How to Master Headshot Photography


Here we are going to look at how to master headshot photography. Headshots are not random posed images in a studio but are a bit similar to portraits and are used for marketing, branding, company profiles and for other business purposes where your client will be presenting themselves. As a result, a headshot should not be something that is a forced pose, but rather portray the personality of the subject.

Let us look at how to master headshot photography.

Headshots are quite straightforward once you master the techniques and as a headshot photographer, it is your job to make your clients look amazing in their photographs. Since these shots are mostly used for business purposes, the headshot should create a great first impression to anyone who looks at your client’s photograph. Moreover, where headshots are quite different from portraiture is, in headshots, the focus is just the face of the subject.

So, What Is A Headshot?

A headshot is a photograph of a person’s face and usually includes their shoulders too. Although a headshot can be taken from various angles, it is usually taken at eye level or at a level where the subject’s facial features look brilliant.

Here is what you need to understand for shooting powerful headshots. We have laid down an easy to follow workflow, that will help you with headshots photography, starting from a discussion with the client up till post processing headshots.

Why Should You Learn Headshot Photography?

Since headshots can be taken for various purposes, your first and foremost step should be to speak to your client about the purpose of the headshot. Have a quick discussion before the shoot to know what the client wishes to show through their headshot and for what purpose it will be displayed. Having a face to face discussion is always more effective than phone calls or video calls because a personal meeting will let you study, understand your client better and help you prepare well for the shoot.

During the discussion, ask if they want a formal headshot or a more casual/candid one. Do not forget to discuss the background for the headshot, for example, a plain background, an office or studio, a more modern/urban background or shooting outdoors in a natural or urban environment. When shooting outdoors for headshots, make sure that the background/location suits the subject’s profession and purpose of the headshot.

Based on your client’s expectations, you can provide advice to your client regarding what to wear and other advise regarding makeups, etc. It also helps you plan the pose, locations ahead of the shoot so you present yourself more professionally during the whole process. If shooting outdoors, always have back up plans as weather and other factors could hinder your shoot.

Image by Lucas Sankey

Some Advice You Could Provide Your Clients:

  • Ask your subject to be in their natural pose, as forced poses will look very unnatural.
  • It is better to wear the same dress that they would wear otherwise for their official or business meetings.
  • If the clients are free to have a choice of colour for their dresses, choosing neutral colours like black, blue, grey, beige, would be the best for formal headshot photographs. For informal headshots, the subject can try a variety of clothing from neutral to vibrant colours.
  • If industrial employees are supposed to wear their uniforms for headshots, make sure to remind them of it well ahead of the shoot.
  • It is also better for clients to not apply too much makeup and/or dress their hair specifically for the headshot, but to have them as they would normally have them during business hours.
  • If the client is looking for an environmental backdrop, then it is best to have them against a backdrop that relates to their job, but with fewer distractions so that the focus is on the subject and not the background. In general, subtle colours with solid backgrounds are the best.
  • For artists, you can also include props and other instruments in their headshots.
Image by Burst

Best Camera For Headshot Photography:

Since you may be shooting outdoors or indoors for headshot photography, it is best to have a camera that can perform well at low light conditions, as sometimes you may have to shoot in low light for some reason to get a natural look. Full frame cameras are preferred, but if you have a good crop sensor camera that can perform well, that is ok too.

Best Lens For Headshot Photography:

  • Headshots need to look natural with a minimal amount of distortion on your subject’s face. So, stay away from using wide angle lenses for headshots that will create awkward distortions. Use a midrange focal length like 85mm or use a long zoom lens like the 70-200 and zoom in/out, to frame your subject for a perfect headshot.
  • On the other hand, if you have less space to move around on location, instead of the 85mm, you can use a 50mm lens for headshots and these are the most popular lenses used by headshot photographers and the best focal lengths for headshots.

