Headshots are a great way to define someone’s personality in one unique shot. When shooting headshots, it’s not easy to a draw colorful expression while making someone feel comfortable. Learning how to take professional headshots opens the door to many opportunities! Let’s dive into how to take headshots with these 20 useful tips.
How to Take Headshots
A headshot is a tightly cropped portrait of someone, where the focus is on the head and shoulders. Headshots are slightly different from portrait photography, which is used to tell a broader story about the subject of the photograph, typically as fine art or photojournalism.
Headshots are used by businesses to showcase executives and employees on their website, in press releases, or in other company publications. They’re also used by actors and models during the casting process. With social media and the need for profile pictures, there has been a shift in headshot style. An increasing number of people are looking to project a more casual and approachable image.
This has led to a new type of photograph: the business portrait. It straddles the line between the corporate headshot and the fine art portrait. They are more relaxed and show bits of a story that the subject wants to tell – for example, a glimpse into a work environment or displaying personal interests.
Business portraits combine a traditional headshot with a fine art portrait for an environmental feel that’s still professional. Taken with a Canon 1D X and a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.
Business portraits pull features from portraiture but their function is largely the same as a traditional headshot. If you want to learn how to take a modern headshot, you would be remiss not to at least consider integrating some of this style into your work. To learn more about how to take a very traditional headshot, check out Lighting and Photographing White Seamless Background Headshots.
Best Camera for Headshots
The best portrait cameras tend to have (but do not necessarily require) the following features:
- Full frame sensor (for dramatic bokeh and field of view flexibility)
- Hot shoe and/or sync port (for connecting flash and Pocket Wizards)
- Large ISO range (low ISO for clean studio shots, high ISO for ambient lighting work)
- Dual card slots (for important backups)
- USB-C or USB 3.0 ports (for studio tethering)
- Touchscreen LCD with Live View (ease of use and image review)
- Compatibility with a large range of high quality lenses
For portrait photographers, favorite camera features include robust connectivity options for tethering and flash as well as full frame sensors with higher megapixel counts for ultimate resolution and flexibility in composition.
Popular Cameras for Headshots
- Canon 5D Mark IV ($117 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)
- Canon 1D X Mark II ($228 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)
- Nikon D850 ($125 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)
- Nikon D5 ($246 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)
- Sony a7R III ($125 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)
- Sony a7 III ($82 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)
How to Take Great Headshots
For a stress-free shoot, use these tips at each stage of the process.
Book a Headshot Appointment
The first step to taking professional headshots is to book a client. How you approach this process can set the foundation for your success.
1. Have a Pre-Session Consultation
Portrait photography is ultimately a social endeavor. Communication is key. Before you book a headshot photo shoot, meet with your potential client for a pre-shoot consultation. You can ensure it’s the right fit, build rapport, and help your client feel comfortable before shoot day.
2. Set Clear Expectations
What exactly are they looking for with the shoot? Gathering this info from the client will help ensure the shoot goes smoothly. Consider asking the following questions to get a clear understanding of what they want to achieve.
- Have you taken a look at my portfolio?
- Describe your style.
- Describe your vision for the session.
- Do you have a date and location in mind?
- What color tones are you drawn to?
- What are your must-have photos?
- What do you plan to do with the photos after?
3. Discuss What to Wear
It’s a good idea to coordinate colors to your environment based on the client’s needs. A quick change of clothes should be on hand for emergencies or last minute set changes.
Advise your client on clothing options to bring that would work with the style of the shoot. If you have time for outfit changes during your shoot, let them know how many outfits to bring. It can be helpful to put together a style guide before your session to give your client some ideas. Avoid flashy prints, super bright colors, or anything that will distract or pull attention away from their face.
For your headshot session to go smoothly, you need to have and communicate your plan with your client, from the start.
4. Choose a Background
A long lens with a wide aperture will provide lovely subject-to-background separation in even the most cluttered environments.
You don’t need a photo studio to take headshots. Get creative with painted backgrounds, an urban scene, interesting wallpaper, or a natural desert environment. Keep in your mind your client’s expectations and style to find the perfect background they’ll fall in love with or is in line with the vision they have for their brand.
5. Create Background Separation
Avoid blending your subject into the background with your headshot photography. If you’re using a solid background, make sure your lighting is set up to create separation, such as by using rim lighting that illuminates the edge of your client’s head. Learn more about this in 8 Portrait Lighting Setups Every Photographer Should Know. If you’re shooting in a natural setting, move your client away from the background and use a wide aperture to blur the background.
6. Use a Longer Focal Length
If you aim to fill the frame with your client’s head using a wide angle lens, you’ll end up creating an unflattering distortion that makes their nose look disproportionately large. To avoid this distortion, you should use at least a 50mm lens – 85mm is even better. Lenses such as the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II or the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G are great options.
