Best practices to Shoot Headshot Photography

In the world of photography, portraiture really shines as something special. It’s seen by many as showing off the best of what photography can do.

But, it’s also tricky to get just right. A great portrait is more than just good camera skills; it’s about having a feel for the moment and understanding the person you’re photographing.

When you mix these skills just right, you end up with a portrait that’s not only better than your average photo booth picture, but also one that really shows a bit of who the person in the photo is.

If you ever wonder how to master your headshot photography skills this post is for you.

17 tips on Mastering Headshot Photography

Headshot photography may seem simple on the surface – just photograph a person’s face and shoulders. But capturing professional, authentic portraits that truly bring out someone’s personality and make them look their best requires skill and practice.

In this article, I’ll share 17 tips to help you master the art of taking incredible headshots that your clients will love. Whether you’re just starting out in headshot photography or looking to improve your skills, these tips will give you the knowledge and confidence to thrive in this popular niche. Let’s dive in!

Tip 1: Ask the right Questions

Before the shoot, have an in-depth conversation with your client to understand exactly what they’re looking for.

Do they want a formal corporate look or something more casual and artistic? Do they have a specific vision for poses, wardrobe, and backdrop? Know what colors, locations, and mood they want conveyed.

This ensures you capture portraits that align with their needs and expectations.

here are five questions to better understand your client’s needs for portrait or headshot photography:

  1. Purpose of the Portrait/Headshot: “What will be the primary use of this portrait or headshot? Is it for a professional setting like LinkedIn, a personal project, or something else?”
  2. Preferred Style and Vibe: “Do you have a specific style or mood in mind for your portrait/headshot? For example, are you looking for something formal, casual, artistic, or corporate?”
  3. Background Preferences: “Do you have any preference for the background or location of the shoot? Would you like a studio backdrop, natural outdoor setting, or an office environment?”
  4. Outfit and Appearance: “What type of outfit and look are you considering for this photo? Do you need any guidance on what works best for camera in terms of colors or patterns?”
  5. Previous Experiences or Inspirations: “Have you had any portrait or headshot sessions before? Are there any specific photos or styles that you’ve seen and liked that you can share as inspiration?”

Tip 2: Guide Your Client on Wardrobe Choices

Here are some tips you can share with your clients:

  1. Choose Solid Colors: Encourage them to wear solid colors that complement their skin tone. Solid colors are less distracting and allow the focus to be on their face. Advise against busy patterns or stripes, which can be distracting in a headshot.
  2. Opt for Classic Styles: Recommend timeless clothing styles rather than trendy outfits. Classic looks remain professional and relevant over time. This is especially important for headshots used for professional purposes.
  3. Consider Necklines: Suggest necklines that flatter their face and body shape. For instance, a V-neck can elongate the neck, while a crew neck gives a more traditional and conservative look.
  4. Avoid Bright Whites or Dark Blacks: Whites can overpower the face and blacks might lose detail in shadows. Suggest off-white, blues, greens, or other colors that suit their complexion. If they prefer darker clothing, navy blue or dark grey are good alternatives to black.
  5. Subtle Jewelry: If they choose to wear jewelry, it should be minimal and classic. Large, shiny, or dangling pieces can be distracting. The focus should be on their face, not the accessories.
  6. Professional vs. Casual: The choice between a professional and casual look should be based on the purpose of the headshot. For corporate use, recommend a suit or blazer. For a more relaxed field or artistic headshot, a less formal approach might be appropriate.
  7. Grooming: Remind them that grooming is just as important as clothing. Hair should be neat and make-up natural unless the headshot calls for a more dramatic look.
  8. Bring Options: Advise them to bring a few outfit options to the shoot. This way, you can help them make the final decision based on how the clothes look through the camera and under the lighting conditions of your shoot.

Also, let them know that they should avoid bold patterns or logos. Classic styles photograph better over time versus trendy looks. And make sure wardrobe suits their profession and brand.

