5 Things That Make for a Bad Headshot and a Good Headshot

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By The Light Committee

You might be pondering getting headshots made. Notice I said “made” because they are made, just like creating a fine meal that requires ingredients, planning, cooking, plating, and consumption. This is why a headshot is not just some “taken” photo or image. So, if you are pondering getting headshots, there are things to avoid and things to make sure of to get good headshots. Here are five things that can make for a bad headshot or a good headshot.

First, the bad…

vibrant color woman's acting headshot
A lot of things make for a good headshot, like in this acting headshot: color matching, expressions, lighting, quality, etc.

A Selfie Headshot is a Bad Headshot

It’s done way too often and it always looks bad – the selfie headshot. A selfie headshot just screams “I’m unprofessional” and “I’m lazy” and “I’m cheap” and “I just don’t care enough” and… I think you get the point.

The thing about a selfie headshot is a lot of times people don’t realize that it is that bad. Part of the reason is when someone does it, they don’t spend the time comparing their profile picture, say on LinkedIn, to colleagues or other similar professionals. It is when this happens that people go to a photographer saying, “I knew I had to get a real headshot after seeing how my selfie compared.”

Another time someone might realize that a selfie headshot is bad is when a friend or recruiter finally tells them. I’ve had a few clients tell me “a recruiter I wanted to work with told me to come back to them after I posted a real headshot” or “my friend finally had enough and told me to update that awful shot I was using.” So, don’t use a selfie.

An AI Headshot is a Bad Headshot

People are actually using an AI headshot for their public profiles or on websites. Just like a selfie, an AI headshot screams “I’m unprofessional” and “I’m lazy” and “I’m cheap” and “I just don’t care enough.” But it also screams “I’m lying about this being me” and “I don’t care that my first impression to you is a fake photo of me.” When you lie about your face, it can easily beg the question, what are you also lying about on your profile?

The reason is AI headshots often produce – or probably even borrow from others – features that are not yours. The results they produce can include it not being your body, not being an outfit you own, not being your lips, and more. A client came in to The Light Committee studio for headshots after a few of her friends finally intervened and told her the AI shot she used was unlike her. After she studied it, she told the photographer that she started to see the AI used someone else’s shoulders, or totally morphed hers, because they were unlike hers, as were her eyes being wider apart than in reality, and more. It didn’t even keep her teeth to look like hers.

A lot of the reason people turn to selfies or AI is cost. Headshots can cost a lot if you don’t shop around for good headshot prices. But, at least in Los Angeles and probably other cities too, you can get really good headshots at more than fair prices.

try it on example of a headshot looking unnatural
This AI headshot from an actual vendor appears to be an like an animation but overall, it’s just a bad headshot to use. It’s lifeless.

An Overly Distracting Background

Now let’s say you’re working with a real photographer. There are still other factors that can make for a poor headshot. One is a distracting background. There are a lot of ways a background can be distracting. In a studio, it can be something that is just too busy. But busy is a relevant term to the headshot goal.

In a general business headshot, less is more. This does not mean get a white background like a passport photo. It just means that usually a simple solid natural color or gradient color goes a long way toward keeping the focus on your face, which is the main goal of a headshot. If you’re getting your headshot made outdoors, trying to keep simple backgrounds can be a bit more difficult. This is why some photographers will create bokeh backgrounds. But usually avoid other things like tree branches behind you that make it appear as though it is coming out of your ear, or another person passing behind you, and so on.

For some of the best acting headshots a little bit more planning is required for the background. In an actor headshot, the background can be used to help tell a story. An actor headshot generally is going after two looks – a commercial look and theatrical look. A commercial look is generally a highly approachable cheerful vibe while a theatrical look is more along a serious or dramatic vibe.

So, as an example, a  theatrical look actor headshot might use dark colors to complement the fact the actor is wearing a leather jacket for a particular look. But things can start to go sideways if there is too much going on in the background, like overuse of props, or art that is extremely abstract.

Anything in the Shot That Distracts from Your Face

Speaking of props, there are items that can sometimes be overdone in a headshot. For example, if you are a doctor and your headshot is going to be alongside page content that is specifically about you being a doctor, then perhaps adding a stethoscope in addition to a lab coat is not needed. At the same time, an actor trying to get a character headshot portraying they can play a doctor might not be overdoing it. Find balance.

Another easy way to add distractions is in overdoing accessories like jewelry, scarves, hats, and so on. It’s not that you should not add these, just make sure they are not calling attention away from your face. If it becomes a topic of conversation, it probably needs to go.

