Photo Shoot Tips

How To Plan a Portrait or Headshot Shoot

Step-by-Step Portrait Photography Tutorial

Today’s assignment: a headshot sitting, a good old-fashioned business headshot. This isn’t going to be one of those crazy beauty shots with all kinds of makeup and stuff blowing around. This is for marketing purposes for a young woman who’s setting up a practice as a therapist. So let’s get started!

My subject is a 30-year-old young woman who’s beginning a practice as a therapist. The assignment: to create some headshots as well as some waist-up shots that are going to be used on her website and in social media. Now, to do this shot the right way, it’s not as simple as telling someone sure, bring a couple outfits and then showing up, going into the studio, setting up some lights, and taking some pictures. If you’re going to do the job right, there’s a lot of information that you need to know and there’s a lot of planning that should go into it.

1. How is the photo being used?

In this case, the first thing I did was ask her about her website, specifically the color scheme. I wanted to know if there were any colors that were prominent on this site because I wanted to make sure that she didn’t wind up selecting an outfit that would clash with those colors. Don’t assume that your subjects will think of this. Your subjects come to you because you’re the expert. In this case, I found out that, since her logo has burgundy in it, that burgundy would be the accent color on the website. I also found out that the page backgrounds are white. That made me think that I could probably use a white background for the headshot sitting, so the colors from the photo would look good on the website. We don’t want the background to clash either.

2. Choosing an outfit

The next step was to have a discussion about outfits. What I wanted to know from her was what kind of a tone she wanted to set with her portrait. I mentioned that my subject is a 30-year-old therapist. She has a very young look to her. The question was this: did she want to go in a professional direction and do a business suit and make it very formal? Or since she was a therapist, did she want to go ahead, look a little bit younger and more casual so that she would look like she is open and approachable and very friendly? She decided on the open, approachable, friendly look. That meant that, where outfits were concerned, we would stick with blouses or light sweaters.

The next thing I explained to her was keep it simple, stupid. No prints, no patterns, no florals. The headshot is not about the top. We want simple blouses that are flattering and we want colors that are going to work with the color scheme of her website. Pretty much given that burgundy was the main color, honestly she could work with almost any color. It’s the tone that matters. In other words, she could wear yellow if she wanted, but it shouldn’t be a bright yellow. It should be an earthy tone, like a mustard yellow. I told her to stick with the earthy tone and you can do pretty much any color that you want.

The next thing I did was send her home to try on some outfits. I told her put the outfit on, take a picture of it in the mirror and text me the photo. I wanted to see the outfits that she was planning on bringing to the shoot. Note: this all happening about a week prior to the headshot sitting. That way, I have the ability to push back and tell her, “You know what, that color is not going to work” or “That top is not going to work” or “It’s too busy.” Sure enough, just like any other subject does, some of the tops had ruffles on them or the necklines were a little crazy. I had to encourage her to tone it down and to simplify for her headshot sitting. We settled on two blouses. One was a burgundy color which was a perfect match for the website. The other one was a very earthy green tone which worked very well both with her hair and eye color as well as the website colors.

3. Hair and makeup

Now, it’s time to think about preparation for hair and makeup. Generally if I’m doing a modelling shoot, I’m going to have a makeup artist. In this case, since these pictures are for professional use, I give my subjects the option. They can do their own hair and makeup and keep it simple, or they can hire a makeup artist. In this situation, we’re going to work without a makeup artist, so the directions that I gave to my subject were keep the makeup simple, clean, and flattering. Avoid smoky eyes. Don’t wear a bright red lipstick. Keep everything very natural. The hair should be simple. No crazy curling iron curls. We don’t want a lot of frizz, very basic. When I’m not using a makeup artist, I’ll have my subject do their hair and makeup at home but bring their supplies so that they can do touch ups in the studio.

