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

Headshot photography is about creating a strong first impression and showcasing personality to attract the right clients or soulmate, land a job interview or catch the eye of a casting director. So what someone wears is really important, but it’s not as simple as just dressing the part. Because what looks good in real life might not photograph well, what to wear for headshots can be tricky.

Headshot outfits must compliment the subject, not dominate the photo or distract the viewer’s attention. Different looks work for different types of headshots, so what to wear depends on the purpose of the headshot.

These headshot tips are aimed at photographers who want to run a successful headshot photography business by giving their headshot clients helpful advice on what to wear. If you’re not a photographer and need help to prepare for a headshot session, you’ll find my tips just as helpful.

My headshot tips cover:

  • Colors to wear for headshots
  • What to wear for professional headshots
  • What to wear for acting headshots
  • What to wear for modelling headshots
  • What NOT to wear for headshots
Example of what to wear for headshots
The complementary colors of pastel pink and light lime green work well for a lively, light hearted image and suit the subject’s coloring.

1. What is the best color to wear for a headshot?

Choosing the best colors to wear for headshots is actually more important than with other types of portrait photoshoots, because an outfit’s color reflects off skin. As the face features prominently in headshot photos the color reflecting off clothes onto the face is far more obvious.

How skin tone affects outfit color choice

You know how some colors just suit certain people and not others? Well, that comes down to skin tone and, more specifically, how warm or cool it is.

A QUICK PRO TIP (as an aside) to work out if you have a warm or cool skin tone is to look at the veins on your forearms. If they’re:

  • Blue veins – cool skin tone
  • Green veins – warm skin tone
  • Can’t see veins – probably neutral skin tone

Most people know what colors look good on them, so for headshots wear colors you like. But a word of caution first –  there are a few colors that look good in real life but don’t work photographically…

What colors NOT to wear for headshots

The first advice I give my headshot clients is what color NOT to wear for a headshot. Both of these colors could affect skin tone and can make someone look a bit ill, depending on whether they have warm or cool skin. As we don’t meet until the day of the headshot session, I prefer to avoid a potential problem. So for headshots, the advice I give is DO NOT wear:

  • Yellow
  • Green

I remember a few years ago seeing a photo of the queen in the newspaper that really brought this message home. I wish I’d saved the photo so that I could show you. She was wearing a mint green outfit with a matching green hat on a sunny day. The light hitting her clothes reflected green up into her face and the light shining through her hat made her face even greener.

Layered outfit for headshots
A navy business jacket layered over a white crew neck top is a good casual look for business headshots in the tech industry. See my tips at the end for avoiding glare on glasses in headshots.

Colors to limit in headshots

White, pastel yellow and black can present difficulties in headshot sessions for different reasons.

Light colors like white and pastel yellow can easily draw the eye away from the subject’s face, because our eyes go to the brightest part of an image. They may also easily be overexposed, especially with darker skin tones. The lighting and camera settings will be set to expose the face perfectly. So if there’s too much dynamic range between skin tone and outfit color, one or the other will suffer.

Some white is fine, but too much can make some skin tones appear quite washed out.

Black can be very dominant in an image and can also wash out a subject, depending on their skin tone. That doesn’t mean that darker colors should be avoided. For example, a navy blue suit jacket would be better than a black business suit for a professional headshot.

Bright colors can easily dominate an image and draw attention away from the subject. However, a pop of color in an outfit creates an energetic atmosphere, so can be worn sparingly. For example a bright color shirt under a neutral color jacket.

Colors that suit ALL skin tones for headshots

With all that said, the good news is that you can safely recommend these four colors to wear for both female headshots and male headshots, because they suit all skin tones:

  • Eggplant purple
  • Teal
  • Pastel pink
  • True red

Color theory for headshots

Wear colors that work with the background colors to create different emotions:

Refer to the color wheel when deciding on the best colors for a photoshoot.

Business headshot with striped tie
The pattern on the tie in this headshot is too demanding on the eyes, so we’re distracted from his face.

2. What to wear for professional headshots

Some industry’s dress code is more formal than others, so the first rule of what to wear for business headshots is to dress appropriately for the industry. Obvious I know, but it’s really important so worth mentioning.

  • For corporate headshots wear neutral colors, like navy or brown
  • A tie is a great way to add a contrasting color, but make sure it doesn’t have a bold pattern
  • For those working in a creative field clothing can be more adventurous so wearing bold colors works well to draw attention to the image
  • Layer your outfit by adding a jacket in a darker and/or different color from your shirt
  • Take a couple of different jackets and shirts to your shoot for a variety of looks to make the most of your headshot session
  • For a more casual professional look wear a collared shirt paired with a v-neck sweater

As headshots are officially just head and shoulders, it doesn’t matter what pants and shoes you wear to a professional headshot session. However, I think it’s a good idea to be fully dressed in the right attire for corporate headshots. This way you can add few three quarter length images or even full body photos to the photo shoot.

