Whether you’re an actor, a yoga teacher or a CEO, a decent headshot is an essential marketing tool in your professional arsenal, one that could make the difference between landing a gig or not. While it may seem like the simplest of photography tasks - it’s only the head after all - I’ve learnt through my many years as a professional photographer in Hong Kong that taking the perfect headshot isn’t as easy as it looks.
If you're a photographer, then make sure to check out this summary of my favorite portrait lenses
Here are some tips I’ve gleaned for both the photographer and the photographed. Let’s start with the latter:
Headshot tips for the model
Check yourself before you wreck yourself
It probably goes without saying, but check yourself in the mirror before you sit down (or stand up) for your headshot. If you’ve never met the photographer in person before, he/she won’t know you don’t normally wear your hair messy and your shirt untucked.
Patterns and stripes can look weird on screens, so it’s best to stick to solid, neutral colors for your professional headshot. Also, don’t be tempted to go too “fashion-forward” unless that’s part of your job. Classic style will last you a lot longer than the latest trend.
Less is more with makeup
Similarly, don’t go overboard with the makeup. A lot can be done with lighting and retouching to make your skin flawless and your features pop, so there’s no need to pile it on like you’re heading to the Oscars. For a business headshot, you want to look like yourself on your best day. If you normally wear bold lipstick, that’s fine. Just don’t go for something that’ll make you look like a different person. For some great makeup tips, make sure to check out one of my favorite makeup artists, Krystina!
Head forward, chin down
A strong jaw accentuates the overall shape of the face, but when people stand or sit naturally the chin can sometimes disappear into the neck. Try pushing your head forward and chin down slightly. This will help extend the jawline and pull the skin taut around your face to reveal more defined bone structure. Ultimately, however, listen to the directions of your photographer.
Headshot Tips for Model: Preparation Checklist
2 - 3 days before your headshot:
- Get plenty of rest and sleep as early as possible
- Drink a lot of water and eat well
- Prepare your skin for the headshot, start applying hydrating lotions and serum on your face and neck. Hydrating masks and hand masks are good options though
- Prepare your headshot bag to take with you. Here is a list of suggested items from a client of mine who is a professional model.
- Makeup kit
- Comb or brush
- Lotions and creams, pool them into small travel size bottles so it’s easier to bring around
- Hydration mask, if you are planning to do your makeup onsite. Here are some of the top brands:
- Ebanel 15 Pack Collagen Face Mask
- MARYANN Organics Collagen Cream
- LANEIGE Lip Sleeping Mask
- A change of outfit if you want multiple looks
- A bottle of water and some lite snacks such as biscuits, dried fruits, grapes and nuts in a 4-Compartment snack box because they are clean, dry and easy to eat
- An environmental friendly metal drinking straw, to protect your lipstick
1 week before your headshot:
- Get your nails and eyebrows done at least 5 days before the headshot session, so there would be enough time for the redness to go away
- White teeth: you may want to start applying teeth whitening products a week before your photoshoot if you prefer to have a perfect smile with white teeth. Some models I know use the charcoal powder. However, do consult a doctor first if you have no experience in applying similar products.
Headshot tips for the photographer
Help your subject relax
Most people dislike having their photograph taken and feel nervous about getting professional head shots. I find a good way to combat this is to meet your subject in person, or at least talk to them on the phone, before the session. As well as making your client feel more at home with you, it’ll give you the chance to find out exactly what kind of portrait they’re after, be it super professional, fun or quirky.
Although the focal point of any good headshot is obviously the face, don’t neglect the background when setting up. Plain or highly bokeh backgrounds usually work best, but you may want to consider showing more context for your subject's career, whether they are an international artist, a Michelin star chef or a CEO. Watch for shadows if your subject is standing close to a wall or a screen as this will make the photo look less professional.
It’s all about the eyes
The most important part of any headshot is the eyes, so make sure they’re crisp, sharp and dynamic. Capturing the eyes well will establish a strong connection between the photograph and the viewer. A good way to get “fresh eyes” is to ask a subject to look away and then back into the lens right as you take the shot.
Experiment with angles
For close-up photographs such as corporate headshots, angles are really important. A top-down angle will make the eyes appear larger and the face more delicate, whereas shooting from the bottom-up can make someone appear taller and more dominant. Watch out for the dreaded double chin if choosing the latter, though!
Ultimately, try to find your subject’s most attractive angle by paying close attention to all their features, when each looks its best and how they play off each other. Tiny adjustments in angle can make a huge difference.
Lighting is key
Flawless skin is very important for head shots, and while a lot can be done with retouching in post-production, lighting is your best friend here. Using diffused light all around the head will bring definition to the shape of the face and hide any wrinkles and blemishes.
Leaving the underneath of the face unlit, however, will give a more striking, rugged shot, sometimes preferred by men. Also don’t be afraid to shoot outside. Natural light will give a lovely genuine feel, which is great if that’s the look your subject is after.
Above is a headshot I took for Lakshmi Harilela, one of the top ayurvedic chefs in Hong Kong. She also teaches cooking, as well as running a food photography and yoga business in Hong Kong.
Chat a lot
Finally, expression is everything when it comes to taking a great headshot. It’s your job to find the most natural expressions of your subject and capture a look that’s unique to them. I find the easiest way to do this is just to talk a lot. Ask them serious questions, crack jokes, give them direction, but most importantly constantly reassure them that they’re doing it right. If someone feels they’re looking good and you’re getting the results you want, they’ll naturally relax and be themselves.
Headshot Tips FAQs
What makes a good headshot?
A good headshot should be well lit, well-posed with a clean or suitable background and it should show the subject in a comfortable, confident, and yet welcoming demeanor.
Most of the time, head forward, chin down would help you look sharp and nice.
What should you not wear for a headshot?
- For a professional headshot, try to avoid bright colors like banana yellow, sharp pink... etc.
- Try not to wear something too fashion-forward unless that's part of your job
- Try to avoid patterns and stripes since they will cause distractions
Should you smile in a headshot?
Yes, but don't show too many teeth or open your mouth too wide. A warm welcoming smile is always nice. I would say think of something joyful during shooting does help, but it's totally ok if you don't want to smile.
Just remember, relax, and don't force it!
What makes a bad headshot?
- Poor lighting (can be too dark or too bright)
- Out of focus (too blur),
- Too many distractions with the clothing or background,
- A subject who looks uncomfortable
I hope you find these tips useful for preparing your headshots! A professional corporate portrait is an investment in yourself, and it has a huge impact on your brand, your career, and your prospective clients or employers.
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A big thanks to Phottix for the professional lighting equipment provided to Ali G Studios.
All photos are © Ali Ghorbani and Ali G Studios
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