The Basics of Getting Better Headshots

Pro Tip: Despite the fact that we all love bokeh, don't ever let it get in the way of good composition and an even better vision for the end result.

Pro Tip: Despite the fact that we all love bokeh, don’t ever let it get in the way of good composition and an even better vision for the end result. Model: Grace Morales

When working with actors, you’ll typically need to shoot a certain type of headshot. But there are many other folks that want headshots: business people, musicians, etc. The most important thing to do with them is also one of the most basic human instincts: communicate. The key to better headshots and happy clients comes with having an open sense of communication and a better understanding to help both of you deliver the product that is needed.

Gear comes last when doing headshots. But it’s also got a bit of importance.

The Three Types of Headshots: Business, Formal and Lifestyle

Chris Gampat Sidd's headshot (1 of 1)ISO 8001-80 sec at f - 2.5

To start with, consider the fact that there are three different types of headshots: Formal, Business and Lifestyle.

Formal headshots are usually done with actors, models, or musicians and have some sort of solid background showing off what the person basically looks like and adding a little bit of personality to them. More or less, think of the stuff that Peter Hurley does. They’re very traditional headshots and have a very plain and non-distracting look to them when it comes to working with the subject. The clothing doesn’t need to be very formal, but the lighting setup generally will be.

Before you go on, remember that just because you can get Hurley’s lighting setup doesn’t mean that you can shoot like him and elicit the expressions that he can get out of someone.

Business headshots, well, mean business! They’re usually done with a suit or can be just a shirt and tie for men. For women, it’s all about the type of look that they’d want to have when going to work. These are very typically done in a studio though a recent trend due to influences on LinkedIn has been leaning towards doing them out in a different environment but still having the formalized look. For example, a Realtor may want a headshot with buildings in the background.

Lastly there are lifestyle headshots. Lifestyle headshots aren’t done in a formal environment or atmosphere at all. They’re usually done with actors, musicians, models, and entertainers that usually requires a bit of their personality to come out in the photo. For example, if an actor is auditioning for a part that is very serious, they want their headshot to look very serious.

And because of this the modern landscape of shooting has had to evolve to include many different looks and personas.

It Starts With Communication

Pro Tip: You can get this look with two hot shoe flashes, a white background, and two surfaces to bounce the light off of.

Pro Tip: You can get this look with two hot shoe flashes, a white background, and two surfaces to bounce the light off of. Model: Jazzy Washington

When doing headshots, it’s important to chat with the person beforehand. Have a couple of questions about them ready. What I usually do is ask the person about their background, what they do, what their typical day is like, their history, etc because it helps me build a character in my mind to work with.

Annie Leibovitz said it best when she said, “When I say I want to photograph someone, what I mean is that I’d want to know them”

This is where we come back to our consistent who, what, when, where, how and why when formulating questions. It’s almost like a first date but significantly less awkward as long as you keep it professional and remain genuinely curious about the person. Before you ask the questions, tell them your intentions and that the background of them helps you to illustrate who they will be on camera.

During this chat, you should also be sure to ask what the images are being used for, what the purposes are, and how they want to come across on the other side of the lens. This makes the person feel like you’re paying attention to them and working to fine tailor a product to just them.

Stick to the Purpose

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer battle of the 85mm lenses portaits (3 of 9)

When you’re shooting, you’ll be tempted to perhaps veer off course for a bit, but we encourage you to stick to the purpose. And with that said, this is also why we recommend that you have a full conversation with the client first before you go out and shoot with them. Everything need to be clear and concise and ideally, it would be nice if you had a full idea of what kind of look you should deliver. This can only happen through conversation. As you’re listening to your subject, think visually about their life.

Use Psychology

Actors, models, and musicians can especially work well with psychology–but so can business folk. There is a famous story about Steve Jobs’ favorite headshot and how the photographer made him think about solving a problem. When Steve thought about that problem, he put on a specific facial expression that the photographer was able to capture.

Apply that same way of thinking to headshots: put someone in a situation and work with it.

Again, we come back to the actor needing to apply for a serious position and therefore working with them to pretend that they’re in a situation where they needed to be serious (like an argument, or being a mob boss).

With business people, try to talk to them to see what kind of personality they need to convey. Some want to be inviting while others want to look very serious and like the Wall St. type.

Our Recommended Gear

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Essentials the Location Shooter (1 of 10)ISO 1001-100 sec

To start with, we once again recommend any lens over 85mm–but sometimes you can get away with 50mm. Trust us, we did the test. Additionally almost any camera with interchangeable lenses can seriously do. But we recommend working with cameras that have functional hot shoes so that you can mount flash triggers.

As far as lighting goes, you’ll want either a couple of speedlights or two studio lights with battery packs. Studio lights can deliver more power to you while speedlites have less power but more versatility. Figure out which one works best for you.

We’re refraining from recommending specific brands because to be honest, they’re all good these days.

While there are indeed photographers who work with natural light (former staffer Jamiya Wilson is all about it) we don’t recommend that anyone do so unless you’re expertly experienced with lighting. In certain cities, you can move from location to location working with the shadows and buildings as natural reflectors–but sometimes it’s nice to have more control.

Otherwise, be sure that you’ve also go Adobe Lightroom and at least Photoshop Elements for extra retouching needs.


Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.