The head shot – or mug shot, as it is commonly referred to in the newsroom – is the most rudimentary type of photograph used in the news business. It is often used to identify a subject and/or to add a small graphic element to a story. As photo staffs are shrinking in newsrooms, every journalist should know how to shoot a competent mug shot. Shy? This will help you get over it. As journalists, we constantly have to approach strangers and talk to them. Here’s your chance to practice.
Shoot mug shots of FIVE different people and gather their basic personal information. No more than 3 out of the 5 mugs can be students. For each person photographed, you should get this information:
- Any title or designation, including the institution (institution first THEN title, no separator)
- Name (First and last name)
- Age (separated by commas, after name)
- Hometown (full-time residence, town/city, state)
- Contact info (phone # and/or email address)
Example: Georgia Southern University biology professor Jim Smith, 54, of Brooklet, Ga. (email@example.com)
Why the contact info? It’s good journalistic practice. If you have contact info for the people you photograph, writers or designers can contact your subjects for quotes or to verify facts. Do we always do it? No. But it’s a good habit to get into, especially when you are starting out. It’s always better to have more information than you can use rather than not enough.
Also, as a student, teacher, and practicing journalist, I have known people to occasionally make up information for their own convenience. This is a major breach of ethics. Accuracy must be journalists’ continuing bond with their audience. There’s a good chance I may randomly contact subjects to verify their information.
Type your IDs and save them in a text or Word document on your storage device before class. You will save time by copying and pasting them into your image files rather than typing them all in during class.
Watch your background
Try to find a clean, non-distracting background, but don’t stand your subject up against it! Get some separation between the subject and the background. Watch out for “hot spots,” or areas of extreme brightness in your background. The light in the background shouldn’t be brighter than your subject’s face, if you can help it. Have your subject pivot and move your position until you have a clean background, if necessary. Wide apertures (small aperture values) are usually best to utilize a shallow depth-of-field and make your subjects stand out from the background.
Fill the Frame!
Shoot VERTICAL, as the head has a vertical orientation. Don’t shoot a picture with a tiny head centered in the frame. However, try to leave enough space above and below the head so your frame can be cropped into a square without cutting any of the head off. This is important because head shots are often cropped in different ways. They tend to be vertical in print, but square seems to be most common in web templates.
Stand back and zoom in
It’s better to shoot mug shots with lenses in the telephoto range. If you shoot in the wide angle range and are too close, facial features will begin to distort. With some camera and lens combinations, longer focal lengths can also help clean up your background by dropping it out of focus. If you are using a kit lens, either your own or one of the university’s, stick to the longest focal length – 50 or 55mm.
Put your subject at ease.
Many people are uncomfortable being photographed, so it’s up to you to make them comfortable. Tell them to relax and be themselves, and shoot lots of pictures. Often, you’ll find that the more pictures you shoot, the more relaxed your subject becomes.
Wait for the moment
Yes, even mug shots can have moments. Be mindful of facial expressions. Even small changes can infer different meanings to readers. Try to capture different expressions (try not to coach too much), but make sure you have a shot with a neutral expression, because you never know what type of story that picture might be used with in the future. You don’t want to run a mug shot of a smiling public official after they’ve been indicted for embezzlement or misconduct.
Did I mention, shoot lots of pictures?
Make sure you shoot test frames to check your exposure and camera settings. Tell your subject what your doing. A couple of test frames might help them relax. Make adjustments if necessary. Be methodical and don’t proceed until your test frames look acceptable. Once you get your exposure correct, then shoot away!
NOTE: Be careful about letting your subjects view the results in your camera: some people will never be happy with the results. Those people often see this task as an opportunity for a personal portrait – your job is to capture their likeness for informational purposes – that’s it.