This helps them look natural and appropriate.

Tip 3: Location, Location Location

You don’t need an expensive studio to take great headshots! Try urban alleys, a local cafe, libraries, or even the client’s home.

Look for colorful walls, interesting textures, or natural light. Just ensure the location suits the client’s brand and desired mood. Creative backdrops add interest to your shots.

Here’s how you can make the most of alternative locations:

  1. Urban Alleys: These can provide a gritty, urban feel that’s perfect for artistic or edgy headshots. Look for alleys with interesting textures or graffiti that can add character to the photo. Just be mindful of the lighting conditions and the time of day.
  2. Local Cafes: Cafes often have a cozy, inviting atmosphere. They can be ideal for more casual or approachable headshots. Use the natural ambient light from windows and consider the background clutter to keep the focus on the subject.
  3. Libraries: For a more intellectual or classic vibe, libraries with their rows of books and quiet ambiance can be a great choice. Be aware of the lighting, which can sometimes be dim, and respect the space’s rules and patrons.
  4. Client’s Home: A client’s home can be a comfortable and personal space for a headshot. It’s great for a relaxed and natural photo. Look for areas with good natural light and simple backgrounds.
  5. Colorful Walls and Textures: Walls with vibrant colors or interesting textures (like brick or wood) can make for dynamic backgrounds. Make sure the color complements the client’s outfit and doesn’t overpower the shot.
  6. Natural Light: Outdoor locations with natural light can create beautiful, soft-lit photos. Early morning or late afternoon (golden hour) provides the most flattering light. Avoid harsh midday sun which can create unflattering shadows.
  7. Brand and Mood Compatibility: Always consider the client’s personal brand and the mood they want to convey. A corporate lawyer might prefer a more traditional backdrop, while a creative artist might opt for something more unconventional.
  8. Creative Backdrops: Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Interesting textures, architectural elements, or even a simple, uncluttered space can add a unique touch to your headshots.

Remember, the key is to ensure the background isn’t too distracting and complements the subject of the headshot.

Always scout the location beforehand to plan your shots and be prepared for varying light conditions.

Tip 4: Build Rapport

The first 10 minutes can be awkward until you build rapport. Chat to make them comfortable, ask questions, and offer praise.

Many great shots happen at the end when people are more relaxed. Genuine encouragement also brings out real smiles and personality. A comfortable client means better photographs!

Tip 5: Offer Encouragement and Positive Feedback

Use positive phrases like “You’re doing great!”, “Hold that pose, it’s perfect!”, and “Love that smile!” to boost their confidence. Genuine praise brings out the best expressions. But be sure your feedback is authentic, not just platitudes. People can sense insincerity. Sincere encouragement yields better shots.

Tip 6: Use Camera Settings to Make the Subject Pop

“Popping” off the background makes the subject stand out. Shoot wide open at f/1.4-2.8 for a soft blurred background. Make sure your client is completely in focus. Position them a few steps off the backdrop.

To make your subject pop in headshot photography, it’s crucial to understand and effectively use your camera settings. Here are some tips:

