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Headshot Photography – A Definitive Guide

18 min read

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Quick summary

This article, a definitive guide on headshots written by an NYC headshot photographer, is aimed to educate the reader on the most important aspects of the craft, including composition and crop (including going vertical or horizontal), equipment and lighting, a brief summary on lenses, software you should be using (if you’re serious about portraiture, you should be using Capture), as well as areas of your subject you should be focusing on. It also addresses one of the most fundamentally overlooked aspects of all – your mindset.

In New York City, which is where I live, headshot photography is a serious business. An actor headshot session with one of the top photographers in the field can easily exceed $3,000USD (honestly, some of the billing practices by the top photographers are a little ridiculous at this point, but that’s another topic for another day), and running a search query for ‘corporate headshots nyc’ returns a mind-boggling number of photographers to choose from; all vying for a share of a once niche market that now, thanks to the internet, LinkedIn, and social profiles, is more needed, sought-after, and pervasive than it’s been at any point in history. 

And so, with this said, here’s a guide from a seasoned NYC photographer who’s been doing them for 10+ years. Whether you’re a photographer aspiring to start taking headshots yourself or a client hoping to go into a headshot session with a little more ownership of what you’re doing, this guide is for you. And so, without further ado, here we go.

What is a Headshot?

Headshots are a very specific type of image and are not to be confused with portraits. Portraits are an extremely broad and general sort of photograph that can encompass a wide variety of compositions, crops, and poses. A half-length image of a person can be a portrait, while a full-length image of someone can also be a portrait. This can extend to three quarter length and more.

To add to the confusion, the composition of a portrait can have the exact same composition of a headshot (it’s confusing, I know, but the difference between the two you’ll know after you gain a certain amount of experience from them). 

Headshots, on the other hand, are almost always just two things – a head and a set of shoulders. If the portrait is taken vertically, it can extend as far down as the chest, but that’s about it. Anything else, and you’ve taken a portrait.

headshot of a women.

Composition and Crop

This being said, let’s take a look at the crop and composition of the image above. This shot was produced over the course of a session I was commissioned for by an actress in NYC. 

Note the crop and how tight it is – composing just the shoulders and the face of the actress within the image. Note as well where the eyes sit. I didn’t quite apply the rule of thirds to this image – but I certainly came close. 

And, while we have this headshot up, there are two different things about it that are a little less common practice amongst headshot photographers and represent a good way to stand out from the crowd early on if that’s what you’re looking to do.

The first thing you’ll notice about this headshot that differs from standard practice is that it was taken horizontally rather than vertically.

I do realize that 99% of the portrait world is comprised of vertical imagery, but if you’re looking to differentiate yourself right away and establish some characteristics of your style that differ from that of others, horizontally composed headshots are a good way to start.

Also, the reason that portraits have always been traditionally held vertically is that when casting agents are flipping through stacks of resumes and headshots, they’ve done so much in the way someone would flip through stacks of paper (with the paper situated vertically). However, now that casting agents are just as likely to flip through digital images in an actor’s directory as they would a physical stack, the requirements aren’t as stringent as they used to be. 

The second thing you’ll notice about this headshot is that, not only is there absolutely no negative space whatsoever at the top of the image, the head itself has actually been cropped and cut off somewhat. 

This too is a bit more common of a headshot practice (I say common as in enough photographers do it, though it’s still far from widely adopted technique). 

The reason I went ahead and did this is because I wanted to fill the frame with as much of the subject’s face as possible – as that will produce the most impact possible. If you’re asking why I didn’t simply do that by cropping more of the shoulders instead, it’s a balancing game of push-pull, and you learn over time when to push and when to pull. 

This being said whether you choose to crop the top of the head off or not, avoid negative space at the top of your image at all times in your headshots. A sliver may be fine, but how much of the person’s face you can fit in a headshot directly correlates to how much impact that image is going to have – and you’re wasting it by placing a bunch of negative space at the top of your photo.

Equipment for Headshot Photography

A photographer’s equipment list is a list that’s singular to them and them only – and many photographers use one tool while another photographer in the same field will use another. How you develop your taste in style ultimately comes down to you, but there are certainly some base points you can use and go from there.

Lenses – 85mm and above

85mm lens.

Just as the debate will never end between iPhone and Android, the debate will never likely end on what constitutes the best lens to use for your headshots.

That being said, honestly anything over 85mm is really going to be fine, and I can’t think of too many use cases where any one lens is going to be significantly superior to any other (if shooting outdoors or doing an environmental headshot, you can achieve more bokeh at 200mm than 85mm, but that’s maybe one of the few advantages any one lens has over another, and best left to a different discussion). 

