(Last updated on July 8th, 2022)
There are many different types of portrait and subject photography. One of the most useful types in this category to learn is headshot photography. Headshots are used for many purposes such as business profile pictures. Being a competent headshot photographer can open many doors for you, and provide a steady stream of potential income.
If this is something you are interested in, I am here to help! I have used my photographic knowledge to compile a list of 11 headshot photography tips for beginners. We will first look at a basic definition of headshot photography and then dive into the tips. After reading this guide, you should have enough knowledge to start taking quality headshots and improve your craft.
- What is Headshot Photography?
- Headshot Photography Tips
- 1. Fully Understand What Your Client Wants
- 2. Help Your Client Choose Their Outfit
- 3. Decide on the Most Suitable Location
- 4. Don’t Jump Immediately Into the Photoshoot
- 5. Don’t Expect Your Client to Stand
- 6. Make Your Client as Comfortable as Possible
- 7. Create Professional Background Separation
- 8. Keep the Background Unobtrusive
- 9. Pay Attention to the Client’s Posture and Positioning
- 10. Get the Lighting Right
- 11. Take Multiple Photos With Different Poses
- Frequently Asked Questions
Headshot photography is a type of portrait photography.
There is one main difference, however. A standard portrait photo typically includes the person’s body and there is more emphasis on the background too. Oftentimes portrait photos tell a story such as a moment from a wedding.
In contrast, headshots are tightly cropped portraits. They focus primarily on the person’s face and typically only include their head and shoulders. Headshots are used for personal marketing i.e. for a business profile, or a fashion headshot.
Below we can see an example of a traditional portrait and a headshot:
This is a portrait photo where a woman is standing against a colorful backdrop. The aim here is to create an artistic and stylish photo with a blue color pallet.
This is a headshot photo and we can see the difference. The framing includes only the man’s head and shoulders. Also, the background is neutral and the main emphasis is on the person. Neutral colors are also used and even lighting.
With a clear understanding of headshot photography, we can now jump into the tips.
For headshot photography tips there are two main aspects – composition, and the client. The composition is obviously important to create a professional photo. However, the client’s needs must also be considered.
1. Fully Understand What Your Client Wants
The first thing for headshots is to speak to your client and get in-depth detail about what they want. I would advise compiling a list of questions to ask. This could include questions like, what is the headshot needed for, and what look they want to achieve.
Spend time talking to them – ideally, this should be a face-to-face consultation or at least a video or telephone call. Actually talking to your client is far easier than emails or SMS and also leaves less room for misinterpretation.
By speaking to your client beforehand, you can understand exactly what they want. For example, you may learn they require a professional headshot for their LinkedIn profile, or for a new freelancer portfolio website. With this knowledge, you can tailor your headshot photoshoot and make sure that you get the end results they desire.
2. Help Your Client Choose Their Outfit
Did you know that a person’s outfit is just as important as their face, lighting, and background for a headshot? An outfit can either ruin or make a headshot. It is therefore important to get it right.
Hopefully, your client knows how to dress appropriately and chooses a suitable outfit. I would advise not leaving this to chance, however.
It is best practice to discuss with them beforehand what outfits they have available. This could include a video call or even a home visit so you can look at their available wardrobe. Together, you can then decide on a suitable outfit for the photo shoot.
For headshots, neutral colors work incredibly well. Clothes with neutral colors do not detract attention from the person. Also, avoid any clothes with patterns or striking designs. In a similar manner, patterns and bold designs can take attention from the main subject.
In the above headshot, the gentleman is wearing a relatively understated grey blazer with a light purple shirt. The combination looks professional but doesn’t detract from his face.
3. Decide on the Most Suitable Location
With an outfit chosen, it’s now time to pick the location. Oftentimes clients have ideas or preferences for the location. Regardless, it’s perfectly OK to offer your creative input for the location choice. Indeed, I advise you to do so as you are a professional.
