A few weeks ago I decided I needed to study light direction more closely. I've since noticed that the photographers I admire consistently have good highlight and shadow patterns on the faces of their subjects, something that I didn't really notice before. I was trying to figure out the ideal positions for lights to produce classic portrait patterns and had a difficult time with self-portrait experiments. I did try taking test shots of my wife and child to analyze highlight and shadow patterns but it wasn't easy, and my wife found it annoying.
I finally decided I needed to get a mannequin head. In some ways, I thought a mannequin head would be better than even a real subject (even one with infinite patience) because the head wouldn't move and therefore would be easier to study.
It was quite hard for me to find a mannequin head that was reasonably priced and also met my requirements. At one point, I was almost resigned to buy a styling head (a toy for girls to practice make up and hairstyling with) but it would entail many compromises.
After much searching, though, I found the mannequin head above, which I'm pleased with. It's made by Pivot Point International, Inc. and I found it on ebay for around $12 + around $7 shipping (I used the search term "wig head"). BTW, I found the seller, judy503, to be exceptional. She shipped the item really quickly and provided tracking info. Last time I checked, she had other similar mannequin heads available.
I think this head is reasonably good given the price:
- The size is close to a lifesize. I would say about 90-95% of lifesize. Having a lifesize model allows my lights to have a quality (hard vs. soft) similar to what they would show with a real subject.
- The appearance and dimensions of facial features are reasonably realistic. There are many mannequin heads that have exaggerated features such as large eyes, a large forehead, or small nose. I wanted a head with realistic features to provide a good simulation of highlight and shadow patterns. I've seen several that are truly realistic but are much more expensive (if you're curious, I used the search term: "realistic mannequin").
- The material is rubber-like plastic, similar to the material used in the head of a Barbie doll (except that it is rigid). Unlike other mannequin heads that use fiberglass, this one is lightweight and seems to reflect light more similarly to normal skin.
- There is painted make-up, which makes it look more realistic but more importantly, makes it easier for the camera to focus compared to totally colorless mannequin heads (such as those made of styrofoam).
- The eyes unfortunately aren't glossy enough to show catchlights. I plan to paint the eyes with a layer of clear nail polish in the future. For now, there is a somewhat strange painted catchlight showing three lights in a triangular pattern (I guess the artist wasn't a portrait photographer...).
- No real eyelashes. Would have been nice but it's not a dealbreaker for me.
- Does have a little hair so it doesn't look bald, but the hair isn't enough to let me practice using a hairlight. I might buy a wig for that in the future.
If you're looking for a mannequin head, be sure you read the description carefully or ask the seller for clarification. Many mannequin heads are pictured with a wig but actually come without a wig. Conversely, the first time around, I bought what I thought was a mannequin head with a wig. Instead, the seller just sent me a wig and we had to resolve the dispute through ebay.