  1. Aperture: Use a wide aperture (low f-number like f/2.8 or f/4) to create a shallow depth of field. This blurs the background and keeps the focus sharply on your subject’s face, making them stand out.
  2. ISO: Keep the ISO as low as possible to avoid noise. If you’re shooting in good lighting, an ISO of 100-400 is usually sufficient. In lower light conditions, you may need to increase the ISO, but be mindful of the increased grain or noise in the image.
  3. Shutter Speed: Ensure your shutter speed is fast enough to prevent motion blur. As a general rule, use a shutter speed at least as fast as the reciprocal of your focal length (e.g., 1/200 sec if you’re using a 200mm lens). If your subject is moving, you might need an even faster speed.
  4. Lens Choice: A lens with a focal length between 85mm and 135mm is ideal for portraiture. These lenses help compress and flatter facial features and can provide a nice balance between your subject and the background.
  5. Focus: Always focus on the eyes. Use a single-point autofocus mode to precisely control where the camera focuses. The eyes are the most expressive part of the face and should be the sharpest part of your image.
  6. Exposure: Use the camera’s exposure settings to ensure the subject’s face is well lit. If you’re shooting in manual mode, adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to get the correct exposure. In semi-automatic modes like Aperture Priority, you can use exposure compensation to fine-tune the brightness.
  7. White Balance: Accurate white balance is crucial for good skin tones. If you’re not comfortable adjusting this manually, use the appropriate preset (like Daylight or Cloudy) for your lighting conditions. For more control and consistency, consider shooting in RAW and adjusting white balance during post-processing.
  8. Lighting: Good lighting is key. If you’re outdoors, use natural light to your advantage, avoiding harsh midday sun. Overcast days provide soft, diffused light. Indoors, use window light or a softbox to create flattering, even lighting on the face.

By carefully adjusting these settings, you can create headshots where the subject truly stands out, with a sharp focus, good lighting, and a pleasantly blurred background that doesn’t compete for attention.

Tip 7: Learn Flattering Lighting Techniques

Lighting is crucial for attractive headshots. Try natural light, on or off-camera flash, reflectors, and diffusers. Watch out for shadows and uneven lighting on the face.

When using window light, have them face the window for even illumination. Learn lighting strategies to bring out your client’s best look.

Flattering lighting is a critical aspect of headshot photography, as it can dramatically affect the mood and quality of the image. Here are some techniques to achieve flattering lighting:

  1. Soft Light: Soft light reduces harsh shadows and evens out skin tones, making it very flattering for headshots. Use a diffuser with your light source, or shoot on an overcast day where the clouds act as a natural diffuser.
  2. Window Light: Natural light from a window can create beautiful, soft lighting. Have your subject face the window, or position them at an angle for a more dramatic effect. Avoid direct sunlight as it can cause harsh shadows.
  3. Golden Hour: If shooting outdoors, the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, known as the golden hour, provides warm, soft light that can be very flattering.
  4. Reflector Use: Use a reflector to bounce light onto your subject’s face, especially in shadow areas. This can help in achieving more balanced lighting and reducing contrast.
  5. Three-Point Lighting: In a studio setting, use the classic three-point lighting setup. This includes a key light (the main light), a fill light (to soften shadows created by the key light), and a backlight (to separate the subject from the background).
  6. Butterfly Lighting: Place the main light source directly in front of and above the face of your subject, creating a shadow under the nose that resembles a butterfly. This is great for highlighting cheekbones and creating a slimming effect.
  7. Rembrandt Lighting: This technique creates a small triangle of light on one cheek, while the other side of the face is in shadow. It adds depth and dimension to the face and is achieved by positioning the main light at a 45-degree angle from the subject.
  8. Avoid Overhead Lights: Overhead lighting can cause unflattering shadows under the eyes and nose. If you’re indoors, try to avoid these as the main light source.
  9. Loop Lighting: The light is positioned slightly off-center to create a small shadow of the subject’s nose on their cheek. This is a versatile lighting setup that works well for most faces.
  10. Catchlights: Ensure that there are catchlights in the eyes of your subject. These are the small reflections of the light source that add life and sparkle to the eyes.

Remember, the key to flattering lighting in headshots is to experiment with different setups and find the one that best complements your subject’s features. Every individual’s face is unique, so what works for one person may not work for another.

