Let’s talk about headshots

Headshots, once the photography world’s ugly cousin, is now all the rage, leading many people to flock to this portrait niche. Where once there was a sea of bland images, nowadays the genre is making waves as the explosion of social media and the internet has legitimised the genre as a mainstay heading into the future.

So where do we start to explore this topic? Perhaps with a fascinating read on the history and origins of headshot photography, which is an extensive topic for another day, that can be found here.

Early in my career, I never shot headshots on film because when I graduated shooting digital was coming into fashion. Some photographers remained pretty suspicious at the time, mainly because the quality wasn’t great, but it very quickly became the direction for most in the industry. Personally, I was one of the early adopters of digital capture in my hometown of Melbourne, and it was a fantastic selling point in those early days.

Anyway, what makes a good headshot?

There are lots of angles and questions to explore, both as the photographer and the client seeking the headshots:

  • Is studio or natural light better?
  • Why does someone even need one?
  • How much should you spend?
  • Most importantly, what is the right type of expression?


In my opinion, this depends on the photographer’s skill and, in particular, their previous experience, but any type of lighting is fine as long as it is used well and there is minimal shadow area on the face. It’s also important to get plenty of light into the eyes and create some good catch lights. Having the skills to mix and match as needed is fantastic and offers flexibility when needing to light particular face types.

Natural light is beautiful and offers spectacular catch lights for a filmic look, but it changes quickly, which means you need to allow for more time to shoot. In addition, allowing for flexibility in how and where you shoot is something to consider. The studio is so much more controlled, but can feel a little sterile and also isn’t the greatest environment to loosen up a client. So much to consider!

Below, from left to right are some natural light examples: all natural lightnatural light with some flash and finally, all flash!

natural light example
natural light and flash example
flash example


This is the heart and soul of a good headshot. Without this, you have zero chance of getting a shot that is engaging. Your main skill as the photographer lies in being able to get this bit happening.

I spent many years photographing actors and getting them to think of different things to bring out natural expressions, but ultimately this was hit and miss. Then, by chance, I got onto some Peter Hurley videos and listened to what he had to say about the face and what to work with while capturing headshots. It completely changed the way I photograph people. Since then I’ve met Peter a few times and attended his masterclass as well. I’ve been able to hone repeatable techniques, which I now teach clients, thus enabling them to get the expression right from the beginning and repeat it over and over throughout the shoot.

The bulk of the teaching lies in the idea that a headshot needs to be able to convey confidence and approachability. Confidence comes through the eyes, while posture and approachability comes from the smile. So, how do we actually do this?

Most people, when faced with a camera, will be terrified (even, surprisingly, actors) and they end up just staring at the lens. Everyone has heard how a good Headshot lives in the eyes, so they often try to have a focused and intense look, but instead end up looking like a scary clown!

The trick is to soften the gaze a little and get the client to lift the lower lids, which is the position the eyes take as you start to smile. From there, just invite the tiniest smile to display a bit of approachability and then you’re all set!

Angelica Angwin
expression example 2

You may find the client needs a ‘smiling shot’, but they can’t help but smile with the mouth, leaving the eyes blank. The main trick, for both photographers and client, to getting a great smiling headshot is keeping your head forward and not to have too big of a smile. Think along the lines of being on a first date, a kind of ‘keeping it cool’ smile rather than a ‘won the lotto’ smile. You just want to avoid throwing your head back because the shot will be ruined.

The client just needs to roll through the progression of a little laugh or chuckle while looking directly into the camera. Any photographer who values their craft will stay shooting through this progression to pick up your best and most engaging camera smile.

Looks look at an example: left is very bad, right is very, very good!

smile bad headshot
smile good headshot


Clothing is a key prop when capturing a good headshot. It can help you accentuate the face and eyes, while itself adding to the shot.

Keeping it simple is a great start, and choosing a neckline that closes the gap between the shoulders and the base of the neck, using a ‘V’ shape will help bring the face forward and create some depth to work with. In addition, the right colours will help give the eyes some pop i.e. blue tops will enhance blue eyes, green tops will enhance green eyes etc. Basic layering can be nice, like a t-shirt and jacket, or some texture can be nice to work with too. For the ladies, a bit of tasteful lace, silk or an earthy knit can create some depth to keep the eyes engaged.

Some really good examples for ladies are below:

headshot clothing 1
headshot clothing 2
headshot clothing 3
headshot clothing 4
headshot clothing 5
headshot clothing 6

Some good examples for the gentlemen as well:

headshot clothing male 6
headshot clothing male 2
headshot clothing male 3

In summary, when setting out to capture great headshots, you’ll find all of the above combined will get you the result you desire. And most importantly, if you’re the subject, ensure you’re working with a photographer who can quickly analyse what is working and what isn’t so you can capture well-thought quality shots efficiently.


This all depends on the skill level of the photographer/studio.

What we all can appreciate is nothing truly good ever comes cheap. So ask yourself the question: what is your branding and your career really worth?

The market worldwide fluctuates wildly from $50 to $3,000, but expect to pay at the very least a few hundred dollars up to $1,000 for a full set with makeup and hair added in.

Honestly, one truly great headshot will open doors, but it takes a long time to live down a bad one. My best advice would be to find a photographer whose work you love. Have a chat to them and make sure they’re a good fit for you and that you’ll feel comfortable during the shoot. This way, you’ll be confident of the direction you take, as well as the final results!

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