Learning The Art Behind The Headshot

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Those who follow the world of headshot and portrait photography closely have heard Peter Hurley’s name before. One of the leading photographers in his field, Peter has studios in New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

Although he also works in fashion, editorial, and advertising, it is his headshot business that he is most known – and sought after – for.

In 2010, the folks over at FStoppers.com – an awesome website that posts videos related to photography – posted a 10-minute piece featuring Peter Hurley. Peter’s look was already iconic and recognizable at the time, and this video gave the photo community a great behind-the-scenes look into his operation. The FStoppers video became extremely popular – I watched it at least a half-dozen times – and Peter’s signature lighting became the object of much study and imitation.

Then, in 2011, Peter teamed up with the guys at FStoppers and put together an instructional DVD (with a downloadable version) on the subject of headshot photography. Called “The Art Behind The Headshot,” the DVD/video is over four hours long. Over the course of seven actual photo shoots, interspersed with monologues by Peter, the video gives you a very comprehensive look into most, if not all, of his headshot business. To those of us who’d watched the original 2010 video, this tutorial was essentially that video on steroids.

Peter takes a mid-session break to go over images with a client.
Peter takes a mid-session break to go over images with a client.

What’s it all about?

As the name suggests, this video is all about headshot photography. Emphasis on the “all,” because this is as comprehensive a view of that particular type of photography as I think it’s possible to do.

Peter starts with a bit of history and perspective, going into his beginnings, his travails, and how he eventually got to where he is. For the first fifteen minutes or so, it’s just him talking into the camera, describing his thought process and what he feels his role is as a photographer.

After that, it’s seven photo sessions recorded over multiple days, with Peter’s commentary running throughout the shoots and in-between, when he does more talking into the camera.

The list of topics covered is pretty exhaustive. From his signature lighting technique using Kino Flo fluorescents, strobes and natural light, to the coaching he does for his clients, the elements of a good (or bad) headshot, and the business side of things, “The Art Behind The Headshot” is essentially a crash-course in headshot photography.

So – how is it?

In a word? Freaking Amazing.

Okay, that’s two words – both well deserved.

A makeup artist works with a client at Peter's studio.
A makeup artist works with a client at Peter's studio.

The mark of a good instructional product is that it should – I think – leave you with fewer questions than when you first started. It shouldn’t leave you confused and unsure of how to proceed; rather, it should leave you hungry to go out and put what you’ve just seen into practice.

Peter’s video does just that. Five minutes into the first photo shoot and I was tempted to go pull my lights out of the garage and try his techniques out on my girlfriend. Fifteen minutes in and I would have – except that it was 2am and she wouldn’t have taken kindly to that.

That’s how cool this video is. Peter himself is extremely high-energy, and his energy transfers over to you as you watch him work and talk. At no point do you ever go, “This is boring.” Even in the monologues, which, in other tutorials, I’ve normally found a bit tedious, Peter has you riveted. I haven’t quite decided if that’s because he’s so amped that you can’t really look away, or because every monologue, every bit of commentary, has value.

This isn’t some guy talking to elongate what should be a 20-minute tutorial into a 2-hour video. I never got the sense that he was just stalling, never felt like fast-forwarding through any of the video. In fact, the slider on the playback controls (I bought the downloadable version of the video) went backwards at least once every five minutes or so.

Peter works with a client needing a headshot
Peter works with a client needing a headshot.

The shoots themselves are ridiculously captivating. These are real clients that he’s shooting, and he’s doing that and delivering commentary about the shoot at the same time. That behind-the-scenes perspective is invaluable, because you get to see Peter dealing with a variety of clients and you get a great grasp of what the business is really about. You see the easy clients, and the great rapport he has with them, and you see the difficult clients that he has to work harder to gain that rapport with.

Rapport, as it turns out, is the real meat of this business. Peter sees himself as more of a coach or therapist for his clients. He addresses the technical pieces of his shoots, like his camera, how he shoots tethered, and his lighting setups, but you get a very clear impression that his core focus is not about being a lighting or Photoshop geek.

This is a guy who’s all about his connection with his customer. He has his gear where he wants it to be – he knows, for example, when he has to back off half-a-stop on his light and when to switch away from the Kino Flos – and is now all about getting the best out of his clients. He rarely changes his lighting setup, but will spend hours with a client, coaching them, showing them images from the shoot on his iMac, then coaching them again.

Being a lighting geek myself, I was always curious about the Kino Flos he uses. Ironically, the best piece of gear-related info I got from this video was about Peter’s scrapbook with pictures of celebrities squinting at the camera.

That’s right. Celebrities. Squinting at the camera.

Peter shoots through his signature Kino Flo lighting setup.
Peter shoots through his signature Kino Flo lighting setup.


At $300, this isn’t a casual investment for many photographers. If you shoot people, however, it’s an investment that is absolutely worth every penny, and then some. Peter’s a natural teacher, and the four hours of instruction flew past very quickly. You’ll find yourself going back to portions of it  and watching them again to get the most out of it.

I easily give “The Art Behind The Headshot” a very, very enthusiastic two thumbs up.

FYI, there’s a great Facebook group that Peter set up where folks can post and receive feedback on their headshots. Peter recently did a great guest blog for Scott Kelby‘s blog on jawlines that’s worth watching, and he’s also speaking at the upcoming Google+ Photographer’s Conference in May.

UPDATE: : The Facebook group set up by Peter is now defunct, as he’s been locked out of it for some unknown reason. Instead, Peter is directing users to his own site, http://www.ph2pro.com/, to pick up where that group left off. It’s currently in beta form, and pricing for the premium features of the site has not yet been set, but there’s already a thriving group of photographers posting their images there.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin