Headshot photography tips (capture the perfect shot)

Great headshots are extremely important for making a strong first impression online. Almost everyone needs them these days and you don’t need a lot of space to photograph headshots. So it’s a really good add on to a portrait photography business for models, actors and business professionals.

Here are some of my top headshot photography tips for taking the perfect headshot, covering everything from technical considerations to creative choices.

Technical aspects of headshot photography include:

  • Lens choice
  • Camera settings
  • Lighting
  • Background

But beyond the technical considerations, headshot outfit choices are important and include:

  • Outfit colors
  • Outfit styles and variety

Getting these elements right ensures your subject looks their best and you deliver a good variety of technically sound images.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Social media profile headshot in a field of buttercups
We went for a boho vibe and photographed in a field of buttercups to suit her brand for social media headshots. I used off camera flash for a pop of light on her face

4 Technical headshot photography tips

These 4 headshot photography tips are the key technical aspects you need to get right to ensure you capture the best possible headshots.

1. Best lens for headshots

Choosing the right lens is essential for capturing high-quality headshots. Whether you use a zoom lens or prime lens, it’s the focal length that matters most.

Longer focal lengths make it easier to blur the background, but more importantly they’re flattering for your subject’s features. Anything less than 85mm for a head and shoulders shot distorts facial features.

Further reading: Best lens for headshots – why lens choice is critical for good portraits

The focal length of your lens has a significant impact on the final image.

A longer focal length will compress the image, making the subject’s features appear more prominent. Conversely, a shorter focal length will create a wider field of view, which can be useful for capturing environmental portraits

Online Profile headshot shoot in the studio with brick wall background

2. Camera settings

Shooting in manual mode allows you to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO as needed and is essential if using flash.

However, if you’re not comfortable with manual mode, aperture priority mode works well for headshots with natural light or continuous light.

A fast shutter speed isn’t essential for headshots as headshot subjects are usually stationary.

Unless you’re going for a great hair flick. Obviously, this very much depends on the purpose of the headshot!

A good rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed that’s at least double the focal length of your lens to avoid camera shake blurring the image. So, if you’re using an 85mm lens, you should aim for a shutter speed of at least 1/160th of a second.

Use a wide aperture for a blurry background with outdoor headshots. If you like to obliterate the background, go as wide as your lens and the light allows. Just be aware that at F1.8 your subject’s nose will be out of focus.

I tend to use F4 and ensure that the subject is far away from the background so that my subject’s features are sharp and the background is soft.

Model portfolio headshot outdoors with direct sunlight
When a subject has great skin, photographing in direct sunlight makes a wonderfully dramatic image. I used off camera flash for a hair light

Sharp focus

Even more than other types of portrait photography, because headshots are more close up, sharp focus is essential.

To ensure that your subject’s eyes are in focus:

  • Use a single autofocus point (or eye autofocus if your camera has it)
  • Set your focus to continuous focus
  • Focus on the eye closest to the camera

I use these camera settings with back button focusing for all my photography, regardless of whether the subject is moving or not.

3. Headshot lighting

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of a great headshot (well, any photo actually).

Good lighting, both natural and artificial lighting, sculpts the subject’s features to create a flattering image.

How you use the light that you have matters more than the source of the light.

Further reading: 4 simple headshot photography lighting setups

Natural lighting

Natural light is great for headshot photography, either indoors or outdoors.

  • Avoid direct sunlight falling on your subject’s face as this will cause harsh shadows
  • Indirect light is ideal for sculpting features
  • Open shade provides the flattest, softest natural light that’s flattering for skin, making lines and blemishes less obvious
Social media profile headshot with industrial background
Social media style headshot photographed against an industrial background outdoors to suit his interest in cars. I used off camera flash (see further down for a completely different look in the same photoshoot)

Strobe lighting

The best thing about strobe lighting for headshot photography, is that you’re in control of the light and it can be used indoors or outdoors.

Using flash allows you to adjust the intensity, direction, and color of the light to suit the subject’s features.

Plus, indoors, studio lighting provides a controlled environment.

However, I particularly enjoy using flash outdoors with natural light in a two light setup for headshots. I use the sun as backlight and off camera flash with a softbox light modifier as the key light on their face.

Reflected light

Use a reflector as an additional light source to fill in the shadows created by the main light source by bouncing light back into the subject’s face. Especially when photographing outdoors with natural light and using the sun as backlight.

Reflectors are a cheap and versatile way of creating fill light.

However, fill light isn’t just reflected light. You can use a second light source, either natural or artificial, to act as fill light.

4. Headshot backgrounds

Unless you’re filling the frame with your subject’s face, the background is a very visible part of any portrait. You want to create a stunning headshot that stands out, while making sure that it’s the subject that stands out and not the background.

Headshot background colors should complement the subject and their clothing, but also be appropriate for the type of headshot.

Further reading: What’s the best photography backdrop material for portraits (pro tips)?

Business headshot photography tips outdoors with natural light
This was the same photoshoot as the earlier image, but this time with a LinkedIn profile look for a corporate headshot. Photographed outdoors using natural light

Types of headshot backgrounds

The headshot background you choose should match the purpose of the headshot. Not only should the style and colors suit their brand, business or purpose of the headshot, it should suit them. For example:

Headshots for a corporate website – a clean and simple background like white or gray is often the preferred choice.

Model portfolio headshots – a white background is ideal.

Actor headshots – you can be more creative with color and texture for a more colorful or creative background.

