Do you struggle to capture beautiful headshot photos? Are you looking to take your headshot photography to the next level?
You’ve come to the right place.
As an experienced headshot photographer, I’ve been exactly where you are. But after a lot of practice (and a fair bit of trial and error), I’ve figured out how to get headshots like this:
And in this article, I aim to show you how. I’ll give you plenty of tips, plenty of professional examples, and by the time you’re done, you’ll know how to shoot headshots like a pro.
Let’s get started.
1. Have a pre-session consultation
There are many different headshot styles – and different models/clients/subjects will need specific stylistic results, depending on the headshot purpose. For instance, an artistic, color-graded style might work great for a fashion model, but won’t be appreciated by a corporate client.
So before your session, have a sit-down with your subject. Make sure you know exactly how your headshot photography will be used. You might even ask, point-blank: “What kind of style would you like?” And be prepared to show plenty of examples that convey potential stylistic options.
This consultation can take place on the phone or face-to-face. I don’t recommend communicating in writing, though; talking to your subject will help them relax much more than an email, and you can use the consultation to help them prepare for the session, too (by explaining what to expect and by answering their questions).
Pro tip: If the headshots will be used for corporate materials, use the consultation to find out your subject’s profession. A corporate lawyer may opt for a clean white background look (above), while a more relaxed professional (e.g., a yoga instructor) may prefer a colorful, environmental image (below).
2. Help your subject choose the right clothes
Generally speaking, solid, neutral colors work best for headshots, as you want to avoid anything that distracts from people’s faces.
If you’re looking to achieve a formal style, make sure everyone remembers to bring their best work clothes. Men often forget their jackets, so for a consistent look, try to have a spare one on hand, even if you need to clip it at the back. And if possible, send out a reminder the day before your scheduled photo shoot. (Oh, and include an ironing reminder, too – there’s nothing more frustrating than a photo ruined by wrinkled clothes!)
Also, if you’ll have lots of time with a person, get them to bring a few items of clothing. You can do changes throughout the session and provide them with a variety of final images.
Here are some examples of good clothing choices:
3. Create separation from the background
Great headshot photography includes separation between the subject and the background. There should be a clear foreground subject (the head!) and a clear (ideally blurred) background.
The easiest way to achieve this effect is by positioning your subject a handful of feet in front of any background elements, be it trees, grass, a stairwell, a building, or a desk. For indoor portraits, don’t let your subject lean against the wall; instead, bring them out so the wall can blur.
Also, if you are using a studio background (or the wall in an office) and you let your subject get too close, you may see shadows on the wall, which makes the images look less professional. Bottom line: get your subject away from the background, no matter how interesting or nondescript it seems.
You can also enhance the subject-background separation by widening your aperture, which will decrease depth of field to create nice background bokeh. Typically, I aim for an aperture of f/4 for environmental and natural light sessions; the aperture is wide enough for background blur, but narrow enough to keep the subject’s head sharp.
(Note: If you’re doing a studio session, with lights and prepared backgrounds, you’ll have more leeway. For such portraits, I often just use an aperture of f/8.)
4. Give your subjects time to relax
Whether you are photographing headshots for a single person or a whole team, make sure you have a general chat with each person before firing the camera. In my experience, this is the best way to help your subject relax – and relaxation leads to the best images.
Your chat can be pretty quick, too. It can be a 10-second, confident handshake and a “How are you?” Though if you have time, I’d recommend going a little deeper; people generally feel very nervous about having their photograph taken, and talking about something within their comfort zone (where they live, if they have children or pets, etc.) will really help them become more comfortable.
5. Ask for silly faces
Here’s one of my favorite tips for taking headshots, and while it’s a little unorthodox, it gets the job done:
Once your subject sits down and you’re ready to take a test shot or two, ask them to pull a funny face. You can shoot it as a first frame. It’s a great way to break the ice, and very few people will refuse to do it.
Once your subject has pulled a silly face, everything else is easy! It’s what I used for this headshot photo:
Which then led to this professional result:
Of course, don’t go overboard, and if your subject feels uncomfortable with the idea, don’t push it. The idea is to make them more comfortable, not less!
6. Light like a pro
Lighting is an essential part of professional headshot photography, and you one-hundred percent cannot skimp on your lighting techniques. Lighting should be controlled and carefully positioned. Fortunately, once you know the basics, getting a good, consistent look is actually quite easy.
For business and actors’ headshots, I tend to light quite evenly. There are a few circumstances where the images are low key (i.e., moody with a black background), but for the most part, I like to go for a balanced, detailed effect. A classic beauty lighting setup works well, with one light above and a second light, or a reflector, supplying fill light from below. Though try positioning your key light slightly off center to add a bit of definition to your subject’s features.
Ensure the subject’s body is turned 45 degrees away from the camera, while their face remains pointed straight toward the camera. You may need to guide people to look straight down the lens. You’d be surprised to learn how many people look off-camera, at the flash, or somewhere random – and this won’t turn out so great!
As you can see from the behind-the-scenes shot below, I’ve asked my subject to turn her body 45 degrees from the camera. (She’s still looking straight into the lens, though!) I’ve added a large light in front (slightly to the left), and I’m using a reflector below her face to reduce harsh shadows. I’ve also included a small softbox behind my subject to separate her hair from the background.
And here’s a headshot example that I captured using a similar setup:
7. Sit people down
People often feel more comfortable sitting down, and at the end of the day, comfort is king.
Ask your subject 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 know where they need to be, and that they don’t move around too much.
And honestly, it’s pretty tough to tell whether a headshot is shot standing up or sitting down, so don’t stress too much about how either option looks.
8. Pay attention to the little things
What separates a great headshot from an average one are generally very small changes – little adjustments that can make all the difference.
So once you’ve got your lighting set up and your subject relaxed and ready to go, don’t rush. Instead, take the time to make changes: The slight tilt to the head, a subtle lean 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. And once you do have the perfect shot, feel free to experiment a little with poses and even (if you’re not working with a series of clients) lighting. Who knows when you’ll come up with the next great look!
Below is a professional headshot example. Can you spot the little things that make it great?
9. Keep talking and be positive
When you’re taking photographs, talk to your subject. Reassure them that they’re doing it right and that you’re getting great images. It’s hard to do, yes – but it’s worth it, because your subject will remain comfortable and you’ll stay on track to get professional headshot results.
In fact, even if you’re not satisfied with the images you’re getting, continue to praise your subject. When your subject turns their head in a certain direction or when the light falls in a bad way, never express those feelings. Instead, tell them they’ve done a great job – then subtly prompt them to make adjustments to their pose.
Bottom line: Silence will kill the atmosphere, so no matter what is happening, just keep chatting. Stay positive!
10. Shoot tethered
This isn’t an essential headshot photography tip, but if you have all the necessary equipment, I highly recommend you shoot tethered. (And if you don’t have all the equipment, consider making the investment, because tethered shooting can be a game changer.)
For one, when your subject can see a couple of shots on the screen, they’ll quickly get an idea of what needs to be changed. And tethered shooting is great for you, the photographer; you can see whether your lighting looks good, whether your subject is in focus, whether they’re nicely posed, etc., much more easily than on your camera’s LCD preview.
Headshot photography tips: final words
I hope you find these tips for better headshot photos helpful. Commit them to memory, make my suggested changes, and pretty soon, you’ll be capturing pro-level images!
Now over to you:
Do you have any other tips we missed? Please share them – and your favorite headshot photos – in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 10 Tips for Photographing Great Headshots
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES