How to take a headshot – 15 tips from a professional headshot photographer.

Covid-19 has most of us in complete lockdown, and for those in Australia right now, going to a professional headshot photographer is out of the question. While what we do is important, it’s not classed as essential, and it’s certainly important for us to all do our part and stay home if we can.

So while travelling to a professional photographer right now is a big no-no, you might find yourself in a situation where you want to find out how to take a headshot while you’re isolating. Perhaps you’re using the extra time you have to enhance your brand, spruce up your socials, or build an updated website.

The fact is: images are super important. And, it’s important that we feature ourselves in them.

Why should you use photos of yourself as a part of your personal brand?

Julia Nance in her professional headshot photography studio, smiling at the camera

I’ve written a few blog posts on the importance of personal branding photography. If I were to quickly sum up what the importance of personal branding photography is, I would say that a personal branding portrait is a summary of what it is like to be with, interact with and work with you. Your brand is a visual way to sell yourself, your business and your profession.

As much as we hate it, people make quick judgements. So it’s important that your brand is represented correctly. Be honest, and be yourself. People do business with those they know, like and trust.

Be trustworthy, be likeable, and give people a chance to get to know you.

15 tips to taking a headshot at home

Taking a headshot isn’t always easy – that’s why I always suggest leaving it to a professional. For a truly great result, there’s lots to consider. So to help you get you by over the next few months, I’ve listed 15 things to help guide you through the process. And once we’re out of lockdown, I’ll be more than happy to help you out with some professional images and tailored advice (you can even book in advance to secure a date!).

The most difficult thing will be engaging with the camera and getting the right expression. If you have someone to help you at home, that’s preferable. It’s much easier to have someone guiding you on your pose, and prompting your expression than waiting on a 10-second self-timer.

See how you go with these tips: 

1 – Find A Great Background

The first thing to think about is background. You need something simple, that isn’t distracting. The background shouldn’t be a talking point. It needs to compliment the image, not stand out.

Brainstorm what style of image suits your brand, personality and profession.

Here are some ideas:
  • A plain light grey or white wall,
  • A green spot in the garden,
  • A lifestyle portrait in your home office or living space.
  • A colourful mural you pass on your morning walk (remember, don’t travel to take these photos).

If you can make sure you can blur out the background – make it soft. This will all relate back to the equipment you use, and I will touch on that below.

2- Choose the Right Camera & Settings

The equipment you use will make a big difference to the final results. Here’s a quick look at some options.

Phones:

Use ‘pro’ settings if you can. Make sure you can dial in a high enough shutter speed, control the final colour, and if you have the feature, ‘Portrait Mode’ might help separate you from the background. It’s great to blur out trees and greenery for a soft effect.

Point and Shoot:

These cameras will give you a nice resolution and solid fill flash if you need it. They often use wider lenses which generally result in a higher depth of field (which means lots of the image stays in focus and you don’t get that lovely background blur). If using one of these cameras, find a background that is simple. Avoid anything too distracting.

DSLR/Mirrorless cameras: 

If you have a DSLR or Mirrorless camera, or another interchangeable lens system, your choice of lens is going to be your first thing to think about. Lenses come in a range from wide-angle (eg 24mm) to telephoto (eg 200mm). A nice mid number between 50-105mm on a full-frame sensor is a great option for headshots. This ensures minimal distortion of your face and features, and a good opportunity for nice background blur (if you use a low aperture).

3 – Use Natural light

For those who are not experienced in lighting for photography, my first suggestion is to utilise natural light. Natural light compliments everyone. When we have enough of it, it makes our skin glow and our eyes bright.

Our main goal: get as much even spread of light on your face as possible, without any direct sunlight.