7. Pick an Aperture
Aperture is important when it comes to shooting headshots. If you’re shooting outside and need to blur the background, use a wide aperture such as f/2.8 or wider to achieve that creamy background blur. If you’re shooting on a solid background with studio lights, you might want to use a smaller aperture such as f/8 that will give you maximum sharpness and keep as much of your client’s head in focus as possible.
8. Have a Backup Plan
If you’re shooting outside in nature or somewhere more urban, keep in mind there are things that can go wrong. Questionable weather, changing light conditions, and having to deal with unexpected crowds can affect your shoot. If you’re going outside, make sure to have a backup plan!
9. Choose a Lighting Setup
Decide what lighting setup you want to use before you arrive to the shoot. Most headshots incorporate flat lighting that evenly illuminates most of the face. Make sure you have the right light modifiers, reflectors, shades, or other accessories you need to achieve your desired look. If you’re outside, natural light compliments the face well but time of day matters. Learn more in A Guide to Shooting Golden Hour Photography.
Meeting the Client
How you interact with your client when they first walk through the door sets the tone for the entire process. There are a few things that you can do before they get in front of the camera that will help the session go smoothly.
10. Take Control
Unless you’re working with a professional model or actor, your client may be uncomfortable in front of a camera. This can easily show up in pictures. You should have a plan with as many of the components worked out in advance as possible. Once your client arrives, take charge of the shoot to show that you know what you’re doing. This builds trust and you’ll get great results.
11. Ask Questions
You don’t have to become best friends with your clients but knowing a little bit about everyone you photograph will help create more natural results and will foster creative poses and genuine expressions. This is also true for companies you may be doing headshots for. Learn about the company who hired you for the shoot.
Clarify your first steps to help put the client at ease. Ask a few questions about your client’s career goals. Get to know each other a little bit. This helps you to connect on a more personal level while also staying on task.
12. Highlight the Plan
Go over the expectations that were set at the consultation. Ensure your client knows the exact date, time, and location. Confirm with them what to bring.
13. Start the Shoot With Enthusiasm
Let your client know how great the session is going to be. Your enthusiasm and confidence will help ease any nerves or uncertainty.
Running a Great Shoot
Reviewing the plan, providing direction, and giving positive feedback are all the main ingredients to a great headshot session.
14. Keep Your Client Comfortable
Anything that you can do to make your client feel relaxed and enjoy the process of the photoshoot will give you a better photograph at the end of the day. This is why meeting the client beforehand is so important.
15. Play with Posing and Composition
Headshots have a reputation of being somewhat stale or stuffy, but this doesn’t have to be the case. You can get creative depending on your client’s goals for the shots. There’s a surprising amount of flexibility with how your client poses and how you compose the shot. Try playing with camera height, head angles, interesting lighting, and framing to get a unique shot. Before you experiment with lighting, be sure to review Easy Lighting Laws to Boost Shooting Performance.
16. Get a Smile
We’re all told when we were younger to say cheese for the camera. As a headshot photographer, it’s no different. You’ll want to learn how to coax a great smile out of your client. Have them make goofy faces to break out of any tension.
17. Pay Attention to Details
For many things, “fix it in post” is entirely possible. You’ll get much better results if you take a few moments to take care of details before you shoot. Fix flyaway hairs or twisted collars. Straighten jewelry. Make sure that your posing isn’t creating an unflattering chin. If you’re shooting outside, be sure there are minimal-to-no distractions in the background.
18. It’s All About the Eyes
In almost any photo of a person’s face, the eyes are the most important part. This is especially true in headshots. Make sure the eyes are in focus. The eyes are the windows to the soul. Even if the expression is serious, keep the eyes smiling and playful or thoughtful and brooding – anything other than glazed over or zoned out.
19. Consider Shooting Tethered
Shooting tethered gives you more screen real estate to review images from. It also allows you store images onto a hard drive as you’re shooting.
If you’re in a studio, there are benefits to shooting tethered. You can see details or focus problems far easier on a computer monitor than the small LCD on the back of your camera. You can also show your client the photos in real time, using the monitor to point out what’s working or to suggest minor tweaks. You can quickly add creative presets to give the client a better idea of what to expect from the final product. Learn more in What You Need to Start Shooting Tethered.
20. Practice Makes Perfect
With so many details and variables to pay attention to when shooting headshots, it’s a lot to track. The more you do it, the better you’ll be. Start out with the basics, then tweak and refine your methods over time to create a unique and personal approach.
For many photographers, headshots might not be the flashiest or most exciting form of photography. Yet, they are a vital part of the photography world. For a professional photographer, headshots can be one of the larger and more consistent markets. Learn how to take great headshots and you can carve out a niche that will help bring you consistent work.