Tips for Photographing Head Shots

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I’m always amazed when I take professional head shots how every photo shoot presents different challenges. That’s the beauty, and sometimes frustrating part of being a photographer. No shoot is the same.

When you have a model as the subject in front of your lens, being able to nail that shot will be a lot easier. What do I mean by easier? Models know how to pose and appear more relaxed in front of the camera than others. Straight away, you can concentrate on taking photos with little or minimal direction of your model.

Didi

Each photographer has their own unique style and methods when taking head shots. But like any genre of photography, the methods used will differ within each speciality. In landscape photography, a wide angle lens is a must and shooting with a small aperture(f/16), plus you are outdoors. Whereas shooting head shots is normally done in a studio with continuous or strobe lighting using a portrait lens.

Technical bits:

My favourite focal length for head shots is 70mm lens on a cropped sensor (Nikon 1.5x) so the equivalent is a 105mm on a full frame sensor. A tripod is essential for studio work, and Lighting is key. They are many different setups depending on how you want to shoot your model and how many lights that you have. The background should be neutral if possible (e.g. white, grey, black). Please see the description below for how to practice head shots in your home.

Tips:

  • Play some music on low in the background to create a chilled atmosphere.
  • Your skill at interacting with people will be key in nailing the shot.
  • Get your subject to blink 10 times quickly. This is a fun way to get them to relax and it also creates fluid on the eye to get better catchlights. This is where the light source such as a beauty dish or umbrella causes a specular highlight in the subject’s eye. There are tutorials online for adding catchlights in post-production but I prefer to catch them in camera.
  • Get your subject to lick their lips. This really only applies to male subjects as they don’t normally wear lipstick. Similar to above, it causes specular highlights on the lips.
  • Tilting the head at an angle provides for a better composition. Normally, I would only get female subjects to tilt their heads. I did a corporate shoot awhile back and asked one of the guys to tilt his head and I felt it worked.

Corporate headshot

  • Talk to your subject throughout the shoot by directing them, as opposed to talking incessantly. Most people who are posing for a head shot do not know what to do. This is key as a portrait photographer to be able to instruct without ordering.
  • Tell your subject beforehand to dress in neutral clothing, avoid fussy or very patterned garments or too many layers. As in the case of Michael’s headshot, I got him to remove his waist jacket.

Animated

  • Similar to exercise, warming-up is important. This is where you can have some fun and get as many different expressions as possible. This will hopefully help to capture the shot. Usually, I get my best shots towards the end of the session.
  • Get your subject involved. Show them the shots, ask them for feedback.
  • Give as much direction and positive feedback as possible, for example use comments such as – hold that expression, great smile, excellent, now, I want you to turn a little more this direction – and so on. Use your hands to direct which way you want your model or subject to move, this avoids that left or right confusion.
  • Being comfortable and interacting with others is vital as a portrait photographer. Don’t be afraid to get your subject to talk to you while you photograph them. This gets rid of that mouth-closed-jammed-shut-look. This worked a treat for Michael’s shot.

Black and white headshot

Personally, I tend to work fast as I know most people’s span of attention for a photo shoot is limited before boredom sets in. There is nothing worse than seeing that bored expression on someone’s face reflected back at you on screen. Also no amount of photoshop can replicate someone’s expression or essence. I feel you have to master this technique in camera.

Easy headshot setup at home using one light off-camera

This setup can be easily done in your house beside a large window using one flash (speedlight) on a light stand. Have your subject sit facing towards the flash.

Headshot setup at home

Get the subject to turn from the waist towards the camera, so that their legs are still facing towards the flash. This will mean your subject’s form will not be square to the camera and their posture will be straighter. This makes for a more flattering pose. The eyes are the key feature to portrait shots. So they must be in sharp focus, and preferably have catchlights.

Conclusion:

Didi

I chose the photo of Didi as one of my favourite professional head shots for the following reasons. I was outdoors, which is always more challenging. The light is always changing and I was at the mercy of the weather (unlike a studio setting where the lighting is constantly the same and it doesn’t rain).

Just before I took this shot, it had started to rain – a light drizzle. I gave my jacket to Didi as she began to feel chilly. This was at the end of a long session. I got her to hold the white translucent umbrella that I brought with me. This was not for the rain but to block out the distracting background and it helped to bounce the natural light around her aided by the shiny material of the jacket – a sort of rim light. Her expression speaks for itself – she was happy and warm!

Do you have a favourite headshot or any other tips you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Sarah Hipwell is an independent professional photographer based in Dublin. She specialises in high-quality corporate, stock and portraiture photography. Her background is in Design. She received her BA in Hons Design from the University of Ulster, Belfast. She has many years commercial design experience working as a designer and as a trainer for large multimedia companies. See more of her work at SarahHipwell.com or at 500px.

  • harry_fisch

    Excellent advice Sarah! Serious work, valuable and interesting tips…
    Congratulations!

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Many thanks Harry!

  • harry_fisch

    🙂 . I meant it.

  • Caleb Keiter

    Great work, Sarah! I like the idea of playing music in the background. I’ve never thought of that. Personally, I am a fan of 85mm for my headshots, and I shoot a little more wide open than f/11. I’ve found a happy spot somewhere around f/5.6. I created a list of my own headshot photography tips as well. I hope you don’t mind if I share: http://www.calebkeiter.com/5-professional-headshot-photography-tips/

    Thanks!

