The 10 Best Tips and Examples for Your Professional Headshot

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The 10 Best Tips and Examples for Your Professional Headshot

From social media profile pictures to business cards for the job hunt to the search for love, good headshots are becoming less of an option and more of a necessity in today’s world.  As a professional photographer, when you get the call that someone needs a great headshot, you’ll need to be prepared to capture them just as they desire.  So, let’s go through some headshot photography examples and talk about the ten best headshot tips for what makes them winners!

Common Headshot Questions

1 – Does a headshot show only a face?

A headshot is a closeup of the face but includes more than just a disembodied head.  A headshot usually covers the person’s face, upper body, shoulders, and sometimes hands or arms.  Depending on the style of the headshot, the creative definition can even include a full-body shot.  But for today, we’ll focus on what makes a classic headshot.

2 – Isn’t a headshot the same thing as a portrait?

They are similar, but the most significant distinction making a headshot different is that its entire purpose is to show the details of the subject’s face and to grab attention.  Portrait photography is about making someone look beautiful and presentable in a lovely setting, where a headshot is designed to draw attention to one’s unique presence and look.  A headshot focuses on the face and, specifically, the eyes.

Tip #1 – Decide What Kind of Headshot Style You’re Shooting

Before you begin your headshot session, talk to your client and be sure you know what kind of headshot they need.  Put your client at ease by talking to her in person or by phone before the big date.  This actual human contact will help break down some tension before the big day of the photo shoot and make her feel more comfortable when she’s in front of the camera.

In today’s online world, headshots are becoming more and more necessary for all aspects of real life.  Perhaps your client needs something for a dating profile.  Maybe they want a professional shot for their LinkedIn account.  Or they might participate in local theater or tv and need a model-style headshot.  Here’s a quick rundown of the most common reasons for headshot photoshoots.

1 – Corporate Headshots / Business Headshots

A headshot of a modern business professional is a clean, formal shot with a plain white background.  Lighting must be spot-on, with just the right catchlights in the eye to draw in the viewer.  Some clients prefer a dark look with a grey or black background.  These darker neutral colors can give the corporate headshot a warmer feel.  If your client plans to use their headshot on a business directory or a company website, their employer may request a specific background.

Keep the background consistent if you photograph a series of professionals for a business.  If you use white for one, then it is white for all!  The same is true for facial expressions in corporate clients’ headshots.  Uniformity is a good thing.  Every company has its own culture, so perhaps more subtle expressions are best if it’s a serious business.  If the company thrives on a great time and a buoyant atmosphere, great smiles and a sense of fun may be most important.  Be sure to do your homework before the shoot!

Small business owners may request that their headshots include something that ties them to their branding.  Some brands have a specific color scheme, which you can reflect in the client’s clothing or accessories.  Or, if your small business client has a particular niche, such as crafting or cooking, consider adding an element such as a glue gun, spatula, or oven mitts to their headshot.  Creativity can be so much fun in this genre!  Remember that in whatever way your client shows her personality, your job is to capture those eyes in focus and looking directly into the camera’s lens.

a young man pumps a muscle while holding a stack of books and the words "showcase personality by using unique props"

2 – Actor Headshots

An actor headshot is critical to an actor’s portfolio.  A casting director will use great headshots to help narrow down the right person for a role on stage or film.  Actors usually need a full-body shot, an action shot, and a three-quarter body shot in addition to their headshot.  The headshot is commonly thought of as the most important of the collection.  Be sure to capture an appropriate facial expression for this shot.  Comic?  Goofy expression.  Temptress?  Sultry expression.  Serious?  Serious expression.  You get the idea.

A dark and moody headshot of a man with the words "moody and intense" good for an actor - not good for a dating headshot

3 – Model Headshots

Model headshots are more about the subject’s face and figure.  Keep the editing to a minimum, and use a light touch with makeup.  A client looking for a model headshot will likely work with a makeup artist before arriving at the shoot, so be sure and discuss this makeup request in advance.

