Headshot Photography: Our 17 Top Tips for Nailing a Great Headshot

Headshot photography seems simple! It’s one person, sitting or standing still, and all you need is one or two good photographs.  That all may be true, but for many, it can be a stressful session because you want to make sure your client is happy (especially when your photo will be featured in a professional forum).  So let’s get down to business!

Here are tips for getting dynamic headshot photos with personality and depth!

headshot photography Cole's Classroom

First, let’s go over the basics…

What is a headshot photograph?

A headshot is a photograph of a person’s face, that usually includes their shoulders. It can be taken from different angles and is usually used in a professional context, like on social media or professional website. It usually only includes one person, and they are the main subject in your photo.

What’s the difference between a headshot and a portrait?

The difference between a headshot and a portrait is that a headshot usually only includes the face, while a portrait may include the body as well. Make sure you know what your client expects because people often use the words interchangeably.

What is the best lens for headshots?

Any photography lens can be used for portraits, but there are some definite favorites among headshot photographers! If you’re interested, here’s a more in-depth guide to the best portrait lenses!

  • 35mm
  • 50mm
  • 85mm
  • 135mm
  • 24-70mm
  • 24-105mm
  • 70-200mm

Marketing your headshot photography!

Marketing your headshots can be really easy! Most people work, right? And if they don’t, they proooobably on social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Linkedin. What does this mean? That everyone could use a professional headshot. it doesn’t mean that they have to be dressed in a suit or formal attire for a job interview. A lot of people just want a nice, professional photo of themselves (and when they take the five minutes to brush their hair or put on an ironed shirt). Can you tell this doesn’t happen very often in my household?!

You can run flash sales on headshots via social media outlets, tell ALL of your friends, or offer an add-on to your current clients. For example, you can say something like, “Hey Jeff, I’m SO excited for your family session next week. I was just thinking if you need a professional headshot, we can add that option while we’re there! It’s only an extra $50 for three edited images! Let me know what you think!”

To be honest, it’s an easy upsell, and you can get them thinking about professional headshots for their colleagues and friends! In fact, you could run a headshot mini session day! $100 for 3 edited images, OR $75 if they bring a friend! Get creative!

So let’s get down to the good stuff!

How to take headshots!

1. Know what your client is looking for in a headshot photo!

Y’all, LISTEN TO YOUR CLIENTS. It is always good to have a heads up when it comes to your client’s expectations.  What exactly are they looking for? Do they want something formal/classic, or something more candid (for an artistic blog or small business website)? Do they want a solid or a clean background? Or maybe a more urban setting for a more modern, funky look?

The thing is, THEY have an idea in their heads about what they want to look like! And we obviously want to meet their expectations as much as possible, because THEY are going to tell other people about you.

The more you know, the better off you’ll be (plus it helps to settle your nerves)!  In this case, the more information you have, the easier it will be to find the perfect venue, and you’ll have some poses in mind.  Let’s face it; it also makes us look and sound more professional when we communicate effectively! Double win!!

You may want to ask your client the following:

  • Do you hope to use these photos for branding? If so, are there specific colors you’d like to incorporate to match your brand/company personality?
  • What would you like as a backdrop?
  • Are you looking for specific poses? Do you want more natural or posed shots?
  • What part of your personality would you like reflected in your photos?

Tips you may want to suggest to clients:

  • Dress as you would when meeting a client!
  • Be yourself, and don’t alter your dress or makeup/hair specifically for the photos. Basically, we want to make sure our clients look as natural to themselves as possible.
  • Keep it classic! Stay away from trends that could date the photos!
  • Get shots in your environment! If you’re a librarian, you probably don’t want photos at a race track.

 

headshot photography tips

This mom of three boys was looking for a casual and candid photo for her business website. It was taken with a Sigma Art 85mm  at f/1.8, ISO 800, and a shutter speed of 1/400.

2. Make sure they know what to wear.

This directly relates to the first tip of asking questions.  Once you know the look they’re after; you can better direct them on what to wear.  News flash, some people need major direction in the wardrobe department (but maybe I’m just projecting).  You can always prepare a general one-page headshot style guide before your session to send your client some ideas.

Neutrals tend to put the focus on the face, which is where we want it. We don’t want flashy logos or psychedelic prints.  Keep it simple and clean! Neutrals and solids are always a great start.

headshot photography

3. Don’t assume you need a studio.

When you’re starting out, you don’t have a full-blown studio with expensive lighting and thousand-dollar hand-painted backdrops (yes, those do exist)! Look around for cool backdrops, colors and get creative! In your home, in their home, at a local café, a library…you get the idea. GET BUSY and write down some ideas! Urban backgrounds are also really popular these days…so a downtown location with natural light can produce great results!

