Headshot Photography

Headshot Photography Tips

Photo of author
Written By Nate Torres

In this guide, I’ll be covering headshot photography tips and techniques you should know as both a photographer and a model.

In fact:

I’m a professional headshot and portrait photographer and these are the same exact tips I use that have led to happy clients.

In this guide, I’ll be covering:

  • Headshot photography tips
  • Showing examples
  • Providing do’s and dont’s of headshot photography

Let’s dive right in.

25 Headshot Photography Tips

Here are 25 of my headshot photography tips I’ve learned over the years.

These tips apply to beginners, amateurs, and professionals.

1. Understanding Your Client’s Needs

As basic as it may sound, listening to, and meeting your client’s expectations is crucial!

Rally as much information as you can.

Start with the fundamental questions about the theme of their headshot photograph.

Use all of the information you can get to create a rough sketch of how their headshot would look.

For example:

Let’s say the client tells you they want a headshot for their LinkedIn.

Then you might already picture them wearing a nice dress shirt with a white background:

LinkedIn Headshot Example
LinkedIn Headshot Example

Then slowly ask more detailed questions regarding how formal or unconventional they want their headshot to be.

Is this headshot for personal or professional use?

Uncover what meaning they want to attach to their headshots.

These detailed questions will help you plan all the elements necessary to capture the headshot such as:

  • The lighting
  • Poses
  • Setting/venue
  • Equipment necessary
  • Clothing/props

Just remember:

As with most other situations, clear and effective communication will become your best ally.

Don’t forget to make sure that both parties are on the same page!

2. Have a Pre-Session Consultation

Before the session begins, a consultation is necessary.

Consultations should clear up any potential misunderstandings between the client and the photographer.

For example:

Do they want a headshot that conveys happiness:

Happier Headshot
Happier Headshot

Or one that is a bit moodier:

Moodier Headshot
Moodier Headshot

3. Clothing and Outfit

Clothing plays a big part in headshot photography and is one of the things that need to be discussed.

Not everyone will be conveniently dressed for the perfect shot.

So it’s perfectly fine to give them a suggestion based on the theme they are going for.

For starters:

Using some solid neutral colors that aren’t too flashy and bright is always a good idea.

Keep in mind that the main focus of headshot photographs is the face of your client.

Colors, brands, and patterns that are too flashy or attract too much attention should be avoided.

Unless they fit the client’s theme and that is what they ask for:

man wearing flashy clothing to a headshot session
Headshot With Flashier Clothing

Although optional:

Preparing a short guideline for fashioning future headshot photography would be desirable.

This could also add professionalism to your craft.

4. Be Flexible and Creative!

Not all headshot photography needs to be done in a studio with a formal backdrop.

Have fun and explore different scenery that may work in your client’s favor.

For example:

Imagine you’re photographing a professional actor who wants a headshot that showcases their versatility for different roles.

You’ve scouted a picturesque outdoor location with soft natural light, but as you start shooting, you notice a colorful graffiti-covered wall nearby.

Instead of sticking rigidly to your original plan, you decide to be flexible and creative.

You ask the actor to pose against the vibrant wall.

The result is a headshot that adds an edgy and distinctive element to their portfolio along with a professional one:

man getting headshot photograph taken in front of graffiti
Headshot In Front of Graffiti

The sky truly becomes the limit, as long as you are willing to be flexible.

5. Prepare All of the Essentials

Prepare some extra tools for the session.

Tools such as a mirror, a comb, or other equipment that has been asked for during the pre-session consultation.

Is the client is representing a brand?

You can possible prepare some props/accessories to be worn as long as it doesn’t ruin the composition or take up too much space.

Just remember:

The focus should be on the model and not the accessories.

But, depending on the agreement during the consultation, these are still subject to change.

6. Prepare a Plan B

Nothing is guaranteed to go entirely according to your expectations, so it’s always good to have a backup plan.

Not photographing in a studio?

Uncontrollable factors such as weather, lighting conditions, or even the sudden appearance of a crowd could disrupt your session.

You don’t want this to happen:

Man standing in the rain getting headshot photograph taken
Rainy Headshot

Make sure to have a backup plan before conducting a session.

Maybe choose a location with an indoor setting nearby.

You can never go wrong with going out prepared!

In the wise words of Benjamin Franklin:

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”

7. Keep the Client Comfortable

When a person feels uncomfortable, their expression becomes stiffer and forced.

To ensure that the client remains comfortable throughout the session, prepare some water, and keep a casual conversation.