How to use natural light indoors:
  • Utilise a big window that doesn’t have direct sun falling through it. Frosted glass is great too, as it adds a softening effect.
  • Make sure you’re standing with your face towards the window. This ensures you’re getting as much of that lovely light on you as you can. 
How to use natural light outdoors:
  • Stand/sit in a shady area. No sunlight should be hitting any part of your face.
  • If it’s sunny, make sure any harsh sunlight is coming from behind you. This creates a halo effect and allows us to properly see all of your features.
Man smiles outside for a natural light actor headshot

This image was taken with the sun behind the subject, so we didn’t get harsh light on his face. 

Here you’ll see one light above, and point around 45 degrees down. I also have a light at the back, pointing at the white board (this will reflect back onto the subject for a nice fill).

4 – If You Have To, Use Artificial Light…

I generally suggest trying to avoid artificial lighting unless you’ve got some experience. It can be challenging to look natural and flattering if you don’t have the right techniques and equipment. However, if you’re stuck in a pickle or your favourite background is in a dull spot, here are some quick lighting tips.

  • Create as much light as you can. Dull light will only mean slow exposures and blurry results.
  • Bounce your light off white walls, ceilings and objects to reflect light back at you. Point your light source at the wall/ceiling/white object so that it bounces back onto you in order to soften the light.
  • If you have a Speedlight, you can point it at the ceiling or a wall behind the camera to get a nice even fill. 

5 – Consider The Direction Of Your Light.

Light direction is really important. We want to make sure your face is evenly lit, and we also want to make sure your eyes capture attention and are nice and bright. Try to make sure your light source is above your face as much possible. This is easy with natural light, as there is so much of it. Try to find an open space (in the shade or with the sun behind you), to get as much even and soft light as you can.

If it’s sunny, try for morning to mid morning, or afternoon until golden hour. You want to make sure we don’t have light coming from directly above you (so avoid 11am-2pm if you can).

6 – Choosing Your Outfit

If you’re really stuck on outfits, I’ve written a whole article full of tips on what to wear for a headshot session.

To keep it simple, wear what you might wear if meeting a client or attending a professional meeting or job interview. Stay true to yourself and your brand. Incorporate subtle branding colours if it is appropriate. Otherwise, use colours that compliment your eye colour, skintone and hair colour. 

7- Don’t Go Crazy With Accessories

The trick to accessories is to not overdo it. Keep them simple and small. If wearing jewellery, make sure it doesn’t distract from you. And if it is bold, make sure that ties in really, really well with your brand. 

Some accessories include simple scarves, a change in lipstick, some nice earrings, a change in glasses. And, if you’re wanting to do props, keep it relevant: a cup of coffee, a notebook and pen, a laptop are some examples. 

8- Nail The Camera height

Set your camera up to be slightly above you, or at a minimum at eye level with you. You don’t want to be looking up your nose or accentuating double chins by photographing from below. 

Julia Nance in her professional headshot photography studio, looking through her camera

9 – Use a Tripod (or a family member)

It is absolutely essential that you do not have your ‘selfie arm’ in your photo. You must either use a tripod, rest your camera on an appropriate surface, or use a family member to help you take your shots. Anything else will come off….badly and unprofessional.

10 – Focus on your eyes 

Your eyes are arguably the most important part of your headshot. They’re often the first thing we look at when we look at a portrait of someone.

Make sure your eyes are:
  • Well lit, so we can see them, and they aren’t in shadow. You want to get the lovely colour of your iris coming through.
  • Sharp and in focus – blurry eyes make your portrait dull (and kind of annoying to look at). 
  • Engaged with the camera (showcase your emotion).

11 – Try Different Poses

Poses will be different depending on what sort of portrait you’re taking. Here are some tips:

Headshots:
  • Engage with the camera by leaning in towards the camera a little.
  • Experiment with head tilts, and find angles that work for you.
  • Try angling your shoulders and body to the left, to the right, and straight-on to the camera. 
  • Push your chin forward, and down, to minimise double chins. 
Mid-Length and full-body branding portraits: 
  • Think about your hands. Put one or both in your pockets, cross your arms, hold a cup of tea, or rest them in your lap. 
  • Relax your body. If you’re standing, shift your weight onto one leg and stand comfortably.
  • Try leaning against a wall or tree. 
  • Try a sitting pose – lean on a stool, relax into a couch, sit at your desk.