For example, four lenses I’ve used interchangeably over the years for my headshots have been the following: 

85MM Sigma Art 1.4 
70-200 Nikkor 2.8 
105MM Z Mount Nikkor 2.8 
120MM Fujifilm F4 (granted, this is for a different system, as I have a Fuji GFX 100s) 

As far as the above four lenses go, if you’re asking why I one day used one lens and another day used another – it was more than likely because one was simply already attached to my camera at the time. Or because one involved walking to the end of my studio to grab while the other was right next to me. Any one of the above lenses is not going to vary wildly in its results (the 120MM Fuji is technically for a medium format back, and even then, the difference isn’t going to be super noticeable if the headshots are going to be used online). 

The important thing, however, is that none of the lenses go below 85mm (yeah sure, the 70-200 goes to 70, but I always just set the focal length to 85mm anyhow). 

The reason why not going below 85mm is important is because of the crop and composition of your headshots. Once again, headshots are the most tightly cropped of all images within the portrait family, and they’re the most aggressively composed. Given this, trying to take anything below 85mm with an equivalently tight crop will produce image distortion (in this case, your subject’s face would have a barreling effect) and deform your subject.

The reason for being at 85mm and above is that it will allow you to achieve a tight headshot crop while at the same time being far enough away that you won’t have to worry about your subject getting distorted at all. 

CaptureOne Distortion Panel

lens correction.

If you do find yourself below 85mm and need to take a headshot, one of the ways in which you could avoid distortion is by backing up and taking your photo at a slight distance from your subject; but then of course you’ll have to crop in on said subject in post in order to achieve a genuine headshot composition and thereby lose sharpness and resolution that you would have otherwise had with a more suitable lens. 

50mm is passable

You may have read and heard that 50mm is a good lens for headshots, and while I agree with this to an extent, only do so in a casual headshot setting. Are you a headshot photographer new to the industry and being paid a beginner’s rate for your work? Are you just doing something light for a friend? Sure and then, by all means, go ahead and use a 50mm if it’s all you have.

However, if you want to be a serious headshot photographer and one that commands rates in excess of $800-$1000 USD, you’re going to need a dedicated headshot lens and one that is at 85mm or above. As far as focal lengths go, for portraiture work I only use primes (outside of the 70-200 Nikkor I own). If someone is paying you a healthy fee for a set of headshots, you really shouldn’t be using a lens that’s going to distort their face in any way. 

Backdrop

I use grey or white backdrops in my corporate headshots and pretty much never deviate from those two colors. Every now and again I’ll get a client that will want to use some specialty color, like blue, and I’ll do my best to talk them out of it.

The reason I’ll do my best to talk them out of it is because they’re going to use their headshot in a ton of different places – many of which blue won’t fit in too well with. And so, with this said, you want to future-proof your client’s headshot and do your best to ensure it fits in as many places as possible. 

Camera Body

When it comes to camera bodies, my advice is to get the best one that you can afford. I am not saying get the best one available – I’m saying get the best one within your budget. Also, if you can afford to start off shooting full-frame, you absolutely should start off with a full-frame body, and to be honest, I’d rather start off with a second-hand full-frame body purchased off eBay (say, a Nikon 610 that you could pick up for $400ish dollars) over a brand new cropped sensor. 

Headshot Lighting

lighting equipment.

The overwhelming majority of headshots you take over the course of your career are going to use soft light – with hard light headshots reserved for editorial or fashion photography only. For this reason, I’m not going to touch on hard light at all in this article because its application is too narrow and niched and, as well, too complicated.

You can also read our article on lighting for headshot photography.

Outdoors

I rarely do outdoor headshots anymore, though there’s a time and a place for them. If you’re doing a shoot outdoors, try to aim for a cloudy day and one that isn’t too sunny. Cloudy days provide much more even lighting (even in the shadows), and all you ever really need for them is a reflector, your camera, and a subject. 

In-Studio

The selection of modifiers, softboxes, umbrellas, and reflectors for in-studio work can be a bit overwhelming – so where does one start?

corporate headshot.
Corporate Headshot taken using the Parabolix Parabolic 45 w/ white diffusion panel in Butterfly setup.

Key Light

First of all, let’s start with your key light and its modifiers and go from there. 

Right now, I go back and forth between a 48” Profoto Octabox and a Parabolix 45 Parabolic Reflector with a white diffuser panel as my key lighting, though to be honest I’ve used and gotten away with modifiers earlier on in my career that were half the size (23”). The type of strobe you use can be pretty much anything, as headshot photography isn’t really demanding on your lighting equipment and doesn’t require super fast recycle times. In fact, during the first three years of my career, I used speed lights for my headshot work. 

For corporate headshot sessions I like to boom the light out over my subject and point it facing down and directly at the subject’s face. This particular form of lighting is called butterfly lighting – for the butterfly-shaped shadow that forms underneath your subject’s nose. It’s usually the most flattering form of lighting as it’s one of the most effective ways to light your entire subject’s face and minimize shadows. 

