Critique the Community Episode 11a: Headshots with Peter Hurley

A few weeks ago we offered to critique a handful of headshot photographs from the Fstoppers Community. I was able to sit down with professional headshot photographer Peter Hurley for his advice on how you guys can help improve your own headshot photos. Since there were so many submissions we were only able to get to about 18 images, but don't worry because next week Lee and David will tackle many of the images that did not make this episode of Critique the Community.

Peter Hurley has been a staple here at Fstoppers and in a way we both sort of kicked off our photography education together when we first teamed up together over 5 years ago (you can watch that video here). Since then Fstoppers has become the massive site it is today and Peter Hurley has become one of the most featured and sought after photographers in the industry. Fstoppers first produced The Art Behind the Headshot where Peter spills all of his headshot techniques and secrets over the course of 6 real clients. Years later we teamed up again with Illuminating the Face which dives into different lighting styles for portraits through the use of pretty much every light modifier imaginable. This last summer Peter published his first book, The Headshot, which gives practical advice on how to not only up your headshot game but also build a more successful photography business. 

I really enjoyed being able to give constructive criticism side by side with Peter for this critique and I hope you guys all find this helpful in your own work. All of the images featured in this episode can be found below if you want to rate them yourselves, and if you are not familiar with our rating system you can get up to speed with the following rating scale below. 

The Fstoppers Community Rating System

If you have an Fstoppers account, you are able to create your own profile and portfolio directly within the Fstoppers Community.  Once you have a portfolio uploaded, you can browse images in the community and rate the photos of your peers.  Even though art is usually a fairly subjective matter, we wanted to create a rating system that was as objective and unbiased as possible.  This way if one of your images has been rated 50 times and has received an average rating of 2 stars, you could feel confident that maybe that particular image is not up to par.  Below is a simple chart explaining the Fstoppers Community Rating System. 

1 Star - The Snapshot

1 Star ratings are limited to snap shots only. Snap shots are usually taken to document a time or location but little to no thought has gone into the creation of the image. If an image has been "lit" with external light (besides a direct on camera flash) it is at least a 2 star picture. The majority of 1 star images have had no post production work done to them but do often have an "instagram style" filter added to them. The average person these days snaps 1 star images every single day with their smart phones. Most 1 star images that pop up on sites like ours are images of flowers, pets, landscapes, sunsets, objects around a house, etc. If you read Fstoppers, you should not be sharing 1 star images for any reason. 

2 Stars - Needs Work:

All images, besides maybe 5 star images, always have room for improvement but 2 star images "need work" before they should be included in your portfolio. As photographers we are snapping thousands of images per year but only a few of those images should ever be shared or put into our portfolio. A photographer who has taken a 2 star image has put some thought into the composition, exposure, and post production but for some reason has missed the mark. 2 star images should not be in the portfolio of a full time professional photographer, and amateur photographers should strive for something better. Even complete amateurs who don't understand photography at all are capable of taking 2 star images from time to time. 

3 Stars - Solid:

A 3 star image is an all around good image. The photographer has a solid understanding of the basics; composition, color, focus, subject matter, and post production. A 3 star image is "good" but it's not great. Most part-time professional photographers have mostly 3 star images in their portfolios. Usually a level 3 image would have been rated 4 stars if it had been shot in a better location, or with a better model showing a better expressions, or there was better post production. A photographer capable of taking a 3 star image is capable of taking 4 and 5 star images if they would simply pay more attention to the details. 

4 Stars - Excellent:

4 star images are fantastic. In most cases, 4 star images have a certain style to them that links them directly to their creator. 4 star images usually require planning and attention to extreme detail. It's almost impossible to shoot a 4 star image by getting lucky. 4 star images have almost flawless conception, composition, lighting, subject matter, and post production. If you have any 4 star images in your portfolio you should be very proud of yourself.

5 Stars - World Class:

5 star images are flawless and unforgettable. The amount of time, energy, and talent that goes into the average 5 star image is staggering. In many cases these pictures require a team to produce including a professional retoucher. The concept, lighting, subject, location, and post production on these images has to be perfect. In some cases the jump from 4 to 5 stars may be as simple as changing the unknown model in the picture with a celebrity or bringing in a set designer or stylist to make the image slightly better. Although there are always exceptions, most 5 star images take days, if not weeks or months to produce.


