My Top 10 Tips For Better Headshots

When I started shooting headshots, I was very good at the math behind it.

I was shooting complicated architectural photography and had deep understandings of very technical things like camera settings, natural vs. artificial lighting, compositional techniques, color theory and high-end Photoshop skills. While this particular genre of photography forced me to master the nerdy technical things, however when I started to shoot people I was kind of lost and had to learn a new set of skills: People Skills. It was hard shooting people at first and there were a lot of things I need to learn and get comfortable with, that which had nothing to do with the camera. I starting speaking to many casting directors, talent agents and asked them what they look for in a headshot. What is it that makes a professional looking headshot? Why do some headshots look terrible and some look amazing? Is it a $50,000 camera and $100,000 in lighting? Or is it something else. One skill that headshot photographers have is that they can somehow pull out that magic out of people and make them look incredible at their first headshot session ever. The tips and tricks I’m going to share come from experience, trial and error and learning from other photographers. And I always give my clients two lectures before we start shooting.

The first lecture is technical about lighting and how all the gear works - the point of this speech is to give clients a basic understanding from a technical standpoint so they can be in control of what the headshots will look like in regards to lighting and composition. I take care of all the math and they just tell me what they like and don’t like.

The second lecture I give is my top tips for getting better headshots like posing, positioning and expressions, so everything is in the client’s control. The truth is most people get very scared when they walk into a huge studio and see studio lights. The photographer sticks a huge camera in front of their face and something in the brain kicks in and people go to this strange place in their head. When I take the photo, they look incredibly uncomfortable and awkward. Confidence is incredibly important in headshots and most people can’t pull it off with some assistance. $50,000 in studio lighting and $10,000 cameras won’t help if clients look awkward and helpless in your photos.

Truthfully, if you master these tips, you can grab a iPhone and use natural light and most of the time, achieve better results then using a photographer who never says one word and just clicks the camera for 2 hours. The point being, it is not about the super expensive gear. Some of the best fashion photographers that shoot massive campaigns and covers of high-end fashion magazines have no idea how 99.99% of their gear works and why they have so many technicians and assistants. The real reason why they are paid so much is because they know exactly what to look for in the photos. I spoke to a very high-end fashion photographer and he told me, “I look through the camera and see it as if it was the cover of a magazine, 30 years of experience helps carve your eyes”. A professional headshot photographer will know what to look out for and you will see a consistency in their work. If the people in the photographers headshots look lost and confused, that’s not someone you want to work with. Consistency is very important to all professional photographers.

Le Tigre. Ferrari. Blue Steel. Magnum. That’s all you’ll ever need.

Posing techniques

1) Forehead To The Camera

Grab your hand and put it on your chin. Grab your other hand and put it on your neck. Now pull your head back and feel all that skin back up, sexy right? It’s a very easy fix, forehead to the camera. Lock your shoulders and stick your forehead out, but careful not your chin because you’ll end up with you face pointing at the ceiling. Make sure you are not looking down and your eyes don’t move. Just lock your shoulders and stick your forehead out, which is a very simple technique. If you are scared that it looks weird, that means your doing something right.

In headshot photography, photographers use telephoto lens or long lens that will cause compression and cause you neck and shoulders to blur out. It might look strange in the mirror, but it will look great in camera. It’s kind of complicated to explain the physics behind it, but creating distance between your head and your shoulders will create depth and a 3-dimensional look in your headshots.

2) Mouth, Hands, Shoulders

This is often a difficult part of posing. Clients don’t usually know what to do with their mouths and their hands, because most people don’t normally pay attention to these two things and forget they even exist. For hands - a lot of people tend to drop their hands, which causes their shoulders to slouch down. It often gives a weak unconfident look. In my experience, it seems to happen a lot with real estate agents who I tend to marathon through. Sometimes, clients even fall sideways for no reason, which is why I like everyone standing. I never have anyone sit down on a chair or stool.

One quick tip for the hands is to put the thumbs or entire hands in the pockets, which cause the shoulders to rise and creates tension. Sometimes I have clients pretend to wash their hands and rock sideways - back and forth. Since I usually shoot at a very fast shutter speed there is no motion blur. Photos come out super sharp.