If you’d like to take a look, you can see my example work here: Corporate Headshots NYC.

If I’m doing an actor’s headshot, I’ll typically place my key light in a loop position. Loop lighting is far and away the most widely used and most widely flattering form of lighting that works on pretty much everyone. It is called loop lighting because the nose produces a small shadow in the shape of a loop that lies right next to it. Instead of being boomed out overhead (which requires not just a lightstand, but a boom as well), a loop light has much simpler requirements, and one only needs to place a light at forty five degrees from the side and pointed forty-five degrees down atop a lightstand. 

Fill Lighting

fill lighting.
Corporate headshot using loop light. Filled in on the right side, note the shadowed area.

And so, now that our key lights are set up, where do we go from there? Both lighting configurations (be it butterfly or loop) are going to produce shadows in areas where the light falls off. In butterfly lighting, the shadows are going to be under the nose, eyes, and chin. In loop lighting, the shadowed area is going to be on the side of the face opposite the light. 

In case you don’t know what fill lighting is, it’s a light you place on your subject, usually on the opposite side of your key, that’s used to fill in the shadow areas where the key can’t go. It’s usually half the power of the key. 

Earlier on in my career, I almost always used a second light for fill; especially when doing butterfly lighting. Typically, what I used was a small light stand with a speedlight attached to the top and a shoot-through umbrella in front of it, and these would be underneath my subject and pointed up into her/his chin. 

After a while, however, I switched over to using large reflectors (especially when doing in-studio work). The reason I switched over to using large reflectors (in my case, 40” foamcore), is for a couple of different reasons. For one, the lighting is just softer and more even coming from a 40” slab of foamcore as opposed to a 23” umbrella. And secondly, it produces much more flattering catchlights in the eyes of the subject. 

At any rate, if you’re shooting using a butterfly lighting configuration, your fill light would be under your subject’s chin, whereas fill for a loop light would be on the other side of your subject altogether, at about half power. 

While there are other lighting configurations for headshot photography, the above two (butterfly and loop) could literally carry you through a multi-decade career.

Camera Settings for Headshots

setting the camera.

ISO

ISO is your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light (I’m disregarding film because if you’re shooting on film, you already have a pretty good understanding of ISO). Also interchangeably referred to as film speed, it determines how long your shutter has to be open or how much light will be needed to properly expose an image. The higher the ISO, the less light will be needed to create the exposure, though more grain will appear in the final piece. Studio photographers almost always use 100 or below ISO, as they’ll typically be working with high-powered strobes. 

Aperture

Aperture is the hole or opening through a lens that permits light to pass through. The wider the hole, the more light that’s able to pass, and the shallower your depth of field because. Aperture is measured in F stops and goes from F1.4 all the way up to F32 (F32 is a bit of an extreme, and usually only older lenses stop down to this figure).

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the measurement of how long the camera shutter will stay open to expose the image. If you’re working in a studio environment with stroboscopic lighting, 1/200-1/250 will almost always be what you will be working at for headshots. If you’re working in a daylight studio or with continuous lighting, you may find yourself down as low as 1/60th of a second. Anything lower, however, and you run the risk of motion blur.

The Settings I Use

As far as camera settings go, I almost always shoot at either 100 or below for ISO, with a shutter speed of 200 and an aperture of F5.6-F8. If I’m using a macro lens (which allows me to get closer to my subject at the sacrifice of depth of field, I’ll lean towards F8/F9). 

You may be tempted in the beginning to shoot wide open; as a blurred background with an in-focus subject is the hallmark of professional photography, but after awhile, too much of use it results in it’s loss of novelty and it becomes just another parlor trick. I once met a photographer that shot at F1.8, in-studio, day in and day out, and all I can do is look on that practice and shudder.

Your Style is the Only Style

I just came across an article on headshot photography that recommended you have a pre-consultation with your client and ask them such questions as ‘what style of headshot would you like?’ 

That’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard.

The style of headshot that person wants is the style you shoot in. Period. They’re coming to you and hiring you for a reason – because it’s your style that person is requesting, and it’s your style that’s going to convey that client’s value to the world. If a client comes to you requesting that you shoot in another photographer’s style, your best suggestion is to tell that client to go hire that other photographer then, in the event they like his or her style so much.

The work you do is the work you produce and at the end of the day, that’s what you’re conveying to the world. There’s one style of headshot you currently produce, and that’s the style you shoot in. 

If you look at all of my headshots, a lot of them will have characteristics that differentiate them from one another, but at the end of the day, they’re all unifying me.

The Jawline

The two most defining traits a person has in their headshots are the eyes and their jawline.

