What is headshot photography – tips for different types of headshots


In our very connected online world a good headshot is as essential as business cards used to be. So professional headshots are now very important and therefore a good source of income for professional photographers. No wonder it’s become a very popular genre of portrait photography. But before you can offer clients headshot photos for personal or professional use, you need to know the finer details of what is headshot photography?

Here we look at the difference between headshots and portraits and the big variety of types of headshots that professional photographers offer for marketing purposes.

Ideal LinkedIn business portrait
An example of a good business portrait to use for social media profiles. The subject’s face fills the frame and connects straight down the lens with the viewer.

What is a headshot photo?

The main function of a headshot photo is to introduce you to potential clients or casting agents. Or anyone new that you’re hoping to attract. Which is why they’re not just for business.

Headshots have also become increasingly more popular for dating sites, because the viewer will feel more connected to the subject than they would with, for example, a full body portrait.

In fact, headshots are used in all aspects of life now. Probably more than you think. I’ve gone into more detail on this further down as there are different types and ways of capturing headshots for different uses.

In a nutshell, a headshot photo is a close up, personal introduction that allows the viewer to look into your eyes and meet you virtually. A good, professional headshot will convey a sense of who you are.

Is a headshot just your head?

No. While the point of a headshot photo is that it’s a close up of your face, you need more than just a head in a photo.

From a composition point of view, people look odd with just a head in shot or even just a head and neck. You need shoulders in shot as well. Headshot photos are generally from the chest up and, at the very least, from the shoulders up.

Some headshot photoshoots include three quarter length and even full body photos as well as headshots, but a true headshot is a head and shoulders shot.

Business headshot photography that shows personality
For small businesses headshots need to convey personality. So an essential skill for any professional photographer is to be able to make a subject relax in front of the camera and even have fun.

What should a headshot include?

While a headshot includes head and shoulders, hands, held up near the face, also often appear in headshot photos. For this reason I always advise my headshot clients to ensure that their nails are neat and tidy ahead of the photoshoot, even for headshots.

Because shoulders are included in headshots, the top worn by the subject is also important. It should be a solid color, without logos or printing. Our eyes are drawn to writing, so this would distract from the subject.

I advise my headshot clients to bring different tops with different necklines and in different colors to a headshot session, because you can quickly work through a variety of looks just by changing the top. Some necklines are more flattering than others and the top’s purpose is to help frame the subject’s face.

Jewellery should be kept to a minimum to minimize distractions. Great headshots are all about the eyes and creating a connection with the viewer.

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

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

While all headshots are a form of portrait photography, not all portraits are headshots. The most important difference between portraits and headshots is the purpose of the photo. Headshots aren’t just pretty pictures, they’re photos that have a job to do, and that’s to get attention.

The requirements for headshots are much narrower than for portraits so, the vast majority of the time, there isn’t that much scope for creative lighting, backgrounds and outfits.

That doesn’t mean that headshots are simple, or easier than portraits. Good professional headshot photographers have perfected their craft and deliver highly skilled technical photos that are well lit, carefully posed and portray personality. All this in a short amount of time.

I can’t think of headshots without the name of New York headshot photographer, Peter Hurley, coming to mind. Headshots is his speciality and clients pay a premium for his top notch skills. He’s a great YouTube personality and I’ve picked up some great headshot posing tips on his channel.

What are headshots used for – types of headshot photography

Headshots have always been an essential tool for getting attention, but never more so in the digital age where the first time potential clients meet a person is through business websites, social media, dating websites or model or actor directories.

Corporate headshots

The most formal type of headshots are corporate headshots for business professionals. Very often these are taken against a white background, because of the clean, bright upbeat feeling. However, a dark gray background can really help the subject to stand out.

To maintain consistency of headshots on the corporation’s website businesses will book a professional headshot photographer to photograph several employees over a day, or more if it’s a large corporation. This way the lighting, background and crop will be consistent for all the professional profile images on the website.

Also for consistency, agreeing on facial expressions ahead of the headshot shoot is important for corporate headshots. The culture of the corporation will determine the type of facial expressions. They might need to be more serious or it might be a lighthearted culture where smiles are more appropriate.

Examples of business portraits for social media
During a headshot session it’s also helpful to capture midshot photos that include more of the body than a headshot.

Business headshots

A LinkedIn headshot is the perfect example of a business headshot for social media profiles. That said, not all profile pictures on LinkedIn are good headshots for business purposes!

Business headshots are for anyone in business, including employees looking for a new job as it might be the first glimpse a prospective employer gets of them. Like corporate headshots, the type of business will dictate how formal the headshot needs to be. That said, for a small business it’s very important to convey personality.

An entrepreneur’s business branding is also a very important element of the branding headshot, so brand colors are likely to feature, as well as a personal touch that demonstrates their business. For example a makeup artist could hold their makeup brushes up near their face so that they’re in shot.

