Headshot tips: how to take (and retouch) a professional portrait


Discover how to take a professional portrait with these expert headshot tips. Learn how to set up your camera to shoot head-and-shoulders portraits you can use for business or pleasure.

Headshot tips how to take a professional portrait

Compared to most styles of portrait, the humble head shot might seem a little conservative, even dull. But there's an art to getting it right, and it's an important element of any portrait photographer's repertoire.

Professional 'head and shoulders' portraits are always in demand, whether it's for a company website, school photos, actor's head shots or passport pictures.

Creating images for a client brings a whole set of rules into play that don't apply when you take pictures for yourself. It's your job to make the client look good, so there's no point going for something edgy and experimental (unless that's what they ask for).

The aim with a corporate portrait is usually to produce a polished, professional shot of a person's head and shoulders; for this you'll need flattering light, a simple, clean background and a pose that's both authoritative and engaging, and we'll show you how to achieve all three in this tutorial.

You'll learn an array of useful Photoshop skills along the way, including how to batch-process a set of images to apply edits to several shots in one go, how to produce contact sheets, and how to perform a quick touch-up job (including some impressive digital dentistry!).

Headshot tips how to take and retouch a professional portrait

So read on to discover a complete workflow for professional head shots, from lighting and capture to processing and enhancements.

SEE MORE: 14 portrait photography tips you'll never want to forget

How to set up your camera to take a professional portrait

How to set up your camera to take a professional portrait step 1

01 Home studio lighting kit
If you're asked to shoot a subject in their workplace, you'll need to work swiftly to get set up and capture your shots with the minimum of fuss. A home studio kit, with a couple of flash heads fitted with umbrellas or softboxes, is ideal.

For a simple setup, position one light angled towards the background, and your main light in front of the sitter, above them and slightly to one side.

Position a reflector opposite the main light - this will act like a third light, filling in shadows and reducing contrast for soft, attractive results.

SEE MORE: 6 simple lighting setups for shooting portraits at home: free photography cheat sheet

How to set up your camera to take a professional portrait step 2

02 Diffuse the light
Light that comes direct from a small source like a Speedlite or flash head is 'hard', which isn't very flattering.

To make the light softer we need to diffuse it and bounce it around, so that the light source effectively becomes larger.

SEE MORE: Best flash diffuser - 6 top models tested and rated

You can either bounce the flash off a wall, or use softboxes or umbrellas. Attach one to the main light, and try feathering the light so it's pointed slightly in front of the subject, rather than straight at them - this way, the light 'wraps around' the face.

SEE MORE: Flash portraits - creative off-camera flash techniques you have to try

How to set up your camera to take a professional portrait step 3

03 Show examples
Before you begin shooting, find out exactly what the client is after. They might want a traditional shot, or something more contemporary, and it's often easier for people to articulate what they like if you show them examples of different styles.

So before the shoot, print out a sheet of different head shot styles and discuss the options with the sitter. Should they be smiling or serious? Open-collared or fully suited?

How to set up your camera to take a professional portrait step 4

04 Clean background
It's important that the background is clean and simple. Use a white wall, a roll of plain, light-coloured paper, or a large pop-up reflector like the Lastolite one shown here.

Angle one of the lights towards the background, and adjust its power for different looks; full power will blow the background out, while a lower power will make it grey. If you're shooting portraits outdoors, use a wide aperture to blur the background.

How to set up your camera to take a professional portrait step 5

05 Camera settings
When using off-camera flash, set your DSLR to Manual mode. Keep the ISO at 100, and set the shutter speed to 1/200 or 1/250 sec, depending on your camera's maximum flash sync speed.

Set the aperture to f/11, and take a couple of test shots. If the image is too bright, either stop down the aperture or turn down the power of the lights, either by adjusting the output or by moving the light further from the subject.

Longer focal lengths are more flattering to faces, so step back and zoom in.

SEE MORE: Try these posing, lighting and editing tricks for flattering pictures of older subjects

How to set up your camera to take a professional portrait step 6

06 Pose and expression
As with any portrait, it's vital to put your subject at ease, so chat to them as you shoot, perhaps put some music on to help them relax, and offer encouragement.

Have them give you a few smiles, half-smiles and more serious expressions, and try out different angles and poses.

Work swiftly, but make sure you come away with several good shots for them to choose from.

SEE MORE: 10 common posing mistakes every photographer makes (and how to avoid them)

Final Tip
If your subject is wearing glasses, you need to be on the lookout for annoying reflections. There's a simple way to prevent reflections: try lighting the subject from one side, then have them angle their head so it's facing the other way, slightly away from the light; this way the reflected highlights are angled away from the camera rather than towards it.

If you only notice reflections at the editing stage, use the Clone Stamp and Healing tools, or, as a last resort, copy and flip the 'clean' eye.


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