The Headshot by Peter Hurley | a Book Review


Today I’m going to share my thoughts on a book I picked up recently called: “The Headshot” by Peter Hurley. I picked up a copy to read on a recent flight and I’m truly happy I did. I buy plenty of books every year but this one is by far the best photography book I’ve purchased this year (and possibly this decade).

If you photograph people then I’d highly recommend you order a copy of this book right now then come back to finish reading this review. It’s less than $30 that will make your portraits and headshots better than that $2,000.00 f1.4 lens you’ve been looking at. Having a good portrait lens is great but the lessons in this book will have you capturing killer shots regardless of your gear. This book IS THAT GOOD!!!

Knowledge Can Take You Farther than Owning Expensive Gear

Having some of the best gear is great. I have a pretty sizable collection of photography equipment and without it I wouldn’t have the ability to create some of the images I do. But there are some things much more important than the gear. Knowing how to use the gear is a must if you’ll be taking full advantage of your purchases.

But equally important is your subject. Great landscape images happen at scenic places at the right time of day. Awesome wildlife shots have colorful and interesting animals (hopefully doing something you rarely see). Product shots need lighting that highlights every curve of the designers intent.

And for a killer portrait shot it’s great to have an awesome subject – but there needs to be more in your final image. There has to be something that connects you to that person in the picture. The best pictures of people don’t just have a well exposed and in-focus person in them. My favorite images give me insight to a persons personality. What some photographers might forget is that it’s their job to bring something special out of a subject to help them look incredible.

It’s easy to get caught up in the chase to own cool equipment but knowledge and experience can get you results that a simple gear purchase can’t. This is why, after decades behind a camera, I still go to workshops, read books and spend time with top creatives. I look to the people who have what I don’t have – and are willing to take a minute to share some of what they know. In the world of headshot Peter Hurley is the best in the business and he’s an astounding instructor.

Who is Peter Hurley?

“Peter Hurley is a rare breed. His haphazard way of moving through life has had him riding the waves around the world on a sailboat, plastered his mug in magazines modeling for the likes of Polo and Abocrombie & Fitch, and put more than 10,000 more than three feet in front of his lens.”

- the Headshot by Peter Hurley, About the Author, page v

Before you get to the body of his book you get a small introduction to why Peter is THE authority in headshot photography. He has the life experiences that give him a unique viewpoint and personality that makes him instantly likable as a author. As a model he’s been in front of other photographers and knows how important a headshot is. But for Peter a headshot is far more than just a print delivered to a client – it’s a split second of his subjects personality captured for all time.

I’ve watched Peter sharing some of his techniques in YouTube videos (“It’s All About the Squelch”, PEOPLE!!!) and in KelbyOne training videos. His Vimeo video “It’s All About the Jaw” is a must view if you photograph people.

Peter is the real deal – and he’s been credited by just about every photographer I look up to as the person who is one of the best photography teachers today. In his studio his style borders on frantic as he fills the space between himself and his subject with every trick in his voluminous book as he chases something special. He’s looking for a “SHEBANG” with every press of his shutter release and a session doesn’t end until he’s nailed it. He’s the kind of photographer I aspire to be more like when I’m photographing people.

Getting the Technical Out of the Way

The first two chapters are all about Peter’s unique look for headshots. Before he hit the scene there wasn’t a single right way to make a headshot but Peter has created what I consider the industry standard. It’s a perfectly lit subject photographed landscape on a white background. It’s a look that works and it’s repeatable. It’s also a look that forces you to engage with the subject.

Peter shares his equipment list along with how he sets everything up. If you’ve never worked in a studio environment then it’s a great introduction to using some pretty sizable lights. Traditionally I skip the camera/light settings chapters of photography books but I did enjoy reading about why Peter chose to do things the way he does. If you want to recreate the technical style then it’s all right there for you.

Technical is important and it needs to be right for each and every shutter click. But it also needs to disappear. You need to put 100% of your effort in to working with your subject, not wondering if a change needs to happen to your setup. A quick glance at Peter’s book will confirm this. The first two chapters talk about his look, the equipment and how he sets everything up. The next 12 chapters assume the technical is done because it’s time to connect with your subject.

Getting the Most from a Headshot Session

With the technical out of the way Peter moves into the best part of his book – working with people. Peter wants to bring personality out of his subjects and he’ll say almost anything to get a reaction. It’s his “schtick” and he’s honed it to a level of sharpness that is unbelievable. Readers of this book get a look inside Peter’s head as he works his way in to his subjects head.

Among the many things I learned by reading “The Headshot” is how Peter isn’t just a photographer with lots of personal experience (although he has plenty of that). He’s pushed deeper into the idea of creating headshot than his peers. By working with a physiologist to better understand who the people he photographs – something he’s calling “Psyphotology”. To learn more about Psyphotology you’ve got to check out Peter’s TEDx Talk on the subject. By the end you’ll see just how seriously he takes the subject.

Peter gets results which are nothing short of incredible. He may be pointing a camera at peoples heads but he photographs “HEART” (a perfect acronym for the results he achieves). I love Peter’s style and hope to attend one of his workshops some day soon.

If there’s one thing I love about Peter it’s got to be the crazy things he’ll say to get a reaction from a subject. His personality shines in ways I can’t begin to describe. Luckily for Peter’s fans there’s an entire chapter filled with what he calls: “Hurleyisms”. These simple sentences are worth double what you’re paying for the book all by themselves.

Wrapping Up

I’ve always known that it takes a special person to photograph people. There’s a real connection between photographer and subject. On one hand it’s a partnership. On the other it’s a serious commitment by the photographer to deliver something no one else can – a shot that truly brings that special something out of the subject that exceeds everyones expectations. Peter’s book is an amazing insight in to his method.

When Peter is having a photo session he creates what he calls “SHEBANGS” (meaning his subject absolutely nailed a shot). With this book he’s giving his readers all the basics necessary to create our own “SHEBANGS”. If you’re a portrait or a headshot photographer (or interested in becoming one) this book is a real winner.

I’m not a full-time headshot photographer (although I’ve had some headshot sessions over the years) but I do photograph people on a regular basis. Peter’s headshot techniques are not just for headshots – they’re a roadmap to getting the most out of any subjects who find themselves in front of our camera.

I said it in the introduction to this blog but I’ll say it again: this is my favorite book purchase this year, and possibly this decade!


Get a copy of Peter Hurley’s book, The Headshot Intensive, on Amazon here.

You can learn more about Peter at his website.

Attend one of Peter’s amazing workshops – the Headshot Intensive – at this website.

Find out more about Psyphotology at this website.

If you’re a KelbyOne member you can check out some of his online classes.


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