Branding photography headshots – it’s often best to photograph outside or in the subject’s environment. Choose a location with a background that suits the brand. For example, a red brick wall versus leafy green vegetation.

Actor headshot photography tips
You can get a little creative with actor headshots to show personality and versatility

2 headshot photography outfit tips

Choosing the right outfits is very important for a successful headshot. So clothing style and colors should be discussed ahead of the photoshoot so that you can plan for it.

1. Outfit colors

Color is important for the overall look and feel of the image, because different colors convey different emotions and moods. So you need to consider the subject’s personality and the intended use of the headshot when selecting colors.

For example, blue conveys a sense of calmness and trust, while red conveys passion and energy.

Neutral colors

Neutral colors such as black, white, and gray create a classic and timeless look. They’re also versatile and can work well in a variety of settings.

Bright colors

Bright colors add a pop of personality and make the subject stand out. However, they should be used sparingly so they don’t overwhelm the image.

When selecting colors, you need to consider the subject’s skin tone and hair color.

  • Warm skin tones and hair – cool colors such as blues and greens provide contrast.
  • Cool skin tones and hair – warm colors such as oranges and yellows provide contrast.

Avoid colors that are too close to the subject’s skin tone, as they can blend in and make the subject appear washed out.

Model portfolio headshot in studio against white background
Model portfolio headshots need to be simple, with flat light (I use a large white reflective umbrella for these). Ideally against a white background

2. Outfit styles for headshots

What a subject wears can make a big difference to how they look in their images. Plus, clothing style must be in keeping with the purpose of the headshot.

A variety of outfits adds variety to a headshot session. So, for a more varied selection of images, advise your subject to bring:

  • A variety of tops with different necklines
  • A selection of jackets (it’s the quickest way to change the look)

Further reading: What to wear for headshots (color and outfit style tips)

Headshot photography tips for the perfect headshot

Here are a few extra headshot photography tips to help you achieve the best headshots possible:

  • Have a pre-session consultation with your client to understand their needs and expectations for the headshot. This will help you determine the best style, location, and lighting for the shoot.
  • Use soft lighting to create a flattering, even look. Avoid harsh or direct lighting that can create unflattering shadows.
  • Encourage your subject to relax and be themselves during the shoot. This will help them feel comfortable and confident, which will show in the final headshot.
  • Pay attention to the subject’s posture and facial expression. A good headshot should convey confidence and approachability.
  • Consider using props or accessories (sparingly!) that reflect the subject’s personality or profession.
  • Use different camera angles for variety and don’t be afraid to try unconventional poses or framing, depending on the type of headshot of course.
  • Use editing software to enhance the headshot, but avoid over-editing. The goal is to create a natural, polished look.
  • Deliver the digital files in both high resolution for printing and low resolution for online use on social media and websites.
Outdoor headshot for motorbike influencer
I used natural light only for this influencer headshot. Shoot time was sunrise for the dramatic lighting on a mountainside road

Types of headshots

The type of headshot, purpose of the photo and the intended audience define the style of headshot sessions. Understanding the different types of headshots, ensures you create the right type of headshot for the intended purpose.

  • Business Headshots are usually used on websites, business cards, and other marketing materials. Business headshots, including branding photography, should be professional and convey a sense of confidence and competence.
  • Corporate Headshots are similar to business headshots, but are taken for employees of a company. They’re usually taken against a plain background and need to be consistent across all employees of the company.
  • Professional Portraits are a type of business headshot, but are for professionals in various fields such as doctors, lawyers, and real estate agents. They should convey professionalism and expertise.
  • Profile Photos are specifically for social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They should be friendly and approachable, but should “stop the scroll” while still being in keeping with the subject’s brand.
  • Online Dating Profiles are slightly different from other profile pictures as it’s more personal and you want to attract the right match. So, dating profile headshots should convey personality, a sense of warmth and friendliness and be in keeping with the type of person the subject wants to attract.
  • Model portfolio headshots must be simple, well lit and clearly show the model’s features so that they can get booked for a casting and land the job.
  • Actor headshots need to grab the eye of the casting director so must show personality, be well lit and be attention grabbing.
Actor headshots in the studio
Bonus headshot photography tip – remember to use different camera angles to add variety to the photoshoot

5 common headshot mistakes to avoid

These headshot mistakes can ruin an otherwise great photo and make it look unprofessional.

1. Poor Lighting

One of the most common mistakes in any type of portrait photography is poor lighting.

Make sure that the lighting is even and not too harsh. Avoid direct sunlight or harsh shadows, as they can create unflattering shadows on the face. Use soft, diffused lighting instead.

2. Bad Posture

Even with head and shoulders shots posture makes a big difference to a subject’s appearance and the message their body language conveys.

While you want your subject to have good posture, they also shouldn’t overdo it. Make sure that the subject is sitting or standing up straight and not slouching.

3. Wrong Clothing

Avoid clothing with busy patterns or logos, as they can be distracting. Instead, opt for solid colors or simple patterns. Also, make sure that the clothing is appropriate for the subject’s profession.

4. Over-Retouching

While it’s important to retouch the photo to remove blemishes and other imperfections, it’s important not to overdo it. Over-retouching can make the subject look fake and plastic.

5. Wrong Lens

Make sure that you use the appropriate lens, and in particular focal length, for the situation. A wide-angle lens can distort the subject’s face, while a telephoto lens can compress the features.

Further reading: Best lens for headshots – why lens choice is critical for good portraits

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If you have any questions about headshot photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my headshot photography tips have improved your headshot photography sessions, share that too.

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