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How to Take a Good Headshot (Simple DIY Steps for Non-Pros)

Are you wondering how to take a good headshot? Do you need a clean, professional-looking headshot for your business profile or website, and you’re not sure how to start?

That’s where this article can help. 

As a professional photographer who’s taken a fair few profile photos of my own, I know how difficult capturing a good headshot can be. But I also know plenty of tricks and tips to make your headshot photoshoots extremely successful – and that will leave you with a businesslike photo you can use for years to come.

So if you’re interested in a simple step-by-step process for taking stunning headshots…

…then read on.

What Do You Want Your Headshot to Look Like?

Before you actually take a headshot, I highly recommend you answer a few questions. 

Specifically, ask yourself:

What is the purpose of the headshot? What do I want it to convey? Do I want it to be straightforward and businesslike, bright and upbeat, or moody and dramatic?

When in doubt, “businesslike” is the best way to go – but there are situations where you might prefer a dramatic headshot (if you’re an actor or a model, for instance).

So just bear that in mind going forward.

How to Take a Good Headshot: The Seven-Step Process

Now let’s take a look at a simple, seven-step process for taking beautiful DIY headshots, starting with:

Step 1: Wear Professional, Neutral Clothes Without Many Accessories

Capturing a beautiful headshot begins with the perfect look. In the previous section, you’ve hopefully identified the purpose of your headshot and how you want it to look – and now it’s time to turn that look into a reality. 

In general, I recommend you dress in professional, non-distracting clothing. A suit or a button-down shirt works well, as long as the colors are solid and not eye-catching. A neutral-colored blouse also works. Make sure to keep jewelry to a minimum and go with a simple hairstyle. 

As I mentioned above, there are exceptions to these guidelines – if you’re a fashion model in need of a headshot, for instance, you may want to take your glamour levels up a notch.

But remember: 

This is a headshot, so the photo will not include pants, shoes, etc. While there’s nothing wrong with completing your look, there’s no need to get caught up in the process!

Step 2: Find a Location With Beautiful, Soft Light (and a Nice Background)

In photography, lighting is everything. The right light will result in a stunning, flattering photo – whereas the wrong light will give you a grungy, unpleasant shot. 

What type of light is best?

If the weather is good and you’d like to take your headshot outdoors, then head out on a heavily overcast day (though make sure you capture the image when the overcast light is still strong, in the 10 AM to 2 PM window).

You also have the option of shooting during the golden hours – the hour or two after sunrise and before sunset – but I’d recommend against this; while golden hour light is soft and, well, golden, it’s stronger and more difficult to control than the soft light you get on overcast days. 

If you decide to capture your headshot indoors, you’re going to want to shoot near a window. I’d recommend doing your headshot on an overcast day, but you also have the option of photographing during sunny weather – as long as you can find a north- or south-facing window that doesn’t let the sun stream in. Alternatively, you can hang a white sheet over the window to diffuse any bright light. 

Note that the goal here is simply to find or create lighting that is soft. The softer the light, the more flattering it will be – whereas hard light creates harsh shadows and is much more finicky to work with.

I’d also recommend you pay attention to the background when hunting for a light source. You’ll want to shoot against a neutral, undistracting backdrop, such as a blank wall (if indoors) or a patch of green trees (if outdoors). If your background distracts from your face, the headshot just won’t work – but if your background is simple and nondescript, you’ll end up with a very professional-looking result.

Note that this process can take a while, and you may have to explore different options around your house (and you might even want to try shooting at a friend’s). But it’s worth persevering because getting this right is a big deal.

Step 3: Set Up Your Camera on a Sturdy Surface (Or Find Someone to Hold It For You)

When it comes to do-it-yourself headshot photography, a tripod is your friend. You need a method of holding up your camera while you pose, and a tripod will allow you to set up your shot to taste (be it high above you or down low). Of course, you can also have a person hold the camera for you, but it may be frustrating for them to keep standing in place while you fine-tune settings, poses, and lighting.

If you don’t have a tripod, then you can place the camera on a table or a bookshelf, but this will somewhat limit your flexibility.

In general, I recommend you position the camera either level with your eyes, or slightly above your eye line. So you should either be looking directly into the lens, or you should be looking subtly upward. This is a flattering angle, one that makes for consistently good images and works for pretty much any portrait subject.

Related Post: Best Camera For Headshots – Top Six Choices

Step 4: Compose Your Shot Carefully (With a Front-Facing LCD, If Possible)

Now it’s time for the tricky part: 

Composition.

In other words: 

What should you include in the frame? 

For headshots, you’ll want to capture head and shoulders only. The final image should include no hands, no waists, and no legs. 

Now, if your camera has a flip-out LCD screen, achieving this is easy. You can simply stand in the soft light – making sure that the background looks nice, as well! – check the LCD, and fine-tune the camera position until you get the perfect composition. 

And if you have a person holding the camera, simply find the good light and good background, then ask them to come forward until the frame only includes a head and shoulders shot. 

If your camera doesn’t offer a flip-out screen, composing a headshot is a bit more tricky. I’d recommend setting up a chair in your ideal headshot location (and you can even perch a stuffed animal on the back, if you like!). Imagine yourself in the chair’s place and carefully frame the shot. Once you’re finished, you can mark the chair’s position, then put it aside. 

One point of advice:

While it’s true that a headshot should only include the head and the shoulders, if you’re worried about not composing correctly, you’re always free to shoot a little wide (i.e., move the camera back a bit) and crop the image later on. If you’re using a smartphone camera, I don’t recommend this, because the image quality tends to be low – but on most modern-day DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, you’ll be able to crop comfortably without ruining the photo.