Headshot Photography

The photo above was taken with a Canon 35mm, ISO 200, f.1.8, SS 1/4000.

Side note:  In many cities, there are professional photo studios that you can rent by the hour, with backdrops AND lighting. Just make sure you add the rental cost into what you charge the client.  For example, the studio rental may cost $30/hr, with the option to add a backdrop for $15 and lighting for $10.

4. Relax!

Take a long, slow deep breath and be yourself! Chat it up with your client and take photos while you’re doing it! Ask questions, praise them, and keep things positive, ALWAYS.  The first 10 minutes are going to be awkward until you both start to loosen up.  Very often, the best photographs come at the end of a session when people are more relaxed and feel freer to be themselves.  When they nail a great pose, tell them they look great! Everyone loves to feel like they are doing well.

5. Encourage, encourage, encourage!

You can use phrases such as:

“Wow, you’re doing so well! I’m impressed!”

“These are looking great!”

“Hold it right there! That pose is perfect!”

“Great smile!”

These are just a few examples, but one thing to keep in mind is to be GENUINE.  There’s nothing worse than someone just “saying” these things and not meaning them.  Ask questions, have fun and be authentic! You can’t ever go wrong when you’re yourself!

6. Get your client to POP of the page.

The trick to getting your client to stand out is pretty easy! Pull them off the background! Most people have the instinct to stick to walls, doors, or anywhere “safe” that makes them feel less exposed! Have them take a few steps off the background, and set your f-stop (aperture) to maybe 1.4 or 1.8. This will create that nice blurred background effect that makes your subject jump off the background.

headshot tips

This photo was taken with a Canon 5D Mark III with a 35mm lens at ISO 100, f/1.4, SS 1/640.

Read this tutorial to learn more about the depth of field, bokeh, and compression in photos!

7. Play with lighting.

There are so many variations of lighting, and it can be pretty darn intimidating.  You can take natural light headshots, use an on-camera or off-camera flash, a strobe set-up, a ring light or beauty dish.  First assess WHERE you’ll be taking the photos, and go from there!

headshot photography Cole's Classroom

Whatever you decided, make SURE that the light is EVEN on your subject.  If you’re using natural light, this means finding somewhere to photograph in open shade or near a large window. We’re trying to avoid any shadows that will distract from your clients face.

You can find much more info on ON-camera flash here, and OFF-camera flashes here.

8. What lens should I choose for headshot photography?

As we all know, there is no ONE camera lens for any specific type of photography session.  You can use a prime lens or a zoom lens, but prime lenses tend to be the more popular choice.  Most headshot photography experts recommend a fixed 35mm, 50mm 0r 85mm lens, or a 24-70mm zoom lens. It really lets you get in tight, for those really personal shots, and also allows you to get your client to pop off the photo.  A 50mm 1.8 will run you about $150, so it may be worth getting if you plan to make headshot photography a niche of yours.

9. Find the right camera settings for your headshot photography.

As well all know, there aren’t EXACT settings for ANY situation, but there are some general rules for headshot photography.  First, you want your depth of field to be shallow for that “popping” off the page effect.  If you like that blurred look, you’ll want to set your f-stop between f/1.4-2.8.  You want to make very sure that your client is TOTALLY in focus. This can be challenging if they are at an angle and your aperture is set to f/1.4, so you’ll need to start somewhere and play with your settings. If you’re interested in learning more about portrait camera settings, check out this tutorial!


You’ll want to put your focal point on your clients’ eye (the one closest to you when you’re shooting).  As far as shutter speed is concerned, make sure that you are at the very least double your lens focal length. So say you’re shooting with a nifty-50mm, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/100th of a second.  If you are using an 85mm, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/170th, or you could just round up to 1/200th.

10. Play with different headshot posing.

Change it up! People look different standing up versus sitting down. Vary your poses and composition. This will yield the highest results for your client to choose their favorite images!

Headshot Photography Ideas

The client in the picture above is an artist and writer! She wanted something less formal more and more unconventional. It was taken with a 35mm, ISO 200, f/1.8, SS 1/1250.

A few tips for posing:

  • Ask your client extend their neck a bit, this creates a longer, slimmer extension and you also avoid the dreaded double chin!
  • Have men put their hands in their pockets for a more relaxed standing look.
  • See if a woman can pop her front leg a tad (during a standing shot) for a slimmer leg.
  • Always shoot at a slight angle if photographing anyone above the waist, it tends to make for a slimmer look as well.
  • Throw out an awkward joke or two for a genuine laugh.

Click here for male poses and here for flattering female poses!

