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

Yes Please

These days everyone is looking for a headshot photography session. From fitness instructors to Instagram bloggers to business owners, anyone looking to improve their marketing and get their brand out there will need a professional headshot.

The process is not as simple as it seems though. So where do you start when it comes to taking headshots?

Let’s look at the step-by-step process of a headshot session!

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

Get to Know Your Client and Their Needs

A headshot begins 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 with a solid background and a business suit. This would most likely be done in a studio.

A fitness instructor, however, would want something more casual, wearing some sort of athletic outfit, possibly shot in a gym space, and maybe even involving small props to show what sort of exercise they teach.

These are extremely different needs! I personally recommend having this discussion before signing paperwork or verbally committing to do the shoot. Sometimes the client wants something that you’re just not equipped or willing to shoot. It’s much better to clear this up sooner rather than later!

The more questions you ask, the better. You’ll feel more at east 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, but 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

Keep the Shot List Simple

These days, the term “headshot” applies to professional portraits of all kinds. Long gone are the days when people just wanted a traditional headshot that showed only their shoulders and head.

With social media and personal brands playing a huge part in our society, 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.

However, headshot sessions are typically priced lower, 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 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 – the lighting, the wardrobe, the pose, the facial expression. You can edit the caption to let the other know what it is about that photo that you like so much.

This is also a great tool for involving the client in the process and making them feel more comfortable with the upcoming shoot!

Diptych portrait photography of a little girl posing outdoors

Contract, Usage, Releases, and Rates

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, from marketing materials to social media and everything in between.

As with any type of portrait photography, you’ll want to request that they grant you permission to use their image in your marketing,. You can either do this through a separate model release or, ideally, in one of the sections within 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 smaller investments and include less photos than a typical portrait session.

They also tend to be quicker sessions, which works perfectly with 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 to Wear

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

Keeping things classic and simple means avoiding busy patterns or colours that clash with their hair colour or the surroundings. Black, while a classic neutral, can often wash out people’s skin tone. Fire-engine red can often look over saturated, and so a red with a deeper tone is better.

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

I do, however, let the client know that these rules can be broken if they really love an item or if they feel they look amazing in it.

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

Finally, my biggest advice is to be 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. Wearing comfortable clothing helps ensure that your client is as at ease as possible during the shoot.

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

Posing 101

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 and then keep them engaged throughout the entire shoot.

Keeping your client engaged, either through an action or conversation, will help to 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 gentle reminders throughout the session to check their posture and straighten up, but it can make a world of difference!
  • Have them look away until you count to three. To avoid the awkward staring into the camera and stiff smile, I like to have the client look away and “forget about the camera” 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. Each person and angle is a bit unique, but I’ve found that most people tend to lean their head slightly back and up, especially when they straighten their posture or laugh. Play with having your client move their chin down and push their face outward slightly. This can often help to define the jawline and make their face stand out from the rest of their body. Don’t be afraid to give your client direction for this while shooting! Just be sure to give them breaks to relax their muscles before continuing.
  • Shoot from just above eye level. Typically, you’ll want to be ever-so-slightly above their eye level. Be sure not to go too far above their eye level, though. The idea is for the eyes to be nice and open, the face to be the focus over the body, but to still feel natural and not like an extreme perspective.
  • Take a few shots in between poses. I admit that I’m one of those photographers that likes to sneak in a few frames without the client expecting it. Those sometimes turn out to be the best shots, though! If you take a few moments to tell a joke, have them relax before continuing to shoot, or look at something that passes nearby, those can often be the moments when the client is looking most natural, relaxed, and genuinely smiling.
  • Have them walk. If you’re looking for a casual on-the-go type of look, having your client walk can be a great way to achieve that. Walking creates movement in their body, relaxes muscles, and for women 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, rather than a stiff wrist high up at the waist. And when hands fall closer to the camera, make sure that they’re not too distracting in the foreground.

As with wardrobe and client collaboration, Pinterest is a great tool for getting ideas for posing. If you search for variations of the type of headshot session that you’re doing, you’ll find lots of images that are sure to spark ideas!

female portrait photography triptych - tips for taking better headshot photography

Best Gear and Settings to Use

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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. While there’s no one lens that is for headshots, 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 along the lines of 1.4 or 1.8 is great, although a lens that opens to 2.8 can be wonderful as well.

The reason for the wide aperture is that with headshots you often want to be able to blur the background to help 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 what you just shot is focused correctly.

So What Are the Typically Used 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, so this is best for open outdoor spaces.

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

For camera settings, there’s also no one way to go about it. However, 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 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, however, try starting with Aperture Priority mode until you get comfortable with making the leap to Manual.

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

Natural Lighting and Staying Sharp

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, you’ll want to look for pockets of light you can use to draw attention to the face, areas of bright shade that provide even light, and strong architectural elements or textures that can serve as interesting backdrops.

Even when working in a studio, you want to keep the light feeling natural and flattering. A studio is the perfect place to do headshots that require dramatic light, too!

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 perfectly placed is crucial! There’s nothing worse than seeing a great expression and composition, only to find that the focus is off and the image is not usable.

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

female portrait photography diptych - tips for taking better headshot photography

Editing and Proofing

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. If there are similar images, there should be a noticeable difference in expression or pose to give the client images.

The idea is to client overwhelming the client with too many nearly identical options! 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 and professional portraits of all types 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, however, 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 work your way up to corporate clients. But hey’re not always as simple as they seem. Keep practising, experimenting, and openly communicating with your client.

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

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

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Natalia Robert

California-based lifestyle photographer and founder of Presets Paradise, 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.presetsparadise.com, and follow my daily adventures on IG (@nataliarobertphoto).

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