Monthly Archives October 2004


Hey everyone. Good to see you here again!

A big hug goes to Scott and Brad for inviting me back to be a guest blogger. It’s not only quite an honor to post here, but it’s also great fun to share photo how-to info – and photo inspiration – on Scott’s popular blog.

I call this post, Transforming Your Home into a Professional Photo Studio, which coincidentally is the title of my newest class on KelbyOne, releasing tomorrow!

In this new class (which was shot in a home near the KelbyOne studios in Oldsmar, Florida) I share tips, tricks and techniques for shooting in your home with speedlites, constant lights, Ice Lights and even a small flashlight. The main idea of the class is that you don’t necessarily need to spend thousands of dollars a month on a studio rental, as well as thousands of dollars on lighting gear, to get good portraits.

Let’s start by taking a look at some of the end-result photographs, as well as some of the behind-the-scenes photos, from the class. For each photo I’ll share a quick tip.

After sharing some photos from the class, I’ll share some of my “home studio” images that were taken closer to home, actually in my home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

Let’s go!


Here’s a favorite shot from the class. I used two Canon 600EX RT speedlites to light our model. She was posed against the plain living room wall.

Tip: Fire a speedlite through a colored gel and a gobo to create a dramatic background.


Borrrrrring! This is a natural-light shot of our model illuminated only by room light.


This photograph had nice highlights and strong shadows, which equal good contrast. The light is coming from above and slightly behind the subject.

Tip: Take the damn flash off the camera.


In this behind-the-scenes shot of the previous photograph, you can see our assistant for the day, the talented Kathy Porupski, holding a Westcott Apollo softbox, fitted with my Canon 600EX RT speedlite, above our model’s head.

Tip: When working with a softbox, changing the position of the light even by a few inches can make a big different in the lighting (highlights and shadows), which I go into in the class.


“Light illuminates, shadows define.” “Shadows are the soul of the photograph.” “Shadows are your friend.” Those are some of my favorite quotes about shadows, in addition to Joe McNally’s quote, “If you want an interesting photograph, don’t light the entire subject.”

These two photographs from the class illustrate how fairly flat lighting (from Westcott Ice Lites) can be flattering, and how dramatic side lighting (from a Canon speedlite mounted in a Westscott Apollo softbox) can create a dramatic image.

Tip: Always remember that the most important thing about a photograph is the mood or feeling one gets when the image is viewed. These two pictures of the same model in the same room have totally different moods . . . moods created by lighting.


Here’s a behind-the-scenes shot of Kathy and Jen Coffin, the awesome producer of the class, helping out with the Ice Lites. They were cool to work with – both the Ice Lites and Kathy and Jen!

Here’s a look at some of my Croton-on-Hudson images.


I took this photo in my home office. I call it Finding Frida, because I was trying to find a model and setup that matched a Frida Kahlo poster I had seen on the web.

Tip: Props rock. Sure, the model in this photograph is awesome, but it’s the props and background that make this photo a success.


This behind-the-scenes shot shows my model’s surprise when I got my “keeper” on the very first shot.

Tip: Be prepared (by testing your lighting with an assistant as your model) before your model shows up.


Here’s another photograph that illustrates the importance of props, as well as good lighting. I call this image, Recreated a Rembrandt. Do a Google search on Rembrandt’s Old Soldier and you’ll see why. The dude in the photo is my neighbor, Jay.


For my Recreating a Rembrandt image, I used two Westcott Spiderlites to light my subject, and a third Spiderlite to light the background – to provide some separation between the subject and the background.


This is one of my favorite at-home portraits.

Tip: Never underestimate the importance of a good subject/model.


In this behind-the-scenes shot (taken in my music room) you see that I am shooting tethered: my Canon 5D Mark III is attached to my MacBook Pro with a cable.

Tip: Shoot tethered so you and your model can easily see the images on a computer monitor, as opposed to viewing the image on the camera’s small LCD monitor.


My Girl with a Pearl Earring photograph, a takeoff on Vermerr’s Girl with a Pearl Earning painting, was my first at-home studio portrait. It illustrated Frank Doorhof’s tip: “When you think you need two lights, use one light; when you think you need three lights, use one light.”


This behind-the-scenes shot shows my wife Susan helping with the pros, and my friend’s daughter, Zoe, assisting with the lighting. The background is a $12 piece of material we bought at the local fabric store.

Well, that’s a super quick look at “Transforming Your Home into a Professional Photo Studio.” I hope you enjoy the class.


For addition lighting tips, as well as some photo inspiration and motivation, please check out my latest (and 36th) book, Creative Visualization for Photographers.

You can see more of Rick’s work at, and follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And be sure to keep an eye out for his brand new KelbyOne class, Transforming Your Home into a Professional Photo Studio, releasing tomorrow!

liketherazor_Mike Schacht Chicago Headshot Photographer
Chicago has several great headshot photographers, and the king of Chicago, Michael Schacht, made this portrait of me, which is why it is the best photograph in this article.

