How to Become the Best Headshot Photographer in the World

How to Become the Best Headshot Photographer in the World

After a four-hour trip to London and only being able to catch whatever sleep I could during the uncomfortable journey down, I met with Peter Hurley and immediately felt welcome. For those of you who don't know, Peter Hurley is a headshot photographer based in New York City. Hurley once had a career as a model and was also part of the U.S. Olympic sailing team. He is known for his clean, white background headshots and for coining the phrase "squinch," which has now become relatively mainstream thanks to news channels and shows like Orange is the New Black. To many, Peter is known as the best in the business and this may be true, but, what is Peter actually like to work with? 

Working With Peter

On September 16, 2017, I had the immense pleasure of being able to attend one of Peters workshops in London. Sleep deprived and relatively exhausted from the week, I took my seat, removed my iPad from my overly packed backpack and started taking notes. Peter has a lot of energy and a huge amount of passion for what he does and this was immediately apparent. In normal circumstances, if you were to put me in a dimly lit classroom, I would fall asleep, there is no question about that, however, Peter has this ability to grab and hold on to your attention which was very impressive. There wasn't a single dull moment during the whole time I was there. There were approximately 15 other individuals in the room, varying in regards to their experience and skill which actually helped the atmosphere. 

Peter has a very casual approach and this is something I really appreciated. At any point during the day, if you had a question, you're welcome to ask and Peter would happily answer it for you. This is one of those little things, that really makes the environment more pleasant and friendly. I really do believe that a learning environment needs to be open and Peter does this really well. His demeanor also lends really well to create an environment where it's easy to learn.

As an architectural photographer, I don't shoot very many portraits and my skills in this particular area are severely lacking.The technical aspects of photography come easier to me but photographing people is much more than just knowing where to place the lights. A few YouTube videos and some practice can help anyone to improve those skills but that's not what makes Peter the photographer he is. I would go as far as to say that I probably know more about the technical nerd stuff than Peter does, however, he is a significantly better photographer than I am. 

Why is that? 

Well, it mostly comes down to knowing your subject and understanding how to get the best out of them. Most photographers have had someone compliment their camera when they see the images they produce and this is considered a slight. The reason for this is because, the majority of the skill, talent, and results have very little to do with the technical capabilities of the camera itself. 

I can personally attest to Peter's incredible talent because I finally have a Peter Hurley headshot, something I've wanted ever since I saw his first tutorial all of those years ago. 

The Workshop

My previous headshot was taken using the Leica S 007, a medium format camera with the incredible 180mm f/3.5 APO lens. The current Hurley headshot was taken with the lowly Canon 24-105 f/4L II, yet still, it is a significantly better image. The lens may not be as sharp and the image may not have 16-bit color or as many megapixels, but all of those aspects are not as relevant because what really matters is the engagement. Peter is an absolute master at this and teaches his techniques and know how in his workshops. This kind of information is extremely valuable and I doubt its availability anywhere else, especially not at this level. He is simply amazing at being able to open his subjects up and get the best out of them. Only Peter has the confidence and talent to speak absolute gibberish, make you burst out laughing, and then nail the shot.  

You may be wondering what the cost is, well, for a two-day intensive headshot workshop, the cost is $1,500. Some of you may gasp at that price but let me assure you, this is a steal. Peter currently charges $3,000 for an hour-long shoot, so based on that this is genuinely incredible value for money. Of course, value for money is very different from affordability so there is an alternative, his current tutorial "Perfecting the Headshot."

Peter Hurley

To many people, it may seem like Peter is the poster child for being an extrovert, his out there, huge personality is very easy to spot from afar. I, however, don't think that this is the full story. I believe Peter is a deep introvert and has simply learned to adapt. If you pay careful attention you may catch him in his quiet, thoughtful moments from time to time and his big personality appears when it's time to "perform." He also seems very calculating but not in an ominous way, more in that he is very switched on. He clearly understands how to present himself in the best possible light and this is something that lends really well to his ability in knowing how to manage his subjects. This is also one of the areas where "psyphotology" comes from. It would seem that Peter has this innate ability to see the beauty in his subjects almost immediately. Obviously, this is a skill he has learned and developed over the years and it's quite astonishing. 

I think the most fascinating thing to look at on planet Earth is the human face.