For example:

Here is how a conversation I had with one of my subjects during a headshot photography session:

  • Me: “So, have you had any interesting projects lately (knowing they were a designer)”
  • Client: “Actually, I just got back from a vacation to [destination]. It was such a great escape from work, and I got to try some amazing local cuisine.”
  • Me: “That sounds incredible! Traveling can be so inspiring. Did you have a favorite dish from your trip, or any memorable experiences you’d like to share?”
  • Client: “Oh, absolutely! I tried this delicious [local dish], and it was amazing you gotta try it sometime. And I also had the chance to explore [landmark or activity], which was a dream come true.”
  • Me: “Wow, that sounds like an amazing adventure! It must have been quite an experience. By the way, you’re doing great in front of the camera. Your confidence really shines through.”

Take the lead and guide them through the session, especially if it’s their first time doing it.

Remember this:

People dislike doing things wrong or causing unnecessary inconvenience.

These feelings make them anxious.

First-timers in any field or activity will have this same emotion, which is perfectly natural!

If some comforting is in order, do not hesitate to do so!

8. Keep Your Cool and Relax

The thought of having to retake the same pose over and over will make most beginner headshot photographers feel uncomfortable.

What begins as a small, awkward start can become increasingly uncomfortable.

The pressure builds upon your shoulders to take the best photos you can.

But don’t worry, every photographer goes through the same thing.

If all else fails, take a deep breath and try your best.

Here’s a tip:

It helps to know your female and male poses so it’s muscle memory when you’re on your photo shoot.

9. Be Enthusiastic and Honest

Now let’s talk about honesty when it comes to praising your client.

When giving compliments to make your client feel more confident, make sure it’s genuine.

Nobody likes flat-toned praise that just feels made-up, so make sure to show your real excitement for the photoshoot.

Make sure that the compliments come out naturally, as though you are having a casual conversation with the client.

For example:

Do they have great hair? Let them know!

headshot photography subject with great hair in front of brick wall
Great Hair on Subject

You want to make your subject feel:

  • Safe
  • Special
  • Proud of themselves

Remember not to barrage them with too many compliments.

This may make them feel that you are “buttering them up” and can even come across as unprofessional.

10. Make Good Use of Lighting

The importance of headshot photography lighting cannot be overemphasized.

In photography, light is used to highlight the client’s form and features.

The use of lighting is easily the make-or-break aspect of your photo.

Remember the three-point lighting system:

3-Point Lighting in Photography
3-Point Lighting in Photography

Too little light could make them look intimidating or serious:

Man standing on railroad taking a headshot photo with little light
Headshot Too Little Light

Too much light may not highlight any of the client’s features at all, resulting in a ‘flat’ look:

Man ready for headshot photo with too much light
Headshot Too Much Light

To get started with an estimate of how much lighting you need, consider the following:

  • What is the client’s purpose for the shoot?
  • What is their best feature?
  • Is the photo going to be taken at a generally bright or dim venue?

Adjust your headshot photography lighting accordingly to achieve the best results.

Remember popular lighting setups:

Your adjustments can include equipment such as an on/off-camera flash, a strobe set-up, or even a ring light.

11. Find the Best Camera Settings

It is always advisable to adjust your camera settings to suit every scenario or photo shoot that you find yourself in.

A quick guideline would be:

A good camera setting acts as a safety net, which you can rely on when shooting in a new environment.

For better results, let’s move on to the next tip on how to use the focus accurately.

12. Fix Your Focus

Keeping the client in focus is one of the most important parts of any kind of portrait photography.

General guidelines to avoid blurry photos include:

  • Focusing on the eyes
  • Using a fast-enough shutter speed
  • Using the correct F-stop for your creative goal
    • Lower f-stop number for shallow depth of field
    • Higher f-stop number for narrow depth of field
Headshot With More Narrow Depth of Field
Headshot With More Narrow Depth of Field
Headshot With More Shallow Depth of Field
Headshot With More Shallow Depth of Field

Consider using a tripod if you choose a higher F-stop since it can get quite shaky.

Of course:

All of these guidelines depend on your specific situation.

For example:

Some headshot photographers like to use higher f-stop numbers to capture everything in focus such as the subject’s outfit as well.

Don’t be too rigid; sometimes, you may need to break the ‘rules.’

13. Consider Additional Gear

Depending on the outcome of your pre-session consultation, you may want to bring additional gear to fit the location requirements.

You can achieve excellent headshots with basic photography equipment.

But you’ll want to consider additional gear depending on the goal of the shoot.

Addition gear can elevate the quality of your shots and enhance your creative options.