If the most defining characteristic in the image is the shirt they’re wearing, then either they need to change shirts, or you need to do a better job with their headshot. 

This being said, not all jawlines are created equal, and some people may need a little bit of help coaxing theirs out. 

jawline.

One of the ways in which you can help a person define their jawline is to have them lean forward slightly, almost jack-knifing themselves towards you. If they complain that it feels awkward, then you’re on the right track. If they continue to complain that it feels awkward, remind them that you’re the professional (remind them in a nice way, of course) and that this will help with the end image.

What leaning forward does is it automatically makes the person’s face extend forward a little bit, which will tighten up the skin underneath the jaw and help accentuate the area. 

As far as the positioning of the jawline goes, it should usually be either level with the camera or slightly lower. Never have the person lean back, as that will bring the chin up and away from the camera, and then they’ll just look like a rapper on an album cover. 

Remember the Alamo. Remember the jawline.

The Eyes

The eyes are the focal point of every headshot ever taken. This is an unbreakable maxim. This being said, your camera focus should always be on the eyes (I typically use one focus point on my camera and will have it focused on one side or the other). 

If the person is turned at an angle, the eye closest to you should always be the one you focus on. 

From a compositional standpoint, if you’re going to use the rule of thirds in your image (say you’re shooting horizontally), then you’ll match up an eye to one of those thirds.

Talk

The worst thing you can do is sit in silence the entire time – not saying a word while quietly snapping away. It’s offsetting and generally makes people uncomfortable, which will affect your image.

I’m a fairly conversational person and when I have people over to my studio, I typically engage with them throughout the course of the entire shoot. Not only does it make the time go faster, it also produces better images.

Pricing

Professional photography has a lot of people in it that play the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ game, in that if you ask them what their rates are, they’ll quote you a price and, after you ask them where they came up with that price, they’ll shrug and say ‘I dunno. I mean, that’s what my competitor is charging.’ 

You need to set your own prices, regardless of what other people are charging, and with respect to your level of experience and how much you feel you’re worth. If you’re just starting out in the industry and your calendar isn’t even remotely booked up, you really shouldn’t be charging $800 for actor headshots simply because you see other people doing so on Google. 

When I first started doing headshots, in the very beginning I charged around $195 and went from there. After I started getting some experience and the quality of them went up, I increased my rate to $295 and kept going from there. At this point, I’ll usually quote an actor somewhere in the $900-$1000 range for headshots and a corporate professional anywhere from $495-$1000+. 

This being said, don’t worry about what other people are doing. Focus on yourself and worry about yourself – things will fall into place thereafter.

executive headshot.

Clothing

Clothing to me has always been pretty straightforward, but the advice I always give to people is to dress as if they were going to a slightly upscale lounge function. You know, not too dressed up while at the same time not too dressed down; a healthy splitting of the middle.

It also depends on their industry. A guy in finance I would encourage to wear a suit and tie, whereas someone in tech, at a startup for instance, I might instruct them to wear something more casual.

For actors, t-shirts are always a go-to, though you should have them bring along a few different outfits, just in case. Avoid loud patterns and colors that will overwhelm the image, as you want the focus to be on your subject and not, say, his canary yellow tank top.

Headshot Photography Tips

1– Remember that if your subject is turned slightly, always focus on the nearest eye. This is an unbreakable rule. 

2– Not all of your shots, once again, have to be vertically oriented. Horizontally formatted headshots can make for a nice break in convention and show people something new. 

3– Speedlights make for excellent headshot light sources and can be picked up off eBay for less than a hundred dollars. Given how close your light source is to the subject, they’ll be more than adequate enough to punch through higher F stops while retaining a low ISO. 

4– You are the professional; not your subject. You are in control of the shoot, and they expect you to direct them. Don’t disregard their input entirely, but remain the authority. 

5– Remember to set your prices on your own and do not simply copy your neighbor’s. Also, simply because someone is asking for something at a specific dollar amount doesn’t necessarily mean that person is getting that specific dollar amount.

Conclusion

This is everything I can think of for now that my brain is able to produce with its headshot experience in the NYC area. Take note of the above points, though, and if you have any questions, you can always drop me a line at [email protected].

With the above taken into account, however, and a determination to get better at your craft, you’ll be up there with the best of them in no time at all.

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Joe Jenkins is a full time photographer in NYC specializing in portraits, events, and fashion. He fell into professional photography in 2013 after a run in with a talent agency that tried selling him an absurdly overpriced headshot package. He likes french fries, his dog Charlotte, and photography. He has a full-time, standalone studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Joe Jenkins is a full time photographer in NYC specializing in portraits, events, and fashion. He fell into professional photography in 2013 after a run in with a talent agency that tried selling him an absurdly overpriced headshot package. He likes french fries, his dog Charlotte, and photography. He has a full-time, standalone studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
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