4 – Dating Headshots

I love taking profile photos for dating websites, especially since I met my husband online in the early 2000s when online dating was brand new.  Think of “You’ve Got Mail” when we all had dial-up service.  But I digress.

The dating headshot requires that you highlight personality more than any other headshot category.  You don’t want a serious expression if your client is a bundle of laughs.  Dating headshots have quite a bit of leeway for backgrounds as well.

Creativity is welcome here.  If your client is a runner, take those headshots with them in running gear.  If they are a Diet Coke lover, feature a can of their favorite beverage in their shot.  As with all headshots, dating shots are meant to draw attention to the subject, so have fun!

Tip #2 – The Headshot Wardrobe

As you can see by the descriptions of the types of headshots above, wardrobe can vary according to what kind of image you’re capturing.  However, some rules work for any headshot.  Of course, remember that rules are made to be broken, so break them when necessary, especially for the creative client!

1 – Clothing Counts

Because most headshots feature a bit of the subject’s shoulders and neckline, have them choose a classic neckline.  Professional shots steer clear of cleavage.  Neutral, solid colors are always best, as anything with a crazy pattern can be a distraction from the subject’s face.  Avoid logos and brand names unless you are intentionally using those to highlight a brand.  Of course, it’s always a good idea for your client to bring a couple of different outfits, or at least shirts or tops, to change their look.

Now is a great time to talk about jewelry.  Keep in mind the type of headshot you’re shooting.  Professional headshots and corporate shots work best with classic, understated jewelry, and watches.  Creative and more personal headshots have a bit more leeway in this area.  However, the idea of the headshot is to draw attention to your client’s best features in their face, so large and over-the-top jewelry can easily be a distraction.  Just like with clothing colors, know when to break this rule.

woman in a striped shirt smiles and the words "a casual setting makes a compelling headshot for social media"

2 – Wrangle the Wrinkles

The last thing you want to deal with in your editing is a wrinkled outfit.  Any professional headshot requires that your subject appear put-together and professional, so remind your client to steam or iron their clothing before arriving.  If they wear a jacket or add something to their outfit, let them know it’s okay to hang that in the car and carry it in.  Wrinkles are a no-no, and riding in the car in nice clothes is the best way to get rumpled and wrinkled.

Tip #3 – Equipment and the Headshot Background

All headshots focus on your subject’s best features, so it’s critical to have their face stand out from the background.  As discussed above, a white or plain grey background is a simple solution.  However, some headshots work best outdoors or in a more natural setting. 

When you shoot in these conditions, you want to focus on a solid separation between the subject and the background.  In simple terms, you want your subject’s face to be sharp and in focus, while the background is soft and a bit blurry.  This blurry effect is known as bokeh.

Although it is tempting to line up your subject right in front of their background, don’t do it!  Give yourself plenty of space between you and your client and between them and the background.  Space is your friend when it comes to bokeh.

a woman with a hand on her cheek and the words "the perfect headshot has:  great expression, catchlights in eyes, simple background"

Choosing a lens

If you have a 70-200 lens, bring it out for this shoot!  Tempting though that nifty fifty is so you can be close to your client; the 70-200 is a high-quality lens that will give you the best result.  If that’s not possible, an 85mm lens will also work nicely.  Remember to open your aperture (small #) to get the best compression.  I like to shoot at f/4 for portraits.  This wide aperture will keep the entire face and hair focused while allowing for the best bokeh behind the subject.

Avoid shooting with a wide lens as this will distort your subject’s face and not in a good way.  Check out this quick 10-second video that shows how focal length can change the appearance of your subject’s face.

No matter what lens you use, know that the most critical features of great headshots are a sharp focus on the eyes and the correct expression.  So if you have a kit or 50mm lens, you’ll be fine now.  All the same rules apply.

Choosing camera settings

Always set your camera in burst mode when shooting headshots.  You will have many duplicates, but you can quickly cull those out before editing.  But if you are having natural interactions with your client, you’ll want to capture all of the expressions quickly and choose a couple of favorites.

