This is a complete guide for headshot photography.
In this all-new guide you’ll learn about:
- Headshot fundamentals
- Marketing business
- Headshot tips
- Headshot planning
- Photography insights
- Lots more
Whether you are a beginner or experienced headshot photographer, you should get a lot of value from today’s guide.
Let’s begin with a section on headshot photography fundamentals.
Specifically, I’m going to explore what headshot photography is, how it differs from a portrait, and how to market your business.
I’ll also provide the insight into how I became a headshot photographer, where you can find work, and the best lenses for headshot photography (in my opinion).
Let’s dive in.
What is a Headshot in Photography?
Headshot photography involves a portrait picture with a particular focus on the person’s face.
The image itself includes the main subject, starting from their head to shoulders, with their preferred scenery as a backdrop.
To achieve the best first impression, every individual with a platform needs a quality headshot, especially for their profile picture.
In other words, everyone is always in need of a high-quality headshot, so if you can master your headshot photography technique, it can drive a lot of business for you!
What is the Difference Between a Portrait and a Headshot?
The difference between a portrait and a headshot is that a headshot usually only includes a photo of a subject starting from their head to shoulders — whereas a portrait can include the subject’s whole body.
A way I like to think of it is that a headshot photo of someone is also a portrait, but a portrait photo of someone isn’t necessarily a headshot.
How do You Become a Headshot Photographer?
If you are thinking about becoming a headshot photographer, fortunately, it is relatively easy to enter the world of headshot portraits!
If you are a beginner reading this guide, taking your first steps towards becoming a headshot photographer, then you are at the right place.
I was in your same exact shoes, hesitant to take that first step.
What helped me was confidence in preparation and from reading and watching a lot of videos.
Here’s what I focused on in order to ease my nerves:
- Reading blogs/guides (Similar to this one)
- Watching YouTube videos
- Practicing on family members and friends
Almost anyone can become a headshot photographer when they have the proper equipment and fundamental skills.
It is, however, preferable if you own a trademark style and a stellar portfolio!
To build up your portfolio, as I mentioned, start with your family and friends.
You will get to build up your portfolio, and your friends and family will be happy to receive a new headshot!
How do Freelance Headshot Photographers Find Work?
I. Freelance Websites
Almost every professional needs a decent headshot for their profile pictures on various platforms.
Depending on your reputation, portfolio, and circumstances, getting work may require you to actively search for new clients, or simply put your work out there and be overwhelmed by orders.
II. Social Media
Social media is a great platform for any promotion.
If you have a strong social media following and post high-quality content on Instagram, then people will actually DM you!
Sounds crazy I know, but the secret is to use location-based hashtags.
For example, I live in Los Angeles, so I make sure to use #losangelesphotographer or #losangelesportraitphotographer.
Here’s an example DM on my Instagram that I received randomly one day from a woman who wanted photos of her and her surfing group:
I drive most of my traffic using Search Engine Optimization (SEO):
You can include your gallery/portfolio on your website as well.
The beauty of creating a website is that it is very professional if you send it to someone.
For example, this guide you are currently reading serves as my own personal portfolio site as well as my blog.
IV. Word of Mouth
Word of mouth is very powerful.
If you offer a great client experience, then you can count on your client telling their friends and family members of how great your service and photos are.
During each headshot photography session, make it a point to connect with your client in a natural way and offer a great service.
And always remember, the customer is always right.
If they like a particular photo that you didn’t think was “compositionally correct,” edit that one and give it to them because they are the one paying you and they are your future social proof.
How to Market Your Headshot Photography?
When it comes to marketing your headshot photography, you will want to markets your skills similar to how you market your whole business
Just remember, the 4 P’s — Positioning, Price, Promotion, and Product.
How you position your headshot photography skills is important.
When it comes to “positioning,” think of what your Unique Value Proposition is, also known as your UVP.
This is essentially what makes you different or better than your competition.
For example, you have X number of years experience, or you offer exceptional retouching skills that complement your headshot photography skills.
Think of what makes you unique compared to your competition and let your potential clients know.
How you “position” your skills/brand is important for your overall business.
How you price your headshot photography actually plays a big part in your overall brand image.
For example, if you price your headshot photography services too high, you may have trouble getting clients.
On the other hand, if you price your photography services too low, you will not only be missing out on more money, but your services may be perceived as less than high-quality or cheap.
