Headshots are important. Whether you're an actor, model, dancer, or businessperson, a headshot often the first impression that potential clients or customers will have of you. There is no substitute for having your headshot taken by a skilled photographer, but if you are just getting started in your career then you may not have the budget for that. This guide will help you learn to take professional headshots at home.

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What You’ll Need

You can accomplish a lot with very minimal investment. Let’s face it, if you are going to buy professional photo gear just for a headshot, then you’ll be much better off just hiring a professional. 

Here are the basics that you need to get started. 

  • A camera. Your smartphone will probably be all you need. Sure a high end camera will produce much better images, but a good headshot is more about the skill of the photographer than the equipment. Also, by the time you spend the money to buy a high quality camera, you could have gotten a professional headshot that would far exceed what you can do yourself, so start with whatever you have. 
  • A tripod. If you don’t have a friend to help then you’ll need something to hold the camera steady. Don’t go holding the camera yourself…a “selfie” style shot is far from professional looking. 
  • Good light. A big window will do just fine. Good light is extremely important, especially with a smartphone camera (they don’t do well in low light). 
     
  • White Foam Board (optional).  You’ll use this to control the lighting a little. For just a few bucks at a local craft store, this simple item can make a world of difference. I still use simple foam boards like this for professional work.   

1. Planning

Planning out your headshot is just as important as taking the shot itself. No two headshots are the same. I take some time with every client before the shoot to talk about their profession and why they want a headshot.

If you don’t have a plan and a purpose for the headshot you want to create then they it will not be as effective as you want it to be. 

Decide What Kind Of Headshot You Want

Headshots can be as widely varied as personalities. Do you want a serious feel to the image or are you trying to look friendly and approachable (or something in between)?

Some factors that go into this determination can be your profession, where you’ll be using the images, or what kind of demographic do you serve. 

I would recommend looking at headshots online to see examples of different looks and poses. As a DIYer, you probably won’t be able to recreate the style you find (that’s what you would hire a professional for) but becoming familiar with various styles can help guide you going forward. 

Decide On The Feeling You Want To Convey

This can be very similar to the previous step. 

Here, we want to think a little about the overall feel of the image. This will help you decide what kind of background to use, what type of clothes to wear, and what type of pose to use (among other things). 

The reason I am suggesting that you figure all these things out before even starting to set up the camera is that this method will give you a focus and prevent you from just being satisfied with an average headshot. 

Where Do You Want To Use These Images?

Next, determine where you want to use the images. Are they for your website, Facebook page, LinkedIn, or maybe even your Tinder Profile. Some of those are more “professional” than others so you may want different looks. 

Different locations may also require different aspects or crops for your photo, but we will talk about that in more detail further on. 

2. Setting Up The Shot

This is the part that most people have trouble with when they try to DIY their headshots. A solid setup will get you on the right track so that you can concentrate on how you look once you start taking photos. 

Getting The Lighting Correct

The lighting is the most important part of the setup. If you get the lighting correct, your photo will look pretty good with any camera. 

A solid basic lighting setup is to take the photo facing a large window. Place the camera between you and the window. A large light source like a window will give you nice even light which is usually flattering.

If you don’t have a large window and need to use a lamp or flash, place it above the camera and then get a white bedsheet and hang it in front of the light to diffuse the light.

Try to avoid using a bare light bulb, flash, any any small light source without some sort of diffusing (like the bedsheet). They will cast harsh shadows and you won’t be happy with the results. 

Once you have the main light source, take a big piece of white foam board and hold it out in front of you at chest level facing up (or maybe angled towards you a little bit). The board will reflect some of the light from the primary light source back up into your face. This will fill in any shadows and help to minimize wrinkles. 

This isn’t the only way to set up lighting for a headshot. I use a number of different styles depending on the client. But this is an easy setup to do yourself at home and will give you great results. 

Where To Place The Camera

You want the camera to be secured in a stationary place. A tripod is the best option for this. If you are using a smartphone, there are plenty of ways you can secure the phone to a tripod. It may involve spending a little bit of money though. 

You want to make sure the camera is about level with your face. I prefer to place the camera more at the mouth level because it lets you look down into the camera which will make you look stronger and more confident.

Don’t get the camera too low though. You don’t want the shot to be looking up your nose!

Horizontal or Vertical Camera Position?

If you search headshots online you’ll see plenty of examples of both. 

There seems to be a modern trend towards horizontal images. Some photographers will shoot almost exclusively one way or the other. I think this is shortsighted and fails to take into consideration the end use for the photos. Some uses may require a vertical photo while others may require a horizontal photo.

In my opinion the best approach is to (1) determine the primary use for the photos and shoot primarily for that, and (2) shoot some images the other way just in case you need them for the future. 

Camera Settings

This is where most people start but it is less important than you may think if you get everything else correct.

If you are using your smartphone then start with the automatic mode. 90% of the time it will work just fine if you set up the lighting correctly. 

If you are using a camera that has manual settings like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO then here are some tips that will help. If you don’t know what those terms mean, put your camera in auto mode and skip this next list. 

  • A longer focal length lens generally works better for headshots. I use an 85mm lens. 
  • Use your base/lowest ISO (typically this is 100). That will give you the best quality.
  • Keep your shutter speed high enough to avoid blur. Best practice is to use at least 1/the focal length of the lens. For example, if you are shooting a 100mm lens (or a zoom lens set to 100mm) then your shutter speed should be at least 1/100 of a second. As a general practice, I tend to keep my shutter speed at 1/200 of a second or higher as a general rule. 
  • Start an aperture between f/5.6 and f/8. Less than that for a headshot and you’ll have trouble getting the eyes in focus. You can experiment with wide (lower number) apertures, but get a good in focus shot first. 

