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Not a week goes by when a client will send me an employee’s headshot that needs to go in a publication or ad. Sometimes they are good, and sometimes they are bad. And by bad, I mean they are low resolution or cropped in a weird way. They probably grabbed the photo from a website or social media page. Neither are good options.

This article will help you get the best headshot for your project.

Let’s start by defining a headshot. It is a photo of an individual that shows only the head, shoulders, and part of the torso. The background is neutral, a professional backdrop, wall, or outdoors that may be out of focus.

Where to go?

The first and best place you should go to get a headshot is from a professional. They know what they are doing, they have tools and experience, and what is a couple of dollars to make you look your best. If you are at a large company, check with the communications department and see if they have a photographer on staff. 

Next, search online for “corporate headshots” or “professional headshots” plus the city you are located. You should be able to find a few good professional photographers who can provide you with a quality photo at the right price. Make sure that the final image you receive is high resolution, not just optimized for social media. 

But what if a project is waiting for your photo, and you don’t have time to schedule a photoshoot? Or what if you are incredibly cheap? Use your phone. And what I mean by that is call a professional, but you probably won’t, so let’s move forward. 

The images created by the latest mobile phones are outstanding, but we know that a spouse, sibling, child, or random stranger will be pressing the buttons on your phone. The following tips will help you get the headshot you deserve. 

1. Location, Location, Location

You don’t have a professional backdrop or studio lights, so you need to work with what you have. Find a nice neutral wall. Consider going outside if there is a nice wall out there. The available light will make a huge difference.

2. Light

Make sure there is plenty of light. If you are inside and it is dark, open up the curtains. Next, look up. Do you have rows of fluorescent lights? Is that still a thing? They may cast a weird green tint on your photo. Maybe there is a can light shining on the top of your head, making unflattering shadows on your face. It will also give you a glowing halo as if you have gone to heaven. Unless you feel that is a feature and it’s not, move to another location.

As I mentioned earlier, try outside. Find a place in the shadows with some diffused light. Whatever your situation, make sure to spend the few seconds it will take to assess the scene and see if it works for your photo. Did you find the perfect wall outside but is in full sun? Wait until the end of the day when the sun may be just right. It’s called the Golden Hour for a reason. 

3. Body Position

We are taking a headshot, not a mugshot, and there is a difference. A mugshot is head and shoulders straight at the camera. For a professional-looking headshot, you need to turn your body 45 degrees to the camera. A strip of painter’s tape on the floor will help you get in position. Turn your head towards the camera, leaving your body at a 45-degree angle. 

Are you within a foot of that nice neutral wall you picked out? Then it’s a firing squad, not a photoshoot. Move about three feet away from the wall. That should take care of any unflattering dark shadows that may outline your body.

4. Get Close

Your photographer will need to be close to you, which may freak both of you out. You need to get over it. My number one pet peeve about amateurs is how far they will stand away from you. They need to be no farther than about five feet from you, maybe closer. You may feel it’s invading some personal space but deal with it. 

  • If they stand far away, the image will need to be cropped, reducing the final resolution.
  • If they use the zoom feature on your phone, the quality of the image may also be reduced.

If you have ever had a headshot before, you probably remember the photographer standing across the room. He was probably using a special lens, sometimes called a portrait lens. It is usually an 85mm and is a flattering lens. It also lets the photographer get away from their subject, making them more comfortable. Since you chose to use your iPhone, get as close as possible to the final crop.

5. In-Camera Editing

If you send the photo to a designer who can adjust the image, then send away. If you want to clean it up a little, you can do it on the phone, but remember, less is more. 

Open the image in the Photos app and click edit. Clicking auto may do the trick but rarely does so in my case. Here are a few settings. 

  • Use Exposure if the photo is dark. Hopefully, you chose a better location, to begin with.
  • Brightness will usually take care of the shadows. 
  • Contrast may add some dimension to the photo. 
  • If it is bland, a bit of Saturation could help but beware. The skin tone of fair-skinned people turns red quickly.

In all these cases, less is more. Or just let the designer do it.

6. iPhone Settings

The iPhone gives you two settings to shoot with, photo and portrait. With photo, touch the screen where your subject’s face is. A yellow box will appear, and the camera will adjust settings to make this the primary target. 

The iPhone does not have a depth of field. Using a DLSR camera and a low f-stop will give you that nice out-of-focus look in the background. To make up for this, Apple gives you Portrait mode. I suggest you play around with this mode and see if it works best for you.

7. Keep your image current

You are getting older and more distinguished! But let’s face it, we change over time. Maybe your hair is shorter or longer. Your hair color has possibly changed? Your online image needs to change with you. Why is this important? Here is an example.

There was a man who ran a professional organization I belonged to. He was out of state, and the headshot he was using on all his materials was clearly pretty old, but I didn’t know how old. When I finally watched a video of a seminar he hosted, the slender young man with dark hair became a chubby, middle-aged, gray-haired man on my screen. It was difficult to watch. I had this image in my mind of who he was, and that was not him. Don’t be that guy.

Let’s review

  1. You have been asked to provide a headshot for a publication or online.
  2. Call a professional photographer. 
  3. Don’t have time? Follow the instructions above.
  4. Then schedule a photo shoot to update that photo.

I hope this handy guide helps you to look your best in print and online. You already look fantastic in person!

Feature photo by cody lannom on Unsplash

Shawn Wright
Shawn Wright is a graphic designer and podcaster living in Birmingham, Alabama. You can find his design work at shawnwright.net. You can find his podcasts, Alabama Short Stories at alabamashortstories.com and the Shades Cahaba Oral History Project podcast at shadescahabahistory.com. His designs are for sale at TeePublic.com, Redbubble.com and Society6.com.
Shawn Wright
Shawn Wright

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