Offering headshot photography sessions can be a great way to diversify to your photography business. It’s a service needed year-round and in every community. But before you begin offering headshots sessions, or even practicing them, you’ll need to make sure you have the right equipment. Fortunately, headshots require very little in terms of photography gear.
What equipment do I need to take headshots?
The basic equipment you need to take headshots are a professional grade camera and a portrait-length lens (50mm or longer in focal length) with a wide aperture, along with a memory card to capture those images.
You can use any camera for headshot sessions. But a DSLR camera or a mirrorless camera will give you the best results for your images and provide you with high-resolution files needed for printing and reproduction. Look for a camera with:
- Good low light capabilities
- A resolution of 20 megapixels or more
- The ability to shoot in RAW.
Most headshot photographers use a portrait-length lens like a 50mm, 85mm or a zoom like the 70-200mm lens. That’s because portrait-length lenses (those 50mm or longer) are more flattering for human subjects. These lenses don’t distort your subject, provide good sharpness, and give you a good working distance between your camera and the subject.
If you’re planning to purchase a lens for headshots, make sure it’s 50mm or longer in focal length. Look for a high-quality lens that lets in lots of light and provides good sharpness. Lenses with maximum apertures of f/1.4, f/1.8 or f/2.8 are popular headshot lenses. Those wider apertures allow you to use a very shallow depth-of-field where appropriate. Wider apertures also let in more light, allowing you to shoot in darker environments. You can use prime or zoom lenses, depending on your preference.
Using a high-quality camera, a flattering portrait-length lens, and your knowledge of photography, you can offer outstanding headshots sessions. Additional equipment you might need will depend on if you plan to shoot natural light headshots or studio headshots.
We will talk a little more in detail about the following:
- Natural light headshot equipment
- Studio headshot equipment
Equipment for natural light headshots
If you’re a natural light photographer, meaning you shoot using the ambient light in a scene, you’ll need less equipment than a studio photographer. The camera and lens are the most important pieces of equipment to invest in, but here are some other helpful items.
If you shoot outdoors using natural light, a reflector may be a smart investment. Reflectors bounce the existing natural light back into your scene to fill in shadows. You can use natural reflectors like sidewalks or white buildings. But sometimes you need to bring your own reflector with you! Look for a five-in-one reflector like this one from B&H Photo. The basic reflector is white, but you can also zip a gold, silver, or black lining over it to change the lighting in your scene.
Using a tripod during headshot sessions is helpful in lots of ways. First, a tripod gives you more stability in your shots. If you’re shooting at low shutter speeds, it can help prevent camera shake. It also ensures that your shots will all be the same distance from your subject, eliminating the need for cropping or resizing in post-production. And finally, a tripod lets you, as the photographer, maintain better eye-contact with your subject. After you frame your scene and set focus in the camera via the viewfinder, you can get out from behind the camera. You have use of your hands to gesture and the subject will feel more at ease talking to you and not your lens!
Stools and Chairs
Using a stool or chair helps put your client at ease. These items also help improve your headshot posing and can change the look and feel of an image. You can also use a chair in different ways to get different poses or expressions from your client. For example, I have male clients sit on the edge of the chair facing forward, sit in the chair backward and lean over it, or stand up and lean on the back of the chair.
If you’re short, invest in a stool you can stand on to be eye level with your subjects!
Umbrellas Or Other Shade
I keep a medium-sized white umbrella in my photography kit to help provide shade for my clients. Sometimes there is a small hot spot hitting your client’s hair or face and an umbrella can block that light and provide even lighting across their face and torso. You can use a reflector to do this as well.
Want to see a natural light headshot session as it happens? Check out this episode of the Backstage Pass! The first few minutes are free and you can check out this great benefit of Cole’s Classroom membership!
Equipment for off-camera flash and studio headshots
Other photographers rely on off-camera flash for their lighting. If you’re an off-camera flash photographer, you’ll need additional equipment for headshot sessions, including lighting, light modifiers and backgrounds. An off-camera flash photographer may also benefit from using a tripod and stools or chairs.
Continuous lights, speedlights, and strobes can all be used during headshots. Supplemental lighting can create or eliminate shadows in a way that is more flattering to your subject or that helps create the “look” you’re trying to achieve. Your lighting might need to look very different for a headshot for a heavy-metal guitarist than it would for your local mayor.
What kind of studio lighting you use is a matter of budget and personal preference. Continuous lights, speedlights, and strobes can all be used for headshots.
Next up, light modifiers. These help shape the scene’s lighting. Bigger modifiers like umbrellas and softboxes help diffuse and soften the light. Stripboxes, grids, flags, and snoots, shape the light and allow you to put light only where you need it! Gels are colored pieces of film that color the light coming out of your speedlight or strobe and can be used to change the color of a background or provide colored light on your subject.
Finally, some clients prefer a clean, artificial background to headshots taken in a natural environment. Backgrounds are available in all different colors, textures, and sizes. Some backgrounds even look like an actual scene. I usually recommend investing in two or three neutral backgrounds to use for studio headshot sessions. Gray, blue, cream, and white are all popular backgrounds for more traditional headshots.
Headshot sessions can be as basic as you, your subject, and your camera and lens. If you’re trying to craft a very specific look or feel, additional equipment may be needed. Remember the success of your headshots has more to do with your knowledge of photography than any specific piece of equipment ever could!