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Do you want to understand your camera and take great photos today?

Yes Please

How to take headshots in a photography session is a good skill to have. From Instagram bloggers to business owners and actors – they all need them to improve their marketing.

Where do you start when it comes to taking headshots? We have all the information in this article.

A triptych portrait of a woman with blonde hair- headshot photography tips

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Get to Know Your Clients to Understand Their Needs

Taking professional headshots begin before you even pick up a camera. Knowing your client’s needs is essential to doing a good job! It also lets you know things like location and gear needed.

Is your client a lawyer, or a fitness instructor? A lawyer most likely needs a traditional headshot. This means a solid background and a business suit. And it would most likely happen in a studio.

A fitness instructor would want something more casual. They’ll be wearing some sort of athletic outfit, and the session could take place in a gym space. It could even be involving small props to show what sort of exercise they teach.

These are extremely different needs! I recommend having this discussion before committing to do the shoot. Sometimes the client wants something that you’re not equipped or willing to shoot.

The more questions you ask, the better. You’ll feel more at ease and your client will know they’re in good hands. This will also give you more into what to expect at the actual shoot.

Over time, you’ll develop your own questions. Some good ones to ask include:

  • What industry do you work in and how would you describe your brand?
  • Do you already have something in mind for what your headshot needs to look like? Tell me about that.
  • Where will you be using these photos?
  • Do you have brand colours that we need to work with? Do you have a location already in mind?

A portrait of a woman in green sitting at a coffee table - headshot photography tips

Why You Should Keep the Shot List Simple

These days, the term “headshot” applies to professional portraits of all kinds. Long gone are the days of traditional headshots that showed only the shoulders and head.

Most people want a variety of shots that show everything from headshot to full body! This makes it very easy to get carried away with a long shot list as if it’s a casual family portrait session.

Headshot sessions are typically priced lower. They also include far fewer photos, and variety is a bit more limited. I recommend the following shot list:

  • Headshot in outfit #1; smiling and serious
  • Upper body in outfit #1; smiling, serious, and looking off camera
  • Headshot in outfit #2; smiling and serious
  • Upper body in outfit #2; smiling, serious, and looking off-camera
  • Full body (if requested); leaning, walking, power pose

Each client’s needs will be a bit different. Add or subtract from this list as needed for each specific session. Back to the fitness instructor example. They may want a photo showing them jogging or sitting at a weights machine in a gym.

One great idea to get the ball rolling on headshot poses is to create a joint Pinterest board with your client! You create the board and then add them to it. This way, you can both pin images and share ideas for the shoot.

Let them know that the pins can reflect anything they like. This includes lighting, wardrobe, pose, facial expression. They can edit the caption to let you know what they like about that picture

This is also a great tool for involving the client in the process. It’ll make them feel more comfortable with the upcoming shoot!

Diptych portrait photography of a little girl posing outdoors

What Usage Rights and Rates Should Headshot Photography Include

As with any type of photo shoot, you should work with a signed contract in place that has all the basics covered. For headshot photography, be sure that the usage rights for the client cover all their needs. This includes marketing and social media, and everything in between.

As with any type of portrait photography, ask for permission to use their image in your marketing. You can either do this through a separate model release or in the contract.

When you’re talking about contract needs, you’ll most likely also be discussing your rate. Rates can vary depending on the market in your part of the world. Headshot photography sessions tend to be quicker. This works with the lower rates and fewer final images.

Be sure to do some online research for headshot photography packages in your area. And consider reaching out to fellow photographers near your home.

A portrait of two men sitting on the bottom of a stairs - headshot photography tips

What Should Your Clients Wear for Headshot Photography

Ideally, your client will have a stylist that they work with for their wardrobe. Often, though, clients turn to us for advice! I recommend keeping the outfit classic and timeless so that the photos have a longer shelf life.

Keeping things classic and simple means avoiding busy patterns or unflattering colours.

Black, while a classic neutral, can often wash out people’s skin tone. Fire-engine red can often look oversaturated, and so a red with a deeper tone is better.

Anything that plays up the colour of their eyes is great though!

You can break these rules if your client loves an item or if they feel they look amazing in it.

If the client’s brand calls for certain colours or clothing pieces, you’ll need to incorporate those. A chef may want his white jacket on over his clothing. But a life coach may want to appear relatable and casual.

My biggest advice on is making sure the client is comfortable in the wardrobe chosen! A person who is itchy feels constricted, or is self-conscious will not be comfortable in front of a camera.

A portrait of a man standing on a dusty road with his thumb up - headshot photography tips

How to Pose Your Subject for Headshots

The days of formal poses and stiff subjects are long gone. This doesn’t mean that your clients don’t need posing instructions, though! To keep a relaxed vibe to any pose, I like to give clients gentle guidance on body positioning.

Keeping your client engaged will avoid them holding a pose for so long it comes off feeling stiff.