Step 5: Capture a Simple Test Shot to Evaluate the Exposure and the Focus

Once you have a nice composition, you’ll want to consider your exposure settings

In other words: 

Is your image not-too-bright and not-too-dark? Does it include all important details without clipping any highlights or shadows? Nailing the exposure is a key part of creating a professional-quality headshot, so it’s important you get this right.

Here’s what I recommend you do:

First, take a test shot. You don’t need to pose; instead, just stand in the frame, fire the camera, and check out the result. 

(As I talk about in a moment, you’ll need to trigger the shutter using a self-timer unless you have someone to hit the shutter button for you.)

Now look at your test shot carefully, focusing on your face – but also consider the background. And ask yourself: Are areas of the photo too light? If so, you’ll need to drop the exposure (i.e., the brightness). Or are areas of the photo too dark? In this case, you’ll need to increase the exposure. 

The method for adjusting the exposure will vary from camera to camera. On a smartphone, you can often just swipe up or down on the LCD screen. On DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, you can place your camera in Program mode, Aperture Priority mode, or Shutter Priority mode, then adjust the exposure compensation upward (+1, +2, etc.) to brighten the shot, or downward (-1, -2, etc.) to darken the shot. 

(Note that if you do use a smartphone, you’ll often need to lock your exposure adjustment – otherwise, the exposure will reset and you’ll lose all your fine-tuning work.)

By the way, I recommend zooming in to check the focus, as well. Cameras generally don’t have focusing issues with headshots because the subject fills the frame so completely, but it’s always worth a look. Worst-case scenario, if your camera is missing focus consistently, you can put a chair in your place, then carefully lock focus on it before continuing. 

Really, you can take as many test shots as you need until you get the exposure right – there’s no rush! But you’ll get it eventually, in which case you’ll be able to move on to Step 6:

Step 6: Use the Self-Timer to Capture the Perfect Headshot!

These days, pretty much every camera offers a self-timer feature, including smartphones. 

So turn on the self-timer. I’d recommend going with a 10-second timer, but if you’re fast, you can make do with a 2- or 3-second one. 

(Of course, if someone is taking the photo for you, it’s fine to ignore the previous sentences!)

You’re going to want to step in the exact same spot each time – and you’re going to want to look professional. If you’re comfortable smiling, then go ahead and smile, but it’s also acceptable to look serious (as if you’re doing business!). 

In terms of pose:

Don’t go for anything fancy. You can stand up straight and stare into the camera, shoulders parallel to the sensor, arms crossed. And if that looks a bit too boring, go ahead and turn one shoulder in toward the camera, keeping your nose and chin pointed at the lens. Feel free to tuck your chin slightly downward. 

And, no matter what else you do, make sure your eyes stay pointed directly at the camera! This is essential, because there’s nothing worse than a shot where the headshot subject is looking out of the frame.

By the way, I do recommend you take a few headshots, just in case the first photos don’t turn out the way you want (after all, it might take you a moment to warm up in front of the camera). If you like, you can take a series of images with different poses, then pick your favorite. And, if you’re ultra-motivated, you can change the background and the lighting as you go to give yourself more options to choose from.

Also, once you’ve taken your headshots, before you do anything else, review them on your camera’s screen. That way, you can catch any issues – such as a distracting background, a still-overexposed image, or an out-of-place hair – before you pack all your gear away. 

(Optional) Step 7: Edit Your Image for a More Professional Look

If you’ve followed all the steps I’ve laid out above, then you’ve doubtless taken some very nice images. 

But if you want to go the extra mile, you can import your favorite shot to a photo editing program, such as Lightroom Classic, Lightroom Mobile, Luminar, Snapseed, or some other popular editor. 

While I don’t recommend you do heavy tweaking to your image – you want it to look natural! – try increasing the contrast, boosting the shadows, and even adding a subtle vignette. If the edits work, then keep them. If not, you can leave your headshot as it is, or you can experiment with other editing options. 

(But I’ll say it again: Please be careful! Overediting is extremely easy to do and can instantly ruin an otherwise-professional headshot.)

How to Take a Good Headshot: The Next Step

Hopefully, you now know how to take a good headshot – and you can confidently capture the perfect headshot for your needs. 

That way, you can make your profile look as professional as possible!

So go get started! And good luck.

How do you take a really good headshot?

To take a really good headshot, you’ll want to make sure you choose nice, non-distracting clothes. I recommend you shoot either outdoors on an overcast day or indoors with diffused window light. If you have someone to hold the camera, then you can ask for a few test shots to ensure perfect exposure and focus. Make sure you look directly at the camera, but feel free to play around with different poses. In the end, it’s better to capture too many shots than too few!

Should you smile in your headshot?

That depends on the look you’re going for. There’s nothing wrong with smiling in a headshot, but if you’re aiming for a more dramatic image, you might want to keep your face pretty serious. In general, it’s tough to go wrong with not smiling – you can create a nice, non-smiling corporate headshot, for instance – so when in doubt, don’t smile.

What is the best thing to wear for a headshot?

You should wear non-distracting clothing, ideally with neutral (generally solid) colors. Keep jewelry to a minimum, and keep your hair relatively low-key. The goal is to look presentable without drawing the viewer’s eye to your clothes. A suit, a button-down shirt, or a simple blouse often works well.

How do I make my selfie look professional?

To make a selfie look professional, I’d recommend choosing your clothing carefully. Keep things as non-distracting as possible. Make sure you shoot in good light (soft, overcast days work well), and check that you’ve nailed focus and exposure before shooting your final image. When it comes to posing, you’ll need to look straight at the camera, but you’re free to bring one shoulder in and cross your arms for slightly different results.

Should you wear jewelry in a headshot?

If you’re going to wear jewelry, it should be pretty simple and non-distracting. No jewelry works well, and a little jewelry can also work. Just don’t go overboard!

Author

  • Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.

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