How to Take Perfect Headshots: Six Tips

How to Take Perfect Headshots: Six Tips

What are Headshots?

Wikipedia defines a headshot as: “A headshot is a photographic technique where the focus of the photograph is a person’s face”.


It would seem to be a simple project for a photographer. After all, you are only worrying about a persons face, and just maybe part of their shoulders. Seriously, how hard can it be?

Headshots: more than you think

Headshots are a critical piece of many professionals PR packets. A dynamic headshot for models, actors, and other performance professionals will be the difference between acquiring the gig or not. Your clients can be no more excited than if they get a gig based on the power of their headshot – and of course, this means more jobs for you.

Follow these few tips to achieve the perfect headshot.

1. Focus on the eyes.

The eyes are said to be the window of the soul. Therefore, nothing is more important than achieving sharp, crisp eyes in your shot. Capturing the eyes in a powerful way will draw the viewer into the photo, establishing a strong connection that will speak volumes.

2. Watch your angles.

Remember that for close up shots, angles will affect the outcome look and feel. For women, make the eyes appear larger and the face more delicate by shooting down on them. For men, emphasize strength and achievement by shooting slightly up.

3. Use diffused light.

In close up shots, the skin is a central feature. It’s crucial to show the skin without blemishes. Achieve this by using diffused light to gently wrap around the skin, bringing definition along the lines of the face without highlighting blemishes.

4. Add a hair light

Detail is critical in head-shots and are no more dynamic than when created with a hair-light. A hair-light can be placed above or behind the subject [with a flash or the sun] to add depth to the shot, and pull the top of the head out of the background.

5. Use of Lens

Nothing is more disturbing than a near-dynamic headshot that fails simply because of lens distortion. Generally, avoid mid to wide angle lenses for close headshots. Instead, use a lens that will compress your image and slim your subjects face – typically 90mm and above.

6. Guide expression

The final most important element is an expression to match the purpose of the headshot. It’s your job as photographer to pull out the most natural looks from your subjects. Do so by guiding them through complimenting conversation; i.e. asking serious questions to pull out a thoughtful gaze, or cracking a joke to capture a natural smile.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography and leadership with

Some Older Comments

  • Erika May 12, 2013 05:21 am

    #2 is probably the most sexist thing I will read all day, and the worst part is I know it wasn't intended to be -__-

  • M. McPhaden May 12, 2013 12:03 am

    "For women, make the eyes appear larger and the face more delicate by shooting down on them. For men, emphasize strength and achievement by shooting slightly up."

    Really? Really? Why not come prepared and add an apron, or a selection of bikinis to our camera bags?

  • Jackie February 22, 2013 09:31 am

    "Headshots," you hit the nail on the proverbial head! Good for you

  • Jackie February 22, 2013 09:30 am

    "Headshots," you hot the nail on the head! Good for you

  • headshots February 21, 2013 06:34 pm

    Background is as important as every element in a headshot even if not noticed.
    Wardrobe, hair style, expression, lighting, light angle setup, shadow, depth of field, and the background all work together as a stage for what is being sold in a headshot. For example charcoal gray seamless paper will give a different feel in market compared to sky blue or flowers and green leaves compared to concrete. The background should compliment and draw attention to the person.

  • Ann-Marie December 9, 2012 04:29 am

    I'm going to try this today. I think I tend to do head shots when I take portraits so this must be easy. Thanks for the tutorial again. I love this website. You have just about everything I ever need on here. Thanks.

  • Kay September 17, 2012 01:50 pm

    I notice one of the suggestions is to focus on the eyes, what happens if the person has a prosthetic eye? How would that work? Has anyone ever had to do head shots with a person who had a prosthetic eye?

  • Harald Schoen August 21, 2012 10:00 pm

    I also work as a photographer and I have learned something. Perfect Headshots photography is based on good styling of the photo model and suitable make-up. When the photo model looks like a movie star, she feels like a film star and Perfect Headshots will be much better.

  • Diamond Agency August 1, 2012 12:15 am

    Great tips! While there may be not be a way to take a perfect headshot, these tips will definitely help.

  • Ameya April 18, 2012 11:12 pm

    Do you guys know that this e-How present has a video just reading off this blog post really, really poorly?

