What is Portraiture Photography: Headshots

Just about everyone needs a headshot. Authors, actors, speakers, sports figures, teachers, business people, and elected officials are all among the individuals who need headshots. If you plan to travel out of the country you need a headshot for your passport. If you are a photographer this is a great type of photography to practice, since everyone can use a good headshot!

portrait photography

There are two sides to creating awesome headshots. First, is the technical side. While there is no right or wrong way to take someone’s photo I have some technical guidelines for making a high-quality headshot portrait.

1. Find a plain or simple patterned backdrop. This can be a roll of colored paper, a painted wall, or a brick façade. Look for something ordinary that does not distract from the person’s features.
2. Crop the photo such that you can see head, neck and some of the shoulders. Sometimes a tighter crop (less neck and shoulders) works well for more creative types.
3. Focus on the eyes no matter what. You want the focal point of the photos to be the person’s eyes. If you are shooting at a large aperture setting some parts of the face may be out of focus. Sometimes, that looks good. But out of focus eyes never look good for a headshot.
4. Use at least a 60mm lens. I find that less than 60mm gives too much distortion and you have to stand too close to your subject. I prefer 85-100mm for a headshot. This helps keep the proportions of the face looking normal and gives you a comfortable working distance from your subject—not too up in their face but not too far away that they can’t hear your feedback and direction.
5. Keep the camera near eye level with your subject. I find that slight downward angles work for some people but upward angles never work.
6. Know your lighting setup. If it’s natural light, know which way the subject needs to stand to get the best angle on the light. If you’re using flash, make sure to take some test shots before your subject arrives and have your exposures just right. If you are frustrated with your equipment and taking most of the time to make adjustments it can negatively affect your relationship with the subject.
7. There are many different ways to use flash for a headshot, but I prefer a four light setup. One main light with a large modifier (softbox, umbrella, or beauty dish) coming from above and to one side, one fill light with a large modifier coming from below and to the other side, one gridded hair light hitting the subject from behind, and another light illuminating the background.


The other side of awesome headshots is relational. Unless your subject is a model or tv personality, they are not used to being in front of a camera. It can be a scary thing, especially with a stranger. Here are some tips to make it less scary:

1. Inspire confidence in your subject. Praise their best features. Tell them how good they look. Inspire them to be confident in you too. Look professional, act professional, and know your equipment!
2. Give them some guidelines for dress so they feel informed. Business people wear suits or attire appropriate to their business. Some people wear uniforms. Kids wear favorite things that express their personalities. Stay away from solid blocks of black or white and tight or busy patterns. Limit the amount of jewelry worn. Wear something you are comfortable in.
3. Makeup is helpful. Most people’s skin has a natural sheen and makeup can save time in post-processing to get rid of the shine.
4. Work with the subject instead of around them. Ask them how they think they look best. Let them know that you are on their side!

What headshot tips have worked well for you? What are things you would never do again?

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