I would by no means call myself an expert in headshots, at ALL. I’ve only done them a hand full of times. What I do know is what I like, and what I don’t like. In addition to showing off my beautiful friend, Meghan, I’m also going to share a few things I think about when taking headshots, or even close-up portraits in general, to help make people look their absolute best.
Before I begin, I want to introduce you to Meghan. Not only has she been a friend for the last 15 years of my life, but she just got married at the beginning of June to a wonderful young man named Matthew (there’s something about that name…!) I had the privilege of taking Save-the-Date pictures for Meghan and Matthew last fall. Meghan is an amazing actress and has recently finished a two-year intensive program studying acting. She is now sending out headshots and resumes and auditioning for roles to continue her career. I went to see Meghan act in two of her shows and let me tell you, she is truly amazing. I’m not biased at all, truly, because I even went into her show wondering if I would be able to look at her as a character and separate myself from my personal relationship with her, and I was blown away at how she transformed herself into another person, truly making me forget I was watching a friend on stage. I know she will have a really successful career! Her most recent venture is sending off headshots for the season 3 casting of this little show called Glee… you may have heard of it before? :) Anyway, if you have an opportunity to see Meghan act, whether it be locally or on the small screen, certainly do because you won’t be disappointed. She’s wonderful!
So for those of you camera-savvy people reading, I shot all of these with a 105mm f/2.0 prime lens on my Nikon D700. It’s an awesome portrait lens, and I absolutely love shooting with it! If you have a prime lens (fixed focal length), I highly recommend it because you have the best quality and clarity, as opposed to a lens with zoom. So to start my check list…
1. Shallow depth of field is key! Shallow depth of field is basically the effect you see in many photographs where part of the picture is out of focus while other parts are in focus. The “shallower” the focus area is, the more attention is drawn to the area that is in focus, therefore giving the photographer more control as to where to draw the viewer’s eye. A shallow depth of field is accomplished by having a “low” or “wide” f-stop number (or aperture)… something along the lines of f/1.4, 1.8, 2.0, or 2.8.
2. When shooting headshots, having a simple background is key. You certainly don’t want to have something busy and distracting… all the focus should be on your subjects face. In addition to having a simple background in terms of colors and patterns, probably the best trick is using a very shallow depth of field to blur out the background, therefore removing as much detail as possible and keeping the focus on your model. Another trick to help minimize your background is to keep your subject distant from the background. The more physical space you have between your subject and your background, the less noticeable it will be and the more “blurred” out it will appear.
3. This rule is true for any picture you take, but especially headshots. The focal area must always be on the subject’s eyes! If your subject is turned to the side, be sure to focus on the eye that is closer to the camera. In the picture seen above, Meghan is shown pretty much straight on, so both eyes are in focus. Because I was shooting these at f/2.0, you begin to see the focus go out even beginning at her mouth and down to her jawline. That’s okay, don’t be afraid to do that. The most important thing is that the eyes are always in focus because that is where you need the detail to pop. There is no need for her jawline to be perfectly in focus since the shadows and shading give those areas enough shape to separate it from her body. Just remember, when you look at a photograph, you are looking into someone’s eyes.
4. I shot all of these with all natural light. We were working with an overcast day, which is so ideal, but if it’s sunny outside, I would try to stick your subject in the shade as much as possible to avoid harsh shadows and squinting. One thing I look for, even on an overcast day, is where the brightest part of the sky is. By having your subject face toward the brightest part of the sky, even on an overcast day, you will still be able to see a nice reflection in their eyes, therefore giving them a bit of a pop or sparkle effect. If you are using lights, you will probably see the light reflecting in their eyes, and that is perfectly fine, too, because again, it gives your subject’s eyes a nice sparkle.
Below is an example of a picture I took from the opposite direction, with the light behind Meghan. You’ll notice, in contrast to the others I posted, that there isn’t nearly as much light in her eyes. Especially with someone who has dark eyes like Meghan, you really want to have the sky, or some sort of light, reflecting in there to really make them pop. This picture isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t showing off her features in the best way possible.
5. One of the best tricks I’ve found to helping flatter someone, even someone as thin and petite as Meghan, is to shoot from above your model. Unless you are doing something artistic and creative, never shoot from below. That is such an unflattering angle on anyone, even people who have a nice chin/jawline. I’d encourage anyone to experiment… take the same picture from below, from eye-level, and from above, and see what you like the best. Not only does it begin to remove any excess under the chin, but when a person is looking up, it also eliminates any darkness under their eyes created by shadows on their face. By doing this, in addition to everything else, this will help your model look thinner and also brighten their eyes by lifting their face. You want to avoid shooting from too far above or they will be straining their neck and it will look unnatural. In many of these shots, Meghan was sitting and I was standing above her.
6. I could go on forever, but the last major trick I can think of is to pay attention to your model’s body… which way they are facing. Generally speaking, it is never flattering on anyone to be facing the camera straight on and can often cause them to look much wider than they actually are. For all of the pictures I picked as favorites, Meghan’s shoulders were at least slightly angled one side or another, even if there were some shots where her face was straight on to the camera. This helps create more interesting lines in the pictures as well as help a person look thinner.
Below is a side-by-side comparison of one pose. I had Meghan facing straight on and then I turned her body. I don’t know about you, but I have a clear favorite based on this concept alone.
Well, like I said before, I’m no expert, but I at least keep these tricks in my back pocket and in the back of my mind while I am shooting portraits. The goal is to take a beautiful photograph of a person and to show them off as much as possible. It’s amazing how moving around the slightest bit up, down, or side to side can really affect how a person appears in a photograph. Try it sometime, and maybe you’ll find some tricks of your own that you like!