Headshot Photography once seemed a bit frowned upon as a legitimate photography genre has now exploded in popularity among photographers. With the advent of social media and the need for almost all humans to have a professional headshot it has lead many a photographer to flock to this portrait niche and or add it to their photography services.

So where do we start to explore this topic? Perhaps with a fascinating read on the history and origins of headshot photography here.

Early in my career, I never got the chance to take professional headshots on film because digital was taking over when I graduated from my photography studies. Many photographers (and clients for that matter) remained  suspicious at the time (as rightly so in hindsight as the quality was primitive) but it very quickly became the preference 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 generally a good 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 a professional headshot?
  • How much will a professional headshot cost?
  • What is the right type of expression in a a professional headshot?

Getting the right light.

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!

Coaching a good expression 🤨

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. 

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 body posture and approachability comes from the eyes and amount of smile. So, how do we actually do this?

Most people, when faced with posing for a professional headshot will be terrified (even actors believe it or not) and they end up just staring at the lens. In basic terms a really good Headshot is mostly in the in the eyes and getting this bit right can take a bit of coaching from the photographer.

The idea is to soften the gaze a little and get the client to activate the lower eyelids. This is the position the eyes take as you start to smile. From there you can invite a little bit of smile which will help show a bit of approachability. This will have you working in the right realm, then you can start to have some fun with it.

Angelica Angwin
expression example 2

You may find the client prefers or needs a ‘smiling shot’, but they can’t help but smile with the mouth and the eyes are a bit dead. The main trick, for both photographers and client, to getting a great smiling headshot is keeping the chin out and forward slightly down and not to go full throttle into 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 as this will disengage you from the viewer.

The client then just needs to roll out a little laugh or chuckle while looking directly into the lens. As the photographer it’s generally best to shoot through this progression so then you can pick out expression with the best energy.

See below example: on the left is a bit cheesy in the smile and the jawline is not pronounced creating a double chin, on the right is a nice engaged and confident smile with a nice jawline angle with no double chin.

smile bad headshot
smile good headshot

What clothing is best to wear?

Clothing is a useful prop when capturing a professional headshot. It can help you accentuate the jawline and also the eyes if you choose a colour that makes them pop.

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.

Some layering can also work well, like a t-shirt and jacket, or some texture. 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

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.

How much shoud you spend?

This all depends on the experience and reputation of the photographer.

The best photographer won’t be cheap but will get you a much more refined result which will become a better investment in the future.

The market worldwide fluctuates wildly from $50 to $3,000 and for headshots in Melbourne expect to pay $300-$400 for a basic shoot with a good photographer and maybe up to  $1,000 for a shoot with 4-5 retouched shots.

It;s good to remember that one great headshot can open doors and the 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 result.

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