Some additional gear options to consider:

  1. Reflector: A reflector can bounce and diffuse natural light or artificial light onto your subject, reducing harsh shadows and creating a flattering, even illumination.
  2. Softbox or Umbrella: Softboxes and umbrellas are popular modifiers for studio lighting. They help diffuse and soften the light source, producing gentle and even lighting on your subject’s face.
  3. Backgrounds: Investing in various backgrounds, such as seamless paper, fabric, or collapsible backdrops, allows you to change the look and style of your headshots quickly.
  4. Light Stands and Tripods: Sturdy light stands and tripods are essential for positioning your lights and camera precisely. They provide stability and allow for consistent results.
  5. External Flash: An external flash unit can be used as a key light or fill light, especially in low-light conditions. It provides additional flexibility and control over your lighting setup.

When considering additional gear, assess your specific photography needs and budget.

Start with the essentials and gradually invest in more gear as your skills and client base grow.

Each piece of equipment can open up new creative possibilities.

They can also contribute to the overall professionalism of your headshot photography.

14. Experiment with Various Poses

As a photographer, you can help to make your client’s photo as flattering as possible with poses.

For example:

You could ask them to extend their neck to avoid that dreaded double chin, tilt their head at a slight angle, and many more.

Remember:

The poses you choose will be dependent on the look that your client is trying to achieve.

Posing men and posing women is surprisingly different, as some poses are considered more “feminine” than others.

Male Poses for Headshot

A good pose for a male headshot photo should convey confidence, approachability, and professionalism.

  1. Stand or Sit Up Straight: Have the subject sit or stand with a straight posture. Good posture exudes confidence and professionalism.
  2. Face the Camera: The subject should face the camera directly. The shoulders can be slightly turned at a slight angle for a more relaxed look.
  3. Relax the Shoulders: Ensure that the subject’s shoulders are relaxed and not tense. Tension can be evident in the neck and jawline.
  4. Chin Forward and Down: Ask the subject to push their chin forward and slightly down. This helps define the jawline and reduces the appearance of a double chin.
  5. Eyes to the Camera: Direct the subject to look directly into the camera with a friendly and approachable expression. Encourage them to relax their facial muscles for a natural look.
  6. Hands (Optional): Depending on the desired style and mood of the headshot, the subject can have their hands in various positions. Common options include clasping the hands in front of them, resting one hand on the chin or cheek, or placing hands in pockets (if applicable).
  7. Smile (Optional): A subtle and friendly smile can add warmth to the headshot. Encourage the subject to smile naturally without appearing forced.
  8. Eyes: The eyes are a focal point in a headshot. Ensure they are well-lit and sharp. Catchlights in the eyes can add depth and life to the photo.

This classic head and shoulders pose is timeless and works well for business headshots, professional profiles, and various other applications:

Example of man getting headshot photo taken
Male Headshot

Female Poses for Headshots

A good pose for a female headshot shares some similarities with a male headshot.

They can differ in subtle ways to emphasize femininity and highlight individual characteristics.

Here’s a classic and flattering pose for a female headshot:

  1. Elongate the Neck: Ask the female subject to elongate her neck slightly by pushing her chin forward and down. This creates a more defined jawline and reduces the appearance of any double chin.
  2. Angle the Face: While keeping the body facing the camera or turned slightly at an angle, have the subject angle her face slightly to one side. This adds a soft and flattering dimension to the image.
  3. Relaxed Shoulders: Ensure that the subject’s shoulders are relaxed and not tense. Relaxed shoulders convey comfort and ease.
  4. Gentle Smile: Suggest a gentle, natural smile. Encourage the subject to relax her facial muscles and create a warm, approachable expression.
  5. Eyes to the Camera: Instruct the subject to look directly into the camera with soft, welcoming eyes. Catchlights in the eyes can enhance the connection and vibrancy of the portrait.
  6. Hands (Optional): Depending on the style and mood of the headshot, the subject can have her hands in various positions. Common options include resting one hand on the chin, lightly touching the face, or holding a prop (e.g., glasses, a book) if it suits the context.
  7. Hair (Optional): The subject can experiment with different hair positions, such as letting it flow naturally, tucking it behind the ears, or pulling it to one side, depending on the desired look.
  8. Accessories (Optional): Accessories like earrings, necklaces, or scarves can add a touch of personality and style to the headshot. Ensure they complement the subject’s overall appearance.
Female Headshot
Female Headshot

The basic principles of posing for female and male headshots are similar.

Good posture, relaxed shoulders, and a genuine expression.

