The Best Campus Spots for Your Professional Headshot

Duke experts provide locations and tips for snapping a smart-looking work portrait

Greeshma James

Snap Better Portraits

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Unmistakably Duke

Since Duke began using Duke stone in university buildings in the late 1920s, the stone has become a signature part of campus.

When Miranda Volborth, senior communications specialist for the Pratt School of Engineering, takes portraits of colleagues, she takes advantage of Duke’s trademark building material to give photos a distinct touch.

Volborth and fellow Pratt communicators have found that a stretch of wall on the side of Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences (FCIEMAS) across from Twinnie’s Café, provides a clean expanse of Duke stone. And in the morning hours, there’s enough shadow to provide even lighting.

Duke Electrical and Computer Engineering's Adam Davidson in front of a Duke stone wall. Photo by Miranda Volborth.

“The stone is really recognizable,” Volborth said. “It’s complimentary to pretty much everybody’s skin tone and it’s pretty sheltered from the wind, so you’re not going to have to worry about anything being blown around.”

Volborth said it’s important to have the portrait subject stand around six feet in front of the wall so the stone is in soft focus. Most camera phones and digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, which are the kind Volborth uses for departmental photos, have portrait modes. Using the portrait mode setting, the camera will automatically focus on the person in the foreground and leave the background – in this case, the stone wall – slightly blurry.

Hired in January of 2022 as a laboratory administrator for Duke Electrical and Computer Engineering, Adam Davidson had his portrait taken by Volborth in front of the stone wall.

“I think the stone sets you apart,” Davidson said. “Seeing the stone means I’m here at Duke. It looks clean, it looks neat, and it makes me feel proud.”

University Communication's Bryan Reklis in the Duke Medicine Pavilion hallway. Photo by Jared Lazarus.

Keep it Clean

When taking a simple portrait, Shawn Rocco, chief photographer and videographer for the Duke University Health System, said that, in most cases, it’s helpful to have a background that doesn’t take the emphasis away from the subject.

“The best environmental portraits are ones where the background isn’t distracting, but it gives you a sense of space,” Rocco said.

Around the Duke University Health System campus there are a few spots Rocco recommends for soft light and unobtrusive backgrounds.

Among the most popular locations are the window-lined hallway between the Duke Medicine Pavilion and Duke North, and the courtyard in front of the Trent Semans Center.

Up-close headshots taken here – which should not include any other people in the background – can have a clean, professional look.

The Right Light

Duke University Communications Senior Multimedia Producer Jared Lazarus knows how to evoke emotion and tell stories through his lens. He said the essence of quality photography is understanding light.

Jeffrey N. Vinik Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Adrienne Stiff-Roberts in the arcades alongside Duke University Chapel. Photo by Jared Lazarus.

Most newer smartphone and DSLR cameras can automatically adjust to situations with dim or bright lighting. For flattering portraits, the right lighting is soft, even light. Lazarus said it’s important not to have light that’s too harsh – such as direct sunlight or light from a camera’s flash – or any light that creates dramatic shadows on a subject’s face. Instead, find shaded places where softer, indirect light can provide some illumination.

That’s why one of his favorite places to take portraits is underneath the covered arcades that flank Duke University Chapel, where a pretty campus backdrop meets easy-to-manage light.

“Since the light is coming from both sides but the roof blocks the hard mid-day sun, the light is reliably beautiful throughout the day,” Lazarus said.

By using the Duke stone walls and gothic arches in the background, a portrait taken here can take advantage of the architectural beauty of campus. And Lazarus pointed out that the arcades are long, so a photographer can have their portrait subject stand far away from the background to allow for a more dramatic depth of field.

While Lazarus said the spots have produced many pretty portraits through the years, he said amateur photographers can produce high-quality portraits wherever the light is right.

“There are great spots all over campus,” Lazarus said. “Just pay attention to the light. All you need is a little bit of open shade and a clean background.”

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