Peter's talent and success mostly come from his ability to adapt, change and improve. He was named the best photographer in New York City, and this was several years ago but if you look at his work then vs now, there's a distinct difference. The reason for this is because he now only competes with himself which is a little more difficult that one may imagine. Even early on in his career Peter wanted to accomplish great things and wanted to prove his detractors wrong. Considering what he wanted to accomplish there seemed to no shortage of detractors. One of the individuals that didn't fully support him during his early part of his career was, unfortunately, his mother, and this is something that many of us have probably experienced. Parents will, of course, want their children to be safe and "risky" careers aren't what they consider safe. It must be noted that Peter had a fantastic relationship with his mother and dedicated his book to her memory. His mother did become one of his biggest supporters. 

The reason why this is relevant is that many of us will experience hurdles and even people very close to us who don't believe in what we want to accomplish. It's not difficult to give in to the detractors because sometimes it can become too much. Often times when we look at the best in the industry, we see their current position without the context or history of how they accomplished what they did. Chances are, the majority if not all of the people that we look up to regardless of what industry they're in, have been through similar problems and faced similar hurdles. Becoming the best in any field is an incredible accomplishment and one that is extremely hard earned. 

So to answer the title of this article, how do you become the best in the world, well, you start by learning from the best, and Peter Hurley is, in fact, the best studio headshot photographer in the world. 

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28 Comments

Is this an advertisement? It should probably be tagged as such. Putting it in the "commercial" bin isn't enough. i assume commercial is commercial photography .

Jeff McCollough's picture

TV commercial.

How is this helpful in any way, shape, or form? It's nothing but a fan letter, and an embarrassing one at that. Useful takeaways: zero.

Rex Larsen's picture

Peter Hurley seems to be a nice enough guy, and he has some good shots in his portfolio. The Fstoppers love for him can be a little embarrassing. Maybe they should get a room.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Peter Hurley is the best marketed (headshot) photographer, but certainly not the best headshot photographer.

The squinch is the daftest thing I've ever seen and changes a person's whole persona. For a casting call, no director is going to want to see everyone doing a squinch, unless the production calls for all actors to look like they've stepped on something sharp.

I find Peter's focal length repeatedly exaggerates headsize, and whilst the poses are nice and dynamic, it also forces as sense of personality that can defeat getting a call if only one shot can be shown.

Don't forget, most everything we see from Peter is retouched, and that is how his clients receive images. No issue with that, but worth considering.

The famed 4x Kino lighting is flat and uninspiring. Every face is different and requires an individual lighting approach. I'm always saddened when I see photographers emulating this lighting style as their sole approach.

All this said, Peter is a great character and highly likeable. I've certainly learned to tell my clients that every frame I shoot is amazing after seeing him work - although I refuse to say "shazzam" every few seconds.

But there are far better headshot photographers out there. I'd urge a quick Google search. (David Muller isn't half bad...!)

(For what it is worth, I prefer Usman's "before" shot to his "after."

Shabang :)

Usman first photo looks like much more modern one, shot with new iPhone, probably with no studio lights at all.

Michael Kormos's picture

It was actually Fstoppers that put Peter Hurley's name up on the radar. He was a no-name before the "Art Behind The Headshot" was released. Good business and marketing decisions on each end have led to his success. He took it a step further and used the momentum to franchise his approach with The Headshot Crew as well as a line of headshot products, while Fstoppers followed-up to their blockbuster hit with two sequels. Whether or not Peter takes great headshots is up for debate; but successful photographers don't become successful because they're good at taking photos. They become successful because they're great at marketing themselves.

It's true, I don't think this can be said to be an unbiased piece. However, I was at this workshop and met Peter (and Usman too). I can vouch for Peter's ability to get his point across, get the best out of a client, make it fun, and educate. I certainly learned a lot. And I'm not affiliated with FStoppers.

Oh and he didn't say Shabang at all (well he did once, in jest), he doesn't use kinos any more, he lights men differently to women, he doesn't do any retouching and if your clients look like they've stepped on something sharp when you ask them to "squinch", you're doing it wrong :-)

I think the "best headshot photographer" is like saying "the best artist"...it's a nonsense. How do you compare Pollack, Monet and Picasso? Peter measured "the best" simply by getting more business and charging more than the existing "best". It's simply for marketing....and let's face it, at $3K a pop, it has certainly worked for him. I don't begrudge him that. He worked his way up like I suspect we all would like to. The nay saying does sound a bit like sour grapes to me.

I certainly don't prefer Usman's before shot to his after. But then I'm more of a Picasso guy than a Monet :-)

Art Altman's picture

I like Lee's portrait work on his web site - very classy and creative. (But I cannot imagine anyone preferring Usman's before to his after!) What I do not see on Lee's web site are classic headshots of the style that we use in the USA for business or entertainment. Perhaps that is the distinction here.