The pop of color in her hair makes this image stand out while the outfit and background colors work well together in a harmonious analogous color scheme. The lace pattern on her dress is not distracting as it’s a solid color.

3. What to wear for actor headshots

The main rule for actor headshots is to dress for the role you want (and of course to project this character in the photo session).

Take several outfits to portray different looks to suit the character types you can play.

Catch the eye of casting directors by wearing bold colors against a dark background.

Example of what to wear for headshots modelling
Form fitting clothes are ideal for modelling headshots. Unlike all other headshots, headshot outfits for models can be sleeveless to help show body shape.

4. What to wear for modelling headshots

Even though the body isn’t really visible in headshots, for modelling headshots it’s important to wear form fitting clothes that show off the upper body to give an indication of body shape.

While for most headshots it’s not a good idea to wear sleeveless tops or short sleeves, for modelling headshots you need to show off your body shape as well as your face.

5. What NOT to wear for a headshot

I  advise my clients what not to wear rather than what to wear as these five headshot outfit mistakes can really mess up the overall look of headshot photos.

Headshot outfit showing stripes don't work
A great example of a bad outfit for headshots. The striped top is far too demanding and takes attention away from her face. Added to that, red is also a demanding color.

Don’t wear outfits with patterns for headshots

Patterns distract from the face, the most important aspect of a headshot.

That includes stripes. When stripes are close together they cause an effect, called moire, in digital images that we can’t see in person. It’s very distracting and even annoying on the eyes. Wide stripes aren’t good either as it’s a very demanding pattern.

So avoid patterns, especially busy patterns, for headshot outfits and choose solid colors only.

Wear clothes that fit well

Form fitting clothes are slimming in headshots.

Clothes that are too tight will bulge and be unflattering. On the other hand, clothes that are too baggy also don’t fit well. Either way the subject won’t look sharp if clothes don’t fit well.

Necklines matter for headshots

No turtlenecks. Just because one of the most famous headshots features a man wearing a black turtleneck doesn’t mean that it’s a good choice for headshots. Turtlenecks are not at all good for headshots, especially a black one worn against a dark background, as the subject can end up looking like a floating head. The lack of neck can also be quite unflattering.

Aside from that, a photo of someone wearing a black turtleneck will make the viewer think of Steve Jobs. So it won’t look unique, they won’t be judged on their own merits.

No sleeveless tops. If arms and shoulders are visible in a headshot they distract attention away from the face, which is the focal point of a headshot. Plus arms can easily not look good in photos, so it’s best to keep them covered.

No logos or pictures. Because our eyes are drawn to text, logos will distract from the face. Pictures will also drawn attention away from the face, especially if there are eyes in the picture. Human eyes seek out eyes, even eyes in pictures and drawings.

No low cut shirts. This applies to both male headshots and female headshots. You don’t want cleavage or lots of bare chest on display in headshots as, like with bare arms, it draws attention away from the face. Plus for most headshots, if not all, it sends the wrong message.

Bold pattern on scarf in headshot
The bold pattern of the scarf takes our attention away from the subject

Don’t wear jewellery and accessories

Again, headshots are about the person in the photo, not their wardrobe.

Jewellery and accessories such as scarves and hats can distract from the subject. The only type of earrings that should be worn in headshots is simple stud earrings.

Of course traditional jewellery that’s always worn, as well as wedding rings and engagement rings is perfectly fine.

People who usually wear glasses, should wear glasses in their headshots, otherwise they won’t look like themselves. A pro tip for avoiding glare on glasses in headshots is to tilt the lenses slightly downwards by lifting the arms of the glasses slightly up from the ear. Also, take a little extra care with light placement.

Leather jacket in headshots
Leather jackets are the exception to the rule of no shiny clothing in headshots. In this instance the texture of the leather jackets adds a bit of depth to the image without being distracting.

Don’t wear shiny clothes in headshots

Shiny outfits can be very distracting, because spectral highlights (where the light hits the outfit) will draw attention away from the face. This goes back to the point I made earlier about our eyes going to the lightest part of an image.

While it’s a bit shiny under studio lighting, a leather jacket is the one exception to this rule. However, a leather jacket is only a good idea if it’s appropriate to the headshot style required – great for a musician, or for a dating profile headshot, not for a lawyer’s business headshot.

More headshot tips

For more headshot tips about lenses and why using the right one is critical for good photos, read my article on the best lens for headshots.

Headshot lighting can be as simple or as complicated as you like. Here are 4 simple headshot photography lighting setups

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As you’ll have gathered, there isn’t one perfect headshot outfit. Luckily – otherwise we’d all look the same! But if you use these headshot tips on what to wear as general guidelines for different people with different headshot requirements, you’re on your way to great headshots!

If my headshot tips have helped you with outfits selection, or if you have any questions about what to wear for headshots let me know in the comments.

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