  • Carlos Taylhardat February 22, 2012 06:42 pm

    I like all the techniques you are teaching, it is my experience that you are missing the most fundamental piece for getting a great Headshot... How to communicate with people so you can capture a glimpse of their soul?

    PS. Would live the opportunity to write an article about this topic

  • Carlos Taylhardat February 22, 2012 06:39 pm

    I like all the techniques you are teaching, it is my experience that you are missing the most fundamental piece for getting a great Headshot... How to communicate with people so you can capture a glimpse of their soul

  • Mitchel February 18, 2012 12:32 pm

    I think the original post is somewhat right for some settings, but breaking rules is, well awesome.

  • janet picotte February 4, 2012 10:22 am

    Help me please. I did weddings using film for 18 yrs. Quitting just as digital cameras entered the business at only 3.5 megapixels. After 10 yrs I will do a head shot shoot for a model. I have a NIKON D80 and my medium format film cameras. What is best to use? ASAP please.

  • Genesis January 30, 2012 08:18 am

    I was reading a lot of the comments above (no all them though ) I agree on the 70-200 f2.8 but also my favorite portrait/headshot lens is the 85mm f1.8 and f1.2, Besides the photo example the tips are very helpful.

  • Al G. January 22, 2012 05:46 am

    So I am doing a headshot session for a friend. Great tips, and reminders. It is very important to have that low/high angle for your subject to project the intended look. Thanks! Al G.

  • Lisa January 14, 2012 03:36 am

    That pic at the top might be a good portrait but E. Gadz, it's NOT a headshot. This would go right into the trash if submitted to a casting director or agent.

  • Vancouver Headshot Photographer October 27, 2011 08:02 am

    Thank you for posting this! simple and clear-cut approach. i typically use an 85 mm lens for my headshots, longer if i can get away with it.

  • Actor Headshots June 14, 2011 11:47 pm

    I like the techniques you have and actually, I've been in to photography for so many years I'm still having some difficulties on finding the right angles for my models to have a good shot.

  • Cheap Headshots May 10, 2011 06:07 am

    I actually have to disagree with your comment on lenses. I initially started shooting with a 50mm on a 1.5x crop sensor, which was fairly wide and did cause a bit of distortion. So I bought a 80-200mm 2.8 lens, which was amazing. But after about a year, I've since moved back to the 50mm. I feel using the distortion in a creative way can give much more dynamic and engaging shots. You should try it! It's really fun to shoot Headshots with a wide angle.

  • sam-j. April 8, 2011 09:44 am


    Theres a reason 85mm are the standard headshot lenses.

    Why do you think they use 85mm for close-ups in films?


  • sam-j. April 8, 2011 09:42 am

    Ed V;
    I completely agree with you about not "softening" or blurring any images in post.

    If any one of you has worked professionally shooting "head-shots" you would never do this, unless it REALLY called for it, and I mean.. you better have a good reason.

    Casting Directors don't care about how pretty this person looks, what they want is a REAL face. Nothing more, nothing less.

    If they are looking for nothing more then beauty, then obviously the person will stand out, whether or not they have blemishes.

    Now, Ed V.

    I completely disagree with you about this picture, its completely unprofessional, even if it did have potential, the casting director would advice the actor to round up half a grand or more and get some real shots.


  • Nikisha March 24, 2011 01:09 pm

    I am a freelance photographer, but also an actress, so I know what to look for when shooting headshots. If the headshot is for acting and not a personal comission, accessories are a bog no-no as an actor is meant to be a blank canvas until given their character part. Smallish accessories such as a necklace/chain the actor wears all the time, possibly even a piercing or earrings are acceptable because the actor will turn up to an audition with these things on. So this definately breaks the rule of an acting headshot. For lense, i use my 18-55mm and I have taken headshots that have helped people get work and into drama school. I think lense and light setup is usually the photographers own preference to what they feel comfortable with. However, the stuff about the eyes is true. Eyes can show a persons personality, and make others feel all sorts of emotions. This is a factor what a casting director would be looking for. Also, a smile and a serious face are required as this helps with the casting of age range. Many older actors can play younger characters, and this is genuinely down to good lighting and no OTT posing. I would say maybe give the client a 5-15 minute trial so you have the lighting, backdrop, and lens suited to them. hoe this has helped :)

