Jobs They Love: Headshot Photographer
Updated: Sep 10
Lucky are they who look forward to Mondays – or their next gig -- with joy in their hearts! Meet the folks whose talents and passions are happily matched to the jobs they have.
Surely the mark of a great headshot photographer is the ability to make their subject look not just as lovely as ever, but also intriguing – someone you’re dying to know more about. Someone whose story you’d love to hear over coffee.
Lisa Hancock’s masterful headshots seem to glow with this irresistible effect. Her portraits of musicians, actors, and corporate executives have an animated quality that is unique. Her subjects appear ready to step out off the page, shake your hand, and walk with you down to that corner coffee shop for a great conversation.
Hancock is Brooklyn-based, widely published, and sought after because her clients get noticed. Actress Tamala’s comment is one of many similar kudos: “Your headshots have opened so many doors. Since I started auditioning, I have been cast in two plays, one in the lead which is amazing. I sent my headshots to a few agents and Don Buchwald & Associates called me in... And the latest? I got a callback for the national tour of Dreamgirls!”
Hancock's connection with actors and performers is natural – her parents were professional musicians, and she grew up going to see shows with them on Broadway, often waiting outside the stage door afterwards to see stars like Yul Brenner, Angela Lansbury, and Cher, up close.
After working as an editor on documentary films and TV shows, Hancock turned her focus to photojournalism, studying at UCLA, Santa Monica College, and the International Center of Photography. Her photojournalism projects have led her to Cuba, Cambodia, and India with photographer Harvey Stein.
When you meet a new client for the first time, can you tell right away how to capture their personality in a photograph? Lighting, angle, pose, makeup, clothing, etc.?
I definitely get ideas right away, but I never know for sure until we start shooting. It’s such a process. You discover things when you’re working. You try things, see how it looks, and build from there. I’ve started doing FaceTime sessions with clients before we shoot so I’m not meeting them for the first time when they walk through the door. That helps a lot because it takes time to discover things about people, learn their faces and expressions.
When they show up for a shoot, they’re often nervous and not really being themselves. And the moment you raise a camera to your eye, their walls instinctively go up. So, you have an even harder time seeing the best parts of them that you want to bring out. My job is to help them to relax a bit so I can start to catch glimpses of what we might want to capture.
Do you feel that being an experienced film editor makes you necessarily a more skillful headshot photographer?
Hmmm, I never thought about that! Interesting. I guess they’re both forms of storytelling and require a good feel for authenticity. I’ve only edited one feature film (it was one of Jeremy Renner’s first starring roles!) which is very different from documentary editing. In narrative film, part of your job is to pick the best takes of an actor’s performance. I’ve always had a pretty good truth sensor, and it’s the same when photographing someone. I can usually sense when someone is falling back on posing and not being natural. But generally speaking, film editing and still photography are very different disciplines. In film editing you’re constructing a sequence from a swathe of material and it’s more focused on the transition between clips, and with still photography you’re obviously trying to communicate everything you can in that single frame.
What camera equipment do you prefer using?
I’ve been using Canons since high school. I’m not really a techie — my greatest joy is being unencumbered with heavy equipment, especially when I’m shooting street or documentary — but I’ve had to learn a lot of skills, especially lighting and how to use different lenses and equipment. It just goes with the territory. You need different equipment for different types of projects. I’ve become very attached to my Leica for street work. It’s so discreet and quiet. It’s amazing how differently people respond to it. They aren’t as threatened by it as they are with the big Canon cameras. It gives me a certain degree of invisibility. And best of all it’s so lightweight!
Most photographers prefer natural light but for portraiture I don’t usually have the luxury. I need to have more control. So, I use an old Dynalite system I bought years ago, and I have a Profoto monolight for outdoor shoots. My favorite lens for portraiture and headshots is the Canon 85mm f1.2L. It’s a beautiful lens. All of the Canon L series lenses are beautiful, and of course the wide-angle Leica lenses for documentary are the best.
You know, in my experience, one thing they don’t really teach a lot in photography classes is the importance of the lens. Not just the focal length and depth of field but the bokeh (how the lens renders the out-of-focus parts of the image), the sharpness, the color and contrast. There are so many different brands and makes of lenses, and they all look really different. So that’s something every photographer needs to discover for themselves.
What was the first camera you ever owned?
