The 7 Keys to Mastering The Headshot

A good headshot says a lot about a person, as it should. A headshot technically is a portrait, but a great headshot isn't just your typical posed studio shot. Since headshots are primarily used as a branding or self marketing tool, the headshot must truly capture the personality of the subject without it looking forced. As photographer it's up to you to capture the subject in a way that is flattering and true to their natural look. There are many different methods to capturing a great head shot using various lighting setups.



Caterina Fake by caterina, on Flickr

    • Don't Forget The Body – It's easy to forget about the way the subjects body is posed because it doesn't appear in the photo, but a person's posture also affects the upper part of their body which will appear in the photo. For example, if a person is hunched over, it will tend to pull their head and neck down, too.
    • Stretch Up and In –  In this respect, angles are very important. That being said, keep the camer at eye level with your subject. It is will inevitably create more natural and honest images of the subject. Fine tune the face a little by asking your subject to stretch their head upwards a bit to lengthen their neck. You can also ask them to push their entire face towards the camera to further stretch their neck and tighten the skin on their face–about an inch will do perfectly. This is a great trick to help eliminate fine lines, wrinkles, and firm up the skin. But, be sure to give clear instructions, many times people will just push their forehead or chin forwards. If this happens, ask them to push their noses out towards the camera.
    • No Distractions – Headshots are all about the look of the person inside them, be sure to leave any gimmicks, props, or extravagant backdrops out of the frame. You want the viewers eye to be drawn to the face, not a great piece of art or landscape in the background regardless of how beautiful it is. In fact, many top headshot photographers prefer to shoot on plain white backgrounds.

  • It's Not All About The Light… – 
    But, as with any photo, the right lighting can make a huge difference. Avoid using sharp, overly bright light. Diffuse your light with a reflector, bounce it off a wall, use a softbox, whichever method you prefer, but don't aim your flash directly at the subject. You want to maintain a nice, soft light spread evenly across the face.  A hair light will also help the image pop and give the head further separation from the background.
  • Don't Force It – It's especially important in headshot photography to capture the most natural expressions possible. Instead of just asking the subject to smile, make them smile by engaging with them in conversation. Get them talking about something are passionate about that will bring a smile to their face or talk jokingly with them to get them to laugh. Just don't get so caught up in conversation you forget to snap photos.
  • Distortion Is Not Your Friend – Put a long lens on your camera and step away from your subject. Now, zoom in to frame the face. Shooting at a wide angle will give the face an unflattering distortion, which is everything you are trying to avoid!
  • The Jaw Line – Outside of sharply focused eyes that draw in the viewer, the second major point of focus should be your subjects jaw line. This gives their face it's shape and is important to make sure it's photographed from the right angle so make sure you're not forgetting to check for a good jawline angle when you're shooting away.

There's a fine line between headshots and portraiture. A good way to help differentiate is to look through the portfolios of some great headshot artists like Peter Hurley and compare them to some quality portrait work you have seen. You'll find that headshot photography has a much more narrow point of interest. It's just the face, whereas portraits tend to be a little more diverse and playful at times.


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About the author

Tiffany Mueller

Tiffany Mueller is an adventurer and photographer based in Hawaii. When she's not climbing volcanoes or swimming with sharks, you can find her writing articles and running the official blog at PhotoBlog.

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