The article itself does come across unfortunately as if it were an advertisement but I can assure you that there are many hundreds and probably thousands of photographers trained by Peter in various venues that feel the same way. Peter is a very devoted teacher with an exceptional eye for detail. He does NOT enforce his own style of headshot when he teaches but he does enforce high quality and natural expressions.

Mike Stern's picture

I am so sorry to say. This is only a fan letter. Peter is a nice guy. But we know his portfolio. And the Squinch thing - put a smile on my face once for it’s charming explanation.

I am about to loose my interest in reading fstoppers if you guys do not stop selling products to us here.

Selling products is what helps Fstoppers to exist.

Igor Butskhrikidze's picture

where can i watch Head Shot Photography World Championship? )

Hey, stop. Though I've learned from Peter a lot, in fact I'm the best headshot photographer in the known part of Universe. You can ask Yoda if you don't believe me.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

I'm reading this article and asking myself "detractors? Who in the hell wants to detract this guy?" and then I read the comments! :D

I think that the critiques Hurley received are most about his attitude than with his photography. I knew about him the first time from an H&B presentation years ago and immediately fell in love whit that guy. Is true that my first feeling about him was that he was more a pitchman than a photographer, I guy who knows how to sell himself very good. And he is. He has a great personality. But is a great photographer too!

I think that he spent most of his years perfecting a style, almost a shot, but that is not a bad thing. While others photographers can spend his life understanding and experimenting with light, he seems like he wants to solve this aspect quickly and take it out of his way so he can concentrate his incredible amount of good energy in another shot aspect, in his product.

This can sound weird, but I don't think in Peter Hurley like a Portrait photographer, I feel him like a product photographer. The way he illuminates the head reminds me most of a product lighting. And what it is his product then?
The portrait? Well, that would be another way of saying that he is a portrait photographer, a purple way in fact.

The product of Peter Hurley is the expression on peoples faces. I think he knows what he wants and does not stop until he gets it right. I see two expressions in his work, the ones he produces and the ones he creates. He produces NATURAL expressions from real moments with his casual and informal approach. And he creates COOL ones with is directions. The squinching ones :D

So for know then, we have two really great achievements in portrait photography, The capture of natural moments is one and only that, from my point of view, is enough to give him credit, for consider him a great portrait photographer.

Ant the other one is: they have fun! You can say that looking at his portfolio. We are selling an EXPERIENCE! We sometimes forget that. We don't want our clients to came to make a transaction. We want them to remember the moment like one big day, fun and memorable. I snowboarding because I want to disconnect, to have fun. I think in photography the same way. And I think that when we are working with people this is most important than ever because if we accomplish that enjoyable atmosphere, that mood, the shoot is going to be superb, like Peter Hurley's work.

Like photographers sometimes fail to recognize a big shot or a big style or body of work because we get lost in technicalities "this guy is not so good, he only knows how to use his lights one way (put dumb accent here)". We fail to recognize what for most regular-not photographer people is so obvious. They are fantastic photographies.

Photography is a multifaceted discipline. I don't think one photographer alone can master all the angles. I think was Robert Frank who was hired for a fashion shoot and "he performs poorly"? I'm looking know for the anecdote in the web but I don't find it. Anyway, my point is, no angle is worth more than another in the long run. Of course you have to know your craft but from then you can develop your work in many different layers. A taxi driver has to know how to drive but don't have to be the best most efficient driver in the world, perhaps you prefer a rather not so outstanding driver but a better calmly conversationalist with empathy skills in your taxi walks.

Peter Hurley developed skills that not all photographers appreciate or noticed but not for that he is less great or his achievements are less important.

Like photographers and retouchers sometimes work too much in a photo knowing that the client is not going to notice that extra punch we give our work. Thousands of poorly advertising work that fill billboards all over our streets tell us that. The client doesn't have our sensibility for detail and that is normal because we spent our entire life working in the image close, developing that extra sensibility. For all that is necessary that sometimes, we move away and see our work in perspective, think about what his mission is. We want our work to reflect all we can do, be an extension of our ego? or we want our work to fulfill our client necessities?

In that aspect I think clients of Peter Hurley know very well that his price is worth it. I think that one of his shots in the cover of a book, in an actor portfolio or in a curriculum can worth solid gold. Can our work do that? Can our work be useful as it is his?

