Headshot photographer Ivan Weiss: ‘The human face is endlessly fascinating’

London based photographer, Ivan Weiss, specialises in creating both iconic and striking headshots. He talks us through where his passion for photography originated and spills his secrets to delivering the perfect headshot.
Ivans’ photo which was used for the 1.6 Affinity Photo update.
Tell us a little bit about your history as a photographer…

My father was a photographer, working in photojournalism and social documentary. While this is not a direct influence on the work that I do, I grew up with the smell of Ilford chemicals coming from his home darkroom. By the age of 9 or 10 I knew how to process film and make prints. I learnt the basics on a Canon A1 but I found the Canon Sure Shot more fun, with its autofocus and built-in flash.

My first “job” as a photographer was shooting the school netball team when I was 11. I had no idea what I was doing, I just copied what I’d seen my dad do—I panned the camera with the movement of the players, and the flash froze the action, creating a motion blur effect. Seeing that image come up on the paper in the dev tray was a moment of magic. I’m not sure if the print still exists, but the negatives will be somewhere in the archive.

As I got older I lost interest in hanging out with my dad in the darkroom. I opted to take Photography A-Level but was advised that I should do academic subjects instead so that I could go to university. I failed my academic A-Levels and didn’t go to university. Between the ages of 16 and 35 I hardly took any pictures at all, save for a few holiday snaps.

After some years working as a cycle courier in London I took a TEFL course and headed off to Italy to teach English. Somehow, that led to a corporate career in a large entertainment services company and in 2010 I was sent to India to oversee the expansion of operations over there. Being removed from my normal social life and hobbies, I found myself taking pictures as a pastime.

One of my colleagues was really into photography and he introduced me to digital photography. I started reading the Strobist blog, through which I discovered Gregory Heisler, Zack Arias, Joe McNally… Eventually I stumbled across the work of Peter Hurley and something just clicked—the apparent simplicity of the headshot, but with such incredible attention to every last detail really appealed to me. At that point I decided that it was something I wanted to pursue professionally.

So, who have been the biggest influences on your work?

Peter Hurley is a big influence on my headshot work. For portraiture I have numerous influences including all the usual big names. Right now I find myself looking a lot at the work of Dan Winters, Chris Knight, Miller Mobley, Michael Schacht, amongst others. There are a few images that are never far from my mind that have stuck with me since the first time I saw them, Brian Duffy’s ‘White Coat, South of France’ is one of those.

Can you tell us what photography equipment you use?

There was never any question about this—I started with borrowed equipment, and it was all Canon. I currently use a Canon 5D Mk IV and a 5Ds R. For my headshot work I use the 85mm ƒ/1.2L, though I recently got the ƒ/1.4L IS and I’m really impressed with how much faster the AF is, especially when paired with the Mk IV. That will likely be my main camera/lens combo for the foreseeable future. I have other Canon lenses as well, though I tend to do all my work in the 50-100mm range, and 85mm is the sweet spot for me.

For lighting I use Godox. They are doing some really interesting stuff right now and I think the more established manufacturers are working hard to keep up. All my modifiers are Elinchrom, so I have to use mount adapters to get them to fit. But it is a small inconvenience given the flexibility that the Godox system gives me. The Rotalux range has pretty much everything I need and I like that it is all lightweight and easy to set up.

I also have a Leica Q that I use for street and landscape shots. I don’t use it professionally as the 28mm lens doesn’t fit with the work that I do. But I love experimenting with it, especially as it has a leaf shutter, which means I can sync flash up to 1/2000 second. Maybe I’ll start to integrate that to my work in future.

Describe a typical ‘day in the life of’ Ivan Weiss…

There’s really no such thing as a typical day. I try to work to weekly averages with 5 or 6 half-day shoots and at least one full day dedicated to business development. It’s such a contrast to my previous career where I was working office hours Monday to Friday. I arrange my shoots as either morning, afternoon or evening, 7 days a week. Most of the business development stuff needs to fit in around office hours as that is when people are available to talk to me. Then I have my post processing, admin, and professional development to fit in as well. I’m an Associate Photographer in Peter Hurley’s Headshot Crew and also a Team Coach, which means that I volunteer time to help other photographers develop their portfolios. As Peter is in New York, a lot of that tends to be in the evening for me in London.

What is it that you find so captivating about headshots?

The human face is endlessly fascinating. We all instinctively recognise the minute differences in the position of an eyebrow or the tension at the edge of a mouth that can communicate human emotion. In fact, it is the first thing that we recognise when we’re born. I find the pictures that I create interesting in and of themselves, but really it is the process of capturing the image that really excites me.

“Very few people are truly relaxed in front of a camera and it is my job to get people to the stage where they can just be themselves.”

Very few people are truly relaxed in front of a camera and it is my job to get people to the stage where they can just be themselves. It’s really interesting to observe the stages that people go through to get there. Essentially I am trying to make them forget about the camera. There is no formula to it—I have to adapt to each and every person that comes into the studio. All the technical stuff is already taken care of—I don’t use a light meter and I don’t need to do any test shots. It’s all about understanding the person, allowing them to be genuine, and then waiting for that 1/200th of a second that captures them at their best.

What do you love about primarily working with performers and musicians?

They know the value of a good headshot. For people in the performing arts, a headshot is their main marketing tool. This is a good basis for the start of the session because we both want the same thing. We’re not producing a picture for somebody else, we don’t have a big crew to deal with. It’s quite an intimate thing and in a lot of ways the aim is the same as what they would do on stage or on film or in the recording studio—to get to a state of flow in which the expression is both intentional and genuine.

