The Art Of The Headshot: A Guide

The three golden rules and six simple steps to take the perfect professional headshot.

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The headshot that you submit with your portfolio is usually the first face that a gallery or buyer can put to your work. It is your avatar, your stand-in, and it helps speak for you when you’re not present. It is very important, therefore, that you have a good headshot, as you want to make a good first impression.

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What Makes A Headshot Different From Other Photographs?

A headshot is a photograph that mainly features an individual’s head and neck. While there are some creative elements that can be added, a headshot  is not a form of fine art photography. A headshot is used in commercial or professional settings as an accurate representation of the subject.

Keep in mind these three themes while planning and taking your headshot: Simple, Clean, Professional.

Simple

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Your headshot should not be complicated. This is not the time to exercise your artistic proclivity. Headshots have a very specific format, and this is something that you should follow closely.

Do not confuse your headshot with a body shot: all that should be included in the frame is your upper-body from the collar bone up.

For the most part, you shouldn’t fill the frame: the background should be visible behind you. And, yes, keep that simple, too. A single color backdrop would do perfectly.

Because only your shoulders and head are included, there is no need to “dress up” for your headshot. A simple shirt should be visible, ideally a color that contrasts well with your skin. Do not wear a strapless shirt for your headshot, or the photograph, when cropped, will look like you aren’t wearing any clothes at all.

There is no need to use heavy makeup. A headshot should look natural and minimal. Remember: keep it simple.

Clean

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Make sure that your clothes are neat, with no wrinkles or stains on the portions that will be visible in the photo. There should be no logos or words on your garments that can be seen in the photo. A headshot is about you, not what brands you support.

Comb or style your hair (including facial hair) neatly. If you have a hair appointment coming up in the near future, you may want to schedule your photoshoot for right afterwards.

Your background should be plain: only minimally textured or patterned so that it doesn’t distract from your face.

Professional

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It can be tempting to go through your old photo albums and crop down a snapshot from a party, or one of your recent vacation photos. Don’t fall into this trap: serious art professionals will be able to tell, and your “easy” headshot won’t be taken seriously.

There is no need for silly faces in a headshot, even if you believe that it represents you and your work. Sometimes, the headshot is the first thing somebody will see of you, and if they have no context, your “silly” photo may just make you look more manic than fun.

On the other end, it is equally important that you not look excessively serious, either. Remember, this is a headshot, not a mugshot. You want to look pleasant and welcoming: present yourself as a person who others would want to work with.

If you are submitting your headshot to a gallery, artist agent, or publications, they will likely be needing a high-resolution digital photograph. Professional printers for magazines, ads, and catalogs will need images of a certain size and/or resolution for professional-quality printing. Always check to see if there is a recommended or required size before taking the photograph. If you mess up, you will either have to send a new photograph or you just won’t be considered for that article, ad, exhibition, or job.

With this information in mind, here are the 6 easy steps to follow in order to create the perfect professional headshot for all your portfolio and art promotion needs.

How To Get The Perfect Headshot

Step 1

The Big Question: To Selfie Or Not To Selfie?

Today, almost everybody has a camera installed on their cellphone. It’s natural that your first impulse is to take a “selfie” and use it as your headshot. After all, it’s quick, easy, and inexpensive.

First, let’s just define what we mean when we say “selfie.” While, technically, any self-portrait can be defined as a “selfie,” we’re specifically talking about a photograph you take of yourself from arm’s length. If you’re ever on social media, you’ll be very familiar with this format.

Remember that one of our keywords was professional. It can be almost impossible to make a selfie look very professional – especially with a hand-held camera/phone. Selfies are usually too much of a “close-up” to work for professional use. Additionally, they typically have very poor lighting, and are unfocused.

And, we shouldn’t need to say it, but we will: a “mirror selfie” (snapping a picture of yourself through a mirror) is not an option. Just don’t.

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That said, you don’t necessarily need to hire a photographer. You can get some good shots when taking a self portrait, if you have the right set-up:

  • Place your camera on a tripod or flat surface at least 3 feet away from where you will be posing.
  • Use your camera’s timer, and give yourself a long enough period to walk over without rushing.
  • If you have a setting that allows you to take several pictures at once, use this. It can be called “photo burst” or “fast burst” or “continuous shooting.”
  • A shutter release cable, if you happen to own one, will let you take several pictures of yourself from afar. But for this, make sure you’re tightly secured to a tripod, or you may end up turning or shaking the camera.

This equipment is fairly easy to get and relatively inexpensive, but why go through all the trouble if there is someone available to help you? You may not need to hire a professional photographer, if you have a friend or relative willing to lend a hand.

Of course, if you want the best headshot possible, a portrait photographer will offer you more resources: studio lighting, professional backgrounds, and photoshop retouching. This level photography is recommended whenever possible.

Step 2

Plan Ahead: Pick A Time And Place.

Your next step is to block out a good time to take your headshots. If you are working with somebody else, then work together to schedule this. Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time for setting up, taking multiple shots, and for review. You may want to retake the photos if the first try was unsuccessful, so you should set aside between half an hour to 45 minutes to take your headshot. If you know that you’re very particular about this sort of thing (as many of us are!) then allow yourself a little more time.

Next, pick your place.