12 – Get The Right Expression

Expression is vital, and most people find it the hardest to get right. You want to look genuine, not cheesy. It’s easiest to have someone there to prompt you for real expressions (and this is one of the biggest benefits to hiring a professional headshot photographer).

It’s much harder if you have to wait for a self timer. But if you do, try and think about real emotions, funny moments, and things that make you happy. If waiting on a self-timer, pull your smile at the last second before the camera fires.

Top Tips:
  • Experiement smiling with and without teeth, and try some serious expressions too.
  • Make your eyes look engaged, alive, and avoid a dead stare. Soften them with a slight squint (“Smile with your eyes”). 
  • Have fun, be silly, pull faces, and laugh as you go. 

13 – Tidy The Image With A Neat Crop

Get rid of space that doesn’t add anything to your photo. You can often crop on free software on your phone or computer. Other apps like Canva allow you to design graphics, posters and social media content quickly and easily. 

For headshots (like on LinkedIn), stick to head and shoulders so people can really see who you are. For other portraits, the crop is up to you. You want to make sure you’re able to be seen, but sometimes a bit of space helps with adding text and graphics if needed. 

Actor headshot in studio of man in pink shirt smiling at camera.
Melbourne corporate headshot of woman smiling on grey background for LinkedIn Headshot

14 – Finishing Touches With Editing

If you’re not experienced, I recommend you don’t do much editing on your headshots. If you need to, get in touch with an experienced photographer or retoucher to edit your images professionally. (I love retouching, so jot me an email).

Stick with basic adjustments: cropping, brightness, colour (adding some saturation or toning if required – but don’t push it!), and contrast (only if it needs it). 

Please avoid fake, skin blurring filters. They come off looking really ungenuine. Nobody needs that! 

15 – How To Export & Upload

If you’re planning on using your images on your website or social media, you will want to resize them down so they’re suitable for web-upload. You can search the web for free image resizing tools.

I suggest scaling the longest edge of the image down to 1000 pixels, and using a PPI of 72. 

You can use programs like JPG-Mini (premium) or Tiny JPG (has a free version) to compress your images even further too. 

Ready to go? Make sure you have a solid plan.

While there is a lot to think about and consider for your images, it’s worth taking the time and making a plan.

You want to make sure you look professional, likeable and trustworthy, so don’t skimp your images. Take the time to trial different outfits. Look presentable, and take various angles, expressions and settings if you can. It can take a few goes to get ‘the shot’, so don’t be discouraged.

If you’d like to read more about developing your personal brand, I wrote a guide at the end of 2018. Have a look here.

Should I Take All My Own Branding Images From Now On?

This guide was written to be as helpful as possible while we’re all in lockdown during Covid-19. 

As you can see from the headshot tips above, there are a lot of things to consider to get a great image. Professional photographers who specialise in headshots and branding know all of the considerations and techniques to get great images of you.

If you can, always budget for a professional photographer. It’s well worth the money, and it will do yourself and your brand more justice. 

Plus, the general public can tell when you have skipped a professional. Have a read of my article: Selfies Vs Professional Headshots. 

Julia Nance from Julia Nance Portraits in moving gif headshots (mix of silly and serious images)

Julia Nance Melbourne Corporate Headshot

Julia Nance is a headshot and portrait photographer based in Melbourne, Australia. Her vibrant creativity is inspired by her experiences. From photographing whales underwater to travelling in Europe. With a vast background in a range of photographic areas, it is Julia’s natural ability to connect with her subjects that ultimately drew her to the art of portraiture.
Corporate Headshots | Personal Branding | LinkedIn Headshots | Actor Headshots