Tip #4 – Eliminate Distractions

I may sound repetitive, but this is essential information, so I’ll keep saying it throughout this article.  Headshots are about the person in the shot and not all the other fluff, so you must eliminate distractions in your image to get the best result.

What are distractions?  Busy or brightly-colored backgrounds, flashy jewelry or accessories, a crooked tie, flyaway hair, nose hair, or broken, chipped nails—details matter.  Be sure the main focus of your image is the subject.  When you look at the final product, be sure that the subject stands out.  Need I say more?  I don’t think so. 

man with a bright white stripe behind him coming straight up from his head and words talking about being aware of distracting elements in headshots

Tip #5 – Its All About the Details

When you’re shooting, pay close attention to your client’s accessories and clothing details.  Be sure their tie or jewelry is straight, rings and watches are turned to the front if hands are in the photo, and there are no stray hairs.  Have a mirror on hand so your client can do a final check of their hair and face before you begin.

Since we’re talking details, let’s talk hands.  I like to remind my clients that their hands may show in the photos.  I gently remind them that appropriate polish and clean and tidy fingernails are important to look clean, polished, and professional.  When in doubt, a French manicure is lovely for women, and clean, clipped nails are best for men.

Finally, expression can make a substantial difference in your final images.  Study up on posing, and don’t be afraid to direct your client to make slight adjustments to their position, a tilt of the chin, or a slight head turn.  These small details can take a headshot from “fine” to “fantastic.” It’s okay to take your time and get the details correct.  Your client will appreciate the attention to detail.  Let them know in advance that this isn’t a fast shoot so that they block out enough time.

Tip #6 – Headshot Poses

I’ve heard this question many times.  Should a headshot be taken with my subject standing or sitting?  The answer is simple.  Either work!  What I recommend is to take some of each.  Practice some posing techniques on yourself to see what feels most comfortable.  Comfort is the most critical factor in deciding how to capture your subject.

1 – Benefits of Sitting Poses

When a client sits, have a stool or backless chair available.  After all, the photo’s subject is not the chair but the person.  A small table or posing stool with an armrest can make an excellent place to rest hands or elbows.

Sitting helps keep your client in one place and gives them less opportunity to move around too much.  Sitting also offers a better chance to get a casual hand near the face pose.  You can also have them place their hands in their lap or on their thighs, so they are less worried about what to do with their hands.

If your client is very tall, sitting can help get their face closer to the eye level of your camera.

2 – Benefits of Standing Poses

Standing poses often promote better posture.  I often see a client sit and immediately relax their shoulders.  Relaxed is good, but slouching is not so good.

Standing can often show up as a more powerful pose and allows quick adjustments to angle and position.

In the end, it’s hard to tell the difference between standing and sitting when a final image includes the head and shoulders.  So go for comfort and what works best for each individual.

Tip #7 – Lighting

Good lighting is critical to achieving the best headshot.  If you are a natural light photographer, then good news!  Natural lighting works great for headshots.  You can bring a simple backdrop (LINK) right outside with you if you are going for a traditional look and want to avoid outdoor scenery.

A woman with bright blue eyes poses with beautiful lighting on her face and words "good lighting makes a good headshot"

If outdoor scenery is the right choice for your client, you’ve got it made.  Studio lighting can be tricky, but you’ll be good to go once you get the basics down.  I love to use this one-light setup in my studio. 

A few tips to remember when you’re shooting:

  • Good catchlights in the eyes are critical.  Eyes without catchlights are dull and almost creepy.  Be sure to notice when you’re shooting how the catchlights look.
  • Avoid heavy shadows.  If you’re shooting outdoors, look for open shade.  If none is available, bring along an assistant who can hold up a screen and create your own.
  • Use a reflector like this one to be sure plenty of light makes it to the face.  A well-lit subject can make or break a good headshot!
pink background with woman pointing at the words "it's all about the catchlights"

Tip #8 – Set the Tone at the Shoot

Photo shoots should be enjoyable for both photographer and the client.  You can set the tone from your first conversation and carry that through the shoot.  You are professional, so be sure to ask the correct questions ahead so you’re both ready on the day of the shoot. 

