The Art of the Headshot

If you’re a professional photographer of any kind, you probably take a lot of headshots. When I worked at the Miami office of EFE News, the Spanish government’s official information agency, headshots of Latin pop stars, mostly taken at organized press events, were our bread and butter.

Headshots can be deceptively simple. Out-of-focus eyes, an awkward tic on an important person’s face, or cold, boring expressions are symptoms of either technical inexpertness, or boredom with what many photographers see as meaningless grunt work.

But there are time-tested techniques for bringing out the best in what are sometimes disparagingly called “mug shots” — a photographic form that actually has produced some of the most important images in history. Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl and Korda’s photograph of Che Guevara are both essentially headshots, and they are two of the most well-known images of the 20th Century.

As with all photographs, good headshots require a perfect marriage of art and technique.

Lens Choice

Let’s start with lens choice. If you’re working more than a couple of yards from the person you’re photographing, you’ll need a long lens. In the days of film, lenses of 80 or 105mm were considered ideal for portraits. But times, tastes, and equipment have changed.

Photo editors today like headshots with backgrounds thrown completely out of focus through extremely shallow depth of field. A 200mm lens on a regular format DSLR, shot wide open, will render a flattering face and eliminate potentially distracting elements from the background. You don’t have to spend a lot of money for one, either. I picked up a second-hand Nikkor ED 80-200mm 2.8 for $600. It has paid for itself many times over. Nikon and Canon both have far less expensive and newer zoom lenses that will do the job.

Of course, you’ll have to use a high iso. You’ll be working with shutter speeds of 1/500 of a second or higher to avoid blur caused by camera shake, so to capture enough light, expect to be shooting at 800 or higher. Fortunately, today’s professional and even “prosumer” digital cameras can handle the job. Even a Nikon D70, an ancient camera in digital terms, at asa 1000, can produce images with little noise at high sensitivities that are suitable for press work.

For closer work, any 50mm lens will do. On a non-full-frame DSLR, a 50mm lens becomes 75 or 80mm because of the crop factor caused by the fact that the sensor is smaller than a piece of 35mm film. For intimate work that’s a nice focal length, and shot at f1.8, you can reduce depth of field considerably, creating creamy, pleasant backgrounds.

Avoid wide-angle lenses for headshots unless you’re intentionally looking to distort a person’s face.

In terms of focusing, shoot for the whites of their eyes. An out-of-focus ear is acceptable to most photo editors. Photographs with out-of-focus eyes go straight to the trash can. Check for tac-sharp focus by zooming in on any reflections on the eye surface. If those little glimmers are sharp, your photo is probably well focused.

Capturing Emotion

Beyond technical considerations, the most important element of most photographs is emotion. A good headshot is not the same as a photograph from the driver’s license office.

We photographers work with human beings, not corpses, and a subject should look like a living, breathing person. I’m not telling you to ask for a “say cheese” smile, of course. There is a rainbow of facial expressions that can convey emotional information about a person in a headshot. That information leads to a better photograph and a better story.

But it requires patience. French photography legend Henri Cartier-Bresson’s thoughts on the “decisive moment” can wisely be applied to headshots. For example, if you’re shooting a politician’s speech, wait for moments of expression — when he raises his finger in the air, clenches his hand into a fist, or touches his eyebrow to emphasize a point or as an involuntary expression of emotion.

Finally, experiment. If you have some time with your subject, get the shot you need, the one that will get you paid, and then try a few other things.

With some faces, profiles work well. Try shooting from different perspectives, low and high. Test out direct, frontal shots and unorthodox angles. Shoot incredibly close so that the image contains only the eyes. Shoot vertical and horizontal, zooming out and putting a subject’s face in a corner of the frame. Turn in what you know a client or editor wants and give your customer something extra — something that shows style and flash.

Headshots are only grunt-work “mug shots” if you allow them to be. Strive for something more.

11 Responses to “The Art of the Headshot”

  1. John:

    NIce article...! Excellent approach...!

    I am in 300% agree with you. I have been well recognized by my portraits, I like to stil / capture / get people.

    About: "But it requires patience. French photography legend Henri Cartier-Bresson’s thoughts on the “decisive moment”. I would like to add that is "patience to learn to read your subjects" > It is completely different to portrait a fashion model than get into the real feelings of the human being. I have been told hundreds of times " I do not like how I look in pictures" and which photographer has not been told that before? . People want to look like as a fashion super-star because is the "socially accepted" way to be "well seen" in photography. In my own perspective IT IS FAKE, THAT IS NOT YOU!. My approach is to talk to them, with patience, make them feel comfortable with the camera (I use to put it on the table and play with it, clean it.. change lenses) and then simply wait for the decisive moment when my subjects get relaxed.

    Thank you John fore sharing your experiences!

  2. NICE. Cheers to communicating the idea so clearly.

  3. What a clear, concise, excellent statement about portrait photography. Portraits have always been my disadvantageous area of photography. After reading this I am encouraged to persevere.

  4. Charles:

    I have "learned" to do portraits with my close friends. I focused on "how do I want to remember then in 20 years". Do you know which is the kind of smile that your best friend has? Which is the most common gesture of your preferred family member?
    But a WARNING: All the people complain about HOW LONG TAKE me "to take" the picture! Do not get sensitive with that kind of comments... it is between your decisive moment and YOU! . OF COURSE, there are limits when you are working for hire... If you work for hour rating... it can be problematic!
    My approach is to DOCUMENT the person instead of "taking" a fashion picture.

    Best JC

  5. I totally agree with what you're saying as far as working from lots of different angles goes. I find that no matter what I'm shooting, to get a great shot I'm almost never standing. I'm either crouched, or standing on something to get more dynamic angles. Of course you have to get what's going to "get you paid". But I find that the shots that I like the most have more dynamic angles to them.

  6. The Che Guevara photo by Alberto Korda is probably the best image ever taken.

    One doesn't need to be a "commie" to recognize that.

  7. Excellent Article !!!

  8. Great article, my fav in photography is people, just keep shooting film is cheap.

  9. I'm just starting to get into headshots for friends and clients and your site has been extremely hepful. Thank you very much!

  10. You're a relatively rare breed. A photography who's a good writer too. Well done article.

  11. Thanks for posting, I don't think people realize how much work goes into making a great headshot.

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