Best Camera Settings And Other Setups For Headshots:

  • Since you want your subject to stand out, it is best to shoot at wide apertures, so you get a nice bokeh of the background. So shoot between aperture values f/1.4 to f/2.8. You can go up to f/4 for outdoor natural or urban environments if you want more of the face in sharp focus. If you are shooting in a studio, you can go up to f/7 for really sharp headshots.
  • Position your subject in such a way that there is quite some space between them and the background, so you get a good blurry background especially for headshots done outdoors.
  • Even for headshots done indoors, watch out for shadows. Shadows can look awkward in headshots and so, place your subject a bit further away from the backdrop to avoid shadows.
  • Make sure you focus correctly on the eyes of your subject so you get really sharp eyes in the headshots. Using single point autofocus is the best.
  • If your subject has their head turned away slightly, focus on the eye closest to the camera.
  • Use lower iso values for less noise in images.
  • You will most of the time be hand holding your camera for headshots and hence keep an eye on the shutter speed. The safest setting would be to have shutter speed greater than 1/250s or 1/(2 x focal length) (taking into account the crop factor), whichever is faster.
  • Set white balance manually but if you are unsure, use auto white balance and make any necessary changes while post-processing. Make sure you shoot raw.
  • For most settings with even lighting, matrix metering should work perfectly fine, but in situations where your subject is backlit, and you do not get the exposure right on your subject's face because the backlight is too bright, you can use spot metering and play around with exposure compensation.
Image by Raul Varzar

Lighting For Headshots:

Headshots are mostly taken in the client’s workplace and most of the time, if the office has huge windows or other light sources, you can make use of that to illuminate your subject. As with any type of photography, for headshot photography, you need to look for the perfect light in order to get great headshot photos.

If you are shooting in a location where there is not enough light on location, you will need to make use of reflectors, softboxes, fill lights, or other diffused lights, etc. to illuminate your subject, so they look flattering.

If the light is too harsh, they can leave awkward shadows in the headshots and in these situations, you will need to make use of fill lights and/or reflectors to fill the shadow areas. If you will be using a speed light, do not flash it straight on your subject's face, instead, diffuse it using a diffuser or bounce it off the wall or another surface.

For headshots, the light needs to be soft and be evenly distributed across the subject rather than have dramatic lighting with shadows, etc. Most of the time, two lights from above the subject's head at an angle, mostly at 45 degrees to the subject and another from below to fill in any awkward shadows are used to illuminate the subject for headshot photographs. You could even use lights from either side of the subject at an angle. For informal headshots, just make sure the lighting is beautiful and creative enough to show off your subject.

In case you have only a single light source, make use of reflectors to reduce shadows.

Image by Michał Parzuchowski

Posing For Headshots:

Headshot photography can be fun if you know how to do it correctly. Talk to your client and make them feel comfortable while still maintaining professionalism as this can lead to a successful and enjoyable photo shoot. Let us look at some posing tips for headshots.

  • For formal headshots, the subject should be facing the camera with their body turned at 45 degrees away from the camera and it applies more to professionals and business candidates. For informal headshots, it doesn’t matter where the client is facing and it is best to have poses and expressions that portray the subject’s personality. This is best suited for artists who are looking to get their headshots taken.
  • Do not just concentrate on positioning the head and facial expressions, but give importance to your subject’s pose of the entire body. You may think that only your subject’s head and part of the shoulders are only visible in the photograph, but the truth is, if your subject has a bad posture, it will affect the posture of their neck, shoulders and will show on their face as well.
  • For formal headshots, do not go for unusual or creative perspectives like shooting from top down or shooting from ground level facing up. You need to have the camera at the eye level of your subject for natural looks. In order to capture their personality, you can ask your subject to sit straight, with their neck straight so their personality can be captured well in the photograph.
  • Besides the above, ask the client to have their neck straight and a bit extended to give a slimmer look and to avoid double chin showing up a lot (if that is a problem). Even with these poses, make sure you have your subject in a relaxed pose and try a few angles to see which one works better. Most of all, make your subject look natural, feel comfortable and help express their personality.
Image by dylan nolte

Backgrounds And Backdrops For Headshots:

The next important factor to be taken into account is the background or backdrops for the headshots. Make sure that anything that is a distraction in the background is removed or left out of the frame – for example any designs, writings, images, etc. that can distract the viewer away from your subject in the headshot. You focus is to draw viewer’s attention to your subject’s face and hence, if you do not have a good background, use a plain backdrop for shooting headshots.

Always Have Background Separation:

When shooting headshots, your subject’s head needs to stand out from the background (as already discussed in the settings section), be it a solid backdrop or in a natural environment. Never have your subject blend with the background as it will take away focus from the viewer to the background areas. So here is what you can do:

  • If using a solid backdrop, you can make use of rim lighting to make your subject stand out from the background. You can experiment with slightly narrow apertures in this case so you can have really sharp images with your subject’s face in perfect focus.
  • If you are shooting in a location with a natural or urban setting and no backdrops, then you will need to play with wider apertures to make your subject stand out. Make sure there is enough space between your subject and the background so you get a good blurry background.
Image by Štefan Štefančík

Compositions To Try For Headshots:

Although most headshots are taken as a close-up photograph of the subject’s face along with their shoulders against a plain backdrop, some clients may go for a more casual look in which case you will need to look for interesting compositions to create a compelling headshot. As we would with portraiture, look for leading lines, that direct attention to the subject, use the rule of thirds, try different perspectives, use negative space, contrast in colours, etc. to compose the headshot.

