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10 Tips for Photographing Great Headshots

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Photographing a headshot can seem like a daunting prospect. To have one person in front of your camera, looking to you for direction and positivity, is an intense environment. People are generally very critical of themselves in photographs, and feel very nervous. However, there are some simple things that you can do to make it a lot easier for everyone.

Headshot on Black Background 1

Here are 10 tips to help you photograph headshots:

1. Have a pre-session consultation

Before your session make sure you know how the images will be used and what style they would like. This can be on the phone or face to face. Talking to them, will help them relax so much more than email. This will allow you to help them prepare for the session. Make sure they know what to expect, and are as relaxed as possible.

Headshot on White Background 1

Find out about what profession your subject is involved in; a corporate lawyer may well opt for a clean white background look (above), while a more relaxed style of business (yoga instructor) may prefer a more colourful, environmental image (below). Find out in the consultation what they want so you are prepared on the day.

Indoor Headshot

2. Help them to choose the right clothes

Generally speaking, solid, neutral colours, work best for headshots, as you want to avoid anything that distracts away from people’s faces. If it is a formal style you are looking to achieve, make sure that everyone gets the message, and remembers to bring formal work clothes with them. Men often forget their jackets, so for a consistent look, try and have a spare one on hand, even if you need to clip it at the back. If you have time with a person, get them to bring a few items of clothing. Remind them to iron their clothes as well.

Here are some example of good clothing choices:

What to wear

What to wear 2

What to wear 3

3. Create separation from the background

Make sure that your subject doesn’t stand too close to the background. If you are using a studio background (or wall in an office) and you stand someone close to it, you may see shadows on the wall, which makes the images look less professional. For environmental headshots outdoors, I still recommend separation from the background. The bokeh creates a nice nondescript background, especially when shot at a wide aperture. Typically I aim for an aperture of f/4 for environmental and natural light sessions, and f/8 for studio style sessions with lights.

4. Starting the session

Whether you are photographing headshots for a single person, or a whole team, make sure you have a general chat with each person first, to help them relax. This can be just a 10 second, confident handshake, and a “how are you?”. People generally feel very tense about having their photograph taken, and talking about something in their comfort zone (where they live, if they have children or pets, etc) will really help them appear and be more comfortable.

5. Silly Faces!

A great way of helping people to relax in front of the camera, if you don’t have much time with them, is to ask them to pull a funny face for the first frame. Use this as a lighting test for a new person as well. This is great at breaking the ice, and very few refuse to do it. Once they have pulled a daft face, everything else is easy!

Funny faces

Headshot Photography London 0997

6. Lighting and positioning

For business and actors’ headshots, I tend to light quite evenly. There are a few circumstances when the images are low-key, but for the main part, they are evenly lit. A classic beauty lighting setup works well, with one light above, and a second light, or a reflector filling from below.

I ensure the subject is turned with their body 45 degrees away from the camera, and towards the main light source (if your lighting allows for this). Their face should be straight towards the camera. You may need to guide people to look straight down the lens. It’s surprising how many people look off camera, at the flash, or somewhere random.

Headshot setup

Posing example

7. Sit people down

People may be more comfortable sitting down, and by asking them to rest their hands on the tops of their thighs, it gives them something to do with their hands. It also ensures that the subjects all know where they need to be, and they don’t move around too much.

8. It’s all about the little adjustments

What separates a great headshot from an average one, are generally very small changes. These little adjustments can make all the difference. The slight tilt to the head, leaning forward, a gentle but intriguing smile. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to make very specific changes to their expression and position, until you get the image you’re looking for.

Headshot Photography London 1052

9. Keep talking and be positive

When you’re in the midst of taking photographs, make sure that you keep talking to your subject. Reassure them that they’re doing it right, and you’re getting great images. Even if you’re not satisfied with the images when someone turns their head in a certain direction, or how the light is falling on them, never express that to your subject. Silence will kill the atmosphere, so no matter what is happening, just keep chatting and being positive.

10. Shoot tethered

If you have all the necessary equipment, shooting tethered is a fantastic way the get great headshots. When people see a couple of shots on the screen, they can very quickly get an idea of what needs to be changed. The immediate feedback on the screen will help everyone massively.

I hope you find these tips for better head shots helpful. Do you have any others we missed? Please share them, and your headshot photos in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Sean Gannon owns Headshots UK, which specialises in corporate headshot photography across the UK. He works with large corporate clients, photographs hundreds of colleagues, and works with professional individuals, to create headshots for use in print, as well as their own websites, and of course social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter. With national coverage, Headshots UK have a network of photographers to capture business portraits wherever their clients are based.

  • Colette Carbonell

    Really helpful, thanks. I only wish I had read this a week ago! I was asked to do a headshot for a conference ‘facebook’ for a friend and found it surprisingly hard. The tip on sitting down was helpful, as were the background tips.

  • Maggie

    Wow! Super Post…Amazing Tips…
    Big Thanks from: MLPhotoandDesign

  • Richard Torble

    I’m surprised there isn’t any emphasis on coaching the right expression, as this is the most important element of a headshot. I also would strongly disagree with sitting people down, it’s awful for their posture and makes them look heavier than they are.

  • lulubella

    During the “warm up” I’ve asked people to give me their best superhero pose while standing. It makes them giggle and relax, and also makes them stand a bit straighter and feel confident, which translates to the session.

  • Leena Gilson

    All i did was simple online work from comfort at home for 3-4 hours/day

  • Art M.

    Overall a great article. Sitting is controversial for headshots, since while it is more comfortable, the posture may not be as flattering. Generating a natural expression is essential part of the process also.

  • Michael_in_TO

    Thank you Sean for taking the time to make this post. Despite the comments about sitting, people have to remember we’re talking about a head shot….not an environmental portrait. Hard to judge posture from the shoulders down… (and the photographer can (ahem) move a bit and even tip the camera!)

    Three lights I recommend. Main light up and to the right or left….a fill very near the camera (not exactly opposite the main light which often ends up in “copy table” flatness), and a hair light…up pretty high and down pointing at usually about 180° from the main. This really helps separate the subject from the background. I always shoot big soft boxes or if I’m portable, shoot-through umbrellas.

    85mm and up (based on a full frame)…the heavier your subject, the longer your lens. Around f/8 will get enough depth of field usually. shallower if you need to blur a background that’s too close to the subject. Focus on the near eye. The rest is rapport and what you see in the frame.

    https://500px.com/hopeshots/galleries/corporate_portraits

  • Michael_in_TO

    hard to judge posture from the shoulders up….he corrected!

  • Geoff

    Some very useful tips Sean. Many thanks.
    One subject I’d like to raise is the different approach required for less ‘conventional’ projects. The images shown here are great headshots of lawyers and yoga instructors and they’d be ideal for corporate brochures and commercial websites. But an editorial project about, for instance, an urban initiative would probably require an entirely different approach to what are effectively glamour shots. Possibly something less cosmetic, less ‘normal’, would be preferable.

  • I thought this was a great article as well. It would have saved me some time had this article been written when I was starting out! As for sitting, in my experience, it helps to relax the subject’s posture and makes for a better headshot. In the end product, nobody can tell that they were sitting, and everything looks more natural.

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