  • Actors Headshots Los Angeles March 3, 2011 03:43 pm

    Lately casting in LA wants to see more body in headshots. Casting does not like to guess or waist time.
    Shoulder to top of head does not tell them how you look in a jump suit.
    See my site for examples
    happy snaping

  • Actors Headshots Photography February 24, 2011 07:51 am

    Thank you for the post. When we have started promoting our service online we could not find almost any description of what headshot is and therefore had to write it from scratch in Wikipedia and in varios posts and articles ( Thank you for sharing!

  • todd duncan January 29, 2011 06:01 pm

    try shooting a bit lower, Jackie. Casting directors want to see a more realistic representation of an actor's face and angles when they walk into an audition.

  • jackie January 13, 2011 04:04 pm

    hear hear, tennon!
    here is an example of what a real headshot should look like for actors:

  • Tennon January 12, 2011 05:36 pm

    hey how bout some insight from someone other than a photographer? clean head shots with no jewelry or armpits are what we look for in the theater industry. the eyes are the key. We look for a hint of the personality behind the picture. The headshot above would get snickered at and shown around the office, and may even make it onto the company manager's cork board, but would never get a call for an audition.

  • Mike Deakin January 6, 2011 01:06 pm

    I agree with much of what you say (except possibly the angles and I'm not convinced that you always want a hair light) but I think the photo you've used to illustrate it is a portrait (though I do quite like it), rather than a headshot. Headshots are always 10x8 so the different framing would change the feel of that shot dramatically.

  • Travis August 20, 2010 01:41 am

    I don't do anything listed above and my headshots come out great!

  • Brad L. August 19, 2010 11:42 am

    I'd assert that lighting and the interaction between the actor and the photographer are the two most important things.

    The use of a 90mm is misleading as the angle of view would be different between crop and full sensor. Furthermore, great headshot can, and often are shot with wider focal lengths than that. What's more important than focal length would be the ability of the lens to open wide enough to blur the background nicely.

  • Travis June 21, 2010 10:45 am

    I shoot with a 50mm and the headshots I take are great!

  • Donald Norris April 10, 2010 09:15 am

    Headshots for actors and corporate are both similar in one thing.. They tell the story of what our subject wants their perspective clients to know about them. (Its their marketing material) Shoot it like a headshot, but treat it like a commercial shoot in outfit selection, location, and "vibe" your going for. to reach the target demographic appropriately.

  • Traian March 17, 2010 07:58 pm

    Samsung has a very good video tutorial:

  • Robert Burkholder March 15, 2010 06:19 am

    I have just subscribed to this site and this is the first article I read. I attended and completed a 2 year photography school located in Studio City California and had a photography business in the late 70's early 80's. I sold my business and equipment and ventured into other arena's. I am back into photography as a hobby and purchased my first digital SLR hoping this site will help me get back into the processes of photography. The one thing I can tell from these postings is the process may have changed but the people behind the processes haven't. "My ideas are better, My pictures are better." Artist egos are very temprimental. The article itself, in my opinion, is good, it covers the basics , a starting point. I think a 7th point could be added and that would be, Items 1-6 may be changed or not adhered to at all based on client desires, desired outcome and photographers ideas and experience. The example itself breaks some of the rules but in my opinion works, the hot cheeks highlite the dark eyes the forearm and circles in the hat framing and bringing attention to the face, the angle of the shot along with the accessories exudes confidence. These thoughts offored from a newbie and yet not.

  • D.E.S.H. March 15, 2010 02:54 am

    The first thing that I think needs to be stated (or reiterated if it already has) is that the author is an artist and, as such, has a certain style that appeals to her. Not quite as unique as a fingerpring, an artists style does identify them but it is also a very subjective beast. I looked at the subject photo about fifteen times total and the funny thing is, I only disliked it when I was supposed to...that is to say, when the criticisms of how awful a shot it is entered my mind.

