Headshot photography is one of the most consistently in-demand services a photographer can offer. No matter what profession, nearly everyone needs a headshot. Businesses like to put headshots of their employees on their websites to add a personal touch. Individuals need headshots for their websites, portfolios, and social media pages. These days, nearly everyone has some side hustle, and many have found a niche service that means they need a specialized headshot.
What is a Headshot?
Headshot photography is an excellent market for photographers. Everyone needs a headshot, from corporate worker-bees to Instagram influencers. But what exactly is a headshot?
Headshots are photos that focus on the face. They provide a quick look at you and help people put a face to your name. They are usually corporate in nature, meaning they are for business purposes. But the lines between business and personal life blur as our lives become more connected through social media. More and more professional-style headshots are used for Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn profiles.
Classically, you’d find headshots on a businesses website to give it a professional but personal touch. Some professions, like realtors or lawyers, rely heavily on headshots for marketing purposes. Actors and models need good headshots as part of their portfolios. Some businesses ask for headshots to be included with resumes and job applications.
So who needs a headshot? Basically, everyone does!
Headshots vs. Portraits
Headshots are different than portraits for a couple of reasons. For one, they focus on the face only. Headshots usually include head and shoulders, with a complete focus on the face. There are no distracting props or backgrounds. This doesn’t mean that the background must be a boring backdrop, but it means that the purpose of the photo should not be lost in other details.
Portraits, on the other hand, meet a variety of needs. They can be waist-up or full-body shots, and they include props and setups of every description. Client perceptions play an important role here. Many people from all walks of life seek out photographers to do professional headshots, and they have something specific in mind when they ask for that. Therefore, it’s vital for the photographer to take the time and to talk to their client. What exactly are they looking for? What profession do they work in, and how are they going to use the images? Is there a specific location or setup they’d like to use?
Another client expectation is worth mentioning. Headshot sessions are quicker and easier than a portrait session. They should only take a few minutes of your client’s time, whether they come to you or you go to them. As such, there’s an expectation to headshot photography prices. Clients are going to expect the prices to be less than a full portrait session.
All of these questions not only lay a foundation of expectations, but they also put the client at ease with the photographer. These chats always pay in dividends since the clients will be more comfortable in front of your camera.
Top Seven Headshot Photography Tips
Tip 1–Chat About the Purpose of the Images
The first step to any headshot photo session is to have a firm grasp on exactly what the client needs. This will set the stage for all of the decisions you make going forward. Where will you shoot, in the studio or on location? In their office or outdoors? What wardrobe choices must be made? Do they need a formal-style headshot because of their profession, or do they need something more relaxed and situational?
The importance of this conversation with your clients cannot be overemphasized. The needs of a lawyer are going to be completely different than the needs of a yoga instructor, and their two headshots should look very different.
Tip 2–Find a Location That Works
Backgrounds for headshots can range from actual backdrops in a studio to pretty much any indoor or outdoor setting. While the location is unimportant, the elements that make a great commercial headshot are pretty consistent. Namely, your background must not be distracting. Plain-colored walls, empty offices, stairwells, or any other location with neutral colors will work.
Just make sure you can control the lighting and that the location complements the overall message of the pictures.
Tip 3– Set up your Photography Studio
Having your own photography studio frees up your imagination from standard settings and lets you stand out from the competition. A studio will give you complete control of your photography work process. Besides, it also eliminates the heavy costs you incur while preparing for a shoot in a rented professional studio. Do read our article on how to set up your own photography studio.
Tip 4 - Pose the Subject Simply
Headshot poses seem pretty straight-forward at first, but once you’ve shot a few, you’ll quickly learn that it is anything but easy. With so little to work with, small details become more important. Remember, you aren’t shooting professional models. They’ll be looking to you for guidance with posing and wardrobe choices.
The first rule of thumb is to watch the client's posture. You can have them sit or stand, but make sure they sit straight with their shoulders back. Most are positioned with the shoulders 45 degrees to the camera lens and their heads tilted towards you. You may need to prompt them to look right into the lens, not at you or your flashes.
Ask your client if they have a preferred angle for photos. You’ll be surprised by how many people have a positive answer. Even if they defer to your judgment, they will appreciate that you took the time to ask.
