Trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, John Clark (www.johnclarkphotography.com) freelanced as a musician working with all the London orchestras, opera companies, and leading brass ensembles of the era. He was Head of Brass at the Junior Department at the Guildhall for 15 years and Professor of the Euphonium for the same period. He twined photography and music together from 1982 and freelanced mainly as a beauty photographer until 1990 when he decided that photography should be his main profession. He has been photographing actors for 18 years. He is now the most popular theatrical headshot photographer in London. His natural style of portraiture has earned him a reputation.
What's been your history with shooting headshots and how did you gain such a reputation for it in London? Get a reputation for it?
John Clark: "I started life as a professional musician. I got drunk after recording a James Bond soundtrack and then bought a camera. I've always been interested in shooting headshots. Originally, I started to do beauty and glamour test shots for a variety of London model agencies back in the early 1980's. At that point, I was not really interested that much in magazine work. I was shooting five to six beauty shots a day for the models' portfolios. Many of the editorial commercial models (not the high end editorial fashion stuff) had a "John Clark" beauty shot at the front of their book or on their model card back in the 80's. Business took a big down turn during the recession of the early 1990s. During that time, I decided to shoot actors. (They need headshots don't they?) Just at that time, the film 4 Weddings and a Funeral came out, and I had pictures of both Elizabeth Hurley and Hugh Grant. It helped a little to get the business off the ground. At first, I started to shoot film extras. We would cram in eight to ten shoots of the extras every day. Their pictures are not quite so critical in order to get work, but at least I was turning over an income. When I went digital many years ago, I decided then that I was only going to shoot bona fide actors and make a reputation in London as a headshot photographer. I now shoot more headshots for the business here in London than any other photographer. The reason I am busy (I hope) is that the picture is not only liked by the actor and the agent, but that it also gets them into castings that they are visually suitable for. It increases their casting potential. I don't go out of my way to foster relationships with agencies. If they like my work, they will use me. I have never offered a discount to any specific agency.
What are agencies and hiring people wanting in headshots?
"I tend to give them what I think the client looks like rather than what the agencies want. Some agents are very visually literate; others are woefully not visually literate. Some have never really looked at their client. In film and TV, business is visually orientated, so it takes something special to at least get a foot in the door. Once you have made a name as a model or actor, then you are booked because its you, but only a tiny percentage of actors reach that status. I shoot a range of styles and lighting. An actor may only have one good look, but shot in four different ways and in different clothes, that same look in the pictures can feel different. As a photographer, you should go with the actor's best look. There is no point, in my opinion, in trying to push square pegs into round holes.
Wear simple clothes with no intrusive patterns. Remember, it's a headshot, not a hair shot, not a jewelry shot, not a make up shot, nor "my best T-shirt" shot. Casting directors are interested in what this person REALLY looks like, not what the client wishes to look like. The rules for me are simple, 1) It has to look like the client and 2) It has to be within their visual stereotype. Once that is achieved, if I can get some "sex, drugs and rock-and-roll" in the shot, then that is even better. Lastly (and most importantly), it needs to communicate with the viewer. That's a photographer/client special thing!
Could you elaborate on some of the backgrounds that are appropriate? Any comments on your equipment?
"I have no rules on this other than the background should not get in the way of the client. I use backgrounds with my lighting to create certain atmospheres. If I can achieve a visual empathy with the way that film and TV are shot now, I think I might be onto a winner image. Apple and Canon, for me, are a marriage made in heaven. I have only ever shot Canon. When the 1DX came out, I thought that this was the best piece of kit I had ever purchased! With my Mac, I have managed to automate all my workflows using applescript. Yes, I am a geek and can write scripts and databases. All my workflow is customized. I press the shutter about 200,000-250,000 times a year. Out of that, I archive around 35-40,000 images a year. With my automated workflows in place, I can handle 10 times the amount that I could without it. It's a load off my mind. For lenses, I shoot with a Canon 85mm f/1.8 and a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8. In daylight, my max aperture shooting headshots on these lenses is f/5.6, but usually lower.
Do you find any post-processing helps? Smoothing out wrinkles or blemishes, or do the agencies not like this much?
"Over the past two years I have been experimenting a lot with post processing. I have always fixed the usual spots and lines in Photoshop, but you can achieve some wonderful results (with already good pictures) by bending the processing a little. It's not too dissimilar with working with film. Certain developer film combinations printed on special paper would produce a particular result. If you were experienced enough, you could see the end result as you were taking the picture because you knew the process on how to achieve the result. Nothing much has changed except the palette has become immeasurably bigger. You have to be careful not to make the client too perfect. The trick with the retouching is to make it look natural."