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What Makes a Good Headshot?

A good headshot can be the difference in getting a gig or not. In certain industries, headshots are not just a luxury, they are necessary – actors know this. But what makes a good headshot? One can argue it starts with the subject, or person, being photographed. Removing this, and so our question applies to anyone, let’s rephrase the question to what makes a good headshot regardless of the subject?

I believe there are four components to making a good headshot and we’ll break down each one. Note the word “make” because that’s the difference between working with a pro and someone just “taking” your photo.

Think of each these components as each being worth one letter-grade, if you will. So, missing one can be the difference between an A or B score and missing two can mean a C, and so on. These four components are: 1) having a good, technically and creatively sound photographer, 2) using a very good camera, 3) an understanding of how to use studio strobe or natural lighting, 4) and post-production work.

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Sometimes the Goal in a Headshot is An Expression of Creativity

The Best Headshot Photographer

You want to find the best headshot photographer in your area and for you. While some people might need their photographer to match certain ideals for them, there are some things that are indisputable to getting good head shots. Put another way, while a female may want to work only with a female headshot photographer, or maybe someone in Burbank will look no farther for a photographer than Glendale, a good headshot needs someone that knows what they’re doing.

A good headshot photographer will know how to use a high-end camera outside of auto-mode. They will know how to use studio lighting also outside of auto-mode. Auto-mode has its limits and a photographer that can fine-tune settings on a camera and on lighting equipment have an advantage to producing a stellar headshot. But the photographer should also have creativity. Not all headshots are shot against a plain white background. Some benefit from colorful scenes, hence knowing how to manipulate lighting and camera settings.

A Full Frame DSLR or Mirrorless Camera

The quality of the camera matters. Don’t let those smartphone ads fool you. In addition to smartphones being vastly inferior, using a professional-grade camera is an opportunity for your headshots to standout compared with those that settle for a smartphone selfie look.

You don’t have to sweat the details of what camera a headshot photographer uses. But if you know a bit about cameras, ask the headshot photographers you’re considering what they shoot with and why. Ask if their camera is full frame – they should immediately know what this question is. Basically, this means the sensor is the biggest available for a DSLR or mirrorless camera. If it’s not full frame, it’s lesser quality – period. Also, the lens used are a big deal. The appropriate pairing of the camera body, lens and a person’s facial features will matter to the end results.

Lights, Camera, Action

Lighting stands alone in its importance to creating a great headshot. Proper use of studio or natural lighting should be a strong capability of the headshot photographer you are considering. They should know how to do either, so you have better options. The quality of the light also matters, not just with sunlight but with the brand of studio strobes and modifiers used. It can make for those subtle differences in a shot that you just can’t figure out why that one shot looks so much better. It’s often because of a mix of the studio strobes used and proper manipulation of lighting.

There are technical requirements to understand the laws of lighting and how they impact camera settings and the look on someone’s face. A photographer’s manipulation of lighting is how they can go from providing you with a commercial look or a theatrical dramatic effect.

Is That Photoshopped?

A good amount of post-production goes a long way to adding those finishing touches to a headshot that make it great. Put another way, I’ve yet to see a photo right out of the camera – even great shots – that couldn’t be made at least a little bit better with post-production work. That said, for a headshot it can be a fine line.

Models looking for beauty shots have a bit more creative freedom to have their headshots retouched. With actors, they’re often advised to not do retouching. This, frankly, is untrue and bad advice. It’s just that they are more limited. But, even for an actor headshot, how would it not be beneficial to remove blemishes that aren’t permanent or usual: acne that will go away soon, a stray hair, some red eye, lint on your shirt, and so on?

So, when you’re looking for a photographer to give you the best headshots, be sure they aren’t missing any of these elements in their capabilities. The risk if they are missing even one is that their results drop from what could be an A+ headshot to a B-rated one.

So, to make a list of what makes a good headshot:

  1. Having a good, technically and creatively sound photographer
  2. Using a very good camera and lens
  3. An understanding of how to use and manipulate studio strobe or natural lighting
  4. Good, and the right amount, of post-production work
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