what skills s/he has with Photoshop. Mastering Adobe Photoshop is something most portrait photographers do. It enhances the thought process when you are shooting, because you know and imagine possibilities. Photographers who don’t know Photoshop lack this algorithm. It doesn’t mean they are all bad photographers, just that they are limited to specific types of shoots and way of thinking. But what you should most watch out for is that it might also mean the person is starting out as a photographer and is an amateur with a nice camera. Portfolio images tell a story about the level of photography skill you will get.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the degree of retouching can vary by client and purpose. High fashion images might have every facial pore and line carefully retouched. It depends on who hired the photographer and how the image was intended to be used. Sometimes intent is apparent, other times not. Let the photographer know if you have strong feelings about retouching and, ultimately, remember this regarding the quality of retouching you see – photographers only post their best work in portfolios. It’s drilled into them. Is this one worthy? No. Get it out. If someone’s best work doesn’t look that great, how much worse will their ‘non-best’ work look?