Your Guide to Headshot Photography

Photography 25/08/2022 7 min read

Headshot photography is an excellent means of taking photos in a controlled environment with a dash of creativity. Here are our tips for taking headshots.

If you’re looking for a way to expand your photography repertoire that’s very controlled but still allows you to connect with people, consider headshot photography. There’s an extensive market for well-photographed headshots, and if you enjoy working with and photographing people, it’s definitely something you should consider.

Credit: Daniela Bowker

What is Headshot Photography?

A headshot is a tightly cropped head-and-shoulders portrait of someone focusing entirely on their face. Don’t be alarmed if that sounds unpromisingly similar to a mugshot or passport photo. While those are definitely types of headshots, they aren’t the sort we’re focusing on here. The headshots we’re looking at have much more to them than expressionless and badly exposed snaps. These are about showing someone’s character and helping people relate to the sitter on an emotional level, not just for identification purposes.

Who Needs a Headshot Photo?

All sorts of people need headshots. Look at the inside flap of a book, and you’ll probably see a photo of the author. Almost any website with an ‘About Us’ or ‘Meet the Team’ page will have headshots identifying staff, whether that’s your bank’s board members’ bios or a pet food startup. Actors and models have headshots sent to casting agents to initially help determine if they might be right for a job. And if you’ve got a social media profile, do you have a headshot on it? Headshots are everywhere, meaning if you love to shoot intimate portraits, headshot photography could be an excellent option.

photo of a black guy
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Top Tips for Taking Headshots

If you fancy giving headshot photography a whirl, you might have a few questions about how best to do it. So here are our headshot FAQs and top headshot photo tips.

1. Who wants a headshot, and what should the image convey?

It’s advisable to chat with your client and find out why they need headshots and how they intend to use them. This will determine the look that you need to achieve from your headshots. For example, an author might need to be relatable to their readership, while a medical practitioner should be both professional and approachable. 

photo of a black guy
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When it comes to actors’ headshots, ask them about the kinds of roles they are hoping to play. What they wear and how you photograph them will need to drive toward this. It could be anything from ‘harassed working mother’ to ‘slightly sinister friend’ or ‘recently retired and very bored grandparent’. As actors, your sitters will be great at getting into character; just remind them to bring character-appropriate clothing.

black and white photo of a guy
Sinister best friend? Credit: Daniela Bowker

2. What sort of clothing should your sitter wear?

Block colors in mid tones are always advisable. You don’t want anything that will detract from your sitter’s face, and you don’t want small, dense patterns, either. When you’re doing headshots for an actor, it’s usual to accommodate several changes of clothing within the shoot, so make sure that you have somewhere secure and comfortable for them to change.

3. What lens do I need, and what settings should I use?

A longer lens will produce a more flattering portrait, so look to use a lens with a focal length of 50mm or longer. An 85mm lens is often regarded as the focal length for portraits.

When it comes to settings, you want your subject’s face to be perfectly in focus and the background fading into a blur. They need to be popping out of the photo. Ideally, by keeping a good distance between your subject and the background and between you and your subject, you should be able to use an aperture around ƒ/2.8. Remember to keep the shutter speed fast to prevent motion blur and your ISO as low as possible for a noise-free image. You can set a custom white balance using a grey card, but remember to adjust it if you change the lighting setup or location. Or you can opt for auto white balance. It’s up to you, but do make sure it’s accurate.

4. Where should you shoot headshots?

It’s up to you and your sitter! You might prefer to work in the controlled setting of your studio, or you may find the spontaneity of shooting on location better. Your client may want some studio and some location shots. There are no hard-and-fast rules. All that’s important is that the background doesn’t overwhelm the portrait and that the location is appropriate for the message your client wants to convey.

tips for headshot photography of a long haired guy
This headshot was taken outdoors. Credit: Daniela Bowker

5. How should I light a headshot?

How long is a piece of string? A 3-point lighting setup will illuminate your client perfectly and create a good separation from your background, ensuring that the face is the focus of the photo. You might want a classic Paramount lighting beauty shot, which you can achieve with a single light, or the sun, in a studio or on location. Position your light central to your sitter’s face and coming from above. If the shadows beneath the nose and chin are a little harsh, a reflector will make all the difference. For a more moody look, think about Rembrandt lighting or even side lighting. How you light your sitter will depend on what look they want for their headshots, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

6. What about composition?

Your client’s head and shoulders are the center of attention in a headshot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t alter the composition of your shots. You might want somewhere you are at eye-level with your client, and they are looking straight into the camera. You might have their head turned a little to the left or right. You may also want to include a little negative space.

And don’t forget that if you shoot from above or below, you can alter how your subject appears. You’ve got the option to make them look a little tentative or incredibly powerful. Be sure to accommodate different crop factors, too. Actors and models might prefer 4 by 5 or 2 by 3 portrait crops, while a square crop could be preferable for social media or a website bio.

longhaired guy
The three-quarter angle gives something different to this headshot. Credit: Daniela Bowker

6. How many photos should I take?

Lots! Between altering your angles, getting your sitter to try different poses, adjusting your lighting, allowing for changes of clothes, and maybe even moving from inside to outside, you should take lots of photos. Don’t forget to check your exposure and adjust your white balance according to your lighting and location.

7. Remember to talk to your client!

It doesn’t matter if you’re working with experienced models or people new to being photographed professionally; talk to them while taking their photos. Give them encouragement and give them direction, too. If you’re trying to accomplish a particular lighting effect, ensure your client knows where to stand, sit and look. It can help if you explain why you’re positioning a reflector where you are and how moving away from the background will impact the images. Be clear in your instructions, and remember to smile and stay friendly, even if you’re concentrating hard. The more relaxed you are, and the more precise your instructions can be, the better it will be for your client, resulting in better photos.

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8. Get the eyes in focus!

Whatever you do, ensuring that the eyes are pin-sharp is the most crucial feature of a headshot.

9. Edit and deliver your photos

With headshots, it’s often the process to weed out where your client is blinking or has pulled a funny face or those that might be out-of-focus or badly exposed and then send a set of proofs to your client. They will then select between 3 and 5 headshots that you will finish according to their requirements. How many they get to choose and finalize will depend on your contract.

As well as finishing the photos to ensure they pop, they’ll need to be cropped to the desired format for the client and provided in either color or black and white. There might be some stray hairs to tidy away, and if your client had a stress blemish appear on the morning of the shoot, they might want that removed, too. But always check on that before doing so. You might well offer both color and black and white for all your finished images. Then you just need to deliver them!

headshot photo of a longhaired guy
This is the closer-cropped, black-and-white version of the image under Tip 6. Credit: Daniela Bowker

Headshot photography might initially sound quite restricted and dull, but the more you do it, the more you find yourself finding creative ways to convey the different characteristics and roles of your clients. We hope these headshot photo tips get you started on a fun and exciting photography pathway.