Tip 8: Choose a Suitable Lens Like 35mm or 50mm

Choosing the right lens is crucial in headshot photography, as it can greatly affect the look and feel of the image. While 35mm and 50mm lenses are popular choices, they each have their unique characteristics:

  1. 50mm Lens: Often referred to as the “nifty fifty,” this lens is a popular choice for headshot photography due to its versatility and natural perspective.
  • Perspective and Distortion: It provides a field of view similar to the human eye, offering a natural and realistic perspective with minimal distortion, which is ideal for headshots.
  • Aperture: Many 50mm lenses have a wide maximum aperture (like f/1.8), allowing for a shallow depth of field that blurs the background and makes the subject stand out.
  • Working Distance: It offers a comfortable working distance between the photographer and the subject, which can be more relaxing for the client.
  1. 35mm Lens: This is a wide-angle lens that can also be used for headshots, especially when you want to include more of the environment.
  • Environmental Portraits: It’s ideal for environmental portraits where you wish to include some background to tell a story or provide context about the subject.
  • Distortion: Be cautious of distortion, especially when photographing close-up. Faces can look unnaturally stretched if the subject is too close to the lens.
  • Intimacy: The 35mm lens requires you to be closer to the subject, which can create a sense of intimacy and engagement in the photos.

When choosing between these lenses, consider the following:

  • Purpose of the Headshot: If the focus is solely on the person’s face, the 50mm is often more suitable. For a headshot that includes more of the surroundings or conveys a sense of place, the 35mm might be the better choice.
  • Space Constraints: In a tight space, a 35mm lens may be necessary to get the desired framing.
  • Subject Comfort: Some subjects may feel more comfortable with a little distance, making the 50mm a better option.

Both lenses can produce outstanding headshots, but the key is to understand the look you’re aiming for and how the lens’s characteristics will impact your final image.

Tip 9: Use Shallow Depth of Field and Fast Shutter Speed

For a dreamy background, use f/1.4-2.8. Watch your focus since shallow depth of field can blur facial features easily.

A fast minimum shutter speed freezes expressions sharply. For a 50mm lens, use 1/100s minimum. Faster speeds for longer lenses. These settings enhance headshot quality.

Tip 10: Vary Poses Between Standing, Sitting, etc.

Varying poses between standing, sitting, and other positions is a great way to add diversity and dynamism to headshot photography. Here are some tips to consider:

  1. Standing Poses: Standing allows for a range of dynamic poses. Encourage the subject to shift their weight from one leg to the other for more relaxed, natural stances. You can also experiment with the positioning of their arms, such as having them hang naturally, crossed, or with hands in pockets.
  2. Sitting Poses: Sitting poses often convey a sense of ease and can be very versatile. Have the subject sit on the edge of a chair to maintain good posture, and try different leg positions – crossed, one ankle over the knee, or feet flat on the floor. Make sure their back is straight to avoid a slouched appearance.
  3. Leaning: Leaning against a wall or a piece of furniture can create a casual, relaxed vibe. It’s a great middle ground between standing and sitting and can be particularly effective for more informal or creative headshots.
  4. Head and Shoulder Angles: Vary the angles of the head and shoulders to add interest and explore the most flattering angles for the subject. Slight tilts or turns of the head can change the whole feel of a headshot.
  5. Facial Expressions: Encourage a range of expressions. A smile is classic for headshots, but thoughtful, serious, or playful expressions can also be effective, depending on the intended use of the headshot.
  6. Use Props: If appropriate, using props like glasses, a pen, or a book can add an element of interest and help the subject feel more at ease.
  7. Hand Placement: Hands can be tricky to pose naturally. Simple gestures like lightly touching the face or chin can look good, but always ensure hands don’t distract from the face.
  8. Engage with the Camera: Whether standing, sitting, or leaning, direct the subject to engage with the camera. Eye contact can be powerful in a headshot, but looking off-camera can also create an intriguing look.
  9. Guidance and Comfort: Continuously guide your subject into poses and always check in to make sure they’re comfortable. An uncomfortable pose can look awkward and unnatural.

Remember, the best headshot poses look natural and relaxed while complementing the subject’s personality and the intended use of the photo.

It’s often beneficial to start with more traditional poses and then experiment as the session progresses.

Tip 11: Play with Different Compositions

Avoid boring dead-center shots. Use the rule of thirds, leading lines, framing, negative space, and other artful compositions.