I dislike a fake smile, which can come across as disingenuous in a photo and so I never tell anyone to smile. I prefer to say dumb and funny things during a shoot, which makes clients laugh and smile. I like to catch them in “the frame between the frame” that microsecond before and after they are completely relaxed. The secret is to not have people pay attention that there is a huge camera in front of their face. Otherwise, clients can tighten up and go back to this safe mode.

One thing I really like, is when people close their lips and blow a little air between their lips which creates a gap between the lips. You can see it in any fashion magazine and feels editorial.

3) The Eyes

The most important thing in a headshot is our eyes. They say it is the window to your soul and it is the first thing that people are going to look at; it locks people in. Most people have a tendency to do a ‘deer in headlights’ look, their eyes wide open and they look surprised. There must be something in the brain that causes this, but we need to work with the clients to prevent this and create more comfort and confidence.

The question then becomes: What do we do with the eyes?

I could write an entire paper on the subject, but to keep things simple all you need to do is squint with the bottom muscles of your eyes. You can pretend that you are reading the last line in an eye exam, where you’re sticking your forehead out and squinting your eyes to read the last sentence. It is important to learn to squint with the bottom parts of your eyes and not the top because it will cause tension in your brows that makes you look angry and upset. Just look into any fashion magazine and you will see all the models squinting their eyes, which gives a very mysterious and confident look.

This is one of the most important tips. In a photo, the eyes must be sharp and in focus and the nose blurry. If you take a photo and the nose is sharp and the eyes are blurry, this will never look good. All cameras have auto-focus system that assists photographers with focus and blurring out other parts. You’ll notice on the inside of the lens, it will turn red sometimes. That light will indicate that the focus is been locked and most of the time it will lock on the eye, that is closest to the camera. Sometimes only one eye could be in focus and the other eye will start to blur out, depending on the settings photographer put in the camera.

4) The Positioning Of Your Body

If you are standing flat against the camera, most of the time it won’t look good. Although, everybody is different - it looks good for some and not others.

Positioning is all about angles and the best way to create an angle is to turn your body, make sure one shoulder is facing the camera and the other shoulder is behind you. You don’t have to turn too far but somewhere from 20 to 45 degrees depending on bodyweight. If you go a full 90 degrees your body basically disappears. Also it is important to watch your feet, as foot placement is very important. Always watch where you feet are - because if you are turning your body and your feet are locked to the ground, it will create some pretty awkward tension in your hips and look unnatural.

This tip is more of a guideline then a hard fast rule. The trick is to find which side of the face you like the most. The majority of the people like the left side more, so they tend to turn their left shoulder towards the camera and pull their right shoulder back. Remember to move your forehead towards the camera, squint the eyes, blow a little air between your lips, put your hands or thumbs in your pocket, make sure your shoulders are flat or maybe a little raised and lock your eyes towards the camera. Look through fashion magazines and you’ll start to notice this pattern over and over again. The question I get asked most is "Which way do I turn?" That is where tip number 5 comes in.

5) Symmetry

Your left foot and your right foot are not the same. Your left hand and your right hand are not the same. The left side of your face and your right side of your face are not the same. It is called Symmetry and it is impossible to have both sides of your face looking exactly the same. Try taking a photo facing straight and then turn your body and face left. Then do the opposite; you’ll notice that you look like three completely different people. Most people don’t realize this, but you have a preferred side you rather shoot on and most people prefer the left side.  

Because of this concept, you and the photographer can play to figure out what angle you prefer. In my first and second lighting set up when I shoot headshots - it doesn’t matter where you stand or what side you choose because I light straight forward and don’t angle my lights until later in the session. I’m not lighting any particular side of the face; I’m lighting both sides at the same time. The shadows are behind you and out of view of the camera. But if I decide to turn off the left side of my lights it will create shadow on the right side of your face.

In photography there is something called the Broad side and the Short side of the face. This I will explain on another day, which is hard to see without seeing it in real life but when I use a beauty dish, I sometimes play with different sides of the face to get different effects.