If you don’t have a professional backdrop, your best bet is to stand in front of a blank wall. Remember the keyword “simple.” A blank wall is the most similar to the screens that portrait photographers use. A dull or neutral color such as grey is usually a good choice for a headshot, as it doesn’t distract from your face. Avoid bright or saturated colors for backgrounds, and never use anything that could be described as ‘neon.’ Not only are these bright colors considered “unprofessional,” they can also overwhelm you as a subject, shifting the focus from you to the wall behind you.

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Try and pick a background with a tone that contrasts to your hair or skin: light for darker complexions, and vice versa. This will keep you from appearing “washed out,” in your headshot. If your hair and skin contrast a lot already, a neutral/middle tone always works well.

Next, try to find a location with good lighting. Always know what type of lighting you’re using, so that you can adjust the white balance on your camera or edit the color afterwards.

Natural light is sunlight (technically, also moonlight, but we don’t recommend this for your headshot). Natural light can be direct (unfiltered) or through a window. This light is usually warm and soft, perfect for taking pictures, when you have a good light source available.

Artificial light can be from light bulbs, computer screens, or any other man-made source. Artificial light can have many different tones: digital monitors have a blueish tinge, while incandescent light looks a little yellow.

Never light your headshot with a flashlight. Use lights from further away; a close-up light source like a flashlight creates very high contrasts and casts unattractive shadows.

Whichever lighting you use, make sure that the source is coming from behind the camera, so that it doesn’t create a glare in the photo.

Step 3

Say “Cheese!”

Posing for a headshot can seem scary, but it’s easier when you remember our #1 rule: stay simple. There are a few very simple poses you can do that will almost always look great.

The Basic Portrait

This is the simplest of all poses, and is the same type of photo as you would take for an ID, a straight on shot of your face, neck and shoulders. It is perfect for identifying you and putting a face to your work. It’s the easiest, but it doesn’t show much personality.

  1. Stand up straight. (Hunching over will make you look tired and sickly.)
  2. Lean your forehead toward the camera. This will make you appear taller, and it will add attractive definition to your jawline.
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Examples of The Basic Portrait and The Shoulder Lean

The Shoulder Lean

This is a clever variation on the basic portrait, wherein your shoulders are turned ¾ to the camera. It’s great for any headshot, and adds more personality without sacrificing any professionalism. You can do this turned either to the left or to the right, depending on what you consider your “good side.”

  1. Push your head out in the direction that you’re facing.
  2. Follow the angles of your body to make a loose line from your shoulder to the top of your head.

When taking photographs:

  • Make eye contact. Look at or into the camera lens the way you’d meet the eyes of a prospective buyer. Your photos should always be able to make connections whenever you are unable to be there in person.
  • Take multiple shots. Even if you’re pressed for time, take as many pictures as you can in various poses. Later, you can sort through them to find the best. This way, you don’t have to set up another session later.
  • Try different angles with lighting. You should not only move yourself when posing, but also move around your light source. The results may surprise you.
  • Do not take photos from too low or too high of an angle. How can you tell if your angle is too low? Well, can the viewer see up your nostrils? Too high? They can see down your shirt. Position your camera at the same level as your face, and you’ll be fine.

Want to get creative? Rest your chin on your hand. Try a head-tilt. Experiment with lighting. Rules are meant to be broken, but try to only break one rule at a time. Too many and you’re going to lose the simplicity, cleanliness, and professionalism that your headshot needs.

So go ahead, break a rule. We won’t tattle.

Step 4

Harvesting Headshots

Once you’ve got a good bunch of potential shots, evaluate them.

Your best photograph will:

  • Show you at your best.
  • Accurately represent you.
  • Be in clear, sharp focus (no blurry pictures, no matter how ‘flattering’ they may seem).

Have a friend or family member look at your photos with you. Somebody you trust, who knows you well. They’ll know best if a photograph is a good representation of your personality, and they’ll typically be less harsh. After all, we are all our own worst critics.

Step 5

Edit Your Headshot

Don’t go crazy with the editing softwares. Do not add color filters or draw anything over the picture. You aren’t editing the picture to add a fun border or photoshop Kanye West into your headshot.

  • Remove or minimize any errors, such as red-eye or glasses flare.
  • Improve contrast or brightness – ONLY if necessary.
  • Crop the photo, if needed, to fill the frame with your shoulders and head.
  • Adjust the color, if you hadn’t white balanced.

Adobe Photoshop is the most commonly used program for this kind or editing, but some preloaded programs like Microsoft Photo Gallery or the Macbook Preview have the types of tools that you will need.

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Step 6

Save & Submit Your Headshot!

Once you’ve taken, chosen, and edited your best headshot, make sure to save it in the highest quality possible. You can always shrink the image later, but you can’t enlarge it. Save a few sizes – one thumbnail size (200×200), one medium (500×700), one large (800×1200), and one original size. Save a black and white version, and a color version. Make sure to label them all and keep them in a backed-up folder where you can easily find them later.

  • If you are submitting your headshot in a job application, you can send a thumbnail/medium image along with your CV.
  • When submitting your headshot for a museum/gallery, you should submit the large version.
  • If you are submitting your headshot for publication in a print or online publication, send the highest resolution possible.

Again, always check the individual guidelines before submitting your headshot.

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How did you do? Show us your headshots in the comments!

 

This post is also available in: Spanish

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