Portraits of Personality | Chris Gillett Interview

Editors Note: The most rewarding part of my job isn’t the gear, it’s our clients. We have so many interesting clients, doing such a wide range of work. Client Features are really just an excuse for me to step away from writing about gear, and instead focus on our clients and their work. Join us at our upcoming 13-year Party to meet hundreds of our clients. When you do, ask for their story – everyone will have something interesting to share about their journey to success.

Chris Gillet (LikeTheRazor.com) is a headshot specialist based in Houston, Texas who describes what he does to clients as “taking a portrait of your personality”. We interviewed him by email, the transcript of which (with minor edits for clarity) is below:

DT: Who are your typical clients?

Chris: Most of my clients are wealthy professionals who are either concerned about the image they project or simply want the best headshot they can get.

DT: How did you get involved in headshot photography?

Chris: I used to be a trial lawyer. Seven years ago we added a bonus baby to our family. I knew what having a new baby was like, so I shed several hobbies in anticipation of having less free time. I thought it would make sense to start learning photography as a new hobby and as a way to better document our family. As I got better at it, a few friends asked me to take pictures of their families. Eventually, a friend asked me to take a quick headshot of him. I thought it would be easy, but it was horrible. I couldn’t figure out how to make him look good. That bothered me, so I started learning how to do it better. As part of that education, I discovered Peter Hurley’s work. He and I got on well, and I learned a ton from him. For details, see here.


DT: Tell us about the image above and describe the process of capturing it.

Chris: The attached headshot is one of my favorites from the past couple of years. I like the simplicity of it, the limited color palette. Her expression is weapons-grade, and it makes me stop and consider it every time I come across it. Outside of headshot-land, this woman is goofy and sweet, but here she makes me nervous. It was shot in my studio using my usual settings. My digital back is a CCD sensor, so the ISO performance is pretty rough. Thus, I keep it at 100, with the shutter speed down to 80, which is about as slow as I want to go with people. Aperture is usually around 6.3, which still gives a pretty thin depth of field. Despite all that, I still get very sharp images. Considering my surname, it would be very embarrassing if I didn’t get sharp images.

DT: You’ve had a number of politicians as clients. Is there anything special or different in how you approach headshot photography for a politician?

Chris: First, some of them didn’t hire me directly. I was hired by one of their consultants, so I have to educate them about how I work as well as make sure that my perceived level of expertise is high with them. The expressions they need are essentially the same as most professionals. They are usually photographed a lot, so I want to make sure that I get something different, something better than their usual. Sometimes I have to take care that I remain in charge during the session. Bantering with them is usually easy as I will know something about them. Insulting their political opponents generally goes well. The biggest challenge is the judges who want to wear their robes. Those things make folks look like linebackers or Methodist ministers or something. They look bad on the men too. In addition, I have to shoot these a lot looser than I normally do. If I crop off the top of the head or a shoulder, their designers can’t butcher my work by cutting them out and sticking them on push cards and website mastheads.


DT: What were you using before you switched to Phase One?

Chris: Nikon D800 with a Zeiss 100mm macro lens. The D800 produces great files and is extremely reliable; however, medium format simply has a different look that I notice in my work. Also, I use a Leaf Credo 40 digital back, and I like the way it renders skin tones. Also, I market myself to wealthy people, and I don’t want them to show up and see that I am using a camera that looks like something they gave away last month as a bar mitzvah gift. Gear certainly won’t get them in the door, but I think it adds to my perceived level of expertise, which while not essential is nice.

DT: What did you find after you made the switch that you weren’t expecting?

Chris: A lot of what I do is calculated to lead my clients to the conclusion that I must be the best at what I do. When the medium format camera comes out, they know I am serious. When they see the images and the signature look that medium format gives, they know they have made a good investment. It is also just fun to shoot it, and the files are fun to retouch.


DT: What research or testing did you do when deciding if and how to switch to medium format?

Chris: I selected DT to work with on my transition to medium format, and they provided excellent education about the many confusing choices and have continued their support after the sale. We started by narrowing the field down to rigs that I could actually afford. I was surprised that it was even possible for me to afford any medium format equipment. Then we evaluated the digital backs and narrowed it down to the Leaf Credo 40, which I think renders skin tones very well.

DT: You say you love whiskey. Do you prefer Scotch, Bourbon, Japanese or Irish Whiskey? Any “great find” whiskeys you want to share?

Chris: I am definitely not a connoisseur, but I have a few I enjoy. My father liked Scotch, so it feels very familiar to me. During the winter, I enjoy Laphroaig. It is very peaty. Tastes like a burning hospital. I like Bourbon a lot. Bulleit is pretty good and not too expensive. The last time I was in Chicago, I left an almost full bottle in my buddy Mike Schacht’s studio. Hey Mike, remember that bottle is mine!