    I think noteinstein said it best with the post: 'But then wouldn’t it be boring if we all liked the same things but if the client approved – it’s a great photo.' We need to bear in mind that there are as many exceptions as there are rules and to my initial point about the author being an artist. That's about as exclusive a list as The White Pages. I think the purpose of this particular forum is to get enough of us comfortable enough to share our thoughts and opinions about our shots with the goal being better photography.

    And for the record I don't think it's a great headshot...but I like it!!!

  • Nick March 14, 2010 07:57 pm

    As several people here have said " there are different types of headshots" I specialise in actors headshots where an actors personality has to shine through and nothing else - the distraction of big earrings, hats and busy tops distract from he real focus of the headshot the face and the eyes.
    This shot above is very reminiscent of 1980's style headshot - nice in it's day but very dated and more of a fashion/beauty shot where there is a different reason for the headshot - usually to sell something.
    As a newbie some of these shots can appear inspiring and indeed they are but you should be working on your connection with the subject and getting them to express themselves first as without this in the shot no matter of fancy lighting, cropping or styling will make it a great headshot

  • Diana Mikaels March 14, 2010 12:02 pm

    I am a newbie, interested in headshots and / or portraits right now... and I AM INDEED a little confused after reading all the comments, haha...
    But one thing I can say: I do like that headshot. I like her expression, intriguing eyes... and the hat, the earrings (actually the litle earring might be somewhat disturbing...)
    I think a woman's accesories for the head show a lot of her personality.
    It's my opinion...

  • anonymous March 13, 2010 05:22 am

    I'm a little bit surprised by the title of this article, 'How to Take the Perfect Headshot' for the following reasons:

    1) There is no 'perfect' head shot. This in and of itself is important and is the source of the following points as well...
    2) A diffused light will not necessarily bring out the intent of the headshot.
    3) A hair light is typically not a diffused light and should not always be used.
    4) Although watching the angles is important, your 'rules' do not always hold. Again - what is the intent of the photo?
    5) There is no "perfect" lens for portraits!

    Although this article is interesting overall, I think that in future articles careful thought should be put into the way the tips are provided. I would recommend publishing ways of taking the headshots to portray what the photographer desires, and not "this is what you desire; this is how all headshots should be taken so that they will be perfect."

  • Nick March 13, 2010 04:02 am

    Some of your tips are really useful but others are slightly misleading especially for beginners. You're showing an 1980's style headshot that I would venture you wouldn't see a professional shoot these days - as styles move on. I'm a headshot photographer in London and shoot mainly actors, but also shoot musicians, models, dancers and entertainers. The problem is they all need to be shot in a slightly different way to cater for each individual market but for me the most important part is the connection and understanding between the subject and the photographer.

  • Darren March 13, 2010 03:53 am

    Please please please stop posting bad information and bad pictures.

  • enrolled agent exam March 13, 2010 12:21 am

    I think a great headshot starts at the spa, waxing and tweezing and great makeup seem like they are just as important as the quality of the shot.

  • james jordan March 13, 2010 12:19 am

    Gotta love an article that starts off by quoting Wikipedia.

  • Jesper Revald March 12, 2010 08:08 pm

    Fine article for getting started. I do however agree on the whole 85-90mm thing instead of just shooting it at 50mm. From a distance the 50mm wouldn't provide much distortion, but then you would have to crop in post to get a head shot. It's much better to choose longer lens and get it right the first time.

    With regards to skin smoothing, I remember shooting a model once which facial skin was so smooth that even though I only used a very small amount of blur in the smoothing process, it made her skin look almost porcelain like anyway.

  • Jim News March 12, 2010 02:46 pm

    Great article. It gives a solid base to grow from. If you understand the rules first, then you will best know how to break them. I shoot portraits with every lens, from 50mm, 24-70 and even 200.

  • Jason Collin Photography March 12, 2010 01:30 pm

    Like most others here, I like the tips, but do not like the example. I had not thought much about the distortion of using a wide angle lens before. This is an example of a quick-ish, on location headshot I did for a business woman recently:

    I used only a single SB-600 Speedlight. Lens was Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 on a Nikon D300

    I chose to break some rules by photographing her in front of a window to add an "openness" to the headshot, and not the usual stuffiness of business headshots.

  • johnp March 12, 2010 11:07 am

    Great advice thanks very much. I will pay attention to those points in future.