Common backdrops for headshots include:
- Studio backdrops
- An office environment
- A place of work
- The client’s home
The location and backdrop depend largely on the type of headshot and the theme. This is why it is important to discuss the photo shoot with your client before. For example, if their headshot is for something like a LinkedIn profile, they may want the backdrop to be an office environment.
Choose a backdrop and location that suits the purpose of the headshot. Also, make sure that the backdrop isn’t distracting.
We can see in the above photo, that a simple studio backdrop is used. It’s plain and uninteresting and helps create a professional image.
4. Don’t Jump Immediately Into the Photoshoot
Many people often make the mistake of immediately bombarding their client with photos as soon as the session begins. This is a sure-fire way to make your client uncomfortable and nervous. The end result is that the photo shoot will be more difficult.
I advise, therefore, spending 5-15 minutes beforehand chatting, making small talk, and letting your client relax. You want them to feel as comfortable as possible. Make them a drink and offer a snack! Sit down, have a talk, and break the ice to relieve any potential nerves and tension.
By doing this, you will find that your client is much easier to work with. They should be far more approachable, and easier to cooperate with to get the best end results for their headshot.
5. Don’t Expect Your Client to Stand
Oftentimes in portrait photoshoots, the client has to stand. This is because you are usually photographing more than just their head and shoulders.
However, with headshot photography, your client doesn’t have to stand for prolonged periods. As you are only photographing their head and shoulders, you can make them comfortable and allow them to sit. This can make for a much more appealing experience for the client. It also means they can relax more in a seated position.
The main point is that you should only allow them to sit while taking photos if the composition still looks right. Make sure that you assess the photo and check that it still looks natural and professional. There is no harm in trying some standing shots too, but remember that headshots allow you to give your client more comfort.
6. Make Your Client as Comfortable as Possible
As mentioned above, one on one photoshoots can often be uncomfortable. The client may feel incredibly nervous. Also, they may not be used to having their photo taken.
It is your job, therefore, as a professional photographer to put them at ease. By now, you should have already spent 5-15 minutes talking to them to break the ice.
You can do more than this, though. As you take photos, talk to them and make light conversation – a photoshoot doesn’t have to be serious. Also, stop for regular drink breaks and allow the client to go at a pace they are comfortable with (of course within the constraints of your allotted session time – you still have to be profitable!).
You could also consider asking them to pull some funny faces and show them the resulting photos. Most people will oblige and it is a simple but effective way to ease any nerves they have.
7. Create Professional Background Separation
Headshots must have a clear background and subject separation. This is vital for creating a professional photo and placing the emphasis solely on the client.
Creating professional background separation is achieved in several ways.
Firstly, the positioning of your client against the background is important. The closer your subject is to background objects, the less separation you can achieve. Therefore, you ideally want your client to sit or stand several feet in front of any background objects such as a wall, or windows.
Secondly, the aperture you use is also imperative for creating background separation. A larger aperture of f/4 or wider results in a shallower depth of field, and thus helps separate your client from the background. Also, using a wider aperture means you can achieve that professional blurred bokeh effect in your background.
Be careful with the aperture, however. You need to find a suitable aperture that creates background separation but still has your client fully in focus. For example, if you use an aperture of f/2, you may find that only your client’s face is in focus and not their hair and shoulders.
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8. Keep the Background Unobtrusive
The aim of a headshot portrait is to highlight the person. A headshot isn’t typically creating a story. Instead, it’s saying “look at me, this is what I look like, look how professional I am”. Therefore, pay close attention to the headshot background.
In most instances, the background must be bland, uninteresting, and unobtrusive. You do not want the background to be the main focal point. It should simply complement the person, without detracting attention from their face.
Consider choosing a background with neutral colors that won’t clash with the client. Alternatively, you could use a simple themed background such as an office environment. With the correct background separation, you can create a professional effect that shows the person’s profession, without the background taking center stage.
In the above photo, we can see what could be a simple office environment. However, due to the framing of the subject and the lighter colors of the background, it isn’t obtrusive.
9. Pay Attention to the Client’s Posture and Positioning
In most cases, you will be taking headshots of inexperienced people – not professional models. As a result, they will look to you for guidance and positioning.
