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How to Get Great Headshots, Even if You're Camera Shy

Mona Bushnell
Mona Bushnell

It used to be that only executives and model/actor types needed headshots. Thanks to the proliferation of online professional networks, and a general increase in online visibility across all industries, everyone from office administrators and restaurant owners to dentists and government employees is getting in the headshot game.

If you're not a fan of having your photo taken, but you know you need a professional headshot, you're not alone. Luckily, there are several tried-and-true tips that help make the experience painless.

We talked to professional photographers to get their take on how regular people can find a great headshot photographer and get top-notch photos. Here's what they told us. [Join a related conversation on our sister site How Often Should You Update Your Headshot]

Finding the right photographer

You don't have to be licensed or certified to be a professional photographer, and lots of people dream of working in photography. Both these facts lead to a staggering number of headshot photographers to choose from, and they vary drastically in terms of pricing and quality.

Nearly every photographer we spoke with said asking to see examples of past work is the first step to finding a great headshot photographer. In addition to checking out each photographer's portfolio, several photographers mentioned that it's smart to ask to see a complete set of photos from a single photoshoot, as this will help you determine whether the photographer in question is talented or merely able to get a few salvageable shots out of hundreds.

Ashley Lodge, the photographer behind Ashley Lodge Photography, recommends people go one step further in their assessment of photographers and look at each image with a critical eye. "Overly Photoshopped images are unflattering on any human with pores," she said. "Eyes should not be ultrawhite or brightly colored, and if teeth look unnaturally white, most likely it is the work of some bad Photoshop. While it may look good for a moment on a small computer screen or cellphone, a print will show every bit of over-the-top editing. Be aware. Ask to see at least five different headshot assignments. Look for quality [and] consistency."

Another tip multiple photographers mentioned was asking for clarification on what is included with each headshot session. Mike Peyzner, a professional photographer based in San Francisco, recommended asking specifically about whether you will receive all of the high-resolution images (free of watermarks) taken that day.

Some photographers give their clients access to all of the images taken during a given session, while others require their clients to choose a set number for use/purchase. The same is true for retouching, so if you want your images Photoshopped, make sure you know what's included in the base price and what will cost extra.

Collaborating with your photographer

Feeling comfortable enough to collaborate with your photographer is key to getting great headshots, especially if you tend to be anxious. When asked about finding a pro, Irina Smirnova, the photographer and founder of Power Portraits said, "The most important thing is connection and open communication … Many people can take great photos. [The] question is will you be able to relax with them and let the magic happen?"

Smirnova says the best way to make sure you and your photographer are on the same page is to schedule a consultation to get to know each other. Walk away if something doesn't sit right, she added.

In addition to asking questions about the process, Smirnova explained, it's important for clients to speak up about their expectations. "If you want your entrepreneurial story captured in one picture, the photographer needs to know it well enough to make valuable suggestions and create a perfect atmosphere for it," said Smirnova. Many photographers we interviewed echoed Smirnova's sentiments about the importance of communication between photographer and subject.

The traditional close-cropped, polished headshot that still works well for professionals in formal work environments (like corporate lawyers or doctors) may be far too stuffy for creative professionals or people who work in more casual settings.

Nicole Taylor, the photographer and founder behind Whole Lotta Grace Photography, summed it up well when she said, "It is important that your photographer ask you questions about your profession and what you do in your day to day so they can understand the story you are trying to tell."

She said that explaining who you are, what you do, and where you plan on using your headshots will help your photographer understand your vision and deliver a product you're happy with. After all, a photo that's going to be used as a large banner on a personal website can include more background detail and context than a headshot that will be used as a tiny thumbnail on social networking sites.

Make sure your goals for your headshot are clearly defined and articulated to your photographer before the day of the shoot. If you get the sense that they don't understand you, aren't good listeners or aren't grasping what you need, find someone else.

Choosing a look

As we mentioned, what is considered professional for a headshot no longer fits into the narrow confines of the past, back when nearly all headshots included a grey backdrop, a black suit and closely cropped composition. However, there are still some general rules in terms of clothing and styling that most people will benefit from by following.

If you have no idea where to start in terms of selecting an outfit, Lydia Kearney Carlis, Ph.D., and Washington D.C.-based photographer at Eyemagination Imaging, said, "The most important prompt I use during a style consultation with private-session clients is 'Tell me about the last outfit you wore to work that you felt completely confident in. Close your eyes and describe the look to me, from hair to accessories to shoes.'" Kearney Carlis also said it's not usually necessary for her clients to purchase a new outfit for a headshot appointment. Most people already have clothing they like in their wardrobes.

Many photographers we spoke with said similar things to Kearney Carlis regarding hairstyles, accessories and makeup. The main takeaway was be yourself, and don't mix it up too much for your headshots. If you wear makeup daily, replicate that look for your headshots, but if you don't, there's no need to get done up for photos. Likewise, don't opt for a new haircut right before your shoot, or try a totally new style of clothing out for the first time. Stick with what works for you.

Mike Peyzner, who has more than 12 years of professional photography experience, added that it's important for people to get plenty of sleep the night before their photo shoot, drink plenty of water, and eat prior to the appointment. "Hungry people generally don't look very good," he said. While that may sound a little silly, several other photographers mentioned the same three tips.

Just one other styling tip was mentioned over and over again by different photographers: Bring a second shirt, just in case. Accidents happen, and sometimes your personal taste can fail you.

Looking confident when you're uncomfortable

Unless you're regularly in the public eye, you probably have some nervousness about getting your picture taken. Mike Nakamura, like most professional photographers, is familiar with that sense of trepidation.

Nakumura said, "The most common expression I hear is, 'I hate having my picture taken.'" He explained that it's the photographer's job to put clients at ease, "When I meet a customer and interact on the phone [with them], I am gathering information on what will help them relax. There is a bit of mirroring happening to help them get comfortable, and we work together to bring their confidence up to the point where they are 'owning' their session."

Photographer Taylor agreed that making people comfortable in front of the camera is largely the photographer's onus, but she also provided some helpful tips for those who are especially nervous: "Taking headshots can feel incredibly invasive and uncomfortable […] There are several tricks I have when shooting my clients to help them to engage with me so I can get the authentic shots that I know we both want to see. You don't need to be looking at the camera for every shot. Look away, try smiling, laughing and not smiling at all. Keep in mind to have great posture too," she said. "One trick I always use is having my client breathe in really [deeply], then exhaling and smiling or exhaling and verbally laughing out loud. It seems ridiculous, but oftentimes it creates authentic laughter, and nine times out of 10, those end up being my favorite shots."

Bottom line

If you do your research, choose a photographer you're comfortable with and style yourself in a way that's put together but still reflective of your day-to-day look, you can skate through the headshot process without much trouble.

Image Credit: Shutterstock
Mona Bushnell
Mona Bushnell
Business News Daily Staff
Mona Bushnell is a Philadelphia-based staff writer for and Business News Daily. She has a B.A. in writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College and has previously worked as an IT technician, a copywriter, a software administrator, a scheduling manager, and an editorial writer. Mona began freelance writing full time in 2014 and joined the Business News Daily/ team in 2017. She covers business and technology.