Before we start.

So you want to become a famous headshot photographer like Peter Hurley and start charging $1000 USD per shoot in your New York City loft warehouse. Ok, that’s a good ambition but you’ll need to start from the beginning. So let’s dive in and answer the most common questions asked regarding headshot photography. Hopefully, after reading this article you will be on your way to becoming a headshot photographer.

Perfecting your headshot game will take years. You will start with rented lights and no idea. You will start by taking any old gig that you can get your hands on. You will do that gig to the best of your ability but still, the customer will say they’re not happy with your headshot photography. This will happen time and time again until eventually you look back at your history of photos and realise that you should have lowered the hair light power a bit, or increased the key light power, or changed the angle of the pose and so on. After 3 or 4 years, you will gradually start to build up a decent portfolio of headshots.

Practice Practice Practice

Before you market yourself as a headshot photographer you will need to have at least a passable skillset that clients will be happy to pay money for.
This means you will need to practice a lot. Practice on your friends if you like but you will quickly find that your friends will become bored after 10 minutes and then what do you do? A simple solution is to purchase a plastic Mannequin head with hair from either eBay or Amazon. Then you can practice your technique over and over again. This simple tool will be one of the best investments you make in your headshot photography kit.

Spend your time practising everything about headshot photography. Practice how to set up your camera so that when you get to a job on-site under pressure everything is second nature. Practice your posing and know how much space you will need between you and your subject. This tells you how much space you will need as a minimum on site. Practice the verticle angle, I mean don’t shoot down at your subject.
So eventually when the corporate client calls you will be ready to take the gig. Practice your lighting arrangement and know how to set up the wifi settings on your lights. Then switch the lights to manual and completely mess up the settings and see how fast you can reset them to what you need. Yes, this will happen as you transport your lights to the job and suddenly they are just not working as they should be.

Camera equipment for headshots

Camera equipment needed for headshot photography is key. You must have the right equipment and you must know your equipment inside out. Mirrorless cameras and the latest compact yet high price camera with huge resolution are all in fashion but they may not be suitable for headshot photography.

We recommend workhorse cameras like a DSLR. For example, the Canon 5d mark 4 or even its predecessors will be fine. The reasons for this are that these workhorse cameras have supporting lighting systems that are designed to work with these cameras. The 5D series will take a supported remote wi-fi Trigger and the recommended Speedlight to match.

A 50 mm 2.8 lens is ideal. Think about the Sigma 50 mm Art series or the Canon 50 mm L series. You can get by on a cheaper 50mm if you like. Also if you have a large enough space to set up on site then a Canon 70-200 mm is ideal. It delivers beautiful photos but the minimum focal distance of 2 metres often means you cant use it in a tight corporate boardroom or office.

We recommend wi-fi enabled speed lights, see more info on this below.

You’ll need a sturdy tripod, something like a Manfrotto or Gitzo or even a Benro. Just make sure it’s sturdy and looks professional. We recommend a tripod with an Arca Swiss head, Arca Swiss heads are great because with the addition of an L bracket added to your camera you can easily shoot in portrait orientation and landscape orientation.

You will need a backdrop and a frame to hold it. Search your local pro photography supplier for a nice clean paper roll in neutral grey. You will be tempted to use a cloth or fold up backdrop but they always show wrinkles. Even if you shoot at a depth of field of 2.8 you will still see the wrinkles so invest in a smooth professional-looking paper backdrop on a roll. Tip; Buy the wider video backdrop and cut it down a little if needed. The photo backdrops are often not wide enough to allow for a nice landscape shot with empty negative space. Shooting tethered delivers an instant preview for the client. This set up allows you to check your photo for approval. A small bar stool style seat with no swivel is ideal. You don’t want a traditional seat as the backrest will appear in the shot. These seats are available at IKEA or any discount franchise store. Pick one that is light enough for you to carry on site along with all your kit.

All your kit with the exception of the paper backdrop and the stool should fit comfortably into one case with wheels. We use and recommend the Pelican air series to save on weight and look professional.

Headshot photography lighting

We recommend remote triggered Speed lights for on-site headshot photography as they are small enough to fit into a suitcase with all your gear. You will need 1 or 2 lights for the key and fill and then 1 more for the hair or rim light, So 2-3 speed lights and a trigger. We use 2-speed lights and a bounce reflector. For studio sessions, you may choose to use more powerful studio lighting such as the Pro photo series. Their battery-powered lights are great. To hold the lights we recommend nano stands by Manfrotto. These stands are strong enough to support your speed lights and light enough to fold up and carry to the job in your all in one case. To attach the light to the stand we recommend metal umbrella mounts. Do not be tempted to put your $600 lights on a plastic umbrella mount as they tend to break. Also, use the metal base plate to attach directly to the flash shoe, not a plastic one. Finally, the best diffuser you can have is a shoot through umbrella. These are inexpensive and are still one of the most versatile diffusers. Just be careful if there is any wind around as they can act like a sail and bring your Speedlight to a crashing end.

Camera settings for headshots

A headshot is not a fine art piece like a landscape photograph where you need the lowest ISO possible and everything in focus at f16. Your task is to capture an emotion in the client and make sure that the image is sharp at the focus point and properly exposed.

