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

A clean, professional-looking headshot is essential for any businessperson, public figure, or job seeker. Yet actually taking a good headshot requires a lot of thought. Posing, lighting, camera settings – it can all become pretty overwhelming, especially if you’re not an experienced photographer.

I’ve taken a fair few profile photos of my own. While I understand exactly how difficult it can be, I also know how to conduct a highly successful photoshoot. Below, I offer a seven-step approach for taking a good headshot, which covers all the essentials, including clothing, background selection, composition, and camera setup.

Follow my process carefully, and I guarantee that you’ll capture a refined photo you can use for years to come.

What Do You Want Your Headshot to Look Like?

Before you actually take a headshot, I highly recommend you answer a few questions. What is the purpose of the headshot? What do you want it to convey? Do you 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). Just make sure you know exactly what you want before you spend time capturing an image; otherwise, you may not get the perfect results and will be forced to reshoot.

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

Now let’s take a look at my simple, seven-step process for creating beautiful DIY headshots. Of course, this approach isn’t the only way to get great results, but in my experience, it works very well!

Step 1: Wear Professional, Neutral Clothes Without Many Accessories

Capturing a beautiful headshot begins with the perfect look. 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 looks great. Make sure to keep jewelry to a minimum and go with a simple hairstyle.

Note: When choosing your clothing and accessories, make sure you consider your particular requirements. For instance, if you’re a fashion model, you may want to take the glamour levels up a notch. And if you’re a dramatic actor, I’d recommend selecting darker, moodier clothes.

As you prepare, remember that you’ll be taking a headshot. 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 portrait photography, lighting is key. The right light will result in a stunning, flattering photo, while the wrong light will give you a grungy, unpleasant shot.

If the weather is warm and you’d like to take your headshot outdoors, then go out on a heavily overcast day (though make sure you capture the image when the overcast light is still strong).

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 taking your photo 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 difficult 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, non-distracting backdrop, such as a blank wall (if you’re indoors) or a patch of green trees (if you’re outdoors). If the 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 finding the right lighting and background can take a while, and you may have to explore different options around your house (you might even want to try shooting at a friend’s). But it’s worth persevering because getting it 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 budget tripod is your friend. You need a way to hold your camera while you pose, and a tripod will allow you to set up your shot to taste. 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, you can always set the camera on a table or a bookshelf, but this will somewhat limit your flexibility.

In general, I recommend you position the camera level with your eyes or slightly above your eyeline. You should be looking directly into the lens, or you should be looking subtly upward. These angles are flattering and work for pretty much any portrait subject.

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

Composing your headshot is the trickiest part of this whole process, and it’s all about including certain elements in the frame while excluding others.

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

If your camera has a flip-out LCD screen, achieving this is easy. You can simply stand in the soft light, check the LCD, and fine-tune the camera position until you have the perfect frame. 

If a person is holding the camera for you, find good light and a 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 asking a friend to stand in your ideal headshot location. Imagine yourself in your friend’s place and carefully frame the shot. Once you’re finished, you can mount your camera on the tripod (or simply switch spots with your friend).

One piece of advice: While it’s true that a headshot should only include the head and shoulders, if you’re worried about not composing correctly, you can shoot a little wide (i.e., move the camera back a bit) and crop 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 DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, you’ll be able to crop comfortably without ruining the photo.

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

Once you have a nice composition, you’ll want to consider your exposure settings. Nailing the exposure is a key part of creating a professional-quality headshot, so it’s important you get it right.

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

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

Look at your test shot carefully. Ask yourself: Are areas of the photo too light? If so, you’ll need to drop the exposure (i.e., the brightness). Are areas of the photo too dark? In this case, you’ll need to increase the exposure for a brighter shot. 

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 screen. On a DSLR or mirrorless camera, if you’re using Program mode, Aperture Priority mode, or Shutter Priority mode, you can push 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 before you take your shot and you’ll lose all your fine-tuning.)

By the way, make sure you check the focus in addition to the exposure. Cameras generally don’t have focusing issues with headshots because the subject fills the frame so completely, but it’s always worth taking a peek. If your camera does focus incorrectly, you may need to mark the area where you’re standing, then focus manually before continuing.

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

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 it on! 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 paragraph!)

You’re going to want to mark your position so you can stand in the exact same spot for each photo – 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!).

When posing, don’t go for anything fancy. You can stand up straight and stare into the camera, shoulders parallel to the sensor, arms crossed. 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. 

I do recommend you capture a few photos in case the first ones don’t turn out the way you want. If you like, you can take a series of images with different poses, then pick your favorite. If you’re ultra-motivated, you can even change the background and the lighting to give yourself more options to choose from.

Also, once you’ve taken your headshots but before you do anything else, review the images on your camera’s LCD screen. That way, you can catch any issues – such as a distracting background, overexposed details, or some strands of out-of-place hair – before you pack all your gear away. 

Step 7 (Optional): 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 into a photo-editing program such as Lightroom Classic, Lightroom Mobile, Luminar, or Snapseed. 

While I don’t recommend you do heavy image editing – you want the file 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 different adjustments.

Capture Your Professional Headshot!

Hopefully, you now know how to take a good headshot, and you can confidently capture the perfect photo for your website, social media profile, or book bio.

So go get started! And good luck.

How to Take a Good Headshot FAQ

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 shooting either outdoors on an overcast day or indoors with diffused window light. 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 for 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.

What is the best thing to wear for a headshot?

You should wear non-distracting clothing, ideally with neutral (generally solid) colors.

Should you wear jewelry in a headshot?

If you’re going to wear jewelry, it should be simple and non-distracting. Going without jewelry works well, but wearing a little jewelry can also look nice. Just don’t go overboard!

About the Author

jaymes dempsey author

Jaymes Dempsey

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. You can connect with Jaymes on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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