And there's a very interesting perspective I read in the comments is worth to explore and think about. The point about "every face is different and have a personality, and everyone has to be lit differently, etc" That is a fantastic approach full of possibilities and fun as hell. but is not the only one.
I don't believe that everyone has a unique character and even that, that character can change a lot in a day. And in case that really exists, known how to recognize that "character or personality" which is "essential to the persona" and take that away from all the character different circumstances create every day... I mean, our client can be a merry person but perhaps he set foot in our studio just after he got a ticket, perhaps he is going through a divorce in that moment...
And you finish illuminating for a character that has nothing to be with the real personality our client has. I'm playing with ideas here. Is a fantastic approach but I think that is one more, not the correct one. And can be perfect for some people and not so perfect for some others.

Peter Hurley's approach in this terms are, from my point of view, he sells himself like a brand. Hi produces good results with a defined style. You know if you go there that you are going to obtain his style. I don't think that is bad. If that is bad, every painter in history was doing wrong.

I think that the people who critique him in a negative way are most displeased with his lack of humbleness than with his work. But the technical staff is the thing that one can critique easily.
There's some very well informed and I believed good photographers in the comments pointing out his weaknesses, they are not people grunting nonsense. And I think that they, in fact, are right in general, they touch some sensible-for-us-photographers points, but they only see, or want to see one of his sides. If you take in count the whole, even with that weak points Peter Hurley is one of the greats. At least for me.

I came into photography from tattoo world, I was working as a tattoo artist before, and in that world, we value a lot a fun guy with great personality and awesome anecdotes. Mike "Rollo" Malone is the perfect example of what a cool tattoo artist has to be. He was (rest in peace Mike) a solid tattoo artist, but certainly not the best. But people in the tattoo world flew to his studio constantly to get a tattoo from him. He was a legend, and they wanted the experience. Peter Hurley reminds me a lot to Rollo.
Check out his photos, they transpire what I just said:
https://www.google.es/search?q=mike+rollo+malone&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa...

I just yesterday swore to not spend more than 15 minutes in Fstoppers because this page is so addictive that is draining my life. But I have to take three hours to write this (English is not my first language) because is an important topic for me. I just decided recently to focus myself in portrait and fashion styles and for portrait photography, the work of Peter Hurley is one of my inspirations. My profile photo was an attempt to do something similar. I knew I didn't have kino (not that I need it, light is light, I know) lights or make-up artist and that I have to substitute that with postproduction work, in which I think I'm very solid now. I'm trying now to rent a place and set the appropriate lighting to achieve better results and start building my book.

I want to reproduce his style and be useful for a lot of people that can be benefited from a shot like this, I want to give a good experience and have fun. Is that wrong? Am I in a wrong direction? I think not

I know that reproducing a style is only the first step, that after you can reproduce the master's style, you continue the work on his shoulders. There's a lot of tattoo styles, well certainly not so many. It can be simplified in Old School, New School, Fine Line, Tribal, and Japanese. I think every other mentioned style can fit in one of these terms. Well, from them all, the king of styles is Japanese. You can´t take it any further than Japanese.
Let's now examine a crucial difference between western and eastern approaches to tattoo and I think art in general. In occident, we want to be different, unique. In the east they want to be part of something bigger, to serve. The apprentices spend years of his life learning the craft from his master with the purpose to perfectly reproduce it. And when they obtain the approval from his master, they continuo that body of work that is has been developed over decades or more for his master and the master of his master etc. They add his essence for the style to continue evolving. That's is a magnificent approach in my understanding. People usually consider copying a bad thing but really the only bad thing is to get stuck and don't evolve. And I think that if you examine deep enough and with all the data in your mind, every art piece is really a copy. But every one of them is different, that is the thing with art. Magical, don't you think? But I digress...

Precisely the photographer that I consider most complete, based on what I know, is another NY photographer. Lindsay Adler is all I want to be in photography. I appreciate technical knowledge, different light settings, creativity, and that girl have some, look at his portfolio! I'm not unaware of that things.
I have to think then that Peter Hurley's work has deficiencies or I have to applaud that he can do more with less? I have to critique his not-so-rich approach or I have to admire that he knows how to focus and developed his strengths?
Fortunately, neither of above. I can look every artist and learn from him the things that he does better. I don't have to concentrate on the things that are not present or in negative critiques. Is a waste of precious time, and speaking of time...

Now I'm going to sign off from Fstoppers and don't come back in three days. You guys are like heroin!!!!

