Saturday, October 16, 2010

Studying Portrait Lighting with a Mannequin Head



 
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.
Having practiced a few times with this head, I found that the lighting in my shots has improved, though I still have a lot to learn.  I will post what I learn when I've got it down to a science :)

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.