A Canon AE-1 which I still have stored away in a box somewhere. It’s a film camera that my parents got for me when I was around 15 or 16 years old. I shot with that camera for decades. I photographed all of my high school and college friends with it and my first trips to Europe in the 80s. It was a great camera to learn with because it has manual controls so I could really figure out all the different levers.
Do performers tend to be more objective than others about how they look in their headshot photos?
The more experienced ones do, yeah. They tend to look past vanity issues more easily. They’re not as worried about looking beautiful and young. I work mostly with actors and the more experienced ones have gotten to know themselves and how they fit into the industry. It’s one of the hardest things they have to learn, I think — to be realistic about what roles you’re suited for and to leverage that to market yourself — instead of wanting to be just the leading lady or the leading man all the time. Most people have flaws they want me to minimize which is fair but so often your flaws are your assets! I wish I could help more people to see that. I know it’s a lot easier said than done but I’m always trying to help people to be less self-critical.
Which contemporary photographer’s works do you admire most?
Alex Webb is an absolute poet with light and composition. It’s amazing what he’s able to capture and compose on the fly. (His pictures of India are pretty spectacular too.). Every part of the image works with the whole and means something. I like work that has meaning. It can’t just be graphically entertaining or pretty. It has to make some sociological observation or say something about the human experience. My favorite photographers — like Bruce Davidson and Mary Ellen Mark — are rooted in humanism. I wouldn’t call them contemporary, but their work is still the most powerful to me. They really took the time to connect with their subjects. The work is so intimate. You don’t see that as much in contemporary work because there’s a whole school of thought that has really gained traction that it’s exploitive. I feel like documentary and photojournalism are less valued in our culture right now. There’s even a hostility towards it. That was something I loved about photographing in India, how receptive the people were to being photographed. They felt appreciated and seen, not taken advantage of. Cuba was that way too.
What’s your opinion on the “selfie” culture that’s overtaken social media these days – this kind of self-branding competition that’s happening?
To me the best photography tries to capture things as they really are so I’m not usually a big fan of social media images and selfies because they seem designed to mislead and idealize. You know, selfies are usually these highly edited and filtered presentations of the self. Pictures have become so manipulated and untrustworthy. (Now there’s even AI imagery that looks completely real and it’s not. So scary.) Selfies tend to conceal. So, they don’t move me. They just make you feel inadequate and worry about how you compare. I mean I spend as much time on Instagram as the next person, don’t get me wrong! But I’m addicted to puppy videos. I cringe at accounts that are all selfies. Maybe it’s an old fashioned, puritanical streak in me that feels it’s narcissistic. There are always exceptions of course — people using the new media in innovative ways.
What was it like to travel in India as a photographer? It seems like the kind of hectic, colorful place where you could be nearly paralyzed with visual overload.
It was so thrilling, Steve. It had always been my dream to go to India and for whatever reason it took me a long time to get there. I was attracted to India first through the work of other photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, Cartier Bresson, and Indian photographers Raghu Rai and Dayanita Singh — and to finally see it with my own eyes was really moving. It’s obviously a feast for the eyes but at the same time it’s difficult to photograph things I don’t understand very well, and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of photographing India through a romantic, imperialist lens — you know, women in saris standing in doorways, men with handlebar mustaches wearing turbans, etc. But it’s hard when all you can grasp is the surface and you don’t have a deeper understanding of the place and the context. India is such a complex society with a vast, fascinating history. I want to get to know it better so I can take more meaningful pictures that say something about the real India, the one that is modernizing and that just landed a vehicle on the moon! I’m going back in October and excited to dig deeper.
As a photojournalist, you’ve done considerable street photography in cities around the world. What themes interest you most when you document life in a particular place this way?
I’m interested in making photographs that say something about the culture and the human experience, images that shed light on people’s struggles and hopes. Images that aren’t just graphically clever or beautiful to look at. What you choose to photograph is almost as important as how you photograph it. I’m drawn to women’s issues (would give anything to go to Afghanistan and photograph women’s lives under the Taliban), poverty, social hierarchies, and always the underdog or marginalized groups. Forgotten populations. Pictures that can awaken your empathy and connect people to one another — that’s the ultimate for me.
Top photo of Lisa Hancock by Deborah Hancock; all others by Lisa Hancock.
Feel free to share this story with others!