• May 29, 2014

In the Studio: Simply Redheads

Becky Hale

I’m surrounded by redheads. Husband, daughter, son, mother, and father-in-law. The list is long, and I have a soft spot. So, when my editor called and asked if I’d ever photographed redheads, I thought, yes, daily. The story was about pain, specifically that redheads are more sensitive to pain and require about 20% more anesthesia than non-redheads.

Like many things I shoot for NGM Departments, often there’s no “go to” image. No event or thing to shoot. I needed to make a single, thought-provoking image that illustrates something abstract and makes the reader linger.


After some test shots on myself and friends at National Geographic, I started bringing redheads to the studio at our D.C. headquarters, to see what I could make. Over the course of a month, I invited 30 people of all ages, skin tones, and shades of red hair to come to the studio. I shot each of them with a huge Octoplus soft box that had a 5-foot diameter, in-close, using a shallow depth of field to bring focus to their primary features. Then, I moved each subject to another setup where I used hard light from far away, to create dramatic shadows that I filled with a second hard fill-light directly over my camera. This light was turned way down but created a catch-light in people’s eyes, which gave some life to the shot. If you look closely, you can see my setup—and me—reflected in the subject’s eyes. I was shooting tethered, directly to my computer with a Hasselblad H2.

When the project was over, I’d photographed two co-workers, a woman my husband recruited at a cocktail party, and a Lebanese man who is the only redhead in his family. I photographed a girl I met in the produce section of Whole Foods, my two-year-old daughter who sat for exactly three frames before running away, and my son who insisted on holding his school mascot, Larry the Lion, in nearly every shot.


In the end, we settled on a simple image of a young woman with long, curly, dark red hair. When she walked into the studio it was obvious that she was going to be the one. Imagine someone with the most beautiful red hair you’ve ever seen. That’s her. The photograph is straightforward; a close up on half-of her face. Probably the simplest route I could have taken, but sometimes after all of your planning, that’s where the project takes you.

Becky Hale’s portrait of the young woman above is featured in the June issue of National Geographic. You can read the story here.

Hale recently curated the Self-Portrait assignment with our Your Shot community and is a contributor to the Your Shot blog. Follow Becky Hale on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 33 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Karen
    April 2, 2015

    My grandson has dark red hair almost like the young lady in your photograph. He has skin as fair as the distinguished lady mentioned from years back and burns even with sunscreen in the shade. His mother is blond and his father has brown hair.

    My father was a light haired red head and they do run in his family. Funny how that works, it pops up here and there!

    My grandson almost died as a one year old someone fed him peanut butter and he literally stopped breathing, so I’m assuming a life of allergies? so sensitive!!

    His eyes are beautiful blue like an afternoon sky!

    Thank you for bringing attention to the often forgotten and slowly dissappearing red heads we just don’t see much of anymore here in California!

  2. Ann
    February 17, 2015

    I’m not sure that redheads have a lower tolerance to pain so much as they experience more pain in the first place. My doctor is very dismissive when I complain that cholesterol pills make me ache so badly, for example. What are a few aches, she says?

    • Writer Eva
      February 17, 2015

      @Ann, If your medication is making you hurt, look up the side effects on one of the medical sites. Often the side effects mean that medicine is not good for you! If your doctor doesn’t listen, FIND A NEW ONE. Side effects can cause more problems than the original condition and can be very dangerous.

  3. Panayioti Diacopoulos
    June 26, 2014

    I am redhead. Woo!!

  4. Joshua Williams
    June 11, 2014

    I am half Asian, and I have red hair. No joke, my dad is a red head and I am progressively getting more dominant red hair as I age. I am the anomaly. I am the image that people take a while to wrap their head around. And, I am fine with that.

  5. Roslyn
    June 9, 2014

    I believe that redheads are an expression of art. I often find myself staring at the beauty and depth of God’s artistic expression in creating redheads. I am also stunned when I discover that some redheads are ashamed of there coloration. That’s baffling to me.

  6. Stormie Doonan
    June 4, 2014

    I am a true red head, curly hair(sometimes straight) fair skin & freckles(pennies from heaven). My eyes change from blue to green depending on my mood & my attire. As a child I did not like my hair, now that I’m older and somewhat accepted of my hair I begin to love it more & more each day. For me I have a low tolerance for pain and always am sick after Anesthesia. At the dentist I typically get 4-5 shot com -paired to your 1-2. I burn easily in the sun and my freckles just populate :). I have two children and they both ended up with blonde hair & blue eyes. So, anytime you need a new fresh face for your photo shoot, then give me a shout!

  7. Stormie Doonan
    June 4, 2014

    I am a true red head, curly hair, fair skin & freckles(pennies from heaven). My eyes change from blue to green depending on my mood & my attire. As a child I did not like my hair, now that I’m older and somewhat accepted of my hair I begin to love it more & more each day. For me I have a low tolerance for pain and always am sick after Anesthesia. At the dentist I typically get 4-5 shot com -paired to your 1-2. I burn easily in the sun and my freckles just populate :). I have two children and they both ended up with blonde hair & blue eyes. So, anytime you need a new fresh face for your photo shoot, then give me a shout!

  8. Eva Olson
    June 2, 2014

    When newly married, my husband and I were stationed in Heilbronn, Germany. As a redhead in El Paso, TX, I was in the minority. In Heilbronn, people usually thought I was German because nearly everyone there was redheaded! My son got my red hair, but my daughter was born blond. I also have a high tolerance to pain. Anesthesia works quickly (and goes away quickly), but pain medication doesn’t work well for me – nor for my children.