6) Make-Up

I tell clients to keep it simple and clean. Clients should come to the studio with almost nothing on. Most of my clients don’t have a budget for a professional makeup artist or prefer to do it themselves. I highly recommend a professional makeup artist, because they know and understand what type of make up to use for a headshot session. Lights and cameras tend to amplify make-up drastically. You need experience to understand when to stop and where to apply make-up. It makes life a lot easier for a photographer in post-production. I also mention to take care of any extra hair around the lips and sides of the face, which can save hours in editing later.

People that tend to do their own make-up always have a tendency of overdoing it and their make-up is way too strong. A lot of the time is then wasted removing it and re-applying it. I like make-up to be as natural and nude as possible – it is easier to add make up than remove it. Also, avoid over styling. Keep it simple. Everyone has different styles, but making a checklist of looks in advance is well worth the effort.

7) Wardrobe and Jewelry

Bring everything you own. You don’t usually know what will work until you start shooting. Your mood might change mid-shoot and you might want something edgy. I ask that everyone bring at least 5 to 10 different options for clothing. For headshots, you’ll just need tops (unless you’d like some 3/4 shots). I like to decide what you will wear from a range of clothing. Here are some considerations.

Every studio should have a clothing rack and a hand steamer. With jewelry keep it simple and wear jewelry that is not distracting. Massive hoop earrings are usually not appropriate. Keep it simple - solid colors, nothing with logos and complicated patterns. Once again, you can ask me and I can go through a checklist.

8) Expressions

Without proper expressions, you are wasting your time shooting headshots. It is the most important part in the photo shoot. At the end of my second lecture, I like to show clients a chart with tons of different facial expression. I found a cartoon chart that psychologist use with kids and there are dozens of different facial expressions.

There are 3 things on your face that can control and create expressions: Mouth, Eyes and Eyebrows. These are the 3 things that you can control to create different emotions. You need to work with the photographer to go through an entire range of emotions because you will never know which one you like the best. That is why its best to work with photographers that tethers the camera to the computer so you can see in real time what is going on. You might not get it on the first try but after a couple of frames you will see where you are going. Another trick is that I always have a mirror behind me so my clients can see what is going on in real-time.

9) Be Yourself

 Don’t walk in and try to be something your not. Be yourself.

You are doing yourself a disservice by creating something that doesn’t represent you. That is the point of a headshot; you need to be you.

The photographer’s job is to create the best version of you with lighting, expressions and angles so they can work with you to pull out the best version of you. Come to the studio with different outfits, ideas and be yourself. Talk and work with your photographer to figure out what is the best way to represent yourself and how you want the world to see you.

Also let your photographer know how you want the photos to be retouched. Photoshop is a very powerful tool and can give photographers the ability to completely change you. Headshots are supposed to be a representation of what you look like. Some photographers have a habit of overdoing it and make you look unrealistic. Many photographers don’t to retouching, but some will. I’ve had modeling agencies tell me I’m very good but need to hold back sometimes in retouching. They prefer under-retouched than over done.

10) Don’t Be Scared To Tell The Photographer What You Like And Don’t Like

In the end of the day you’re paying someone to provide you a service, you need a headshot and decided to hire a professional. You saw their portfolio online and you know they can provide you with exactly what you’re looking for. Some photographers have a signature style, they do the same style over and over and get known for it; all their pictures have the same look, which is fine.

I personally like to give my clients multiple looks and different styles because I believe you get the most for your money that way. I enjoy working with my clients - looking at the computer in real-time and figuring out together what they like and what they don’t. I like when clients tell me what they prefer, that they want something moodier, darker or brighter. I also love it when clients are super excited because it means I’m doing something right.

For Clients: Don’t be scared of your photographer, you should be in charge, you are the director. It is a business transaction that costs money. You don’t want to go home and regret not saying anything. Just because the photographer knows what they are doing, that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Speak up and no one will get offended. Let us know your expectations, intentions and what kind of look your going for.

All these tips and tricks I have learned from experience. The more I shoot, the more I learn. There are so many more tips and techniques, so Part 2 coming soon.