I appreciate every new angle about this subject, every new critique, advice, etc

Elan Govan's picture

Loss track now...oh yes, you admire Peters work although there are some better. OK No big deal.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Well if have to simplify, which is not a bad idea, thanks, Elan! What I'm saying is Peter Hurley is one of the greats, with strengths and weaknesses like we all have, and happens that his strengths are not always enough noticed or appreciate for photographers.
Then he is successful and he has an upbeat personality which I think made him the target of critiques that attack his technical photography weaknessess when they really mean "You are successful, you are loved and appreciated and You don't deserve that because you are not so good. I see your flaws, I can do better than you, I deserved the appreciation too"

But he is for me one of the greats and in that "greats-area" for me, there's no better or worst. Only people who work in different directions and ways, creating his path.

Elan Govan's picture

I understand Samuel. As a landscape photographer, I don't know a great deal about Peter as an individual or his work, but he is a big boy and generally speaking, big boys do an excellent job of taking care of business. That's why they are so successful in what they do.

Having said this, I will read up on him and his work when I have the time.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Samuel, I must give you credit for being such a supporter and fan of Peter and Usman's article. but my god brother you manifesto is about 3x the length of the original fluff piece. You protest too much, methinks.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Yeah you are right :D I´m going to try to keep it simple from now on!

But if you felt my comment like a protest, I must have written it wrong. It was intended as a more thorough and reflective way of looking at the issue, instead of easy criticism.

I do not consider myself a Hurleys's supporter, I love his work but no more nor less than others good professional's work.

I think that no photographer, including those who are criticizing him, would think that he is a bad photographer if they only look at his portfolio without knowing nothing about him.

This issue matters to me because I have an artistic background and I think that I can recognize good work from artificial and thoughtless repetition and the work of Hurley seems to me like genuine. But I can be wrong.

I explain why his work seems to me like genuine and since them, I read good reasons against. I'm learning.

And you are completely right. Simple is better!!!

While the f-stoppers commenters take their break from slinging fries at McDonalds, long enough to look at their phones and punch in a comment or two, Hurley is STILL making $3000.00 an hour, for 8 hours a day if he so chooses!
I know french fry work stumps the math skills, so I'll do them for you.
Hurley can make up to $48,000.00 per day!

He's a great guy, great photographer, and he shares skills that pretty much to the person, none of the folks who comment here even come close to ... including myself.

Petty, jealous, pointless envy in the FS comments section for this article!

Alex Cooke's picture

This is kind of awkward, but your math is wrong.

Well ... I sell french fries for a living :)

I said I'd do the math for you ... not that it would be right.

Doesn't change the fact that everybody knows who Hurley is, and nobody knows who anybody in the comments section is!

Rex Larsen's picture

R

I took his headshot intensive class and found it's not just about technical lighting and posing, probably the biggest change in the people attending was how they interacted with the models. Hurley is funny and pulls the subject out of a pose, you see them light up before your eyes, they become highly engaged in the session with him. Many of the the unused shots are of the model busting up laughing. It's common using his techniques to be told by the model "this is the most fun shoot I've ever had". It's a theme I'm seeing from other great photographers, that breaking the normal "pose" and trying to capture them lit up is fun, and has been really rewarding for Peter Hurley. (He's just one of the few that actually teach how to specifically do that.)

Mr Hogwallop's picture

"My previous headshot was taken using the Leica S 007, a medium format camera with the incredible 180mm f/3.5 APO lens. The current Hurley headshot was taken with the lowly Canon 24-105 f/4L II, yet still, it is a significantly better image"

That is just a silly thing to say...Did "Peter" take the first headshot? If not it doesn;t matter.

In High School journalism class one thing I remember that you introduce the person you are writing about with the their first and last names. after that it is customary to use just their last name (except maybe the NYT where they use Mr. Ms, Mrs, Dr.) Using just his name "Peter" approx 20 sounds like a press release form Hurley Studios dotcom or some kind of a star struck fan writing a letter. I think this could be both :)
The peanut gallery always asks how much did Apple pay for that ad, the same thing can be asked here.

Once again showing that a real live editor would come in handy at fstoppers. An experienced editor would find a way to not use the subjects name 20 times....

Charles Gaudreault's picture

I feel like that quich look is getting over done, and there is a difference in being a good marketer then the best ehad shot photog in the world !!! i dont want to say he is not good !!! but i see equal or better head shots every where... i feel like at some point the marketing around your photography is lots more important then your talent if you want to be famous with your work

if he is the best in the world shouldn't the headline be "how to become the 2nd best headshot photographer in the world" ? or is he being striped of his title because of performance enhancers ?