  • nicolopicolo March 12, 2010 08:58 am

    wow, so interesting...the subject was Headshot not full portrait.... looks like everybody has something to say about full size portrait.
    I think would be more interesting to stay on the subject, than dancing around and pretending to be here...
    For this particular application, -Headshot- I found to get good results with the macro 100 mm, f2.8 Canon.
    If you know how to manipulate the light (not like on the presented sample) the results are excellent.

  • hfng March 12, 2010 07:49 am

    Is that Paula Abdul?

  • the_napkin March 12, 2010 07:44 am

    I think it's pretty weak to stereotype how men and women should appear in photos.

    I think we have enough media telling us that women are delicate and men are strong. Why not just shoot women while their making dinner in the kitchen? That would capture their supposed femininity wouldn't it?

    If you're a creative photographer, you won't find it necessary to reinforce these gendered ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman.

    You're capturing the person, not their gender. There's strong women, delicate men and everything in between.

  • Jack March 12, 2010 07:33 am

    Ask a dozen photographers a question about anything and you'll get a dozen different answers all the time! Almost makes a newbie want to cry. :) But then again, that's the nature of photography, isn't it; it's all subjective, and each has his or her own style and preferences from cameras to lenses to lighting.
    Interesting all the same to read each post from one question.

  • Dominic DiMaria March 12, 2010 07:04 am

    Awesome post! Thanks for the tips!

  • Linda March 12, 2010 06:31 am

    I would like to thank the author for publishing this and opening herself up to both positive and negative feedback. It gets you thinking about your own photography and in the end we hope to become better from the advice and lessons from others, right?

  • Killian March 12, 2010 05:00 am

    V -- the author of the article, according to the information given about her, would indeed be the photographer on that shot. The oversized watermark on the photo is the same name as her website, so unless she had an assistant who shot it, it's hers.

    As a photographer, you can agree or disagree with her "rules" as written, but the fact is that when you tie a photo to an article, it stands as an example. In this case, the attached photo is a horrible choice for this, as it breaks several of her rules, and is, in general, a poor quality photo.

  • Noteinstein March 12, 2010 04:38 am

    The far eye appears to have a stye, the line of the bottom eyelid is distorted which draws attention to the defect. The earring and oversize logo pull your eye away from the face and the lips and cheeks are overexposed. But then wouldn't it be boring if we all liked the same things but if the client approved - it's a great photo.

  • v March 12, 2010 04:30 am

    the INFORMATION seems solid to me, regardless of our differences in opinion of the above photo. did the author take that portrait, i wonder? again, this is a guide, starting point for those who may not know, nothing set in stone.

    this reads more like a critique my shot./article section.

  • Skip Nelson March 12, 2010 04:17 am

    Great tips. I believe many photographers do not understand the difference between a portrait and a headshot. And within the category of headshots there are some sub-categories. I shoot a models headshot different than an actress, and an actor different from an entertainer, and a comedian different than anyone else. These headshots are also sometimes required to be sized and cropped differently.
    Headshots are not portraits...they are speciality all to themselves.
    I generally shoot my headshots outside using natural light only, but will tweak a bit of flash if needed.
    I shoot with a Canon and have quite an array of very good glass...... the 70-200mm f2.8 is my go-to lens.
    I never even consider another lens for headshots...50mm Forget about it :-)

  • Tonya March 12, 2010 04:11 am

    Have to agree, IMO, the cheeks are too hot. My eyes went there first then bounced back and forth between her cheeks and eyes with an occasional trip to the right-side earring and distracting watermark.

  • scott March 12, 2010 04:06 am

    how about learning the basics of lighting first? that example image is a poor one.

  • Robb Mac March 12, 2010 03:45 am

    First, in your example, the cheeks and lip are blown out and the earings and hat are so distracting. As an actor and photographer, I can tell you that a casting director wants to go straight to the eyes. This is not what my eyes did when the picture loaded.

    I also disagree with only using a 90mm. These shots have to be cropped to 8X10, and a 50mm or zoom will do just fine (if you shoot it correctly).

