The demand for a skilled commercial headshot photographer is very paramount today more than ever before since everybody now has a digital identity. We are very concerned with searching one another on Google more and more. The unfortunate thing is that not too many people have quality headshots for their online profiles. Most people deem themselves to be not photogenic hence prefer to hide behind an Avatar or some landscape image taken on a family vacation. This is where headshot photographer such as Jason Ranalli can make a lot of difference by eliminating the anxiety and pressure that people get in front of a camera. I had the opportunity to have an encounter with Jason Ranalli, a world class Commercial Headshot Photographer based in Philadelphia – USA, to tell us a little bit about himself and his headshot business, the opportunities that he explores and the challenges he must surmount at times in the market place.
Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you fall into this game of headshot photography?
I’ve been doing photography for over a decade at this point; first as a hobby then taking on side gigs outside of my day job which was in Finance IT for various Wall St firms. I left that career, relocated to Philadelphia from NYC and was determined to be self employed. Photography kept calling me and headshots were where I saw the most potential in the market. Around two years ago I came across Peter Hurley who is a master commercial headshot photographer and learning from him forever changed how I was going to do any kind of headshots or portraiture going forward. His style fostered more of a connection with people than any style I had seen before and I loved it.
As you are growing your headshot business, what are the aspects that really present you with challenges or opportunities?
The biggest challenge is convincing folks how much positive impact a well crafted headshot can make; that it shouldn’t be just an afterthought or a five-minute snap-n-go. Because there are so many bad commercial headshot photographers out there. Folks just are not aware that true quality does exist and it comes from someone who specializes in this craft. If all you have ever eaten is fast-food you don’t really know what you are missing until you go to a restaurant serving top-end dishes with fresh ingredients.
However, that challenge also presents great opportunity. There are so many folks across the professional spectrum who not only may never have had a great headshot but never a headshot at all so the potential is quite big. The key is getting folks to see the difference and the potential it can give them.
As a commercial headshot photographer, with the myriad of professions and industries out there requiring the services of a talented headshot photographer like yourself, which professions form the basis of your business and why?
My business mostly centers around two legs one of which is actors/models who need quality headshots for their portfolio. That side needs headshots with expressions that stand out from the stack they’re competing against. The second leg is corporate clients who need polished looking commercial headshots that show them as competent and friendly. Up until now both the status quo for both these categories of clients was having headshots with blank expressions, poor lighting, poor positioning and distracting backgrounds.
However, that status quo is just not good enough anymore. People need to look engaging in their headshots. They need to be giving something genuine back to the person looking at them because being genuine is endearing – flaws and all.
Are you in a saturated market?
I sure am. Like most larger cities in the US there are probably a few hundred commercial photographers servicing the greater Philadelphia area working many sectors, price and skill levels of the spectrum.
Is headshot a niche market for you?
It certainly is. When I looked across the market here in Philadelphia I saw a lot of photographers but very few that actually had specific sectors they specialized in. There tend to be a lot of photographers who do many things be it wedding photography, newborn, families, corporate, commercial, headshots, etc.
While you can certainly be good at more than one genre of photography I saw the need for a high-end headshot specialist in this market because there was a clear void. For instance I can go to a family doctor who has a diverse range of experience and get a very general treatment, however, if I know I have a problem with my foot I’m most likely going to have to go to a podiatrist – someone who specializes in that discipline.
With so many photographers around, how do you go about getting new clients?
My best clients are always coming in via referrals and those clients are great because they’re already somewhat well versed in what I do. That being said, even though the market here is saturated with photographers there really is enough business for everyone. I say this because Philadelphia still is a fairly large hub for a lot of industries, corporate commerce, theater and even commercial acting.
When I’m not shooting I’m generally networking and looking for another group of awesome clients who I know can benefit from the visual branding that I can provide for them. I can also say that supporting the local businesses, charities, and non-profits around one’s area can solidify your place in the community and help you stand apart from folks looking for quick money; you have to give back which is far beyond just taking a great headshot of someone.
I have seen some very unpleasant headshots around, what challenges do you have to surmount to get such stylised and sophisticated looking headshots of your clients?
First and foremost I am a commercial headshot photographer and I don’t necessarily consider myself an artist in the conventional sense. Yes, it is an artistic endeavor but I’m really taking artistic elements across lighting, composition, clothing, makeup, and expression and coming up with a product that is commercially viable for my clients. This means if you’re an actor you’re going to get booked for more gigs and if you’re a salesperson you’re going to get hit up by more clients because you have presented yourself in a fresh modern way that stands out.
To have a stylized and sophisticated headshot we have to take a look at what is commercially viable now. There’s nothing wrong with having wrinkled muslin backgrounds, hard shadows on the face, blank expressions, or really fake looking smiles from an artistic standpoint much like nothing is wrong with wearing bell-bottom jeans out and about. However, both those styles look VERY dated now and tastes have changed. If the style of your headshot looks dated then you in turn look dated and that’s not commercially viable.
Do you have a system or workflow that you use to get your clients going in order to craft the kind of shots you usually produce?
I definitely do but that process depends on the client. Some folks are completely comfortable with themselves, are very outgoing and have few reservations about being in front of a camera. On the other end of the spectrum there are folks that are not necessarily comfortable in front of a camera and may be a bit more timid overall.
Both of these clients are going to get a great headshot but I’m going to go about it in a different way. For the first client I’m going to have to keep them in the zone and gently nudge them to the places where they look their best and be their mirror for them. For the second client my job is to just get their mind off the camera and the lights. If they can follow my positioning instructions as best they can and carry a conversation with me we’re already setup for major success.
But despite these rough generalizations everyone that comes through is unique and I may need to approach them differently. There is no single way to get a client going in a positive direction there is only experience.
How do you get your client to overcome their hang ups about being photographed?
This is hard to do but I feel it is somewhat key in making a great headshot – you have to help your client get over those hangups whether it be from a bad prior headshot experience, dislike for being in front of the camera, something their insecure about etc. It starts with taking the time to talk to them before you start actually shooting and making it clear that it’s a team effort and you won’t leave them hanging nor let them go with something they won’t like.
Overall, though, the process should be very lighthearted. My studio is the one place where everything can be a joke – we’re not saving lives here and the less serious folks are the better results we are going to get together.
Could you tell me a little about how you approach your session?
I always approach these sessions with the aim to enjoy it and getting my clients to a place where they’re enjoying it too. I have heard so many clients say before the session that they hate getting their picture taken, however, when they leave they’re telling me how much they enjoyed the process.
Keeping it less than serious is a big part of the approach and since we’re spending nearly two hours together it is important that it feels less like pulling teeth and more like two people just hanging out.
Do you take as many shots as you can during a session and hope to get some good ones along the way, or do you approach your every shot systematically?
Honestly, when I first started taking headshots I didn’t know what I was doing so I was just snapping away hoping for something good. You would get good shots and even some great ones but it was more luck than a process.
As time has gone by I approach things much more systematically now. I’m starting by looking at my clients in an objective way that they may not look at themselves. The goal is to find what features of their face and expressions play best and emphasize those. The more you shoot the quicker you recognize these things. With each shot you are looking to gravitate around that zone rather than having their position and expressions go all over the place constantly. When you get a great shot you know it and you don’t need to keep shooting blindly.
Many thanks to Jason for taking the time to give a brief insight on his headshot business. More of Jason’s work can be seen on: