The Secret to Getting Great Headshots

December 22

6 min. to read

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Among other styles, headshot photography requires more communication skills that anything else. Find out how to create a connection with your model to get a perfect shot.

For actors and models, a dynamic headshot can be the difference between landing a role and being passed over. For other professionals, it’s often the first introduction a prospective client sees. So how do top photographers bring out a look that’s both engaging and unique to their subjects? Simple—they make the shoot more about the person they’re working with than the gear, the settings, or any other technical aspects.

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Create a Connection

“Headshots are 10 percent photography and 90 percent communication.” Peter Hurley, star headshot photographer. With headshots, having great gear is not half as important as the rapport you create between the subject and yourself. From beginning to end, the personal connection is what’s going to help them relax and be their most authentic selves. This, in turn, is what will land the winning headshot.

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It All Starts with the Consultation

The initial consultation is more important than many photographers think. It’s not only the time when you find out what kind of headshot your client is looking for, discuss clothing choices, and decide on the location, it’s also your first opportunity to create a connection. Many people are very nervous in front of the camera, and creating a rapport with them right off the bat can do wonders for their ability to relax during the shoot. Do your initial consults in person if you can. Video chat and over the phone is also ok, but avoid text and email. This is your chance to get a sense of the person, their confidence level, how grounded they are in their sense of themselves, and what energy they might bring to the camera. If you do it in person or over video, you might also get some ideas about how you want to shoot them.

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Keep the Conversation Going 

From the moment your client walks in the door, make a personal connection with them and keep it going throughout the session. This will not only help your client relax, it can also draw out colorful expressions and reactions, giving you more opportunities to catch their unique spark. It’s the photographer’s job to pull out their most natural, engaging looks. That means everything from asking serious questions to bring out a thoughtful look to cracking a joke to capture a natural smile. And everything in between. More than anything else, silence can kill the energy of a headshot session. Keep the conversation running and stay positive.

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Make Them Laugh

Laughter is the great relaxer. See if you can bring out their laugh, especially in front of the camera. In fact, this is so important that some professional photographers actually ask their subjects to take at least one shot with a silly face. Try it out—it actually works (most of the time).

Stay Positive

During the session, stay both positive and genuine in your statements. Let them know when they’re doing well, when the shots are coming out great, and when they’ve struck a great pose or have that perfect twinkle in their eyes. Avoid saying anything that might shake their confidence—it’s hard enough for most people to feel positive about their body image without having their photographer adding to it.

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Practice, Practice, Practice!

Learning the technical side of taking portraits is pretty straightforward, but being able to manage it while keeping up a personal connection is quite another level of complexity. To get to know your gear, how your lighting works, and what angles work best while effortlessly chatting up your subject, you’ll need to practice…a lot! The goal is to be able to focus entirely on them and not get distracted by the technicalities. In addition, finding angles that accent a person’s attractive features while concealing the unattractive ones requires both focus and experience. That only comes with practice.

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Yet the technical aspects aren’t the only part to practice. “Just as important as the gear, you have to decide what you will say when you’re shooting, and practice in every session to perfect it,” Peter Hurley in Popular Photography In the end, the most natural, interesting shots will happen when your subject is relaxed, at ease, and ideally having fun. That’s when you know you have the winning combination.

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