  9. Elizabeth Morris
    May 31, 2014

    Hi, I am an 80-year-old still mostly red head. From a small town in N. Michigan where there was only one other redhead, a different red from myself, with a lot more freckles, I think there must be a lot more today then there were in my day…I was always a kind of oddity. One friend who had red hair when we first met eventually, as she aged, turned blond. My mother retained some of her red hair when she died. I have always had a high resistance to pain. And so it goes. I know Anna B. and have never seen such red hair, just amazing…her father is one of my twin god sons. Interesting.

  10. Julie Wamboldt
    May 30, 2014

    I am a redhead. Freckles and all. I have a very high pain tolerance, but have had issues with anesthia, including one that wore off in the middle of a c-section. I believe we redheads are the most amazing and unique people. I have only 1 redhead, but I do hope to have more as my children start having children.

  11. Lisa
    May 30, 2014

    My husband and middle daughter are red heads. When I was pregnant with each of my girls I prayed they would have red hair. I think it is just stunning, as does everyone who meets my daughter. My husband’s family is all red headed too, only one out of six kids was not. I love the photos and interesting article. I had no idea about the pain, but I believe my red heads are also more sensitive to extremes, like heat and cold. Both are great at sports though, and tolerate pain pretty well.

  12. Vicky
    May 30, 2014

    I have a 4 yrs old grandaughter with bright red hair! Everywhere she goes, she gets a nice comment. She says she wants to go to Finland for the Red-haired convention this year. My son is going to take her there!!! She is the only one with red hair. My son when he was born had redish-strawberry hair and as an adult his pigmingtation is of red hair. His beard is red and he is very fair. On both sides of the family we are very fair and my parents and great-granparents are from European descent on both sides of my grandaughters family. She is a great and smart redhaired!

  13. Michele Alegria
    May 30, 2014

    The amount of anesthesia required has always been an issue for my surgeries and dental procedures. Please note that there is a difference between feeling pain and feeling. Youmay have a high tolerance for pain, but they may have a difficult time numbing/putting you under.

  14. estena burton
    May 30, 2014

    I have been told I have fibro myalgia and am a red head also been told that females redheads bleed more monthly

  15. Emon
    May 30, 2014

    I want a job in National Geography

  16. Adam Dawson
    May 30, 2014

    I come from a family of redheads and we all have extremely high pain thresholds, especially my mum. I know that redheads need more anesthesia than other people – my mother has had many operations and always needs more than the average person – but I am not sure where this lower pain tolerance comes from.

  17. grace carando
    May 30, 2014

    all of the pictures are so beautiful, i’m so glad that someone has shed the light on redheads in such a beautiful, fun way. i myself have red hair, my sister and one of my brothers. i have two children attending Wheaton college and neither have red hair. as a matter of fact my son has dark brown and my daughter has jet black hair! thanks for taking such great pictures of so many redheads!

  18. Jenny Trucano
    May 30, 2014

    Becky, such a nice post! I shared it with all my family (also a bunch of redheads).

  19. Bern McNichol
    May 30, 2014

    my parents had ‘3’ redheaded children and I am the middle one! I always felt I could stand pain better then most…and I had a German redheaded father so I do not have freckles and an Italian mother so I tan right away….I love being a redhead but none of my children have it or my grandchildren sigh>..thanks for caring about us..

  20. Stephanie
    May 30, 2014

    Stunning photos. My dad is a redhead and my daughters looks red, but my mom says it isn’t red… I have 2 cousins with red hair and 3 1st cousins once removed with red hair, with another to be born this year. I think red hair is beautiful!

  21. Katie
    May 30, 2014

    I have a much higher tolerance for pain and anesthesia works faster me. I can’t take any kind of pain killers…they knock me right out. Who came up with this silly theory?

  22. Dana Marie Norland
    May 30, 2014

    I am also a read head and I have Camurati engelmanns disease (it’s a bone disease) and I hurt all the time but I have a very high pain tolerance and I have always wanted the best for others. I believe having a high pain tolerance only makes me stronger and more caring for other people and their situations.

  23. Ana
    May 30, 2014

    I have always had a low pain threshold. A doctor 25 years ago in an emergency room told me that he thought redheads didn’t tolerate pain as well as others. That has always stuck with me over the years. Interesting.

  24. Mario botello
    May 29, 2014

    This is a great photo these are all beautiful people. Such brilliant attributes.

  25. Jen
    May 29, 2014

    I am a redhead also and I have always felt that I have a high tolerance for pain. But I have never tried to compare my pain to anyone else’s to know for sure…

  26. frank dodge
    May 29, 2014

    love it…!

  27. John Cummings
    May 29, 2014

    A fine photo. Being a D.C. native, and mixed race person with red hair, I wonder that you didn’t find any persons of color for the shoot. I’ve always said that I am allergic to pain. Perhaps now I’ll know why.

  28. rochelle walters
    May 29, 2014

    As a fellow redhead these are beautiful pictures but I for one have a high pain threshold, I dont bleed alot after procedures and Im lucky that I dont have the freckled skin so when I go abroad on holidays I tan lovely.

  29. Calli Schmidt
    May 29, 2014

    I love this. Also, best photo ever of Julia.

  30. Riley Yanke
    May 29, 2014

    Where is the article that goes with it? I wanted to share it with the redheads in my family through facebook, but I can’t find it anywhere online.

  31. Lynn Addison
    May 29, 2014

    Really nice “Proof”! Your kids look great (I think I picked them out). la

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