Professional Headshots

Learn to Take Professional Headshots

Are you trying to break through into another photography market? Taking professional headshots can be another great revenue source in the bid to become a full time photographer.

Headshots are a huge part of the photography industry. From professional business shots for linkedin to more creative, mood capturing shots for acting roles.

That’s why learning to take professional headshots can be a major boost for your online photography portfolio. It’s a great way to build your photography business and land more clients. Thats the dream isn’t it!

Not sure how to take a headshot?

We have got you covered!

What is a Headshot?

A lot of people tend to put headshots and portrait shots into the same category. Whilst they may be interchangeable there are some key differences.

A portrait may capture the subject from the waist up, or even be a full-body shot. A headshot is typically all about the top third of the body and mainly the face. It’s a good idea to make sure your subject understands this, too.

As touched on above another key difference is what the images are going to be used for. Headshots tend to be used in a much more professional capacity whereas portraits might be a little more artistic or casual. The beauty of photography is this is also open to your creative mind and what your subject wants.

Communicate With Your Client

This is perhaps the single most important part of the shoot. Speaking to the client and subject before the shoot will ease them into it and give you a sense of what they want to achieve. You can also manage expectations a bit to. Clients can often get very carried away.

  • Where will this photo be used? Are you taking actor headshots, a LinkedIn headshot, or professional business headshots? Make sure you understand where your client wants to use the photo, so that you can make sure you create the best professional headshot for that destination.
  • Will the headshot be used for branding purposes? For example, if you’ll be taking business headshots for a “Meet the Team” section of a website, there might be brand color your client wants to incorporate. If that’s the case, maybe you can choose a backdrop in a variant of that shade.
  • What personality trait should the image convey? An executive headshot should convey authority and trust, while a professional headshot for actors will probably be a little bit more informal.

Having a discussion with your client beforehand will help you create an image that you can both be proud of. Bonus points if you can get them to share some inspiration images with you before the shoot as well.

Professional Headshots

Plan Your Headshot Backdrop

One of the biggest challenges any photographer faces is finding the perfect photography backdrops. Technically, a backdrop refers to anything that can be used to enhance the look of the photograph. Put simply, the filling in of a background is the backdrop. Because it is so important to get this right it is important to understand how they work and where to find them.

Wall: Okay, this may not be the most exciting option, but if you’re shooting corporate headshots on location in an office, your best bet may be to find a clean, unobstructed wall and use that as a backdrop. The idea is to find a spot that isn’t visually busy, and where your subject has some room to move around.

Muslin Backdrops: A backdrop that is a solid color will provide a formal look, which is the ideal option for shooting serious portraits, pictures for identification cards. Using this backdrop will provide you with a reusable item that is washable when dirty.

Paper backdrops: These are known as paper rolls and provide a one-time use. You can find almost any color or texture for your background, depending on the type of photograph that you are taking.

Painted canvas backdrop: These are typically only seen in a photography studio, mainly due to their heavy weight and large size.

Urban background: If you’re shooting outdoors, urban landscapes provide a ton of options to choose from. A brick wall is a nice choice if you can find one.

Nature: Shooting outside also gives you access to spaces like parks or waterfronts, which can make for really lovely backdrops.


Most of the clothing will not appear in professional headshots but it is important to not make it to distracting. Try to avoid stripy tops or really vibrant colours. You want the viewers eyes to be drawn to the face. Not the clothing. Again, think about usage. If it is a business headshot then the subject should be dressed for business. If the shots are to be used for marketing try to avoid brand logos.

For hair and makeup, a simple, natural look is best for most situations. Going overboard with trendy makeup or hairstyles will only date the photo. The best headshot photographers come extra-prepared with things like clips for oddly-fitted clothing, and powder for shiny skin.

Of course, these rules are also made to be broken. If the client wants wild professional headshots then thats what they should get.

Professional Headshots
Photo Credit: Karen Shivas


Picking the right equipment is important for any photographer. This becomes more true when taking professional headshots.

Headshot Lenses

The choice of lens will vary from one photographer to the next. It definitely is personal preference. However most professional headshot photographers will opt for a prime lens. A prime lens has a fixed focal point and very good aperture capabilities. Some prime lenses can drop to an f/stop as low as 1.2 but we recommend something between f/2 – f/4 for single subjects and something around f/8 for groups.

Struggling to understand that? Read more about aperture here.