Here are a few tips for approaching posing:

  • Posture is key – Most people will need reminders to check their posture and straighten up.
  • Have them look away until you count to three – I like to have the client look away while I set up my gear. Once I’m in position and ready, they look at the camera on the count of three and give me a fresh smile.
  • Chin forward and slightly down – I’ve found that most people tend to lean their head back and up. Especially if they’re straightening their posture or laughing. Play with having your client move their chin down and push their face outward. This can often help to define the jawline and make their face stand out from the rest of their body.
  • Shoot from just above eye level – You’ll want to be ever-so-slightly above their eye level. Be sure not to go too far above their eye level, though. It should feel natural and not like an extreme perspective.
  • Take a few shots in between poses – A great piece of advice in how to take a good headshot is capturing candid shots. I’m one of those photographers that likes to sneak in a few frames without the client expecting it. If you take a few moments to tell a joke, have them relax before continuing to shoot. Or have them look at something that passes nearby. These can often be the moments when the client is looking most natural and smiling.
  • Have them walk – If you’re looking for a casual on-the-go type of look, have your client walk. Walking creates movement in their body, and relaxes muscles. For women, it can also let the hair fall back and off the face.
  • Don’t forget the hands – Knowing what to do with hands can be tricky, but they can ruin a photo if placed awkwardly. When folding arms, be careful not to have them too tight and pulling at the shoulder. If placing hands on hips for a power pose, allow the hand to fall on the mid-hip area and fall limp. And when hands fall closer to the camera, make sure that they’re not too distracting in the foreground.

Pinterest is also a great tool for getting ideas for posing. If you search for type of headshot session that you’re doing, you’ll find lots of images that are sure to spark ideas!

female portrait photography triptych - how to take headshots photography

What Are the Best Gear and Settings to Use

You’ll want to be clear on the gear you need and how to use it before the shoot. Let’s start with the lens. There’s no one lens made for professional headshots. But you’ll generally want to shoot with a 50mm or longer lens.

This is because wider lenses will distort more and are unflattering for the body and face.

Also, you’ll want a lens that can open to a pretty wide aperture. Something like a 1.4 or 1.8 is great. A lens that opens to 2.8 can be wonderful as well.

When taking headshots, you often want to be able to blur the background to draw attention to your subject.

You do this by lowering that f-stop so you have a shallower depth of field and your subject is the only thing in focus.

One note of warning with very low f-stops is that if you’re shooting with 1.2 or 1.4, the depth of field is very shallow. You have to make sure that your focus is spot on! Don’t be afraid to take a few moments to look at your screen. Zoom in to make sure that your picture has the correct focus.

So What Are the Most Common Lenses?

Primes like a 50mm or 85mm are very common for headshots, but I also love using the 70-200mm/2.8. A lens like the 70-200mm requires you to have some room to step back from your subject. This is best for open outdoor spaces.

For a beginner lens, the 50mm/1.8 is very budget friendly. And it is perfect for getting started with taking professional headshots.

For camera settings, there’s also no one way to go about it. But paying attention to your f-stop is key if you want to blur the background at all. Also, make sure that you’re at a high enough shutter speed to avoid motion blur.

The general rule is that you need to double the focal length to be sharp. This means when you shoot with a 50mm lens, you need 1/100th of a second. If you shoot at 70mm, you need 1/140th of a second or faster, and so on.

I don’t recommend shooting in Auto Mode for professionals (most photographers don’t). You can start with Aperture Priority mode until you get comfortable with Manual.

A portrait of a woman in pink against a leafy wall - headshot photography tips

How to Work With Natural Light Headshot Photography

You rarely need a studio for headshots these days. Unless you’re dealing with corporate clients, formal professions, or very specific requests.

When shooting outdoors, look for pockets of light you can use to draw attention to the face. Also, keep an eye out for areas of bright shade that provide even light. Strong architectural elements or textures can serve as interesting backdrops.

Even when working in a studio, you want to keep the light feeling natural and flattering. A studio is also the place for taking professional headshots with dramatic light.

Of course, be sure to talk this all through with your client early on so that logistics can be worked out.

Making sure your focus is placed in the correct spot is crucial! There’s nothing worse than seeing a great expression and composition, but the focus is off. The image is not usable.

For taking headshots, you should always focus on the eye that’s closest to the camera.

female portrait photography diptych - tips for how to take headshots

Editing Headshot Photography for Crispness and Clarity

Before you begin your editing, you’ll want to sort through the photos. Mark the ones that look best and you want to present to the client. This process is called culling and can be crucial in putting your best work forward.

Keep in mind that the client doesn’t need to see 5 versions of the same image. There should be a noticeable difference in expression or pose for similar pictures.

This is where having that short and specific shot list can come in handy.

After culling, you’re ready to edit! For most headshots, you’ll want to achieve a clean edited look. This means that you’ll most likely be using less effects in your editing.

Headshots aim to introduce the viewer to the subject. This is best done when the image is sharp, has a fair amount of contrast or clarity, and feels crisp.

Extra touches like teeth whitening and skin smoothing are often welcomed! While you want to keep those edits subtle, the idea is to present your client in a crisp, fresh, and polished light.

Conclusion

Headshot photography can be a fun way to get started with portraits. Or you can use it to work your way up to corporate clients.

But they’re not always as simple as they seem.

Incorporate these headshot photography tips, and you’ll have a solid client list in no time!

And here’s a cool video on taking headshot photos.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Natalia Robert

California-based lifestyle photographer and founder of The Grove, I specialize in interiors big and small for unique properties worldwide. With my spunky dog as my co-pilot, I'm always looking for the next adventure! You can find me at www.NataliaRobert.com and www.MeetMeAtTheGrove, and follow my daily adventures on IG (@nataliarobertphoto).

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