How Peter Hurley Made a Headshot Photographer Out of Me
I was totally dejected and felt like I had failed my friend. I stared at the headshot I took of him trying to figure it out. He had a cool little mustache and looked handsome in his Army uniform, but Peter Hurley had just told me that he looked constipated.

1_Victoria-Jordan_Chris Gillett Houston Headshot Photographer
Faint smiles like this from Victoria take us into Mona Lisa territory. That such little movement can be so evocative leads some to conclude that the soul can communicate through the face beyond its mere physical appearance.

My friend had joined the United States Army right after 9/11. It has not been the easiest life for him, and I am very proud of him. I so wanted to do a good job on his headshot, and it was tough to hear that, in the opinion of arguably the best headshot photographer in the world, I had failed. Hard as it was to hear, it was lessons like this from Peter that took me from a bad amateur with no ability to make people look good in headshots to a working headshot photographer. You may not like my work or you may find it too derivative, which is certainly okay. My purpose here is to praise Peter for his teaching ability and to strongly recommend the information contained in his new book The Headshot: The Secrets to Creating Amazing Headshot Portraits.

2_Jordan-Ogletree-Chris Gillett Houston Headshot Photographer
We will always be responsive to those few square inches between the chin and forehead, and artists will always try to find new ways to stimulate that response.

I met Peter in 2012 at one of his Headshot Intensives in Dallas, and it made a huge impact on my life. Peter shared everything he knew about taking headshots and running a business. No question was off limits. He taught things that I had never heard from another photography instructor. He looked over my shoulder as I was shooting and told me that my crop sucked. Most importantly, he began to teach me his eye. I started to see what made a headshot strong or weak. Consequently, if you took my portfolio images and arranged them in chronological order, it would be obvious where the Intensive occurred in the timeline. The impact he had on my work is still hard for me to believe and influences me every time I shoot a client.

3_Toni-Matcek-Chris Gillett Houston Headshot Photographer
An artist must have a certain reverence for the human face.

He also taught me how challenging and rewarding it can be to shoot headshots. Every subject has strengths and weaknesses. Everyone comes with a certain mindset and insecurities. The process is somewhat improvisational because what worked with the last client may not work with the next. If you are able to navigate these challenges and capture an image of someone at their best or make them see themselves in a new way, it is tremendously rewarding. Through Peter I learned how powerful a headshot can be, and I learned to revere the human face.

Thanks to Peter’s lessons, I now have a headshot business in Houston where I work with individual professionals and politicians and their consultants to create headshots that convey their desired message and don’t make them look constipated.

4_SuzieWalkerPano-Chris Gillett Houston Headshot Photographer
You know, when you put it this way, it seems pretty good.

It is amazing to me that a guy who is arguably the best at what he does would have the desire and ability to teach his methods to other people. I think that part of it is that Peter genuinely enjoys teaching, but part of it also is that he is a tremendously generous person. If you just know the crazy guy from YouTube or The Grid, you don’t know him at all. He is one of the kindest people I know. I think Jerry Ghionis falls into this category too: world class skills with the desire and ability to teach them rather than simply demonstrating what he does as so many other folks seem to do.

5_Bob-Boudreaux Chris Gillett Houston Headshot Photographer
An aptitude, whether instinctive or learned, what some call an “eye,” often marks the difference between artistry and mere competence.

I have heard instructors struggle to explain how to develop one’s own style. I don’t think it is actually that mysterious. A perhaps simplistic but accurate definition is that one’s style is the sum of each choice that is made in the creation of the work, things that the artist likes and doesn’t like. Peter seems to understand this, for a big part of his teaching style is to simply show you what he thinks looks good in headshots, what does not, and why. For example, Peter generally likes clean neck lines in headshots (see pages 154-155 of The Headshot). It is one of the factors that defines his style. While his style or his eye is not simply the sum of all his opinions about headshots, it is still a useful definition. This is one way that he taught me and many others his photographic eye.

6_Kristen-Devine-Chris Gillett Houston Headshot Photographer
Peter generally dislikes hair behind both shoulders like this. See page 151. While I agree, I think it works here.

The Intensive is an amazing experience, but not everyone will be able to do it. Fortunately, Scott Kelby forced Peter to write The Headshot. Peter has said that writing the book is the hardest thing he has ever done, and portrait and headshot photographers are lucky that he did, for it teaches all of the hard won lessons he has learned over the last decade that have made him one of the best known headshot photographers in the world. These lessons put me a decade ahead of where I would be otherwise. The book is packed with very specific information about what he likes, what he does not like, and why. It is a very clear map to developing his eye. Whether your goal is to shoot in his style or simply take better pictures of human beings, The Headshot has the information to get you there.