  • Thanks for the tips Sarah — is always nice to read how a pro takes their photos for newbies like me to learn.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Thanks Jojie.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Hi Caleb, just read your tips, gr8 headshot!

  • Photography by James

    Great piece, Sarah. I would just argue the toss with you over the use of a tripod. This is not needed at the focal lengths you are typically using as the shutter speed if using a speedlight will be 1/200s. I find it is better to be more flexible in my positioning and to react to the movement of the model by shooting handheld. On the other hand I agree it can help one make a connection with a nervous model if one is not hiding oneself behind the camera but shooting on a tripod with a remote. However, for myself this would be the exception rather than the rule. Each to his (or her) own.

  • Eileen Hobbs

    Hi Sarah, you explained how close the camera was at 6′ but how close was the lighting? I can’t wait to practice these techniques. Thank you for the great tips

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Thanks James, a good point. I talk with my hands unfortunately, so the tripod keeps my camera safe too:-)

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Hi Eileen, sorry about. The light stand is quite close to the subject, couple of feet away. The actual speed light is about 4/5ft approx. from the subject at an angle of 45 degrees. Have fun and let us know how you get on!

  • Rona E Philpott

    Question about the drawing layout – you have window on the left for added lighting – What would you suggest for lighting without a window? I do have continuous lighting, would that work in your circumstance without the window?

  • Great piece and thanks for the tips. I’m just getting into photography and I’m feeling a leaning towards Portrait and especially the eyes. Hoping for lighting and a backdrop for Christmas 🙂 Anyway one from the weekend with my 1st use of reflectors and my new 45mm prime (i use a micro 4/3). Hope you don’t mind me posting a couple of pics. All the best David.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Hi Rona, the window is acting as a fill light. So if you don’t have a window than you can make your own V-flats, which are just big white foam boards(4’x 8′) that act as big reflectors. They can also be used as backgrounds. These boards are light and inexpensive from any big hardware store. Hope this helps. Good comment Rona.

  • Nick Dahlke

    Some good tips but I don’t find the headshots exemplary. The lighting diagram is a bit off because it shows the key light a bit too far to the side.

  • Nick Dahlke

    Some good tips but I don’t find the headshots exemplary. The lighting diagram is a bit off because it shows the key light a bit too far to the side.

  • Kelly McMurtry Alley

    This was super helpful. I have been asked to photograph two men for corporate headshots next week and I’m very nervous. I have done modeling headshots, but not corporate. You’re right, models are easier. 🙂 This was very helpful to me, thank you!

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Best of luck Kelly. They may be nervous too;-)

  • gholamhossien Pirchyani

    Tank Yours By Best Photo.Yours Lucky

  • Guest

    Nice, easy and clear to understand piece. Thank you… Like the tip about blinking.

    One of my favs posted below… The whole shoot took five mins as she is a friend of mine and I happened to come to her studio with my camera one day. She hated having her picture taken but as an artist she had amazing natural light coming in from behind me for her portrait painting so it seemed sensible to do it there and then.

    We stuck a blank canvas behind on an easel and then simply used a 50mm full frame with quite wide aperture – f2 if I remember correctly – no reflector and just snapped 30 shots. Cos I knew her, I could make her laugh, a quick BW conversion and increase of contrast with some vignetting, and job done. Whole job took less than half an hour! Hope you guys like it – I do and so did she!

  • I agree with ‘Photography by James’. Being able to use 1/200 sec makes it possible to ditch the tripod and take more natural shots. I sometimes think the use of tripod intimidates the sitter and without it the interaction between the photographer and the sitter becomes more relaxed.
    I like your tip about licking lips, I’ll try it next time I have a male sitter.
    I’ve attached a recent shot. This little girl just loved being a model.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Lovely capture Sohaila!

  • Rob

    Photography is a science. Taking GOOD pictures is an art. Art has to bend the rules that hard science dictates. Sarah showed us how she uses her talents and experience to turn it into art and we should use that as a basis to find out own level of art.

  • Thanks Sarah – she was a dream to photograph.

  • Harold Boynes

    You are so right when you said that every shoot is different. When I shoot in my studio, I try to replicate my best shoots, but for some reason it just doesn’t work out. I guess what I am trying to do is create a head shot formula that will work like math. Is that possible? Please critique the following photos.

  • Harold Boynes

    I posted these photos for critique in my last post and they vanished.

  • Bruce Berg

    I have found that doing head shots are a great way to add to one’s bottom line. Most photographers today don’t do them because they don’t have a studio.

    While you can certainly do great headshots with one light, adding a separation or hair light is a nice touch as well. It tends to give the image more depth and dimension.

  • Bruce Berg

    An example…

  • Bruce Berg

    An example that finally works!!!

  • Divyasom

    Thanks for the wonderful post and useful tips. Would your settings change when you shoot outside the studio? Wouldn’t you prefer a more wide aperture to blur the background and a higher shutter speed which is something in the range of 1/200? Also, I believe that the lenses that I use Nikon 50mm 1.8 and Tamron 70-200 perform better in terms of sharpness when the aperture ranges from 2.8 to 5.6.

  • paul1514

    I love this site. I am new to photography and learning so
    much from all of you. I love taking headshots and portraits. This is a picture
    of my daughter I took this Halloween. I look forward to your feedback, as I am
    eager to keep learning.

  • Guest

    One of my daughter this halloween

  • usmale9659

    I took this portrait of my neighbor as soon as I got my Nikon 50mm 1.8g lens. First portrait I ever took. The lady is very photogenic.

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