After photographing someone with curly hair the other week I had a sudden flashback to my senior portraits in high school. I have a distinct memory of stepping into the room my school had set a portrait photographer up in and seeing him light up in excitement when I entered, saying, “oh, this is great! Someone with curly hair! I’m going to back-light it!” I didn’t know much about portrait photography back then but something in my gut said, “this sounds like a bad idea.”
If it’s not lit correctly, curly hair can turn into a big mass of undefined nothingness, especially if it’s dark, and any improperly placed lighting behind it can show nothing but frizz sticking up everywhere. So in spite of my better judgement and the fact that I’ve hidden this photo from the world for over 10 years, I now share my crappy high school senior portrait.
Ignoring the seriously misguided posing, which tucks my chin into my neck to make a 98-pound 5’4″ 17-year old look like a chubby-cheeked squirrel and pushing my forehead toward the camera to make it look twice the size of the rest of my face… my curly hair looks like a giant Styrofoam hat with dust bunnies jumping around the top.
There’s no definition in the curls themselves so you can’t even tell the hair is curly, and the back light directly behind my head only lights the stray, frizzy hairs sticking up all over the place. Is it any wonder I straighten my hair now?
Just like every damaging and embarrassing moment of our teenage years, I have learned a valuable lesson from this photo. Photograph curly hair properly. Here’s a photo of my most recent headshot victim, Sarah, with her wonderfully curly hair. I lit her with soft lighting to flatter her face, but then added a non-diffused back light that was more to the side of her (instead of directly behind) to show definition in her curls without lighting up any stray hairs that would register as frizz. I got the light to shine through some of her hair to show the multiple layers of curls, but made sure it stayed off her face to not create any hot spots or random streaks of light on her cheeks.
And voila! The result is at the very least a photograph that won’t come back to haunt her as crappy 10 years later. And now, back to my flat iron…