7_Paul-Evan-Chris Gillett Houston Headshot Photographer

Another example of Peter’s eye, which he mentions in the book, is the hair wrap (see page 155). Often when women with long hair are asked to pull the hair on one side behind the shoulder, they reach around with the hand on the opposite side and wrap the hair over the opposite shoulder. In another type of photograph, this might be fine, but in a headshot it often looks unbalanced and throws the composition off. To me, it also looks too casual, which is not the look I am usually going for.

8_Sara-Simpson-Chris Gillett Houston Headshot Photographer
There are more emotional qualities possible with a smile than any other expression.

Peter also discusses making your clients feel comfortable, but he is not offering the same hoary advice that you have probably seen many times in articles with titles like “Top 6 Portrait Tips.” If your clients are not comfortable around you, then you may have a problem that exists outside of photography. Peter digs deeper into what causes people to be self conscious and uncomfortable in front of a camera and he offers specific strategies to deal with it. I have not seen his solutions anywhere else. For example, he discusses camera invisibility, establishing rapport, and getting life out of lifeless subjects (see Chapter 5).

9_William-Taylor-Chris Gillett Houston Headshot Photographer
With a slight smile, the difference between engaging and vacant is often difficult to navigate.

I think the most valuable thing he teaches is his eye for expression. It is his ability to get compelling expressions out of his subjects that is most striking about his work. There are experienced pros who have headshots in their portfolios with dull, lifeless, and vacant expressions. I am not sure if this is because they cannot get better expressions, don’t know the difference, or just have different opinions about what makes a compelling headshot. Getting compelling expressions out of your clients is not easy. Imagine how hard it is if you don’t know what the goal is (see Chapter 4). Expression is difficult because subtle movements change everything, and they are difficult to direct. Also, expression is open to interpretation. Sometimes the difference between vacant and engaged is a few millimeters. In the example below, you can see that the subject goes from blank to compelling by squinting her eyes a bit and smiling slightly.

Enthusiasts will note that I am shooting way too high on her. See page 20. Maybe she snuck her shoes off when I wasn’t looking. You don’t know. Obviously I like small squints and tiny smiles a lot.

Rather than trying to direct micro expressions, I have had good luck getting people to react to what I say. I don’t do it exactly like Peter does. I have to do it in a way that fits my personality. However you do it, it must be with confidence (see page 167).

After submitting a draft of this article, I ran across a thread on Reddit regarding a piece on Rangefinder Online called “10 Tips from Headshot Master Peter Hurley on Shooting Female Faces.” I was very surprised by the comments in the Reddit thread. About half of the commenters (I didn’t count; this is a guess) voiced criticisms of the shots that accompanied the article that demonstrated they may not have noticed how good the expressions were. For example, some criticized the technique and style: “The pictures look like generic stock photos;” “They’re product shots of faces;” (That one IS hilarious) “I can’t think of a more boring type of photography;” and “Am I the only one thinking that those shots look neither professional nor good?” While I would argue with all of these comments, the point is that none of the commenters seemed to appreciate that a strength of the shots (I would argue the main strength) is the expressions. Yes they are all the same style, yes they are lit very flat (Hurley lights men differently), yes he takes pictures over and over again of people’s heads in a clean style. However, the salient characteristic is the excellent expressions Hurley gets. Amazingly, he wants to tell how he does it, but a lot of people are deaf to it. Or blind to it. Pick your own metaphor.

One commenter called people like me Hurley clones. As you can imagine, I would love to be a clone of Hurley. Of course when I go to the commenter’s website, the first image I see is of a girl who looks very unhappy to be in a forest. Another commenter posted numerous links to examples of what he considered better headshots. There were a couple I liked. The rest were either not headshots (I once had someone call me to inquire about taking “full length headshots,” whatever that is) or had terrible blank, vacant, miserable, or deer in the headlights expressions. I know it is very popular to take pictures of pretty, young women who look like they have been medicated or hypnotized. I am not saying folks shouldn’t do that (photograph those looks, I mean… You shouldn’t be medicating or hypnotizing your subjects). All I am saying is that there are other possibilities, and Hurley teaches some in the book. Forlorn might be a useful look for a twenty year old model, but the people who hire me have no use for that. They want to look pleasant and poised, but they have no idea what that looks like or how to pull it off. Many models don’t know either. That is why I am so thankful that Peter taught me how to do it and why I think the book is worth reading. My point in writing all this was to point out the value of compelling expressions in people photography. I don’t know if I did a good enough job, but I hope it opens someone’s eyes to an aspect of portraiture that they may have not yet explored sufficiently.

If you photograph people, I strongly recommend that you read The Headshot. It is a competitive advantage. You could also check out Peter’s teaching site Warning: if you start to see people through Peter’s eyes, a lot of people photography will be ruined for you. You will never be able to unsee the blank, miserable, and vacant looks that still end up in published work, but your work will be better for it.

Chris Gillett is a Houston-based headshot and portrait photographer. You can see more of Chris’ work at, and follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.