Shoot from below, above, or the side for more dynamic images. Include interesting props or locations. Creative compositions result in eye-catching, professional headshots.

Tip 12: Take Time to Tweak Your Settings and Angles

Be willing to take your time rather than snapping just a few quick shots. Adjust settings like aperture or move positions slightly until you nail focus, lighting, and composition.

Reflect on ways to improve the image such as adjusting exposure or flash power. Meticulous refinements produce excellent results.

Tip 13: Carefully Check Focus on the Eyes

Nothing ruins a headshot more than blurry eyes! Focus precisely on the eye closest to you. Use a fast enough shutter speed for your lens length.

In headshot photography, ensuring sharp focus on the eyes is crucial because they are often the focal point and the most expressive element in the portrait. Here’s how to achieve this:

  1. Use Single-Point Autofocus: Most cameras have a single-point autofocus setting, allowing you to choose exactly where the camera focuses. Position this point over one of the subject’s eyes.
  2. Focus on the Eye Closest to the Camera: If the subject’s face is angled, focus on the eye that is closest to the camera. This maintains the natural depth and engagement in the image.
  3. Aperture Considerations: If using a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field, be extra careful with focusing as the margin for error is small. Even a slight miss can result in soft or out-of-focus eyes.
  4. Manual Focus for Precision: In challenging lighting or if you’re struggling with autofocus, switch to manual focus for greater control. This can be especially useful in low light or when shooting through obstacles (like foliage).
  5. Zoom In to Check: After taking a shot, use your camera’s display to zoom in on the eyes and check the sharpness. This immediate feedback can help you make any necessary adjustments on the spot.
  6. Continuous Autofocus for Moving Subjects: If your subject is moving, use continuous autofocus mode (AI Servo AF on Canon, AF-C on Nikon) to keep the eyes in sharp focus.
  7. Use Eye-AF if Available: Some modern cameras come with eye-tracking autofocus, which can be incredibly accurate for portraits. This feature automatically focuses on the eyes, making it much easier to get a sharp shot.
  8. Stable Shooting Technique: Ensure your hands are steady, use a tripod if necessary, and employ a shutter speed fast enough to prevent motion blur, thus maintaining focus.
  9. Proper Lighting: Good lighting is not just about exposure; it also helps your camera’s autofocus system to work more effectively, especially on the eyes.

By ensuring that the eyes are sharply in focus, your headshots will have a stronger impact, conveying the subject’s personality and emotion more effectively.

Zoom in on the camera display to verify sharp focus. Nailing eye focus is crucial for striking headshots.

Tip 14: Find Your Client’s Best Angle

Most people have one side of their face that photographs better. Ask if they have a preferred angle where they feel most confident. Take some test shots from different perspectives to determine their best side.

Discovering your client’s best angle is key to creating flattering headshots. Everyone’s face is unique, and certain angles can highlight their best features while minimizing others. Here’s how to find that perfect angle:

  1. Experiment with Head Tilt and Turn: Start by having your client face the camera directly, then experiment with tilting and turning their head slightly. Small adjustments can make a big difference in how features are emphasized.
  2. Profile and Three-Quarter Views: Try shooting from a profile or three-quarter view. Some people look best when their face is slightly turned away from the camera, which can also add depth to the image.
  3. Consider Facial Features: Pay attention to the client’s facial structure. For example, a higher camera angle can be flattering for someone with a stronger jawline, while a lower angle can help elongate the face.
  4. Watch the Chin and Jawline: Instruct your client to extend their chin slightly and lower it to avoid a double chin effect. This also helps define the jawline.
  5. Eye Direction: Directing the eyes towards the camera or slightly off to the side can change the mood of the headshot. Observe how the eye position interacts with the face angle for the best results.
  6. Client Feedback: Some clients may already know their preferred side or angle from past experiences. Asking for their input can be valuable.
  7. Use a Mirror: If possible, use a mirror during the shoot. This allows the client to see what you see and can help them understand why you’re asking for certain adjustments.
  8. Take Several Shots: Don’t settle on the first angle you try. Take multiple shots from different angles to provide options. What looks best through the lens might be different from what we perceive with the naked eye.
  9. Review Images During the Session: If possible, review the images with your client during the session. This can help in understanding their preferences and making real-time adjustments.
  10. Be Encouraging and Positive: Always maintain a positive attitude. Confidence can greatly influence how your client presents themselves, and finding their best angle is also about making them feel comfortable and confident.

