Okay, this is one of those stupid terms that photographers use. I guess a better term is business portraits? A pal of mine calls them “cinematic” headshots. The idea is that rather than shooting the headshot on a plain background, we do it somewhere, in some “environment.” This is what a lot of people think they want, and it merits some thought. I feel like most people hire me because of the expressions that we get, because you look poised and pleasant. As hokey as it sounds, your confidence and your approachability are communicated by your face. This concept drives a lot of the decisions I make within the frame of the headshot. It is why I don’t want the clothes you wear to be conspicuous. I am wary of anything that draws attention away from the face. If I am going to wander away from this principle, I need a good reason to do it, and I will do it conservatively.

What are the advantages of business portraits and cinematic headshots over plain backgrounds then? The obvious answer is that they can show you in your working environment. By itself, this isn’t a great answer. This is a good answer for a portrait or general use business image, but we are talking about headshots here. Try this: the use of an environmental background can create atmosphere, and atmosphere can make things that in one setting seem implausible in another atmosphere seems very possible.

Stick with me. In a certain atmosphere things may seem possible that would strike us as absurd and a different atmosphere. Told at a beach on a sunny day, a story about someone seeing a ghostly apparition might seem silly. Told by a fireside in a cold, dark room at night during a thunderstorm, the same story might seem more plausible. This is getting a little deep because now we are not talking about reaching people intellectually but rather emotionally.

In trying to create a certain atmosphere you are using external information to produce a mental state that will lead the viewer to perceive you in the way you want them to. It is like preparing for a romantic evening by dimming the lights, putting on romantic music, preparing a candlelit dinner, and pouring some wine.

Also, the external information can create prestige. A lawyer photographed in an expensive, contemporary office space will have much more prestige than one photographed in a bland hallway or in front of a bookshelf. You have to think about what kind of atmosphere will serve you best, what you want to make the viewer feel, what environment you can leverage, and how that will look at usual headshot viewing sizes.

These can look pretty cool as you will see below, but the plain background headshot can be used in more places, is cleaner and clearer, and is still the best way to communicate confidence and approachability. You could just make my day and do both. Together they make a strong and flexible image package to direct people towards the appropriate first impression of you.

NB: if you want to do one of these, we will need to select the proper environment, and that may take some effort.