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Tips for Photographing Head Shots

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.


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.


  • 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.


  • 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.



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.

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Sarah Hipwell
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.

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