Remember, the goal is to not only find the angle that is most visually appealing but also one that captures the essence of the client’s personality, making the headshot both flattering and authentic.

Tip 15: Create Eye-Catching Catchlights

Catchlights are specular reflections in the eyes that make them “pop”. Position your key light, reflector, or flash to create bright catchlights. Have the client look towards the light source. Catchlights add life and draw viewers to the eyes. Don’t forget these impactful details!

Tip 16: Set Your Pricing and Packages Strategically

Determine fair pricing based on your time, skill level, and local market rates. Offer tiered packages with increasing value at higher price points. For example, a basic $350 package, $525 mid-tier, and $1250 premium collection, you get the idea.

Or charge per-image. Avoid undervaluing yourself. Set profitable rates that clients will happily invest in.

Tip 17: Practice Headshot Techniques Regularly

Like any skill, headshot photography requires regular practice to master. Shoot friends and family for free to gain experience. Experiment with new equipment, poses, lighting, locations, and camera settings.

Tip 15: Practice Headshot Techniques Regularly

Regular practice is essential for mastering headshot photography. Consistent practice helps you refine your techniques, understand lighting better, and become more intuitive in working with different subjects. Here are some ways to practice regularly:

  1. Self-Portraits: One of the best ways to practice is by taking self-portraits. This allows you to experiment with different lighting setups, lenses, and camera settings without the pressure of a client.
  2. Work with Friends and Family: Offer to take headshots for friends and family. They are likely to be more patient and forgiving subjects as you experiment with different styles and techniques.
  3. Participate in Photography Groups: Join local or online photography groups where you can participate in headshot challenges, share your work, and receive constructive feedback.
  4. Study Professional Work: Analyze headshots by professional photographers. Note the lighting, posing, and composition they use. Try to replicate the styles you admire to understand the techniques involved.
  5. Experiment with Lighting: Experiment with different lighting setups. Practice with natural light, continuous lights, and flash to understand how each can be used to create flattering headshots.
  6. Attend Workshops or Classes: Workshops or classes can provide hands-on experience and professional guidance. They are also great opportunities to ask questions and learn from experienced photographers.
  7. Set Personal Projects: Challenge yourself with personal projects. For example, you could aim to capture headshots that convey different emotions or use only a particular type of lighting.
  8. Review and Critique Your Work: Regularly review your photos and critique them. Look for areas of improvement, like focus, lighting, or composition, and consider how you could do better next time.
  9. Stay Updated with Trends: Keep up with current trends and techniques in headshot photography. The industry is always evolving, and staying updated can inspire new ideas and approaches.
  10. Feedback from Clients: When you do work with clients, ask for their feedback. Client perspectives can provide valuable insights into how comfortable they felt, the effectiveness of your communication, and the overall experience.

Use practice sessions to get comfortable with headshot techniques. Over time, it will become second nature.

Conclusion:

With techniques like perfect lighting, authentic expressions, strategic posing, ideal camera settings, and creative compositions, you’ll be able to consistently deliver headshots your clients adore. Focus on developing rapport, highlighting their best features, and bringing out their unique personality. With these 17 tips, headshot photography mastery is within your reach.

I hope you found these tips helpful for improving your headshot photography skills! Feel free to share this article if you know any aspiring headshot photographers who would benefit from it.