Remember the aim of professional headshots is to draw the viewer to the face. The fewer distractions the better. The best headshots have the subject in sharp focus and the background blurred. This puts focus on the face and creates a lovely bokeh effect. To create this effect, you’ll want a wide aperture lens.


Have a tripod on hand. You may not use it but it helps a lot. It gives the subject a centre point in the room and if you use its then it forces you to SLOW down. There is no need to rush these things.

Using a tripod means that you don’t need to be looking through the viewfinder to. Eye contact with your subject will only strengthen the bond you are making.

This builds into using a remote trigger to. Again, keep eye contact and talking to the subject. You can even get right up close to the subject to correct any issues and then just step back a little to take the shot.

Headshot Lighting

After making sure you deliver what the client wants the lighting is the next most important part of your shoot. It can make or break!

The key to mastering lighting in photography begins with understanding four concepts: 





We go into much more detail in this blog here but for ease here are some great tips.

  • Avoid shadows. Natural light is usually quite flattering, but you’ll still want to take time of day into account and find a position that doesn’t create long shadows on your subject. If you can have an assistant join you, using a reflector can make a huge difference on an outdoor shoot.
  • Try the clamshell method. Indoors, the clamshell lighting method is a flattering way to illuminate your subject. Just place one light source in front and above, and another one to the side and below your subject, to fill in any shadows created by the first light. You’ll capture a beautiful, soft complexion that your client is sure to love.
Professional Headshots

Types of Lighting

Front: Mainly used to add sharp detail. Placing the subject so that light is directly in front of it brings out the detail. With the light directly in the front, the shadows fall behind the subject. This means there aren’t any shadows in the image to conceal any details.

Side: Placing the light source or the subject so that the light hits from the side. This approach will create purposeful shadows and add some depth to the image. It will also draw the eyes to one side of an image or another using the shadows as possible leading lines.

Back: Lighting your subject from behind. Definitely the hardest form of lighting to shoot as without understanding you can just end up with black silhouettes. A lot of people always try to avoid ending with backlighting.

This link below will take you to the only guide you will ever need when it comes to getting your lighting right.

During the Headshot Session

Put your Subject at Ease

Your job as the photographer is to read the vibe of the room. Sometimes the subject will be used to being in front of the camera but sometimes they will not be. A stiff and awkward subject produces images depicting that.

The key to making your headshot subject feel comfortable is to connect with them before get your camera out, and to keep talking throughout the shoot. A joke to start off always breaks some tension especially if you are the subject of the joke. Put on some music or the radio. Compliment things they are doing right and constructible point out areas that aren’t coming across right. There is no such thing as a bad subject.

If you are happy to shoot the person sat down this will really help with putting them at ease. Take a load off, literally.

Headshot Posing

Since headshots are all about the face, you don’t have to worry about your subject’s body language as much. Even so, a stiff, uncomfortable position will register in a headshot. Make sure to try a few positions so that you can have some options to show your client. Show the client shots during the shoot to get a feel for if it his going well.

Focus mode

Use single point focus here (not zone or multiple points), do not let the camera choose what to focus on for you. Focus on the subject’s eye. If one eye is closer to the camera than the other, focus on the near one!

Also in terms of focus settings, choose Single Shot (AF-S) not continuous (Servo or AF-C). You want the autofocus to lock onto the subject, you do not want tracking focus (that is for moving subjects).


You want the ISO to be as close to 100 as possible. Remember headshots are all about fine details and sharpness. Limiting noise that comes from ISO will only benefit you. If you are somewhere dark get a tripod out so you can keep that ISO as low as possible.

Don’t forget to familiarise yourself with the exposure triangle if you need to.

Shoot RAW

The primary advantage of shooting in RAW is that it gives you complete control. The great thing is you get to determine how your photos are processed.

High Key Photography

High key photography refers to the concentration of the light areas of an image. The aim is to eliminate harsh shadows and create a bright frame. A focus on the light areas will usually create a very happy, vibrant feel. Think product photography, weddings, babies, holidays and portraits.

Low Key Photography

Low key photography refers to the focus of the dark areas of an image. Like any dark photography the idea is to really concentrate on shadows and contrasts. Low key photography is typically used to add a spooky feel, a sense of mystery or to really force you to only look at one subject in the whole image. Think powerful portraits, flowers, halloween, castles, cemeteries.

Read a lot more about the two techniques here


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