Guide to Headshot Photography: 13 Tips for Perfect Headshots
Become a master of headshot photography with this guide covering headshot poses, locations, gear to use, how much to charge, and more.
By Ana Mireles
Headshot photography is booming right now.
Most people have at least one social media profile. Also, professionals from all sectors are creating blogs and websites. For all these, a good headshot is a must-have.
Headshots are a great way to expand your services as a professional portrait photographer. Also, they’re a lucrative career choice if you’re an amateur wanting to start a business.
In this article, you’ll find headshot photography tips helpful to photographers from all levels.
You’ll find everything you need to feel confident doing headshots, from gear advice to dealing with a client.
(You should also read how to take a professional headshot.)
So, let’s get to it!
What is Headshot Photography?
There isn’t an official definition of headshot photography.
There’s a lot of debate regarding what qualifies as a headshot photograph and what doesn’t.
The most accepted explanation is that a headshot photo is used for identification and business purposes.
This is in contrast with a portrait photo. In portraits, you can be more creative and aim to tell more about your subject’s personality.
As I said, this is how most professional photographers differentiate headshot photography.
However, some photographers base their definition of headshot photography on more technical aspects.
For example, the type of lighting, the crop, the background, etc.
What’s the difference between a headshot and a portrait?
The main difference is that a headshot tries to be more objective. Instead, a portrait entails some level of storytelling and creativity.
Also, headshots usually feature a single person, while portraits can be of a couple or a group.
Can a headshot be full body?
Most headshot photography is cropped in to the chest or torso (hence the name), but you can do a full-body headshot.
As I mentioned before, a headshot is defined by the photograph’s purpose. Although, you might find photographers who will disagree with this statement.
It’s important that you understand your client’s expectations. This way, you can decide whether or not you should do a full-body shot.
How do You take a Good Headshot Photo? 13 Headshot Photography Tips
If you’re considering this as a career path, here are some headshot photography tips that can help.
Meet with your clients before the photography session
A pre-session consultation helps you and your client get on the same page.
As I mentioned before, the idea of what a headshot is might differ from person to person. That’s why asking your clients questions is important and helps you understand what they need.
It may be handy to ask them for examples of the type of photos they’re looking for. They can build a Pinterest board or select them from your portfolio.
Many people associate headshots with the photo booth where you take ID photos. So, this is an excellent opportunity to explain your photography work and what they can expect from the session.
Offer some wardrobe advice
Most clients don’t know what to wear for professional headshots, and they will ask you for advice.
You’re not expected to be a professional stylist, but your guidance can make all the difference.
To give the best advice, you need to consider the client’s personality and how they intend to use the photographs.
For example, they can wear something colorful if they work in the creative sector. On the other hand, it’s better to stick to more formal wear for corporate headshots.
If they’re taking headshots for their social media, they can be more casual.
Some headshot photography prices include multiple wardrobe changes. This way, they can have a variety of looks.
Use the right gear
Generally speaking, you can use any camera – even a smartphone. However, if you want to do a professional headshot, there are a few things to consider.
You need a camera that allows you to work in manual mode. This way, you can adjust the camera settings to get control over the final results.
If you use a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you can connect a strobe setup.
A higher-resolution sensor will give you the opportunity to print bigger and higher-quality photographs.
Also, a full-frame camera renders more details and allows a shallower depth of field.
In sum, consider investing in a higher-level camera if you plan to do headshot photography professionally.
- Camera lens
Short telephoto lenses are considered the best for headshot photography.
For example, an 85mm focal length is one of the most popular for this type of photograph.
This allows you to give enough personal space to your subject to feel comfortable. At the same time, you don’t need to be so far away as to lose contact.
Additionally, an 85mm won’t distort the subject’s facial features and will help you blur the background.
Another popular choice is the 50mm lens. This is considered a normal lens because it captures scenes as close as possible to how we see them.
If you prefer a shorter lens, you can use a 35mm. This doesn’t create much distortion and allows you to include more in the frame, even in small spaces.
See our complete guide to all the different camera lenses.
You can do headshot photography with natural or ambient light.
If you want to go down this path, you only need to focus on light modifiers. We’ll talk about those in a moment.
Another way to go is to add your lighting. This will give you more control regardless of the location or time of day.
For this, you can choose between flash or continuous light. They both work well for headshot photography.
- Light modifiers
There are many types of light modifiers that you can use in headshot photography.
Which ones you’ll need depends on the type of light you’re using and your lighting setup.
Umbrellas and softboxes are popular choices. This is because they won’t cast harsh shadows and will thus create a more flattering light for your subject.