Be sure to do your due diligence and research what the pricing is in your local area for headshot photography.
Then run calculations based on your years experience and what you have to offer, while also noting how much you need to make monthly in order to have a return on investment.
The product you offer is headshot photography, but also take note of the accompanying products that go with it such as retouching services or prints.
Always make it a point to mention these services as these could also be what makes you stand apart from the rest of the competition.
Promotion is how you promote your services.
I’ve listed some examples in the section above.
Promotion includes promoting your shoots on social media, in an email newsletter if you own a website, word of mouth, or even texting or sending an email to previous clients that you are offering a 20% sale for the month.
What is the Best Lens for Headshot Photography?
I believe the best lens for headshot photography is the 50mm of any model.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens (My go-to)
- Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G Lens
- Sony – E 50mm F1.8 OSS Portrait Lens
- Fujinon XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR
I know some photographers prefer to have a longer range lens such as an 85mm for better bokeh, but hear me out.
Headshot photography is all about capturing the raw character, emotion, and personality of a person.
The best headshots are when the photographer is able to connect with their client on a much-deeper level.
If you have a lens such as a 50mm, you will have to get a lot closer to your subject than an 85mm.
This changes the whole experience of the headshot photography session.
By being closer, it enables you to talk more to your subject and connect with them. This not only eases the client’s nerves, but it builds a client-relationship.
And remember the power of word of mouth.
Tips for Better Headshots
In this section, I will be providing 21 tips to improve your headshot photography.
I have gathered these tips from personal experience as well as fellow photographers.
Let’s dive into these tips.
1. Understanding Your Client’s Needs
As basic as it may sound, listening to, and meeting your client’s expectations are 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 portrait would look.
Then slowly ask more detailed questions regarding how formal or unconventional they want their headshot to be.
Uncover what meaning they want to attach to their headshots.
These detailed questions will help to make that sketch clearer and give you an upper hand in deciding on the type of headshot photography lighting you would need.
As with most other situations, clear and effective communication will become your best ally.
It gives you insights for potential poses and venues needed for the shot and positions you as a professional.
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.
Clothing plays a big part in headshot photography and is one of the things that need to be discussed or adjusted during the consultation.
As a photographer, you should consider renting a studio with air conditioners to make sure that your client is comfortable throughout the session.
3. A Small Outfit Adjustment
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.
Although optional, preparing a short guideline for fashioning future headshot photography would be desirable and 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.
By adapting to the client’s requests to current situations, photographers can allow themselves the freedom to be extremely versatile.
Some photographers may be forced to adapt and run their photography businesses from home.
Maybe you can offer your full photo editing services at a lower price, since a full photography session may not be an option right now.
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, such as a mirror, a comb, or other equipment that has been asked for during the pre-session consultation.
If the client is representing a brand, it may be possible for some props/accessories to be worn as long as it doesn’t ruin the composition or take up too much space.
The focus should be on the model and not their 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.
If you are not in a studio, uncontrollable factors such as weather, lighting conditions, or even the sudden appearance of a crowd could disrupt your session.
Make sure to have a backup plan before conducting a session!
Maybe choose a location with a studio open for rent around two blocks away; you can never go wrong with going out prepared!
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 going.
Maybe take the lead and guide them through the session, especially if it’s their first time doing it.
People dislike doing things wrong or causing unnecessary inconvenience, and 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 beginners feel uncomfortable.
What begins as a small, awkward start can become increasingly uncomfortable, and the pressure builds upon your shoulders to take the best photos you can.
But don’t worry, every photographer goes through the same thing.
Try talking to the client and being honest about how you feel; throw some jokes in the mix to lighten up the mood!
If all else fails, take a deep breath and try your best.
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.
If you can make your client feel safe, special, and proud of themselves, then you’ve already achieved a lot.
Remember not to barrage them with too many compliments, as 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.
Too little lighting could make them look intimidating or serious, and too much light may not highlight any of the client’s features at all, resulting in a ‘flat’ look.
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.
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 photoshoot that you find yourself in.
A quick guideline would be:
- F-stop between f/1.8 and f/5.6 for a shallow depth of field, which causes a gorgeous “pop” effect.
- Shutter speed should be, at least, double the length of your focal lens.