Tip 4–Get Creative with Wardrobe
Most of the time, clothing choices have to do with the person’s profession. Lawyers, politicians, professors, or agents will likely want to wear formal business attire. Doctors or scientists may want to wear lab coats. Members of the military and pilots may want to wear their uniforms. Athletes, trainers, or coaches may choose to wear sportswear.
The wardrobe choice reflects immediately on the persons profession, and it makes a statement.
It’s that statement that you want to get right, and you can only do it with the help of your client.
Don’t lose sight of the goal of the photo. None of these wardrobe choices should be distracting. Avoid flashy colors or overly complicated setups. You don’t need props or anything else, simply make sure your clients dress as they do on the job, or at least as they want to appear that they do on the job.
Tip 5–Don’t Forget Good Composition
Just because headshots are simple doesn’t mean you can ignore the basics of composition. Keep in mind that the subject of your composition is your client’s face. What can you do to draw attention and accentuate your subject?
First, when looking for locations and backgrounds, remember that your goal is to make the subject stand out. So literally make them stand out; have them take a few steps away from the wall or backdrop and towards the camera. With a shallow depth of field, this will allow you to blur the background subtly and make the subject pop out of the image.
The rule of thirds still applies to headshots photography. By placing the subject off-center, you can effectively create multiple images from one frame just by cropping it. The uncropped photo can show more background, while a cropped square can be used for business cards or website photos. By combining a few creative composition techniques, your photos can serve any purpose and will be of greater value to your clients.
Look for lead lines and other patterns in the background, even though it will likely be blurred. Shapes and shadows will still be identifiable, especially if shooting on location in their office or outdoors.
In regards to composition, pay extra attention to clothing and wardrobe choices. Brightly colored, patterned, or flashy clothing choices can throw a headshot off-kilter faster than anything else. Neutral tones in solid colors are good choices since they are timeless and not distracting.
The most important tip of all for a headshot photographer, however, is to keep practicing. Theory can only take you so far: it’s only when you actually start to do things that you will be able to get yourself up to that expert level.
Tip 6 - Camera Equipment
There are no particular equipment requirements for a headshot photo if you are already set up for portraits. You’ll want a high-quality lens that has a nice bokeh. You will be working with the lens wide open, so make sure it doesn’t have any edge distortions or other quirks before you use it. Anything in the 50 to 135 mm range will work just fine, and it should preferably have an F/2.8 or larger aperture.
Lighting is your next biggest concern. Most headshots are high-key, meaning they are bright and evenly lit with few deep shadows. The easiest way to accomplish this look is with a diffused strobe. A beauty dish is perfect. You’ll want to set up the light above the client and add some fill from below to reduce shadows. If you’re outdoors, you may want to use natural light from above and fill light from each side of the camera. You’ll have to be a bit flexible with your setup, depending on the location.
Sitting for professional headshots can lead to some awkward postures and faces. You’ll want to check the results quickly. If you’re doing a lot of shots in one session, consider tethering your computer to the camera. Share your photos with the client to ensure they are happy with the posing and basic setup.
Tip 7 - Headshot Photography Prices
Figuring out your headshot photography prices can be a bit of a challenge. You may want to poll other photographers in your area to see what the going rate is, simply as a starting point in your analysis. You’ll need to figure out how much time you spend on the shoot, setting up, taking the photos, and editing them in post-production.
Most headshot sessions will be quick and easy, and most clients will want only a handful of photos. There really shouldn’t be a significant need for retouching or post-production if you do it right from the beginning. Your pricing should reflect this, and headshots should fit into your business plan as a lower-priced service. But don’t let that get you down because there is enormous market potential for doing more headshots and getting portrait or event business from the contacts you make.
In some ways, headshot photography should be the backbone of pretty much every photographer’s business. With such a varied and consistent demand, and excellent options for word of mouth sales, the market potential is there no matter where you work. With tips for taking headshots, you can easily add the service to your business. The shots are quick and easy to take with a little practice, and there is a clear difference between professional headshots and selfies.
Displaying your images in a portfolio is also important if you want to be a professional photographer. You should be able to put together a consistent collection of images with a clear style so that potential customers will know what to expect from your work. Make sure that the photography website builder you choose offers the flexibility, features, and ease-of-use you need to put together professional photography portfolio websites without requiring any coding knowledge. That's where a bit of inspiration comes in handy.
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