Photographer Spotlight Chris Gillett
As a leading headshot, and portraiture photographer Chris Gillett continues to excel in capturing his subjects at their best. We sat down with Chris to chat about what gear he likes to use, optimal lighting, and his future plans.
Please tell us more about how you selected digital medium format for your headshot workflow. Why did you depart from 35mm?
The look. I cannot get the same look with DSLR cameras. There are certainly secondary considerations: it is fun, the files are fun to edit, it looks and sounds cool, and my clients won’t see me shooting a camera that they gave away last month as a bar mitzvah gift.
I think of what I do as art, and I want to use the best tools available to me. Before I had a medium format camera in my hands, I had been told that it is a nice but not necessary tool. While I certainly agree with the idea that great photographs can be made with lesser cameras, once I shot one and looked at the files, I knew that it had to be a part of my process.
I still shoot Nikon for other applications as my digital back uses a CCD sensor. When the time is right, I will upgrade to a back with a CMOS sensor. Until then I am happy to use medium format for my more serious and higher paying studio work and a DSLR for more casual or lower light situations.
What’s currently in your bag? What are you shooting with, what are the go to essentials on your sets, or even for when you’re editing or lighting?
For headshots, I shoot a Phase One XF with a Leaf Credo 40 digital back; 120mm macro and 80mm LS lenses; and Kino Flo lights. For outside the studio I still use a Nikon D4 and D800 with holy trinity lenses and some primes. I’m shooting Elinchom strobes and Nikon speed lights. I also strongly recommend a nice sports coat or knit shirt. I shoot better in Munsingwear. I advise against cargo shorts and mesh t-shirts.
Why Capture Integration?
Medium format is an amazing and important part of the look I get in my images, but it is not easy. It is like driving a rear engine sports car: fun, high performance, and it can get away from you if you are not careful. I would never invest in medium format without a reputable dealer like CI to help me make the best investment possible and to provide training, advice, and service after the sale.
I know that you’ve worked with Peter Hurley. And you’ve commented, “the most valuable thing he teaches is his eye for expression”. Please elaborate on this.
From reviewing numerous headshot portfolios, it is clear to me that few headshot photographers have as good an eye for the genre as Peter. I see a ton of average and bad expressions. I see portfolios with exceptional shots positioned right next to shots of people who look blank or constipated. From my own education and watching other photographers on the same path in Peter’s Headshot Crew, I have seen the epiphany occur where the photographer finally understands the small difference between a good expression and an exceptional one. I also see it happen with my clients. If I do my job right, my clients understand what I am looking for. I teach them my (Peter’s) eye while I work with them, and at some point they will tell me that they see it. It is a big part of my process. I don’t see how I can expect them to get where I need them to be without an understanding of why they are doing it. It is the most valuable part of the expertise I offer my clients.
In my experience, knowing what needs to be fixed is often more elusive than figuring out how to fix it. Once Peter parted the fog that I was peering though, it made it pretty easy to improve, and I stumbled around the headshot and portrait world like Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live.
Also, expression is important any time you photograph human beings. At headshot distances it is most unforgiving, but it still matters as you step back from your subject. Once I started to see things the way Peter does, I couldn’t unsee the blank, miserable expressions you often see in photographs. Those are certainly fine if the artist is making a conscious decision to portray people that way, but I prefer to show people at their best. My clients seem to respond to it. They often tell me that they like the “spark” or “vibe” that the headshots have.
As a headshot shooter, your lighting setup is a major, crucial variable in your brand. Can you share more about your lighting setup and style?
I wish I had something cool to tell you, but I light men and women very much like Peter does. One thing to keep in mind is that when the lights are close to the subject, there are two dangers. One is that at such distances even a few inches will make a big difference in exposure. I shoot headshot subjects standing, so they will move. I have to watch for that. The other is that with a flat lighting setup the client will often wander in and out of the convergence of the lights. Too far behind the convergence looks bad. Too far in front looks worse. I think I heard McNally say that lighting is a game of inches. That is really true when the lights are close to the subject.
I generally prefer a soft wrapping light for most applications. I don’t mind making men looks more chiseled, but I light women with a more flat light. It isn’t very artistic, but it makes their skin look better. Headshots are hard, and women are hard on themselves. When their face fills the frame, I have to make it look good. Of course, as I pull back, I can get away with more, so I am less likely to use flat light on women’s portraits.
Since I have more leeway with men, I experiment more with them, but I rarely show this work as I want to demonstrate a consistent style to clients.
Can you share WHY you decided to select the Leaf Credo as your digital back?
Cost was a big consideration. Medium format can be expensive, and I got a good deal on the Credo. Also, the Credo renders skin tones in a very pleasing way. At least that is what I tell myself. I hope to upgrade to a CMOS sensor at some point. I don’t know if it would replace the Credo or supplement it. If only there were a team of experts in this field who would help me investigate this without charging a thing for their time and expertise.
If you could give one piece of advice to another photographer starting out, what would you say?
I will limit my answer to headshot photographers. Look up Peter as soon as possible and shoot as often as you can. Here is a big tip: his book has, with a few minor exceptions, everything he teaches. I think he is nuts to give it all away for the price of a book, but he is a little nuts. After you start taking clients, still shoot as many non clients as possible and build up the best portfolio that you can. My portfolio is the best marketing tool that I have. Headshots are hard and need thoughtful practice, but if I can do it anyone should be able to.
Can you recall the “Aha!” moment when you knew you wanted to shoot professionally?
The epiphany occurred when I had been working seven days a week, five at a day job and two weekend days shooting headshots, for about half a year without complaint. It hit me that I loved everything about the little business that I had started and that I would be happier if I shifted the balance in favor of photography.
Are you satisfied creatively?
So far. I bet that headshots seem boring to some photographers, but I find them very satisfying. My next client will have certain weaknesses that the last one did not and certain strengths that the next one will not. They will have different goals for the headshots. They will be different types of people with different concerns and hang ups. Even though they all have the same facial equipment, it is all different and works differently. I have to take all this in and figure out how I am going to get them where I want them to be. It is very improvisational. In the end, we will create a photograph that did not exist and would not exist but for the hard work we put into it.
I used to write and record music, and the thrill I got creating new music and later recording that music is very similar. I usually have an idea in my head of what I can create with the client, but I am often pleasantly surprised by where we end up. If I do my job right, my client will see herself in a new way, and if perform really well, she may see something in herself that she has never seen before. That is extremely satisfying. I think of what I do as an experience just as much as it is the creation of art.
If anyone ever asks you about the similarities between headshot photographers and jazz musicians, now you know.
Have you thought about what you might want to do in the next 5 to 10 years?
I want to be alive, healthy, and shooting as many headshots and portraits as I have time for with the latest tools that CI hooks me up with. I want to work on projects where a sports coat is more appropriate than a mesh tank top, which everyone knows I look terrible in.
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