A headshot will look best shot between f2.8 and f8. And at around 320 ISO.
The reason you set the wide f-stop is to introduce bokeh into the background so as to draw focus to the subject. And in this case, the focus point should be the closest eyeball to the lens. We say the closest because the subject usually is at a 45-degree angle to the lens, see more below. You can use 320 ISO because you don’t need to worry so much about low noise. You’re going to get things pretty much right in camera. There won’t be any need to stretch the raw file within an inch of its life to extract the shadows from every pixel. Shoot in the highest quality Raw file available for later editing.

Photography technique for headshots

There are a few basic techniques applied to headshot photography.
Pure white backgrounds, environmental, outdoors, sunset with flash, clamshell lighting and more. Let’s talk about a common one that works well every time and produces a happy client.

Key light, fill light, hair light.

  • A key light set at 45 degrees horizontally and 45 degrees vertically to the client. Pass this light through an umbrella diffuser. Set the power of the key light to Auto or ETTL. The key light should be facing the far side of the clients face. That means the side that is least exposed to the camera when they are facing the camera on a slight angle. There is an argument that men should be lit on the broadside and women on the far side of the face but this relates more to fine art painting and not commercial photography.
  • Set another light diagonally opposite to the key light as the hair light. Set this light to auto -1 stop. This will give a nice rim or hair light.
  • Set the fill light in front of the client facing the other side of the face to the key light. Set the power to Auto -2 stops. This will fill in the shadows on the opposite side of the face.

Note: the fill light can easily be accomplished with a simple bounce reflector on a nano stand.

Now set your camera to the settings outlined above and you’re on your way 🙂

Headshot posing tips

Typically with headshots, you will be asked to produce 1 of three looks.

  • The environmental portrait
  • The seated portrait against a backdrop
  • The straight on tight headshot

The environmental portrait is where the client is placed amongst their work environment so as to give the context of what they do each day. This may be in front of a bookcase if its a lawyer or leaning on a car if its a mechanic.
The seated portrait is on a bar stool or sometimes in a lounge chair facing 45 degrees off camera and their head turned directly to camera. With this shot, you want to capture at least the height from the blazer button to 1 foot above the head. Then you can crop the photo later if you need to.
The straight on tight headshot is more like an actor-style shot where you fill the frame with the clients face, sometimes this look is popularised with a pure white backdrop.

The environmental headshot
The backdrop headshot
The tight headshot

How to take a good business headshot

Your challenge when taking business headshots will come down to your people skills more than your photography skills.
Of course, you will still need to have your camera settings nailed down but what you will find is it can be challenging to work with business clients, particularly on-site at their location. You may be told to arrive at 9.00 am to photograph the CEO so you arrive at 8.15am to set up and then the CEO’s personal assistant tells you he’s running late. “Running late” can mean he will get here when he feels like it. All of a sudden you are waiting until 11.00 am and then the CEO arrives  and tells you he has changed his mind and doesn’t want a headshot today. Yes, that has happened to this blogger.
For those clients that will stick around and even turn up on time for you, now your challenge is to make the client feel comfortable.  You want to try to extract a natural smile from the client. Shoulders back, head up a little, body 45 degrees off and eyes looking down the lens. It is a good idea to have someone who the client knows in the room to make them laugh. Then try to capture that candid shot where the client is looking down the lens and smiling naturally.

How to take headshots for actors

Headshots for actors are generally a lot easier. You will usually have the actor come to you in your studio or home. Have everything arranged so that the shoot is ready to go when the actor arrives. Try to make the actor feel relaxed upon arrival. Spend a few minutes just talking before placing the client on a seat in front of a huge camera with lights all over the place. Consider offering a small glass of champagne if the client is of legal age. Actors agents or agencies are a great place to hook up with as a contractor photographer. If you can do a decent job on the first photo shoot you will receive more work from the agency down the line.

Come in nice and tight for at least one of the shots and make sure that you have the actor express emotions. you want a serious look and a fun look so the actor can showcase their range to prospective clients.

How to retouch headshots

Retouching headshots really comes down to what the delivery expectation is. If it’s for the cover of a magazine then you will be expected to take out every blemish and freckle in photoshop along with doing skin smoothing and a bunch of other photoshop tricks to make the image look perfect.

For a basic corporate headshot, this is not really necessary. Take out any obvious blemishes with the photoshop clone stamp or auto correct tool. Adjust the colour balance. Adjust the exposure if you need to. Whiten the teeth a little if they need it. Crop to the desired dimensions. Add a vignette if it’s not a pure white background image.

Try to resist requests from the client to edit out all minor imperfections in their skin and hair. You will be there for hours if you agree to this, and that will only drive your earn rate per hour down.

If you would like to learn more about retouching try this great online course by KelbyOne

25 Quick & Easy Portrait Retouching Techniques for Photographers

with Scott Kelby

View course

Headshot photography prices

What to charge for your photography comes down to a few factors. The main one being the market rate.

What are others in your area charging for a similar service of a comparable product? If your client calls you for a headshot you can be pretty sure they will be calling a second photographer for a comparable quote. So unless your product is of a far higher quality than your market competitors you can go ahead and set your rate based on what others are charging and try to offer a better product for the price. Eventually, you may be able to trade of your portfolio and reputation and up your price. This is how Peter Hurley ended up charging over $1000 USD per headshot session.

So now you have the information you need. Follow the steps listed here, advertise your service in your demographic and reach for the sky 🙂
If you would like to learn more here’s a link to our online course “The Easy Headshot”