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How to Take Professional Headshots

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Knowing how to take headshots is an outstanding photography skill. From Instagram bloggers to business owners and actors – they all need a professional headshot to strengthen their image.

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

A triptych headshot portrait of a woman with blonde hair

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Get to Know Your Clients

Taking a professional headshot begins before you even pick up a camera. Knowing your client’s needs is essential for doing a good job! It also lets you learn about the location and gear needed.

Is your client a lawyer, or a fitness instructor? Are they looking for business portraits or corporate headshots? A lawyer most likely needs a traditional headshot. This means a solid background and a business suit. And a studio would be a safe location choice.

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 involve small props to show what sort of exercise they teach.

These are very 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.

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 have a specific idea about the headshot?
  • 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

Keep the Shot List Simple

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.

Many people want a variety of shots that show everything from portraits to the full body! It’s easy to get carried away with a long shot list.

Headshot sessions have lower prices. They also include far fewer photos, and variety is a bit more limited. I recommend the following different headshot 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

Determine the Usage Rights and the Rates

As a professional photographer, you should work with a signed contract 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, social media, and everything between.

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 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 means 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 headshot photographers near your base.

A headshot of a female in glasses by a whiteboard

Discuss the Dress Code

You cannot take great headshots without a suitable outfit. Your client might have a stylist that they work with for their wardrobe.

But often your clients turn to you for the advice! I recommend keeping the outfit classic and timeless. This way, the photos have a longer shelf life.

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

Black is a classic neutral, but it can often wash out people’s skin tone. Fire-engine red sometimes seems oversaturated. A red with a deeper tone is better.

Anything that plays up the colour of their eyes is a great choice.

You can break these rules if your client loves an item or if they feel 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 is making sure the client is comfortable in the final clothes. A person who is too self-conscious will not be comfortable in front of a camera.

Outdoor headshot photo of a young woman

Pose Your Subject for Better 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 too long.

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 camera. 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, avoid a double chin, and make their face stand out from the rest of their body.
  • Shoot from just above eye level – You’ll want to be a bit 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 between poses – Capturing candid shots can help you get better results. I’m one of those photographers that like to sneak in a few frames without the client expecting it. If you take a few moments to tell a joke, you make them relaxed before continuing to shoot. Or have them watch something that passes nearby. These can often be the moments when the client’s face 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 they are in an awkward position. 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 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

Gear and Settings for the Best Headshot Results

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

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

Also, you’ll want a camera lens that can open to a wide aperture. Something like an f/1.4 or f/1.8 is great. A lens that opens to f/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 f/1.2 or f/1.4, the depth of field is very shallow.

You have to make sure that your focus is spot on! You want your client’s face to be sharp. For taking headshots, you should always focus on the eye that’s closest to the camera.

Don’t be afraid to take a few moments to look at your camera screen. Zoom in to make sure that your picture has the correct focus.

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 the camera’s Auto Mode for professional photographers. You can start with Aperture Priority mode until you get comfortable enough to use Manual.

A relaxed headshot of a woman

Work With Natural Light for Flattering Shots

You rarely need a studio for great headshots these days. Unless you’re dealing with corporate clients, formal professions, or very specific requests. But headshots are the best when shot in natural light.

When shooting outdoors, search for a light source or 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.

Avoid shooting in direct sunlight. It makes people squint and uncomfortable to be in the sun for a long time. Direct sunlight can cause harsh shadows too.

If you are working indoors, shoot close to a window. You can diffuse the light with a white curtain or a reflector.

In case you are shooting in a studio, try to make it look like as if you were shooting in natural light. This will result in flattering but professional photos. A studio is also the place for taking professional headshots with dramatic light.

Be sure to talk this all through with your client early on to ensure the logistics.

Headshot of a man in a suit

Edit Your Headshots for a Polished Look

Before you begin your editing, you’ll want to sort through the photos. Mark the ones that look best and you want to use 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 be using fewer 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 fresh, and polished light.

Headshot photo of a woman indoors


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.

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

For all you need to know on starting a portrait photography business, read our eBook – Profit from Portraits

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