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 onto 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. The smaller it is, the shallower the depth of field gets. We recommend starting from 5.6 and staying below F18; feel free to experiment.
- Zoom in
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, so don’t be too rigid; sometimes, you may need to break the ‘rules.’
13. Adjust the Camera Accordingly
Depending on the outcome of your pre-session consultation, you may want to bring additional gear to fit the location or new requirements.
Some clients may want their headshots taken with a pretty background.
Some may choose a more minimalist look, so be ready to adjust your camera based on this.
There are three main steps to take when adjusting your camera:
- First, you need to set your aperture according to your needs. The wider the aperture, the more objects will be focused on.
- Secondly, adjust the shutter speed. Shutter speed is adjusted based on the motion of your client or background. Playing with your shutter speed can help you achieve intentionally blurry backgrounds.
- The last step would be setting the correct ISO. ISO determines how much light the camera picks up, so a higher ISO can add grain to your pictures.
After these three adjustments have been made, you should be good to go!
Continue to practice these steps to hone your adjusting skills; it will save a lot of time, which is helpful for short photo sessions.
14. Experiment with Various Poses
As a photographer, you can help to make your client’s photo as flattering as possible.
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.
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.
A classic pose for male clients includes tucking their hand into the pocket; even though it is just a headshot, it helps them to look and feel more relaxed.
A useful tip for female clients is to take the photo at a slightly raised or lowered angle instead of head-on.
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 uncomfortable showing.
Perhaps they prefer an angle that puts a little more emphasis on their jawline.
Because people tend to be self-conscious, they usually have preferred angles.
Even though you are the photographer, asking them if they have any preferred angles is an act of thoughtfulness.
If clients are unsure, you could show them the results of a few of your previous photo shoots and ask if they have any favorites.
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):
- Perspective – Use interesting perspectives without distorting the image.
- Cropping – Eliminate “busy” backgrounds to give all the attention to your subject.
- Rule of thirds – Your subject should be where the imaginary lines meet.
- Use negative/white space.
- Simplify – Focus on your client.
Photography is a fairly forgiving field because it leaves lots of room for rules to be broken.
While it’s great to stay within recommended guidelines, trashing the norm and going against what you’ve learned about how composition can be beneficial.
Trust us, in some exciting ways, breaking the rule works.
17. Keep the Background Simple
Another essential part of headshot photography is background management.
To wow your client at first glance of the picture, 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, so that 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, then use a wide aperture to blur the background.
A nicely blurred background can quickly turn from busy to subtle and muted.
18. Try Shooting While Tethered
Tethered shooting gives you the option to screen through images faster.
Another neat feature it provides is instant image storing to your hard drive.
Minor details and small problems can become more apparent while shooting tethered in a studio.
At the same time, showing pictures to your client becomes even easier, allowing them to understand minor tweaks in terms of poses or angles.
Although it may seem inconvenient for those who conduct a session outside of the studio, 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 for 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, like knocking off some dandruff, straightening their posture, avoiding double chins, and 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 its current situation.
But 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, and the number of portraits they edit.
Some people just write $74 for four pictures and call it a day.
A little psychology trick is to make the cheapest option undesirable and make the rest of their choices more worth it.
For example, the cheapest service you could offer would be $73 for three pictures, while another package would be $100 for five images, and so on.
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!
21. Practice, Practice, and Practice
As the old saying goes, “Practice makes perfect.”
The last tip for getting better at headshot photography is practice.
Practicing will help you get more comfortable shots 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 portrait 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!
Planning and Insight
In this last section I will be providing additional insight into improving your headshot photography.
I will touch on what makes a good professional headshot, whether you should smile in a headshot, as well as what you should wear.
Let’s explore this final section.
What Makes a Good Professional Headshot?
You may be wondering, what makes a good professional headshot?
While photography can be partly subjective, there are certain traits that make a good professional headshot.
The traits that make a good professional headshot boil down to:
When it comes to lighting, you will want good lighting on their face. Avoid strong, harsh shadows, unless it is an intentional creative headshot session.
Often times though, if you are photographing a professional headshot for someone, they will just want a nice, clean professional headshot without any crazy “Phantom of the Opera” lighting.
Composition can encompass many areas such as framing, simplicity, and focus.
Make sure your headshot is properly framed. Be intentional with your framing. Before you begin shooting, decide whether you want to frame your subject directly in the center of frame, or slightly to the right or left.