Talk to your client as you photograph them.  Show a personal interest in them as you’re shooting.  Ask them about their job, their family, or their hobbies.  A relaxed facial expression will be much more natural than a forced smile, so spending a minute in conversation will help them feel more comfortable.

As you’re shooting, comment on the shots you’re getting, and give them plenty of compliments, both when they arrive and as you’re shooting.  As they listen to your instruction, let them know they’re doing a great job.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I am so busy with the back of the camera that I forget how nerve-wracking it is to be in front.

You want your client to look and feel confident in their final shots, and dishing out plenty of attaboys and compliments will go a long way to helping them feel great!

Don’t forget to have fun!

Don’t be afraid to lighten the atmosphere a bit, especially if you have a very nervous subject.  I sometimes prompt my client to make their weirdest face.  Then be ready because the laughter will come, and you’ll get some very relaxed smiles.  I have gotten some of my best shots this way.  Burst mode is the easiest way to capture changing expressions quickly.

Pink background with "Hip Grandma Merch" available on front

Tip #9 – Shoot For A Winning Expression

All this information leads to an essential aspect of headshot photography, expression.  As you’re shooting, remember the end goal of this headshot.  Are you looking for a professional or more relaxed, or creative image?  Keep that in mind when you’re shooting.  Here are a few tips for getting the best expressions:

Have your subject face the camera straight-on for an assertive expression.  This technique is especially effective with men.  If you’d like to have a slightly more slimming effect which most women prefer, have her angle her shoulders around 45 degrees while keeping her facing the camera directly.

If your subject’s hands are in the photo, remember that hands tend to look more masculine and assertive from the back.  A more feminine angle is with fingers gently waterfalled and from the side.

If your client has a strong part in his hair, shoot from the side opposite the part.  A prominent part can draw attention away from the face and make the hair appear thinner.

If your subject wears glasses, have them remove their lenses before the shoot to avoid glare.  If that’s not possible, be aware of the glare while shooting.  You can adjust your lighting slightly or have them tip their chine down a touch to eliminate it.

oilve background with a dark-skinned person in a white shirt with glare showing on the glasses and words about reducing glasses glare in headshots

Tip #10 – Retouch Like a Pro

Once you’ve completed your headshot photo session and have plenty of shots, use Lightroom to cull out the duplicates and instant rejects, including awkward expressions or closed eyes.  You can begin the retouching process when you’ve narrowed down to your favorites.

Retouching is best when done with a light touch.  The effects of your edits should add up to a series of subtle differences giving your subject an overall cleaner, more put-together appearance.  Retouching is NOT airbrushing a face until it looks like porcelain or completely redesigning it by removing every spot or wrinkle.  It is an art and arguably one of the most important factors in achieving a solid headshot.  Here are some things to look out for as you retouch to perfection:

  • Follow the “temp/perm” rule:  If a spot on the face is temporary (like a zit), remove it.  If it’s permanent (like a birthmark), leave it alone.
  • Remove spots or reflections from glasses.
  • Brighten and subtly whiten teeth if necessary.
  • Even skin tone when necessary, smoothing blotchy red areas.
  • Remove any remaining wrinkles from clothing.
  • Eliminate stray or flyaway hairs.
  • Clear up bloodshot or red-rimmed eyes.
  • Lighten or reduce harsh lines and wrinkles, just enough so that they don’t disappear but give a softer effect.
a beautiful, mature woman poses with the words "true beauty is showcased with a light hand when editing"

Wrapping It All Up

As a portrait photographer, you will eventually get the call and need to step into your professional headshot photographer boots.  Be ready!  Get plenty of practice and have fun!  Your work has the power to change someone’s life for the better.

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