What I Look for When Shooting Headshot Photography

Headshot photography may be my most popular offering. My clients range from authors and professional speakers to students and job hunters and all the way to models and actors. With such wide variance in my clientele, my first consideration is always the desired goal for their headshots. Actors, for instance, need very different headshots from college graduates seeking a new job. While job seekers want a clean, professional image which portrays competence, confidence, and approachability, actors usually want a series of headshots each of which is intended to portray a different “look”, character, or emotion.

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Once I know exactly what my client is looking for in their headshots, I can begin setting up my studio. Regardless of the exact specifications of each headshot session, my setup is more or less the same. I shoot all of my headshots in a studio environment with a plain white backdrop and a set of 4 studio strobes and 2 reflectors. This setup allows me to vary the color and brightness of my backdrop by adjusting either of 2 lights, to add a slight vignette by adjusting a third light, and to ensure that my clients are always properly lit through independent control of the fourth light. In case I need to adjust shadows or add “catchlights”, I can simply move reflectors around the set. Each photo appears on a TV in my studio space as it is taken. Don’t quite like the background? No problem! We can adjust it on the fly!

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Now that we have the studio set up, it’s time to figure out posing and wardrobe. Most of my clients will bring 2-3 variations on their outfit. They’ll bring a jacket, a new tie, etc. With modern cameras and editing techniques, there aren’t as many limitations as there once were. We no longer need to worry about moire (that weird pattern you sometimes see with stripes or checks on TV or in digital images) with any of my cameras. Instead, we can focus on what each outfit says about my client as a person. Are they looking to get a new job? We’ll look through their options and pick the one that will best represent an image of them as confident, competent, and approachable. Are they looking to get a role in a crime drama? We’ll adjust their wardrobe to fit a grittier look of either a detective or villain depending upon their given character.

OK, so we have a studio space all set up, we have lights, we know what our headshots will be used for, and we have selected our wardrobe. We’re all set! Well., not quite. There’s still posing and adjustments to our key light. For the most part, I avoid posing people straight on to the camera. The main reason for this is that it inherently puts the shoulders on the same level and thus creates a static and BORING image! It doesn’t really matter what kind of headshot they’re going for, odds are they aren’t trying to depict an image of themself as static and boring. Angling my client’s body slightly will inherently put their shoulders on different levels and create visual interest - It makes them appear engaged and interesting.

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Lastly, there’s the key light. Once my client is situated, I adjust the key light so that it is above them and just slightly to one side. I want the light to create a slight downward and sideways shadow off of the side of their nose (known as “loop lighting”). By adjusting my key light in this way, I ensure that their face is properly lit, their eyes have a “catch light” (a visible reflection of the light), and gives them a nice crisp shadow under the jaw. I find that this is the most flattering look for most people, though I do occasionally use reflectors to adjust shadows as needed.

And there we have it! You have some headshots! Now all that is left is the editing process. I’ll cover my actual edits at some point later on in a more detailed post, but there are a few things that I do for all headshots. First and foremost, I talk to my clients to find out if there is anything specific they would like retouched. More often than not, people have insecurities that they would like adjusted - that said, most of the time these are things that you would never notice were it not pointed out. Often times people are reassured simply by me telling them that it isn’t noticeable, but I do still try to take care of their concerns.

Once I have taken care of my client’s specific concerns, I go through the following edits:

  • blemish removal

  • eye bag removal

  • flyaway hair removal

  • skin smoothing and tone equalization

  • color correction

  • background cleanup / background color and pattern adjustment

  • highlight and shadow adjustment

  • vignetting

  • radial filtering

These edits give all my clients a similar quality, but also help to give all my headshots a uniform look, even if they all have different purposes, backgrounds, and poses as dictated by my clients’ needs.