11. Vary your composition!

There isn’t anything more boring than a blank background with someone staring straight into the camera at eye level.  I would show you my driver’s license photo, but I’ll spare you since you can just look at your own!  Throw in the rule of thirds, with a dynamic background and BAM; you just made the photo both professional AND exciting.  To read more about varying your composition, read this excellent tutorial!

Here at the types of composition that can add interest to your photo!

  • Leading lines
  • Framing
  • Rule of thirds
  • Negative space
  • Perspective
  • BREAK THE DANG RULES (seriously, do weird stuff and see what happens)!!!

Headshot Composition

12. Take your time and make adjustments.

You’re not going to nail the perfect shot on the first go.  Your settings may be off, or you’ll need to adjust your exposure if you add a flash. Take your time, reflect, and make small adjustments with your angles and lighting.  Ask yourself, how can I make this better? Sometimes all it takes is a small change in your f-stop to get your client to really stand out from the background. Thankfully, headshot photography sessions typically allow you the time to really refine your settings!

13. Nail your focus!

There is nothing worse than getting back to edit your photos and discovering they are out of focus, especially when your subject is half of the image! The biggest tips in regards to focus are these…

  • Focus on the eye closest to you.
  • Make sure you have a proper shutter speed.
  • Check the back of your camera.  Take the few extra seconds to zoom in on your photos and make sure they are in focus.  You can read more focusing tips here and here!

14. Find their best angle.

Best angle?? Does this really exist? YES!  Ok, women tend to know this more often than men…but it IS a thing.  Not everyone knows, but some will, and it’s ALWAYS good to ask. Maybe it’s how their hair frames their face, or they could be self-conscious of a scar and would prefer it not be shown.  It’s always worth asking! Your client will appreciate it, and you may save yourself some time editing photos you know they may not like.  If your client isn’t sure, you can always take a few shots from different angles and show them the back of your camera and ask if they have a preference (but that’s only if you are comfortable showing the client the back of your camera)!

15. Look for those catchlights!

What the heck are catchlights? Catchlights are those tiny unicorn “twinkles” in the eyes of your subject! I know, I know, that seems like a really minor detail, and it is! However, it’s those TINY little details that add personality and depth to your photos. It is well known in the scientific world that people want to CONNECT with a photo.  This can’t be truer than with headshots, because often times they are used in a professional setting! People want to TRUST who they are working with, right?  This is mainly achieved through the eyes (since they are the window to the soul)! Play with your lighting until you get that “sparkle,” I promise it’s worth the extra tweaking!

You can achieve these catchlights by playing with the light around you or a flash. To read more about catchlights, click here!

16. How do I price headshots?

Pricing is all relative based on your skill level and location, so I wish I could give you a solid number. What I CAN do, is offer you a guide to pricing.

  1. Decide on how many photos you want to offer your client. This can be one photo or a gallery of 25 photos.  Remember, because headshots are of the face, you’ll probably spend more time editing each individual photo, so make sure it’s worth your time.
  2. Research other headshot photographers in your area and get a rough idea of what people are charging. You obviously don’t have to base YOUR prices on what others are doing, but it’s a good guideline if you aren’t sure.
  3. You can set up packages, or just offer one price for your services. If you go the package route, make sure the bottom package isn’t the best value, as you want your clients to choose the higher priced options.

For example:

  1. Elite Package A $350: One hour, 2 locations, 15 high-resolution photos, 8×10 print.
  2. Gold Package B $225: 35 minutes, 1 location, 10 high-resolution photos.
  3. Standard Package C $150: 20 minutes, 1 location, 3 high-resolution photos.

Or, you can just charge $250 for 5 edited photos (just as an example). Remember, don’t let anyone ELSE tell you what to charge. This is your business and YOU get to set your prices!

17. PRACTICE!

Like with anything, practice does make perfect.  People are always looking for an updated headshot.  If you want to get out and practice, start with the people around you!  Friends and family are also more natural to photography because you can really play with your settings without the extra pressure of being perfect.  Throw your flash on, play with off-camera lighting, vary your angles and change up your composition! The point is to get really comfortable with your settings and set up! Headshot photography can be a really great niche because you typically won’t run out of clients!

So those are the basic tips for how to take a headshot!

When you combine all of these tips for mastering headshot photography, you’ll find yourself far more confident (and so will your client). Our primary goal is to capture them authentically!  The easiest way to catch your client genuinely is to want to capture them genuinely! Make sense? Put yourself in your work, play around with your ideas and most of all, HAVE FUN because it WILL show in your photos!

Below is a video on headshot ideas!

Feel free to check out the video below on how I shot and delivered a headshot session in two hours!

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