3. Posing Yourself

I’ll be honest, these next two sections are where you are really going to lose a lot by doing this at home yourself. There really is no substitute for a professional here. But here are some tips to help you get the best results possible under the circumstances. 

Expressions Are Everything

Before we talk about getting you in positions that will help flatter you, I want to say that posing is much less important than expression. 

A genuine expression will always produce a a more compelling image than a perfectly posed shot of a lifeless expression. That is where working with a professional can make a world of difference. Anyone can set up expensive lights and use an expensive camera, but it takes some real skill to bring out a person’s authentic personality.

how to take professional headshots at home
A genuine expression makes for a compelling headshot.

We’ll talk more about how you can do that on your own when we get to Step 4 below. 

Use A Mirror If You Can

I encourage all my clients to practice in a mirror before the headshot session. You should do this too. 

If you have a portable mirror, it can also be a big help to have the mirror in a place where you can see yourself while you are taking the photos. The best place to position the mirror is right behind the camera. 

Although it won’t look exactly the same as the photo itself but it can help. 

How To Position Your Head

This one technique can make a huge difference in how you look in your photo. 

You just need to simply move your head a little closer to the camera than the rest of your body. A good way to accomplish this is by focusing on moving your forehead towards the camera if you are facing the camera and moving your ear towards the camera if you are facing to the side of the camera.

This accomplishes two things. 

  1. It brings the focus of the shot to your face rather than the rest of your body. You want the people looking at your headshot to be focused on you. Not your shirt or your shoulders. That’s the entire purpose of shooing a headshot instead of a three-quarter or full length photo. 
  2. More importantly, it helps to define your jawline. No matter what your body type, everyone has some loose skin under the chin. If you let your head sink into your body, your jawline will look soft to the camera. Moving your head towards the camera (without moving your body) will help pull everything tight and define that jawline for a much better shot. 

4. Taking The Shot

If you did everything else we talked about then this is the fun part!

Actually taking the headshot is more being dynamic and having energy and less about technical photography skills. So keeping that in mind, let’s talk about some specific things to keep in mind. 

Get A Friend To Help

Having another person there to help can make a world of difference. 

First, you should communicate to them the goals that we talked about in the beginning so that they know what to look for. 

Use A Timer

If you don’t have a friend to take the photos for you then use the timer on your camera or phone. 

If your camera has an option to take multiple images in timer mode then use that. You may be able to find an app that will set a timer and then take multiple photos with a few second between each. This is the best way to replicate the experience of having a professional there taking frames one after the other to capture your expressions. 

Use Some Tricks To Create Real Expressions

I never tell someone to smile. There’s nothing authentic about a smile that is a response to a command. 

Ideally, you’ll have a friend that will be able to make you laugh or show emotion. I usually don’t stop talking while I am shooting. My goal is to elicit real reactions from the client rather than forced poses. That can make a huge difference. 

If you are by yourself then you may have to play some mind tricks on yourself. Think of something in your life that makes you happy or maybe your favorite funny movie. 

Just remember to keep shooting (if possible) through the smile or laugh. I have found that the couple seconds as someone regains their composure after a good laugh creates the best images. 

Take A Lot Of Shots

The best part of digital photography is that you can take dozens of images basically for free. Take advantage of this fact and take a lot of photos. 

As a non-photographer, you won’t know exactly how to set things up to get the shot you want right away. So experiment with different lighting positions, different poses, different expressions, and anything else you want to try. Doing that will greatly increase your odds that you end up with something you will be happy to use. 

5. Reviewing The Images

Before you take down your setup, make sure you look at the photos to make sure they look great. 

Check For Focus

Even professional photographers need to do this after every series of shots before they change the pose, lighting, or something else. 

The best way to do this is zoom in on the eyes. The eyes are the critical focus point. As long as they are in focus then the photo will look good. What you want to avoid is a situation where the ears or hair is in focus and the eyes are not. People viewing the image will want to look at your eyes and if they are out of focus it can actually create a feeling of discomfort in the viewer…and that’s the last thing you want to happen with your headshot. 

In fact, sometimes a photographer will set up the shot so that the eyes are the only thing in perfect focus. I think that is a little too much of an “artistic” look for a professional headshot though. 

Choose The Image That Best Represents Your Intent

Remember when we talked about establishing a purpose or goal for the headshot?

Don’t forget about that when you are choosing the images. 

You may be tempted to choose the image where you think you just look “great,” but that image may not be aligned with your goal. If you want to come across as friendly and approachable but you think your best image is a stern serious look, then you need to set aside your own feelings about the image and think strategically. 

You should be asking yourself, “What is the best image to portray my professional personality?”

Crop Appropriately For Where You Plan To Use The Images

Most image programs either on your computer or smartphone will let you crop the images to different aspects. That goes beyond just vertical or horizontal as there can be different variations of each depending on what your intended use is. 

The best approach here is to check any guidelines for the place where you’ll be uploading the images. A quick internet search will tell you the best aspect ratios for every social media platform. Keep in mind that even on one platform, there can be different uses. For example, your Facebook profile photo should be cropped different then your background image, and different again for using it in a post.

These “ideal sizes” change pretty frequently. It can be quite maddening actually. I keep track of all of them for my clients and still check every couple months to make sure I am still up to date. 

If it is your own website then you will already know the place where you plan to use it and can crop accordingly. 

Putting It All Together

Ok, this was a lot of info. 

If you really want to do it yourself, then you are going to get better with practice. So keep shooting. 

And if you don’t want to take the time to learn this all yourself, then give me a call. 

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