“For people in the performing arts, a headshot is their main marketing tool.”

Which do you enjoy shooting most; high concept hair and make-up or more naturalistic styling?

I tend to prefer simplicity, but I have a great appreciation for what a creative team can bring to the shoot. They are very different things and I enjoy the contrast. For a big production it might take all day to get just a few shots. There is a lot of waiting around while the other crew members do their thing. Everyone on the team has a responsibility not only to do their bit, but also to make sure that the energy levels are kept up and that everyone is happy and comfortable. Ultimately, the aim is always to communicate something through the image. No amount of hair and makeup can do that if the model has blood sugar levels at zero and is bored.

Can you give us a little insight ‘behind the scenes’ on a typical headshot photoshoot with you?

Every session starts with a coffee (or suitable caffeine-free alternative) and a chat. While I’m getting to know the person, I am also looking at their face to see what angles might work for them and what expressions they make when they are not in front of a camera. We’ll have a look at what wardrobe options they have brought with them and I’ll be making mental notes of a running order to minimise down time while I change a background or a lighting set up.

“as soon as people see that they look good on screen, they start to relax a bit”

Once we start shooting, we take frequent breaks to review the images on a large screen so that we can see what works and what doesn’t. This is a great way to build trust—as soon as people see that they look good on screen, they start to relax a bit. Getting people over that initial threshold is very rewarding for me as a photographer. A shoot usually lasts 1.5—2 hours. With some people it is jam-packed and I might shoot 500 images, with others it is a slower-paced thing with more talking between shots. I adapt to the person and I’m constantly monitoring the rhythm of the shoot so that we don’t run out of steam.

What are your typical post-production steps for retouching your photographs?

I shoot tethered into Canon’s DPP software. I know it’s not particularly well regarded, but I like that I can create custom colour profiles and apply lens corrections as I shoot so that what we see on screen is close to the finished image. For now I use Canon DPP as my asset manager, but I am looking forward to Affinity bringing out a DAM in future.

I handle the RAW conversion in DPP and then go to Affinity Photo for all subsequent processing. Because I love soft light, I often have the edge of a modifier in frame when I shoot. So the first step is to remove that and, if necessary, even out the background. Affinity makes this very easy. The next step is a general clean up of the subject—dust on clothes, stray hairs, temporary blemishes, etc. Then I use frequency separation layers to deal with any uneven skin tones and dodge/burn layers to enhance the overall contrast. For headshots the retouching needs to be very light.

“For headshots the retouching needs to be very light.”

How did you discover Affinity Photo and what inspired you to start using it?

I don’t remember how I found out about it, perhaps through Aperture Expert (now photojoseph.com). I used to use Apple’s Aperture as a DAM and had tried On1, DxO and various others but never settled into a regular workflow. I didn’t want to go with a subscription option.

So when Affinity popped up and I saw the price, I thought “why not?”. It was very easy to get going, and I used the forum to get additional pointers on how to use it, along with video tutorials on YouTube. Quite quickly it became a regular part of my workflow and so far I have found that my own ability is the only limitation to what I can do with it.

What features/tools in Affinity Photo do you find most useful?

The Inpainting Tool is probably the one I use most. Used on the top layer, it is the easiest way to deal with removing items from the frame. I also use it on the low frequency layer to deal with redness and blemishes. The Frequency Separation tool is a very convenient way to split out the layers in what would otherwise be a manual process. It’s great that I can preview the result before committing to a radius.

I will usually do two rounds of Frequency Separation—first to deal with blemishes on a low radius, then to deal with contrast on a high radius. This allows me to dodge/burn under the high frequency layer and therefore retain skin detail. I find that micro-contrast can suffer if I work on the top layer.

For my portrait work I often use the Tone Mapping Persona to generate a layer of gritty shadow detail that I can blend in using the Blend Options command. I use the LUT Adjustment layer for colour grading and Curves for colour correction. Being able to run the Curves layer in RGB, CMYK and LAB modes makes it easy to pinpoint the exact adjustment. For my most frequent actions I have recorded macros to speed things up a bit.

I feel I’m only really scratching the surface of what Affinity can do. For now it more than meets my requirements, and the ability to hand off work from my desktop to my iPad and back again just makes it all the more convenient.

“The ability to hand off work from my desktop to my iPad and back again just makes it all the more convenient”

What tips would you give to people who need a headshot for their career?

The number one tip would be to find a photographer whose work you like and then to trust them. We all have aspects of our appearance that we can be self-conscious about, but the photographer’s job is to find what looks best on camera. It’s a collaborative process so find someone you feel you can work with. In terms of posing, confidence and approachability are what you want to convey in your headshot. So stand up straight, press your face towards the camera, squinch your lower eyelids, and allow yourself to enjoy it. It’s that simple.

“I still get a kick from seeing the image on the back of the camera and thinking ‘I made that!’ ”

What achievement are you most proud of in your photography career and why?

That’s a tough one. There are so many milestones along the way that quickly get superseded; the first time I got paid, the first time I got my work published… I suppose the biggest thing is being able to make a living from photography and having found the courage to make the jump from a regular office job to pursue something I really enjoy. But the everyday achievements are what keep me going. I still get a kick from seeing the image on the back of the camera and thinking ‘I made that!’

Ivan Weiss.

Artist relations
Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.
Credits & Footnotes

Photographs are copyright © of Ivan Weiss and are used with permission.