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PDN Magazine “Jinsey Dauk Brings Naturalism To Headshots”

Posted on Jun 5, 2013 by in Headshots, Recent Features |


By all accounts, Jinsey Dauk is one of the five or six most successful head-shot photographers in New York City. Of the roughly 150 photographers who work in this lucrative field – taking portraits of the city’s aspiring actors – Dauk is among an elite group.

Just step inside her small apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village and the difference is apparent. While most head-shot studios are equipped with high-powered strobes, complicated gaffing rigs or backdrops in view, Dauk’s combination of home and studio is decidedly different. There are no lighting equipment, gaffing rigs or backdrop in view, in fact there’s not even a filing cabinet or a computer. That’s because during her shoots she uses little more than a handheld 35mm camera and light streaming through two nine-foot-high windows with an unobstructed view of the Hudson River.

“Walking into a room filled with a lot of photo gear makes people nervous,” Dauk says. “The only way you know I’m taking your picture is from the sound of the shutter clicking.”

A model herself, Dauk well remembers the day she had to pose for a shot on a Clairol box; already tired; Dauk found the rhythmic pulsing of the strobes put her in a stupor. As a photographer, Dauk strives to keep her subjects relaxed, so she’s banished blinding lights. She’s even eliminated seamless. She shoots at f/8 or f/4 with an 85mm lens, so anything behind the subjects’ ears goes into soft focus. Instead of the artificial backgrounds in most head shots, Dauk’s images show a blurred view of the entryway of her apartment.

Dauk is also an iconoclast when it comes to film and processing. Most of the head-shot world is devoted to extremely slow film for its smooth, creamy look. Two of the best head -shot industry’s favorite films currently are Kodak’s Technical Pan and Agfa Pan (ISO 25); according to a leading head-shot lab, these films are often rated at around ISO 12 to 25. Dauk shoots only Tri-X, rated at 400 ISO. “Super slow film, especially when used with strobes, picks up every little detail, and people end up retouching forever,” she explains. “Tri-X with natural light is so much more forgiving and flattering. People don’t retouch my pictures because they don’t need to. Only three photos in my book of 50 pictures are retouched, and those only slightly.”

Dauk’s naturalistic approach appeals to actors who want their head shots to come to life. Nicole Tocantins, a stage and screen actress now living in Los Angeles, says that when she started out she looked like a “bad teenage porn star” in her first head shots because she was wearing a “ton of makeup” and sporting a fancy hairstyle animated by a wind machine at the direction of the photographer recommended by her agent. Several years later, a new agent recommended Dauk, and Tocantins says her current shot gets a wildly enthusiastic reaction from everyone who sees it. “I’m wearing no makeup whatsoever and a leather jacket and it looks like me and casting people love it,” Tocantins says. “I keep asking my commercial agent if I need to reshoot because the shot is more than two years old. My hair is longer now, I look a little different. He says the picture is perfect; there is absolutely no need to reshoot.”

Word of mouth endorsements like this bring Dauk about 200 to 300 head-shot sessions a year. She charges $495 per session. It’s a fairly typical fee for the top shooters in the field, and it’s only one of the financial benefits that make head-shot shooting rewarding. Most shooters require a deposit up front to book a session and full payment as a condition for delivery of prints. A healthy portion of this income is usually in cash, since actors making  living by working in restaurants usually earn cash tips. Head shot photographers retain the copyright on their work. Their promotion costs are usually low, since actors rely almost exclusively on word-of-mouth advertising to find photographers. Dauk, for example, advertises int he annual Headshot Photographer’s Guide, published by Ken Taranto Photo Services, a New York lab. She reprints her ad as a 6 x 10 card she can give to casting directors and agents who inquire about her work, but she does no mass mailings.

Dauk also benefits from her contacts in the modeling industry and from her ability to inspire confidence in her clients. Six-feet tall, slim, blonde, a tad hyperactive and intensely athletic, Dauk, 35, overflows with energy and self-confidence, traits that help her connect with subjects during shoots. The desire to make personal connections through her portraits, in fact, is what first inspired her interest in photography.

Dauk has been shooting black-and-white portraits since she was in the eighth grade in Connecticut. Her mother had taken a photography class and enrolled Dauk as a present. When a friend’s mother was being treated for cancer, Dauk wanted to bring her a gift. She took a series of photographs of the woman’s eight-year-old son playing basketball. She shot tightly with a telephoto lens so it was not obvious that he was playing basketball, but he looked “up and full of life and healthy and happy, with all this spirit coming out of him,” Dauk recalls.

The boy’s mother (who has since recovered) loved the photos and asked Dauk to put them up on the hospital room wall. After visitors saw the photos and asked who took them, young Dauk was launched on a photographic career, being paid by friends and neighbors to take black-and-white portraits. Adults were comfortable hiring the eighth grader. “I had been six feet tall since I was in sixth gar, so everyone always thought I was very responsible,” she explains.

“Doing this type of work was my calling,” says Dauk. “It came from me wanting this woman to feel better, and the pictures were so dynamic and so full of life and that’s how I wanted to help her to feel. That’s the spirit in which I’ve been doing my work ever since; my clients feel great and they look great and are projecting confidence in my pictures.”

She studied and then taught photography at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which she picked partly so she could participate in its women’s basketball program. A student there asked her to model, which she enjoyed, and she eventually came to New York and signed with Elite (Dauk is currently with Ford’s Today’s Woman division).