Like a corporate headshot, it’s important that a business headshot is from the chest up and that the person is looking straight down the lens connecting with the viewer.

Dramatic eye catching headshots for actors

Actor headshots

The one time headshots are absolutely essential is for promotional pictures of actors. It’s essential for attracting the eye of casting directors.

The headshot is featured on one full side of an actor’s comp card (short for composite card) which is like an actor’s (or model’s) business card. The other side contains several photos, including full length, three quarter length and an action shot. But, as I say, the headshot takes up one full side, which shows how important it is.

To be taken seriously and get the roles, acting headshots need to look like they’ve been taken by a professional headshot photographer. So, if you’re going to sell yourself as a professional headshot photographer for actors, you need to make sure that your headshot photography skills are on point and you can shoot in the style required. It can vary from one country to the next.

They need to show personality and versatility. So, actors need to act for their headshot and project the type of personality required for the roles they’re after.

Model headshot photography examples
Simple model headshots with minimal makeup taken against a white background for a model to apply to an agency.

Model headshots

Like actors, a model’s Z-card (also called a comp card) traditionally has a headshot on one side and a variety of portrait lengths on the other side. The model headshot is also needed for their portfolio and when applying to agencies.

Makeup should be light and editing should be kept to a minimum, with simple blemish removal.

dating profile headshots examples
Dating profile headshots should be relaxed and show personality. Photographing outdoors helps adds to the relaxed feeling. Here you can also see examples of the different styles of photos for male and female dating profiles.

Dating headshots

While most people wouldn’t go to the trouble of getting headshots just for their online social profiles, when it comes to online dating profiles, it’s a different story. Anyone serious about attracting a perfect match should get professional headshots.

Of course, this style of headshots is very much about personality. While they want to look like they’ve put in some effort, there needs to be a balance between technically perfect and showing personality. I prefer to photograph headshots for dating sites outdoors, because it feels more relaxed.

The same rules apply about background, lighting and clothing (although maybe not as strict about clothing), but the setting is part of portraying personality. For example somebody who enjoys beaches, should be photographed at the beach. An outdoorsy type should have an outdoor shoot with vegetation of some sort in the background. A bookworm can be photographed at home, possibly with a bookcase in the background. You get the picture.

Did you know that the type of online dating photos that work differ for men and women? Males should include headshots where they’re looking away and not smiling and women should look into the lens and smile.

Posing tip for hands in headshot photography
Hands often feature in all different types of headshots.

Headshot photography tips

Professional headshot photography is a highly skilled type of portrait photography where small changes in lighting, posing, clothing and facial expression can make a huge difference.

A professional headshot photographer also needs to develop their personal skills to help the client to project their personality, because not many people feel comfortable in front of a camera. This is especially true for new clients.

So here are a few pointers to get you started:

  1. Headshot lighting tips
  2. Posing tips for headshots
  3. Cameras and lenses for headshots

1. Headshot lighting tips

It doesn’t matter if you use studio lighting or natural lighting, the most important point is that it’s good lighting. So what is good lighting for headshots? Here’s a quick checklist:

  • A headshot is all about the eyes, so catchlights in the eyes are essential. Without catchlights the eyes seem lifeless.
  • Shadows create form and help to define and slim faces, but in most headshots shadows shouldn’t be overpowering. This rule doesn’t apply as much to model headshots and actor headshots where dramatic, contrasty lighting can be eye catching.
  • Two popular headshot lighting patterns are Rembrandt lighting and butterfly lighting.
How body angles affect headshot poses
An example of how turning away from camera reduces the size of the subject, even for headshot photos

2. Posing tips for headshots

It’s always good to get a several different headshot poses during a headshot session so that you can offer your client variety (which also maximises your earning potential from a photoshoot). With headshot posing the differences are subtle and, as with all portrait photography, also depends on what’s going to flatter the subject.

  • Facing straight on to camera is perceived as more assertive.
  • However turned slightly (45 degrees at least, sometimes more depending on body shape) to either left or right, with their face facing to camera, reduces their width and is therefore slimming.
  • Also keep an eye on which way their hair parts so that the parting is not on the camera facing side. Photographing from the parting side can make the subject’s hair appear thinner.

3. Headshot photography cameras and lenses

While a high-quality lens is always a better buy than a cheap lens, you don’t have to spend a fortune on a lens to get a good photograph. The two most important factors in a good headshot are:

  • Sharp focus, particularly on the eyes
  • Using the right focal length so that the subject’s face isn’t distorted

I’ve written about lens choice in this article on the best lens to use for headshots.

Leave a comment

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

Also, we love good news, so if our headshot tips have helped you to book clients for business portraits or other types of headshots, share that too.

Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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