There are adjustments in head and body angles, neck positioning, and the subtleties of expression.

These can create a distinctly feminine and flattering look for female headshots.

Experiment and see what works best for your client!

15. Find the Perfect Angle

Believe it or not, everybody has an angle.

You know, that angle that makes them look and feel good no matter what?

Everyone has their reasons:

Maybe they have some acne or a scar that they are not comfortable showing.

Perhaps they prefer an angle that puts a little more emphasis on their jawline.

Ask them, you’ll be surprised that most will have an answer for you!

Even though you are the photographer, asking them if they have any preferred angles is an act of thoughtfulness.

Here’s a pro tip:

Ask if they have any favorite photos of themselves.

If you find them picking all side angle shots from a certain side…

…or all front-facing shots, then you’ve found your answer and you can focus on that side.

16. Mix and Match Your Compositions

Let’s be honest; nobody wants their profile photo to look like their driver’s license.

It just looks bland, and there is nothing attractive about it.

To avoid your headshot looking like a driver’s license photograph, consider using some rules of composition.

Rules of composition that can make your photos more exciting include (but are not limited to):

  • Framing – Place your subject within the frame of two elements.
  • Rule of thirds – Your subject should be where the imaginary lines meet.
  • Negative space – Leave lots of space around your subject for breathing room.
  • Simplify – Focus on your client, only have 2-3 other elements going on in the background.
Rule of Thirds Headshot – Before
Rule of Thirds Headshot – After (Notice subject on intersecting line)

17. Keep the Background Simple

Another essential part of headshot photography is background management.

I have a full guide on headshot background ideas, so be sure to check that out!

To wow your client at first glance, the picture, and backgrounds should be kept simple.

And simple does not necessarily mean boring.

Make sure to set up lighting to help create separation between the subject and the background.

This way, even if the background happens to be a cityscape, it doesn’t overpower the subject.

If you are using natural light, ask them to move away from the background to create distance.

You can then use a wide aperture to blur the background.

A nicely blurred background can quickly turn from busy to subtle and muted:

man standing in city getting headshot photo taken
Headshot With Busy Background Blurred Out

18. Try Shooting While Tethered

Tethered shooting gives you the option to screen through images faster.

Another neat feature it provides is instant image storage on your hard drive.

Minor details and small problems can become more apparent while shooting tethered in a studio:

Tethered Photography in a studio
Tethered Photography

At the same time, showing pictures to your client becomes even easier.

Shooting tethered allows them to understand minor tweaks in terms of poses or angles.

It may seem inconvenient for those who conduct a session outside of the studio, but it’s worth considering, given its many benefits.

19. Attention to Detail

Because of how little is shown in a headshot, attention to detail is the difference between a good photograph and a terrible one.

Eyes must always be in focus.

These ‘windows to a person’s soul’ can give more meaning to your headshot photographs.

Although it’s difficult to tell someone to make their eyes playful or softer, try to make sure they don’t look zoned out.

Do not underestimate the power of fixing the seemingly unimportant details.

For example:

  • Getting sharp focus on the eyes
  • Knocking off some dandruff
  • Straightening their posture
  • Avoiding double chins
  • Smoothing out creased collars.

It may seem a little pedantic, but it does make a difference!

20. Price Accordingly

Different rates may apply depending on where you live and your current situation.

A general guideline would be to check the other photographers around you based on their level of expertise.

Headshot photography prices shouldn’t be too low as it requires you to edit the photos individually.

Make sure that it will be worth your time and effort.

Some people provide packages that include the:

  • Length of their session
  • Number of locations
  • Number of headshots they edit

Some people just write $300 for four pictures and call it a day.

Remember this trick:

A little psychological trick is to make the cheapest option undesirable and make the rest of the choices more worth it.

For example:

Option 1: Basic Package – $200

  • Includes a 30-minute session.
  • One outfit.
  • One background.
  • Five edited photos.
  • No additional perks or extras.

Option 2: Standard Package – $250

  • Includes a 1-hour session.
  • Two outfit changes.
  • Choice of backgrounds.
  • Ten edited photos.
  • Online gallery for viewing and selecting images.

Option 3: Premium Package – $350

  • Includes a 2-hour session.
  • Unlimited outfit changes.
  • Multiple backgrounds.
  • Twenty edited photos.
  • Online gallery for viewing and selecting images.
  • Professional hair and makeup artist included.

The basic package is intentionally made less desirable by offering limited session time, outfit changes, and edited photos.

The goal is to steer clients toward the standard and premium packages, which offer more value for a slightly higher price.

