How do I Take Good Headshots?

Ken Black

In photography, taking good headshots is often a very hard thing to do, even though the process seems so simple. Anyone who has ever gotten their photo taken for their driver's license, or who has seen a police mug shot, knows headshots can be some of the most unflattering of all photos. Therefore, the key is for the photographer to understand what makes a good headshot and implement that in his or her work.

A neutral background is necessary for a good headshot.
A neutral background is necessary for a good headshot.

Headshots are difficult for one reason. There is no room for error. With a wider shot, there is always the possibility of cropping and always the possibility that a viewer's eyes will focus on other elements. With headshots, there is only one focus and every little imperfection will stand out.

The background of a headshot should not clash with the subject.
The background of a headshot should not clash with the subject.

Fortunately, digital photography has made taking headshots much easier. The instant feedback those cameras provide can show a photographer immediately whether or not she has a usable shot. Thus, even for those with marginal skills, the digital camera can help make them look like experts. Even so, there are a few things everyone should consider which will help make the process of obtaining usable headshots easier.

The first thing to consider for a headshot is the background. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive. Why should the background matter? It does for a couple of reasons. First, the light may be quickly distributed throughout the room in an unpredictable way. Also, what little of the background that does show may clash with the subject of the portrait. For headshots, it is good to choose a solid background with a soft color. Whites and blacks could be used, but may require some adjustments to the lighting in order to truly make a good shot.

Also, consider taking headshots with the body of the person at an angle and his head turned back toward the camera. This will go a long way toward avoiding that driver's license and police mug shot look. Further, it can also be used to help eliminate double chins and other unflattering features.

Whenever possible, using an indirect flash is also a good idea. This will help eliminate some of the hard lighting features of the direct flash. However, for a truly good indirect flash exposure, a studio setting set up specifically for portrait work is likely needed. Very few photographers will have such access.

As with any type of picture, setting the white balance for the specific conditions is also important. For headshots, this will help produce more natural skin tones in the photograph. Most cameras have a way to manually set the white balance. Some have automatic features that will provide a close approximation based on the type of lighting in the room.

A white background brings out the subject in a headshot.
A white background brings out the subject in a headshot.

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Discussion Comments


Portraits are good for one thing and one thing only: faces.


The generalizations within this post are ridiculous. You can follow these rules if you're looking to do cheap and generic photography.


don't forget framing of the shot.

i can't count the times a video or photo has been ruined when the proper framing wasn't used or even understood.

the focal point will generally be in line with the separation of the upper horizontal and vertical thirds of the frame, not the center.

imagine your frame as a tic tac toe board. line up your shot approximately where the lines indicated above, intersect over the most prominent feature.

in other words, a bit off center to the upper right or left.


Portraits are different than headshots. Portraits can contain the whole body, headshots are generally from the shoulders up. Also, what they are used for has a lot to do with the term; one would love to hang a portrait over the fireplace, but would not use the same on their work i.d. badge.

Headshots are for business purposes.

Portraits are for vanity.

Mugshots, well, they are for the cops.

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