A beauty dish is also common as it creates a circular catchlight around the pupil. It also gives a soft light.
Strip boxes and snoots help you create a backlight or hair light. They add depth and create separation from the background.
Diffusers are great if you’re working with sunlight.
This is a controversial one. You either love tripods or hate them.
On the plus side, a tripod helps maintain a consistent framing. It also allows tethered shooting, and it’s helpful if you’re using a slow shutter speed.
However, other photographers feel that a tripod limits their movements.
The choice is yours. You can do headshot photography with or without a tripod and get perfect results.
- Adjust the camera settings
Needless to say that headshots need to be perfectly well-exposed.
However, you can achieve the correct exposure with different settings.
In headshot photography, the most important is the aperture. That’s because it controls how much of your picture is in focus.
You’ll want to blur the background to highlight your subject.
Do keep in mind that the correct aperture to keep your subject sharp and the background blurred depends on multiple factors:
- The focal length
- The distance between the camera and the subject
- The distance between the subject and the background
Once you have the aperture decided, you need to adjust the other settings.
Keep the ISO as low as possible to avoid noise in your picture.
Finally, set the shutter speed fast enough to avoid camera shake if you’re not using a tripod. Consider that your subject moves too, so don’t lower it too much, even with the tripod.
Choose the right background
The choice of background can make or break a professional headshot.
Using a neutral color, such as a white background, keeps you on the safe side. You’ll have a great headshot that can be used everywhere.
However, you might want to use a textured background or a bright color to add some personality.
You can choose not to add a backdrop and simply use the location. In this case, it’s important that you make sure it’s not stealing attention from the person’s face.
Also, make sure you use a shallow depth of field to blur the background.
Another option is to deliver your headshot with a blank background. This way, your client can use it with many digital backgrounds and colors.
Perfect your strobe setup
If you choose to work with artificial lights, you can create a more complex setup to nail a great headshot.
Typically, a headshot photographer uses a three-light setup.
This entails a key light illuminating your subject from a 45-degree angle.
On the opposite side, you can put a fill light. This one is slightly less powerful than the main light and is intended to soften the shadows. This will create more even lighting without flattening your image.
Finally, there’s a backlight – also known as a hair light. This will create a halo around your subject to separate it from the background. The idea is to add depth to the headshot.
Of course, this is just one strobe setup. You can experiment by positioning the light in different places.
You can also use more or fewer lights or add light modifiers.
Each headshot photographer has a go-to setup that becomes part of their style.
For example, you may prefer a frontal light with a beauty dish to create a catch light in the eyes.
It’s important to remember that light can help you to highlight or hide your client’s features. So, the same setup can be flattering for one person and not so much for another.
Choose your location wisely
You often have to go to your client’s home or office to do the headshot photoshoot.
Other times, you’ll have more flexibility, and you’ll be able to choose where to go. It can be a natural setting, an urban one, etc.
There are two important aspects to consider while on location: the background and the light.
You can bring both of them with you, in which case you have nothing to worry about.
Otherwise, make sure there’s enough ambient light at your location. Also, consider where to position your subject to make the best out of the light you have.
As far as the background is concerned, make sure there’s nothing distracting that can draw attention away from your subject.
Learn to work with natural light
Natural lighting can be trickier than artificial light because you have less control over it.
You need to learn how to adapt to weather conditions and possible changes.
Light modifiers are essential to a photographer that works with sunlight. They will help you shape and direct the light in the best possible way.
Prepare some headshot photography poses
Most people feel self-conscious in front of a camera. If you come prepared with some poses, you can direct your subject to help them look their best.
Regardless of the pose, making the client feel comfortable and relaxed is important. Ask them to take a deep breath and give them clear instructions.
Here are just a few ideas for you to try during your next headshot photography session:
- 45-degree angle
Make your subject stand with one shoulder away from the camera. This way, the body will face the camera at a 45-degree angle.
- Tilt the head
Ask your subject to tilt the head at a slight angle. This will make them look more natural and approachable.
- Hand on the chin
Putting the hand on the chin directs the viewer’s attention toward the subject’s face.
- Crossed arms
Posing with arms crossed is a classic headshot for corporate and business headshots.
- Push the chin forward
You can avoid the dreaded double chin by asking your client to push their chin forward.
It might feel unnatural to them, but it’s not noticeable in the photos. Instead, it makes them more photogenic.
Learn some composition basics
Many people don’t think about composition when they shoot headshots. However, it’s an essential part of taking professional photos.
The first thing to consider is whether you want to use a portrait or landscape format.