It is your responsibility to pose the client and give them directions for their posture and facial expressions, for example. Go into as much detail as possible here. The more direction you can give, the better chance you have of creating a high-quality headshot.
Simple tips for posture and positioning include:
- The client should exercise good posture with their shoulders back
- Shoulders are often positioned at 45-degrees to the camera lens
- You may need to tell your client to look directly into the lens
- A smile should be gentle but not make the client look manic
- Simple things like a slight tilt of the head can make a difference
Each client is different regarding posture and pose. You will learn from experience and find that different poses and techniques work better with different clients. The key is to be involved and detailed.
10. Get the Lighting Right
Lighting is a fundamental part of headshot photography. This is not an area you can afford to skimp on or not pay attention to. Poor and inconsistent lighting can completely ruin a headshot photo shoot.
In most instances, an even and balanced lighting is preferred for headshot photography. You do not want any part of the client’s face or features to be obscured by shadow. Also, you don’t want the lighting to be too bright and the client’s face to be illuminated too much.
Typically to achieve balanced lighting you will need a primary light source such as your camera flash and a secondary light source for fill lighting. The primary light source provides light directly onto the subject, while the fill lighting helps remove shadows and create that balanced look.
There is no set formula for this, unfortunately. This is because different headshot locations will have different natural lighting. As a result, you may have to use more or less lighting in your setup.
11. Take Multiple Photos With Different Poses
The benefit of working with a digital camera is that you can take hundreds of photos. This is highly useful in a headshot photoshoot. It means that you can take multiple shots and then work with the client to pick the best one!
To make sure that you have enough photos for the client to choose from, consider taking several shots for each pose, angle, and camera setting. If you are skilled at your craft, this shouldn’t add too much time to the photoshoot.
Also, instead of sticking with one pose, experiment with a range of different poses and angles. You often find that each person has a particular pose or angle that simply works for them. There is no set rule, and a headshot pose for one person may not work for someone else.
Headshots are one of the simpler types of photography to master. However, as you can see from the above tips, there are many considerations to make.
This is a type of photography that you will improve with experience. Reading and digesting tips is fine, but you have to put that knowledge into practice. A great starting point could be to ask some of your friends and family to be headshot test dummies!
You can then use these tips in a more relaxed environment without the pressure of dealing with a client. This should give you an excellent starting point, and allow you to work on the basics such as composition, lighting, poses, and posture.
Frequently Asked Questions
Typically headshot images focus on the person’s head and face. Also, these photos are primarily used for business use. In contrast, portraits often include the person’s body and can be used to tell more of a story, with background elements being more important too.
It is possible to take your own headshots. You need a tripod and remote shutter control. You can then mount your camera on the tripod, set your camera to timer mode, and use the remote shutter to take your photo without using the camera controls.
That’s completely up to you! There is no set rule for smiling in a headshot. It depends on the purpose of the headshot, and how you want to convey yourself. The main point is that you should look comfortable in your headshot as a bare minimum.
Complementary colors are generally used that have warm and rich colors. These could include beige, warm grey, dark brown, and olive, for example. Colors with more contrast like blacks and whites are usually avoided as they can detract attention from the face.
The outfit should be neutral, and the background should not detract from the subject. Also, use a larger aperture and make sure the client is stood away from their backdrop. Even, natural lighting is also important so that no part of the person’s face is in shadow.
Ideally no. Selfies create an awkward pose and angle that is not suitable for a professional headshot.
Paul Skidmore is a freelance photography blogger and writer. He has a life-long passion for travel and photography that spans decades.
Paul took an interest in photography in the late 2000’s when he started solo traveling. His first camera was a Canon PowerShot SX220 HS which accompanied him to destinations like New York, Rome, and the Caribbean.
From these early adventures, Paul’s love of photography blossomed and it turned into a passion. His photographic expeditions have taken him to the corners of the globe including Antarctica, Svalbard, Thailand, Greenland, and Ushuaia.
He also has a love for literature and writing from an early age and used this together with his photography experience to become a freelance writer specializing in photography and travel.