Although some may consider it deceptive, many industries are performing this practice to make more profit.

But at the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide your rates.

Just make sure that it is worth the hard effort!

22. Confidence Is Key

Even if you’re a beginner, project confidence.

This doesn’t mean pretending to know everything.

But rather being confident in your ability to learn and adapt.

Your confidence can help put the subject at ease and creates a more professional atmosphere.

23. Be Present and Observant

During the shoot, be fully present and observant.

Sometimes, the best shots come from unplanned moments.

Being attuned to your surroundings and your subject can help you capture these spontaneous, powerful moments.

24. Embrace Mistakes as Learning Opportunities

Don’t be discouraged by mistakes.

They are inevitable and are valuable learning opportunities.

Analyze what didn’t work and why, and use that knowledge to improve your next session.

25. Practice, Practice, and Practice

As the old saying goes, “Practice makes perfect.”

Practicing will help you get more comfortable taking images in a range of different settings.

Start by asking your uncle Bob, or a family member that lives with you.

Ask if they want a headshot photo.

Search for some good natural light in your backyard or set up your lighting, and off you go!

The no-pressure practice acts as your photography sandbox, which is convenient!

Good luck and go out there and capture some headshots!

How Do You Look Good in a Headshot Photo?

Looking good in a headshot photo is all about looking relaxed.

The rest is up to the photographer in terms of lighting, posing, and editing.

As the subject, if you aren’t relaxed, it will come across in the photos and you will have still and unnatural facial expressions.

If you are nervous before getting your picture taken, practice how you are going to smile in the mirror.

Will you have no smile? A half smile? Or a big smile?

Practice these smile types to see which one you think you look best with when it comes time to get your headshot photo taken.

What are the Best Camera Settings for Headshot Photography?

The best camera settings for headshot photography depend on your desired look.

Some headshot photographers like the real shallow depth of field look while some prefer to include some details of their clothing in the headshot.

Here’s some recommended camera settings for headshot photography:

Aperture for Headshot Photography

For headshot photography, you’ll want to use a wide to medium aperture such as f/1.8 to f/5.6.

A wider aperture such as f/1.8 will allow you to blur the background and create bokeh.

A more narrow aperture such as f/5.6 will allow you to retain some detail in the clothing and hair of your subject.

Shutter Speed for Headshot Photography

The best shutter speed for headshot photography is one that ensures you don’t have any motion blur.

A safe rule is to use double the reciprocal of your lens’ focal length.

For example:

If you are using a 50mm lens, then you should at least be using a shutter speed of 1/100s (if you are shooting handheld).

If you are using a strobe light for an off-camera flash, then you’ll need to ensure you use a shutter speed within the flash sync speed.

This is usually capped at 1/250s of 1/200s if you are using a flash without high-speed sync.

ISO for Headshot Photography

The best ISO to use for headshot photography is one that is as low as possible while still ensuring your headshot is properly exposed.

By keeping it as low as possible, this will avoid noise.

Focus Mode for Headshot Photography

The focus mode you’ll want to use for headshot photography is ideally single-point autofocus and focus on the eyes.

Remember:

The eyes should be the sharpest part of a headshot.

White Balance for Headshot Photography

The white balance you choose for your headshots is dependent on the lighting conditions.

I usually adjust my white balance to either auto or select one of the presets based on my lighting (such as daylight, cloudy, tungsten, etc.)

Just remember:

The goal is to have natural looking skin tones.

File Format for Headshot Photography

The best file format for headshot photography is RAW.

Hands down.

What Should You Avoid in a Professional Headshot?

There are five things you should always avoid in a professional headshot:

  1. Backgrounds that don’t align with subject
  2. Too much makeup or jewelry
  3. Poor lighting
  4. Uncomfortable pose
  5. Lack of connection

What is the Best Color to Wear for a Headshot?

The best color to wear for a headshot is one that makes your subject feel comfortable while also aligning with the goal of the headshot.

Ideally, it’s best to choose neutral colors that aren’t too flashy, unless you are going for a stylized headshot.

Do I Smile in a Professional Headshot?

The first things subjects always ask me is, “do I smile?”

The answer I tell them is, “if you want to.”

Some people are big smilers.

Some people are half-smilers.

Some people like to keep their mouth closed.

There is no right or wrong.

Choose what makes you feel comfortable and confident!

What are headshots in photography?

A headshot is a portrait of a person that focuses on their face and sometimes shoulders.

How do you take a good headshot photo?

Let your personality shine through – a great headshot should capture who you are, not just what you look like.