Strengthening Your Own Portfolio

Even with our objective rating system, people are going to disagree with what they like because ultimately art is still a matter of opinion.  However, I believe once an image has been rated over 25 times it will have a rating that is pretty fair and honest (We hope to deter trolls by giving negative Karma points when a vote is more than 1 star away from the community average).  If one of your images in your own portfolio is rated lower than what you personally feel it should be rated, I'd urge you to try to look at the image from an unbiased angle.  Step back, erase your memory of the photoshoot itself, and try to imagine an art buyer, stock agency, potential client or local gallery as they decided if they wanted to invest in your services.  Would your image make the cut?

Lee and I are not the greatest photographers in the world.  There are many many genres of photography that we have not been successful in or in many cases have not even attempted in our careers.  However I believe we have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't in terms of commercial viability.  Not every image is meant to sell or book you work, and that is okay!  Snapshots and sentimental images are great and most definitely have a purpose.  Hopefully our insight and critiques can help you decide what is and isn't worth putting in your own public portfolio.  I hope these video critiques can help you see beyond the technical and personal elements that make up an image and begin looking at your own work in a new light.


Patrick Hall's picture

Patrick Hall is a founder of and a photographer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.

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I appreciate the critique,'s all spot on. Nobody learns anything without a little truth thrown at them once in a while.

were do we need to post our photography to get it critiqued

You already have an Fstoppers account so you need to add photos to your profile portfolio and then post them into the comments of our next critique post. They pop up about once every week or two so you gotta read the front of and submit them during the 3 day window

Thank you both for the great critique of my image and the "Shabang", much needed boost to ones confidence. Now just have to get the subject to mess with the camera instead of vice versa

Best critique video in a while. I'm in tears lol Peter you sir are a genius. And the look on Patrick's face "another one?" gold... But besides all the fun and banter much to learn from listening to Peter's comments as to why and how.... Thank you guys, thank you so much

Peter's always interesting. Do more.

Hi Guys, First comment so first thing first - thank you so much for you contribution. One comment made by Peter got my attention: "The clients like it, doesn't mean you put it in." That raises the question of who the portfolio is for ? It's mostly for clients no ? I am assuming that this difference is no news when customers like images we like less - mostly because clients and photographers look at different things in an image. Again thank you.

I'd argue that your portfolio should be mainly for you and not your clients. You want to showcase the type of work you want to shoot and the type of people you want to work with. That could mean real estate agents, actors, models, young teenagers, professionals, etc etc. Initially in your career you probably want to cater towards everyone in order to make a solid business but eventually you will want to build a niche where you begin to become a master of a specific look and aesthetic.

Imagine you were hired by Pizza hut to photograph their top executives. You are given a pretty specific style they want you to capture and you are given only 5 mins per person and have to shoot 20 people. You aren't thrilled about the images you are taking but the corporation loves the final results and sing your praises over and over. I would argue that unless you truly captured a 3-5 star amazing portrait, you probably wouldn't want any of those images to make your portfolio. You knocked a hired gig out of the park for a client but the overall images and people in the photos weren't the best you've captured in your career. Just because a client likes your work doesn't mean you should like it enough to put it in your portfolio.

This is a home run explanation. Patrick is spot-on and is actually helping me as I begin crafting a more focused portfolio myself. Great stuff.

Thanks for the critique guys! Always great to have feed back.

Happy to see another critique, agree with lots of stuff.
Alien smooth skin and no wrinkles at all looks scary to me, as Peter said, some of them are looking like done with that portrait pro. software ;)

Ah, I'll have this image updated. Thanks for pointing that out

thank you guys fot critique

Loved Peter's straight to the point no nonsense honesty, made me laugh just hope he isn't that honest if he gets to critique any of my images lol.
Another cool video, great job guys.

This might be the best episode yet, if only because I felt like he didn't pull any punches. Almost wish my photo had made the cut to see what he would have said, but maybe it's better that it didn't! Can't wait for the next episode!

Awesome critique. I learned a lot and glad I goofed off during work to watch this. I'm also hyper aware of my own eyebrows now.