Photographing a headshot can seem like a daunting prospect. To have one person in front of your camera, looking to you for direction and positivity, is an intense environment. People are generally very critical of themselves in photographs, and feel very nervous. However, there are some simple things that you can do to make it a lot easier for everyone.
1. Have a pre-session consultation
Before your session make sure you know how the images will be used and what style they would like. This can be on the phone or face to face. Talking to them, will help them relax so much more than email. This will allow you to help them prepare for the session. Make sure they know what to expect, and are as relaxed as possible.
Find out about what profession your subject is involved in; a corporate lawyer may well opt for a clean white background look (above), while a more relaxed style of business (yoga instructor) may prefer a more colourful, environmental image (below). Find out in the consultation what they want so you are prepared on the day.
2. Help them to choose the right clothes
Generally speaking, solid, neutral colours, work best for headshots, as you want to avoid anything that distracts away from people’s faces. If it is a formal style you are looking to achieve, make sure that everyone gets the message, and remembers to bring formal work clothes with them. Men often forget their jackets, so for a consistent look, try and have a spare one on hand, even if you need to clip it at the back. If you have time with a person, get them to bring a few items of clothing. Remind them to iron their clothes as well.
3. Create separation from the background
Make sure that your subject doesn’t stand too close to the background. If you are using a studio background (or wall in an office) and you stand someone close to it, you may see shadows on the wall, which makes the images look less professional. For environmental headshots outdoors, I still recommend separation from the background. The bokeh creates a nice nondescript background, especially when shot at a wide aperture. Typically I aim for an aperture of f/4 for environmental and natural light sessions, and f/8 for studio style sessions with lights.
4. Starting the session
Whether you are photographing headshots for a single person, or a whole team, make sure you have a general chat with each person first, to help them relax. This can be just a 10 second, confident handshake, and a “how are you?”. People generally feel very tense about having their photograph taken, and talking about something in their comfort zone (where they live, if they have children or pets, etc) will really help them appear and be more comfortable.
5. Silly Faces!
A great way of helping people to relax in front of the camera, if you don’t have much time with them, is to ask them to pull a funny face for the first frame. Use this as a lighting test for a new person as well. This is great at breaking the ice, and very few refuse to do it. Once they have pulled a daft face, everything else is easy!
6. Lighting and positioning
For business and actors’ headshots, I tend to light quite evenly. There are a few circumstances when the images are low-key, but for the main part, they are evenly lit. A classic beauty lighting setup works well, with one light above, and a second light, or a reflector filling from below.
I ensure the subject is turned with their body 45 degrees away from the camera, and towards the main light source (if your lighting allows for this). Their face should be straight towards the camera. You may need to guide people to look straight down the lens. It’s surprising how many people look off camera, at the flash, or somewhere random.
7. Sit people down
People may be more comfortable sitting down, and by asking them to rest their hands on the tops of their thighs, it gives them something to do with their hands. It also ensures that the subjects all know where they need to be, and they don’t move around too much.
8. It’s all about the little adjustments
What separates a great headshot from an average one, are generally very small changes. These little adjustments can make all the difference. The slight tilt to the head, leaning forward, a gentle but intriguing smile. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to make very specific changes to their expression and position, until you get the image you’re looking for.
9. Keep talking and be positive
When you’re in the midst of taking photographs, make sure that you keep talking to your subject. Reassure them that they’re doing it right, and you’re getting great images. Even if you’re not satisfied with the images when someone turns their head in a certain direction, or how the light is falling on them, never express that to your subject. Silence will kill the atmosphere, so no matter what is happening, just keep chatting and being positive.
10. Shoot tethered
If you have all the necessary equipment, shooting tethered is a fantastic way the get great headshots. When people see a couple of shots on the screen, they can very quickly get an idea of what needs to be changed. The immediate feedback on the screen will help everyone massively.