    Finally, and this is subjective, but I almost never shoot women from above. It may be me, but I find shooting women slightly below gives them power especially if you just get them to stick out the chin a little. Shooting from above always makes me feel like we're sending the wrong message (if you can get what I'm talking about).

    Sorry, but except for "focusing on the eyes", I can't really agree here...

  • Chris Finlayson March 12, 2010 03:02 am


    They should print these on a card, and insert them into every compact digital camera and DSLR sold everywhere...

    Or wait, would that kill our portrait business?

  • Jackie March 12, 2010 03:00 am

    i enjoyed the article, but i do have to disagree with a couple items:
    i use a 50mm prime lens and it is optimum, always has been. also, the hair light is more for soap-opera type shots, not every headshot should have one -- especially for actor headshots.
    actor headshots are my specialty.
    otherwise, i completely agree w/ everything :-D. I guess we all have our preferences!
    best wishes to all and thanks!

  • Ronnie Saini Design March 12, 2010 02:54 am

    Great Advice! thanks for sharing

  • Donny Lightspeed March 12, 2010 02:09 am

    I use an L series 24-70 Canon lens for when i need to get the entire body length- the optics are nearly as good as a prime, so i use it most of the time. I also use a Canon 85mm which takes beautiful head shots as well.

    And yes, it's all about the angles and lighting as Christina said in #3 and #4. Soft boxes, beauty dishes, ring lights, umbrellas, reflectors and hair lights make a big big difference in the quality of the photo. I use alien bee strobes, so it's easy to place the light using the modeling light feature on them.

    Though it was mentioned that the eyes are the window of the soul, probably the most important thing wasn't mentioned- establishing a repoire with who you're shooting. Forget the window - making your model feel comfortable by talking or joking with them to loosen things up will get you some wonderful shots with true magic and soul. You'd be surprised how many good pictures you'll get if you catch them off guard... a real smile, a laugh, a silly look... it'll be things you'd never get if they just went through the standard motions of posing. That's the kind of stuff that that will give your photos real mojo.

  • Ed V. March 12, 2010 02:07 am

    I disagree with some others about the photo at top. It breaks some of the rules stated, but a lot of it works in this case. The concentric rings on the hat draw attention to her eyes (the one closer to the camera in particular), and that would be lessened if shot from above. Also, overdoing skin smoothing in my opinion would make her look fake and cheapen the image. So, maybe this wasn't the perfect photo to showcase this tutorial, but to me it's a decent headshot in its own right.

    Try this: picture in your own mind the above photo minus the earrings, head tilted downward and skin smoothed. All personality and character is lost.

  • Klaus March 12, 2010 02:00 am

    Fabian: don't fall for equivalent length myrth.
    When talking about focal length and distorsion millimeters have nothing to do with sensor size.
    50 mm are exactly 5 cm, whatever you put behind the lens.


  • Perry March 12, 2010 01:11 am

    Great advice... terrible picture. It looks like whoever took this photo didn't listen to your advice :)

    Like Osmosis said, a 50mm on a dSLR is too wide for headshots. Nothing worse than a warped face.

    For more advice, check out:

  • Greg Taylor March 12, 2010 01:05 am

    I approach portrait photography differently than I do my other subject matter. For other subjects I typically have a "go to" lens but with portraits I switch it up often. I like the 50mm and I also like my 24-70mm a lot of it depends on the model. Is he/she comfortable with a lens in their face etc.

    The only hard and fast rule I apply to portraits is Focus on the eyes. I try to let everything else come into place. That just works for me.

  • OsmosisStudios March 12, 2010 12:35 am

    Fabian: 50mm replicates the 85mm focal length working distance but still gives a bit of perspective distortion if shot just the wrong way. An 85+mm lens gets rid of this. Hell, I've seen headshots with 200f/2 and 300 f/2.8 lenses!

  • Killian March 12, 2010 12:22 am

    And yet...the example photo breaks the first 3 rules. What was the point of that?

    In addition, her cheeks are overlit, and the earrings are a distraction.

    Unless you were going for a "what not to do" headshot, I cannot fathom why you chose this one.

  • Fábián Gábor - fotograf nunta Cluj March 12, 2010 12:21 am

    Don't think that 90mm lens is needed, usually a 50mm is perfect, especially on an ASP-C senzor.