A good professional headshot should also be simple. It should have your subject’s face, their clothing, and the background.
Not saying that you cannot have props, but if we are talking about professional headshots, then try to keep it simple.
Tying into simplicity, is focus.
What I mean by this, is that you want to be sure you are focusing on the correct part of your subject.
Make sure you have correctly dialed in your settings and that your focus point is on your subject’s eyes.
The last thing you want to happen is to be done with a headshot session and realize all your photos were unfocused/blurry on your subject’s eyes and were instead focused in on their left ear.
As humans, we have gotten really good at sensing if something seems “off” or “unnatural.”
It’s easy to tell if someone is uncomfortable in a photo.
You can just tell by the way they are holding their face and body posture.
A good professional photo should capture the true emotion of the subject without any guard.
Make sure you take the time to have a light-hearted conversation and get to know your subject a little bit better before the session.
This will allow your subject to feel more comfortable around you.
This will drop their “guard” which will produce more natural facial expressions and body posture — allowing for a better professional headshot.
If you want a good professional headshot, make sure the background is blurred by adjusting your aperture to be around f/2.8 or lower if possible.
If you are photographing within a studio, make sure your subject is a few feet in front of the background to allow space to blur the background.
Blurring the background, either in a studio setting or outdoors, will make your subject stand out — a critical component of a good professional headshot.
A good headshot photograph is about the subject, not the environment.
Should You Smile in a Headshot?
Before a headshot photo session, clients often ask me if they should smile.
I always ask them what the goal of the session is and what they are most comfortable with.
Let’s say the headshot photo session is for an acting headshot for a comedic role.
In this case, the goal of the headshot is to portray your subject in a light-hearted, happy manner.
Since that is the goal, you will want your subject’s emotion and mood to come across as happy.
In order to do so, it would probably help if your subject smiled.
If they are self-conscious about the way their teeth look, it doesn’t have to be a full teeth-grin, but at least a closed-mouth smile.
There you go, now you have accomplished the goal/reason the subject is acquiring a headshot photo in the first place, while also ensuring they are still comfortable.
If your subject wants a moody headshot, then work vice-versa.
Understand the goals of your subject and headshot session, and that will allow you to put all the pieces together.
Can You Wear Black in a Headshot?
You can technically wear anything you want to a headshot session, however, some colors will look better on camera.
If you are the photographer, know beforehand what the color of your background will be and also ask your subject what color they plan on wearing.
For example, if I am photographing in a studio and I know I’m going to be using a black backdrop, then it’s perfectly fine to still have your subject wear black, just ensure you have your lighting setup correctly to illuminate your subject’s clothes and backdrop effectively so they don’t blend together and create a “floating head” scenario.
What is the Best Color to Wear in a Headshot?
As mentioned in the previous section, there is not necessarily “one best color.”
Once again, you will want to understand the goal of the headshot session.
If you are going for a more moody session, then wear darker colors.
If you are going for a professional business headshot, then you will want your subject to wear a classic color suit (think navy blue, gray, etc.)
Often times, your subject will ask what they should wear to the session, let them know what you believe the goal of the session is, what background you will be photographing on, and to bring different colors if they want!
Here’s an example response if your client asks this question:
“Hey [client], feel free to wear whatever you feel most comfortable in! Since these are [professional business headshots], I recommend wearing a classic-colored suit. The backgrounds we will be using will be a white and black interchangeable background, so also feel free to bring different sets of colors if you want!”
I love sending responses like these because it:
- Starts to build a conversational connection with your client
- Lets them know what to expect when they arrive
- Shows that you are professional because you are planning ahead
All of these will allow for a great headshot photography session!
I hope you enjoyed this headshot photography guide. If you are looking for a job as a headshot photographer, check out Jooble’s job postings for photographers.
Now I want to hear from you!
If you found any of these tips/techniques to be helpful, or you have a tip that works for you —
be sure to let me know by leaving a comment down below!
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Nate Joaquin Torres is a portrait photographer based in Southern California. As a photographer, Nate loves testing different photography styles and gear to expand his skill set. Outside of photography, Nate enjoys learning about new digital marketing strategy and new ways to think creatively. Nate is also the founder of Imaginated.com, DEEP IN THE MIX, and Blue Hour Candle. Connect with him on Instagram.