Head Shots

by Ian McKenzie about a year ago in how to

How to get the best Head Shots

Head Shots

Head shots have been a major component of my photographic work over the last twelve or so years. Most of the work I have done has been with actors and models for whom head shots are often the first step before getting an audition.

What are Head Shots, and for what are they used?

Well, they are not just for actors and models. They are really for almost everybody. If you have any presence at all on any social media platforms, chances are you need, and are in fact using, Head Shots.

If you are a business professional, an actor or a model; it is imperative that your head shots be of top quality. Also the requirements, depending upon your occupation, will have some variation, although many attributes will remain the same.

A Head Shot is normally a fairly tightly-composed portrait of a person, normally just from the chest up. The model in the Head Shot should be looking directly at the camera.

Social media sites usually use Head Shots as a thumbnail image of the person. So, it is important that they be easily seen and recognisable, even when small.

The purpose of having a Head Shot can vary. From a model’s or actor’s viewpoint, often the difference between a good Head Shot, and a reasonable Head Shot, may be the difference between getting an audition for a potential job, or not getting one.

For a business person, it is usually from a Head Shot that a potential client will gain their first impression of you. The kind of impression you are trying to give will be a determinant in issues such as the clothes you are wearing, your facial expression, and even choices such as the backdrop used in your photo.

Preparation required for the model in Head Shots

To avoid any confusion, I am using the term “model” in this instance to refer to the person posing in front of the camera, regardless of their profession.

Firstly, it is important for the model to be, and to appear, calm, confident, and relaxed. The photographer can help here by calmly chatting with the model. A good night’s sleep for the model before the photo shoot may even be helpful.

Clothing worn by the model will depend upon the model’s occupation, and therefore the primary purpose of the Head Shots. Business people should look like business people, and be wearing business attire. Models and actors can dress more casually. Regardless, avoid bright colours, or fancy patterns on clothing. The main focus should be on you, and not on the clothes you are wearing. Do not wear any shirts with logos, and/or any writing. Keep the shirts plain. Either dark colours or pastel colours can look good.

I remember seeing a Head Shot of a person on a LinkedIn business site once holding a can of beer in his hand. That was totally inappropriate. In fact, even hands should not appear in Head Shots.

A meeting with the photographer before the Head Shots are to be taken may be worthwhile.

Model requirements at the shoot.

The model should look as natural as possible. This means not going overboard with make-up or your hair styling. You need to look in real life like you do in your Head Shot. A business professional will probably require one only Head Shot that they can use. An actor or a model will require a set of them for their portfolio. The latter category will need to be able to show potential casting directors different moods, expressions, as well as different clothing options.

Photographer and model requirements at the shoot.

The shoot can occur at an indoor studio, or an outdoor setting. If a studio setting is chosen, only one or two studio lights with soft-boxes will be required to produce an even, diffused light. White is often chosen as the backdrop colour, although any plain or mottled pastel colour will work. The background is there for just that; a background. The viewer’s attention should not be drawn to it. All the viewer’s attention should be to the model’s face.

For a few reasons, my preference for Head Shots is generally an outdoor setting. However, if this option is chosen, be sure to choose a location in the shade with even, natural light. I shall say some more about camera settings later, but if an outdoor setting is chosen, it is imperative that the camera is set to a very shallow depth of field to give good bokeh. The f stop should be f1.8, or f2.8 at the highest. If your camera and lens will not allow you to use those settings, it is better to shoot indoors with a backdrop.

In an outdoor setting, the light is more natural, the environment is also more natural, and it should be easier for both the model and the photographer to remain relaxed, and the result of this will be seen in the photos produced. If there is a park with a picnic table, and seats where the model and photographer can sit opposite each other, this will be beautiful.

The camera and settings.

A photographer shooting Head Shots should always shoot in Manual mode, so that they have greater control over the camera. The lens used should be slightly longer than what you probably use for general photography. I use a Nikon 85mm lens, which I stop down to f1.8. This lens I purchased specifically for Head Shots. It allows me to get relatively close to the model, so the model’s face can fill, or almost fill, the frame.

The shallow depth of field chosen will ensure that the viewer’s attention is drawn to where it is needed. That is the model. More specifically the model’s face, and more specifically again, the model’s eyes, or eye even. The rest of what is in the photograph is not as relevant.

The shoot session.

If I am shooting a model or actor, several photos will be required for their portfolio. In just about all of them, the eyes of the model should be looking directly at the camera lens. In professional Head Shots, this is always the case.

As I have already said, my preference is shooting outdoors at a picnic table across from the model. After ensuring the model is relaxed, I instruct them that each time they hear the camera click to make a slight change in their expression and/or head position etc. Then I may ask them to sit sideways, but turn their head towards the camera, and to still look at the camera lens. I do this to get profiles of each side of their face.

Generally keeping the model’s chin up will make them appear more confident, and will help avoid “double chins.” This may sound a bit sexist, but a slight head tilt, particularly for ladies, can look cute. If the model has long hair, I will generally ask them to have it in different positions such as over one shoulder for example.

As a photographer taking Head Shots, I always use the spot focus facility on the camera. Generally I will focus on the model’s nearest eyeball. Using a shallow depth of field f1.8, everything in front of, or behind, that eyeball will be in softer focus. The background will be a complete blur. This is exactly what you want. You are drawing the viewer’s attention to the model’s face, and the most important part of their face from a photographic point of view is their eyes.

Most Head Shots that you see have the model’s face right in the middle of the frame. This is okay, because for Head Shots you want the face to fill, or almost fill the frame. But, a bit of variety can also be interesting. The rule of thirds can be applied here. If the frame of a photograph is divided into thirds, our attention is drawn to the intersection of these thirds.

Landscape or Portrait?

I use both, variety is always good. In portrait shots you may go down as far as the model’s chest, or even their waist. Whereas landscape shots will generally just show their head.


As I have already said, it is important to get in close to the model. It is okay in some shots to even crop the top of their heads. The viewer’s attention should be on their eyes.

Facial expressions

For business Head Shots, either a serious look or a slight smile. For actors and models, you will need a variety of expressions, and even perhaps different outfits.

The sample Head Shot for this article

The photo I have chosen to go with this article is a black and white photo in landscape orientation. There are pros and cons for both black and white and colour. One is not necessarily better than the other. I chose landscape, because that is the best option for this particular publication.

A Nikon full-frame camera with an 85mm lens was used for the shot with an aperture of f1.8.

You will notice that the model’s left eyeball is in crystal clear focus, and her right eye, a little behind, is in softer focus. The spot focusing in the shot was on her left eyeball.

The rule of thirds was used with the model’s left eye being close to the intersection of the top and right thirds of the grid.

The somewhat cheeky smile is indicative of this model’s personality.

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Ian McKenzie
Ian McKenzie
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Ian McKenzie

Lover of life and all it has to offer. Retired from full-time employment, but keeping busy with things I am passionate about including: family, friends, photography, writing, sustainability and keeping Australian native stingless bees.

See all posts by Ian McKenzie