4. Headshot sitting shoot

When it came time to do the actual shoot, I knew that I had two types of shots to do, the headshots and the shots from the waist up. I decided to start with the headshot sitting. That allowed me to have my subject sit down and relax. Just remember, pose is a 4-letter word. Don’t do it. When you tell somebody pose, what they really hear is don’t move. You don’t want that. You want your subjects relaxed. When I do headshots, I don’t do the “sit up straight, put your shoulders back, tilt your head” stuff. That’s the easiest way to get a really stiff-looking portrait because that’s work. The longer a person sits like that, the more the tension starts to creep up into the shoulders and  into the face… which is just horrible. I tell my subjects at headshot sittings to just sit on the stool and relax. Don’t get really sloppy, but relax.

I’ll tell them, “Listen, I’m shooting from the bust up so that little bit of relaxed posture that you have going on, the camera’s not going to see that.” From there, I’m the one doing all the work, not my subject. All I have to do in regards to my subject is talk to them, encourage them to be relaxed, show me some happy energy, and really focus on the personality. I’m not asking my subject to try and do two things at once. I’m not going to be doing all kinds of crazy posing with them. The key here is to keep them relaxed. I’m going to be the one working– changing my camera angles, moving higher and lower,  shooting to one side, then the other, etc.

For the headshot sitting, I decided to go with the fluorescent lighting setup that you see in this video. The fluorescent light gives me a very soft, wrap-around flattering light. These are going to be close up shots. Now, one little caveat here– I’m known for shooting really tight headshots. I don’t have a problem cropping off the top of the head or part of the shoulder. In this case, since the photos are going to be used in a website, I don’t want to be cropping off body parts because it looks awkward on a page. I’m going to shoot these headshots a little looser than I normally do so that I see the shoulders on both sides, so that I see the top of the head. That’s very, very important because again, the use for the picture outweighs the creative element.

By having my subject sit down and relax, I can now focus on getting that series of pictures with an expression that really pops. Remember, she wants to look nice, approachable, and friendly, like somebody that you could relate to. That’s the personality that we’re trying to communicate with these headshots. A cheesy smile never looks natural… and it’s never flattering. In fact, in most women, if you tell them to smile their upper lip will roll under and thin out. No woman is going to like that. The more relaxed, the more natural the smile is, the better.

If the person’s nervous, they’re going to give me that cheesy smile. I’m going to shoot a little bit more to burn off those nerves, and then I’m going to get them to the point where they relax and maybe try to forget about the whole process that’s happening. On a normal headshot sitting, I’m easily going to shoot somewhere between 250 to 300 frames. They’re not going to be that different in terms of exposure. There will be small variations in camera angles and composition. Really, what I’m looking for is that personality to come together, for my subject to really relax and really get that expression. It’s going to pop off the page.

5. Waist-up shots

Now for the second series of photos, the waist-up shots, I went with a different lighting setup. This time, I’m using strobes, and I’m going with clamshell lighting. I have a medium softbox on the bottom and a medium softbox on the top. The reason I went with this is because while the fluorescent lights are very soft and very flattering, for the waist up shots, I need to back up a little bit. That means the face is going to be a little bit smaller in the shot. I wanted lighting that was a little bit more crisp, would really maintain the details so that that face was still the focus of the picture even though it’s not as big as it is in the headshot. All I’m going to do is have my subject stand there with her arms folded, relaxed body posture, and I’m going to go through the same kind of directions that I did with the headshot sitting.

I’m going to talk to her about the personality. I’m going to talk to her about being happy and energetic. Believe me, if a person’s really working with you, eventually, their smile will get big and it will get cheesy. That’s normal and that’s human. At that point, you tell the person to relax their expression and start over. Just avoid that cheesy smile.

And there you have it. Doing a headshot sitting is not really so simple, not if you’re going to do it well. There’s a lot of work that has to go in before you ever pick up the camera. Most importantly, there’s a lot of planning and a whole lot of thinking. But if you follow these tips, your next headshot could be your best headshot!

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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