Most people think of a vertical crop when they think of a headshot – but it can very well be horizontal.
It depends on the composition and how you or the client want to use the headshots. For example, if the client will use the headshot as a cover for their Facebook page, it needs to be horizontal.
Once you’ve decided that, you need to consider the crop.
Make sure you give enough space to the main subject. Also, avoid making any awkward cuts – for example, on the elbow or the neck.
Following some composition guidelines can be helpful too.
Using the rule of thirds, you can ensure the eyes are the focal point of the headshot. You can position the subject towards the side or, if you want a symmetrical composition, the subject should be in the middle.
Pay attention to details
In headshot photography, you need to pay attention to every detail in the frame.
That means being on the lookout for loose hair, wrinkles on the clothing, etc.
This is because the subject takes up most of the space. So, any defect will stand out.
Edit your headshot photos
Editing headshots can be trickier than you might think.
One of the most important details to consider with post-processing is getting a consistent look to your images.
This is especially true when you work with natural light, as the light can shift from image to image. Similarly, you’ll need to be careful when shooting with your camera set to auto-white balance.
Details such as maintaining the same skin tone throughout the entire photoshoot need to be taken care of in the editing process.
To retouch or not retouch?
Retouching headshots can be a touchy subject. You and your client need to be on the same page about what’s ok and what’s not.
Usually, simple adjustments like removing a blemish or a pimple aren’t an issue. However, slimming the face or removing a birthmark must be discussed beforehand.
This is one of the topics you can discuss during the pre-session consultation.
Also, if you need to do some extreme retouching, you should price it separately as this can be a time-consuming task.
Headshot Photography Prices
The cost of a professional headshot photo session depends on various things. You should take these into account before you establish your rates.
- The area where you’re located. You can check out what other photographers in the area are charging. This will allow you to understand whether your prices fit the market.
- The number of looks/wardrobe changes. More wardrobe changes imply more time. Also, you might need to change the background and lights for each look.
- The duration. A headshot photography session can be as quick as 15 min. or as long as 3-4 hours. Make sure you price it accordingly. You can offer different packages or propose a rate per hour.
- How many photos will be delivered? This means the number of photos that need to be edited and the number of prints you need to order.
- Whether the rights are included or not. It’s one thing to sell the photographs and another to sell the rights. Make this clear to your client in advance and negotiate the price accordingly.
- The photographer’s expertise. When you’re starting your business, the price is usually lower. As you gain expertise, you can up your rates.
- Whether the client requests retouching or not. Retouching images can be time-consuming, and it requires a different skill set. That’s why it should be charged extra.
How Much is the Average Headshot?
On average, a professional photographer charges between US$150 and US$250 per hour for a typical session.
Keep in mind that that’s an average and rates may be much lower or much higher depending on the factors above.
If the client wants more prints, specific retouching, or any other special requests, they would be charged extra.
Headshot Photography FAQs
What is the best lens for headshot photography?
A short telephoto lens is the best for headshot photography. For example, an 85mm or its equivalent on your camera’s format (127mm on a crop sensor and so on). This is because a telephoto lens helps you blur the background and allows personal space between you and the model. If you prefer a shorter focal length, try not to go under a 50mm lens. This will prevent any distortions.
Should headshots be color or black and white?
Typically, in a professional context, you would use a color photograph. However, it depends on the headshot’s purpose. For social media, e.g. LinkedIn profiles, it’s OK to have it in black and white.
What color background is best for headshots?
A neutral color background is the most widely accepted for a traditional headshot. This may be white, black, or grey. Consider that an official ID photo needs a white background – any other use gives you more flexibility.
How long does a headshot session take?
A headshot photo shoot can take as little as 5 minutes. However, getting the perfect shot can take about an hour. This includes 2 or 3 wardrobe changes – usually, this type of session is for actors.
Do you smile in a headshot?
It’s usually advisable to smile in any type of portrait, including business portraits. There are different types of smiles, though. For serious uses, it’s enough to relax your lips and make the smile very subtle. You can have a bigger smile for a more approachable look and for more flattering portraits.
What do you wear to a headshot?
The wardrobe needs to be appropriate for the purpose. The client usually wears a suit or formal attire for a corporate headshot, whereas an actor may use other types of outfits and usually have their headshots taken with several different looks.
I hope you found these headshot photography tips helpful.
Feel free to share with us your opinion on what makes headshots different from portraits. Reading your point of view is always interesting and helps us all to learn and keep growing!
Also, if you have any headshot photography tips of your own to add to the list, leave them below.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Thanks for reading!
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