Another important tip is to watch out for the jawline and avoid double chin issues in the photograph. Position the camera at a few angles and maybe even do a few test shots and decide which angle suits the best for that particular subject, because shooting at eye level of the subject may not suit everyone.

Encourage Your Clients:

First timers and some clients can be quite nervous during headshot shoots. Make sure you talk to them, make them feel comfortable, crack a joke to make them laugh, etc. to make them feel at ease. You could also tell them encouraging words like perfect, they are doing better, etc. to motivate them and get the best out of their character to be captured in the headshot.

Practice To Perfect The Headshots:

Similar to any skill, mastering headshot photography takes a lot of practice. There are a lot of minor details that you need to pay attention to and the more you shoot, the more you learn from the mistakes. You can start practicing by taking headshots of your friends and family and improve your skills from there by changing what does not look good or what does not work well.

By doing the above, you can develop your own style for headshots and strategies to make the headshot session a successful one. Once you get the basics and techniques right, you can dive into shooting headshots for your clients and doing so you can create a niche for yourself in the market.

Image by Prince Akachi

Save Post Processing Time:

Many photographers think that they can fix minor things while post processing and do not pay much attention to things like a stray hair, or other minor things on the subject's dress, accessories, distractions in the background, etc. If you spend a few minutes correcting these before the shoot, you can save a lot of time while post-processing.

Post-Processing Headshots:

While post-processing headshots, there are some basic post-processing steps you will need to follow in order to make your subject look great in the images. Hence, besides the normal post-processing you usually do on images, you may need to do some retouching on the images, like removing blemishes, pimples, slightly retouching facial wrinkles, whitening eyes, teeth, removing stray hair if any, etc.

  • Start with basic adjustments like white balance, exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, cropping, and lens corrections if required.
  • If there are slight shadows that need to be dodged, use the adjustment brush to adjust specific areas.
  • You can then move on to removing, spots, any stray hair, and so on. Look for the smallest of details.
  • Finally if required, slightly retouch the skin to remove mild blemishes, wrinkles, etc.
  • You may also want to brighten eyes, enhance the iris, define eyelashes and whiten the teeth, but make sure you do not overdo and make them look unnatural.

All clients may not agree with having their images being retouched as some may find it personally offending and it is all up to personal preferences and purpose of the images. So, it is the photographer’s responsibility to explain to the clients about the whole process and get their suggestions of how they want their images to look like.

Final Thoughts On Headshot Photography:

Headshot photography may sound complicated for some and easier for some, but the trick is to know the techniques and practice until you master the skills for headshot photography. By doing this, you can set up a lasting relationship with your clients, as headshots are something that will always be required for artists, professionals, etc.

Further Resources:

If you are looking to learn more about portraiture then take a look at our Light Stalking Portrait Photography page. This page brings together every portrait photography tutorial and tip on the site (and several other sites) that we think will round out your skills as a portrait photographer.

  1. 5 Tips for Photographing Great Headshots
  2. Our Favorite Tips for Achieving Winning Headshots Using Speedlights
  3. 15 Incredibly Useful Tutorials On Headshot Photography
  4. Headshot Photography Tips | How Focal Length Affects Headshots
  5. How to Take Your Own Professional Headshot: A Bookmarkable Guide
  6. Get Into The Headshot Photography Game With This Guide

Further Learning:

The Art Of Portrait Photography is your chance to truly master portrait photography, and produce your own inspiring, memorable images that convey real meaning and emotion. In The Art Of Portrait Photography, you will discover the insider secrets used by professionals to take your portrait photography to the next level.

Grab Your Copy Now

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About Author

Dahlia is a stock photographer and full time educator at Light Stalking. You can find her on Gurushots and see some of her more popular articles at The American Society of Media Photographers. Get to know her better here.

I agree that you should discuss the purpose of the headshot before you take it so you can make it reflect your needs best. A model is probably going to need a different type of headshot than someone trying to take a picture for their resume. I want more casual ones so I’ll be sure to follow your tips so that I can get the best pictures.

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