Not Preparing for What You Want from Your Headshot

Some people show up to a headshot session without a plan. A good photographer can save the day, but you will be better served if you have some thoughts about what you want from your headshot. If you don’t have a plan, you might end up with a headshot that is a misfit.

For example, if your job told you to get a headshot and you got one with a navy blue background. Then you saw it posted alongside the rest of the team who all have some shade of gray. Maybe that yours stands out will work out for you or maybe not. But maybe instead check out things like this ahead of time so you not forced to figure it out after the fact.

Figuring out what you want from your headshot also includes what vibe you want it to send, like approachable, serious, confident, trusting, etc. There are outfit and color considerations that play a role in creating this message for your headshot.

And now for what makes a good headshot…

There are four things that contribute to making a good headshot and a fifth that is a wild card that can make a headshot go from good to great. The catch with these is that the four are required for a good headshot. If they are all part of the element, the finished product will clearly and easily stand apart from anything else attempting to be a headshot. But the fifth is next level.

studio professional business headshot of a man
Another good headshot – simple background but that contributes to the photo.

The Camera and the Lens Used Are Important for Headshots

This is another reason why a selfie is bad. Smartphones don’t have true portrait lenses like with a mirrorless full frame camera. It’s why faces look a little off on cell phone pictures. And because selfies are used to train AI for their headshots, well garbage in gives you garbage out.

Nothing compares with the quality of a medium format or full frame camera paired with an appropriate focal length for a headshot. The quality output is just superior. Certainly, some camera and lens pairings do it slightly better than another. But generally speaking, if you are using some brand with a full frame sensor and portrait lens, you will usually be better off than with a smartphone shot. Why usually? Because there are still at least three other things that matter for creating a good headshot.

Lighting and How it Is Used Will Have a Role to Play in Good Headshots

First, there is studio lighting, natural light, and using a mix of both. Usually in a headshot a person will pick either studio or natural light, not a mix. This is true for an acting or business head shot. There is such a thing as the quality of the light too. While this includes the technical quality of a studio light’s output by specific brands of light, many photographers also refer to quality in terms of soft versus hard light. Each has its place.

Usually, some form of soft light is used in a headshot, whether for business or acting. Typically for business, the softer the better. The same is true for most commercial acting headshot looks but not all. However, for theatrical headshots a bit of controllable hard light is often desirable.

So, the tools the photographer has to make light varying degrees of soft to hard is important. Be sure to check out their portfolios to know that they can use light for both.

A cinematic headshot made of a Los Angeles movie director
Lighting and how it is used can help shape a story such as with this headshot of a director

Post-Production, Also Known as Retouching, is Important in a Headshot

Post production is essential for making a good headshot. This means retouching and this then also means Photoshop. Ever so often there are negative stories about celebrities using Photoshop to make certain things go away in a picture. This can actually be okay if done tastefully – in other words while still keeping a person’s authenticity.

Now, clients are clients, and they can be demanding – especially celebrity clients. And if a paying client wants their nose made smaller, then that’s ultimately their call. Some photographers might push back while others just do it as a customer service. To each their own but that is not the point here.

Things are captured in photography that can be removed or softened without making a photo a lie, like an AI headshot. For example, hair fly-aways are common. Sometimes, it might be one large wandering strand sticking straight up. It might be an eyelash that fell onto a person’s chin. It might be lint on their shirt. These things being removed are like polish on a just washed car and help a headshot pop.

A Capable Photographer is Paramount to Getting a Good Headshot

A doctor with just a stethoscope can do some things, like listen to your heart, lungs, and intestines. From this, there are many things they can do for you. In contrast, a doctor at a hospital with all the tools the hospital has can do infinitely more.

A person that knows how to use a camera and kit lens with a few settings, especially auto mode, can do some things too. But a photographer with a commercial studio, with a camera and a few lens options, with many lights and many modifiers, and with the knowledge to use all these things in concert can do infinitely more.

A theatrical actor headshot of a German woman with a detective look in a studio near Los Angeles
Here’s another example of how lighting in the hands of a capable photographer can help craft a theme for a headshot look

The Wildcard for Making a Headshot Go from Good to Great is You!

Now, if you have the above four elements, you can usually walk away with a really good headshot. If you are looking for next level, a great headshot, then the fifth thing that is needed is you. Yes, you and your A-game. That means making a plan for what vibes you want, practicing the smiles in a mirror that you want to create, figuring out what outfits will help the most.

There’s more. Getting your hair prepared for it and sometimes your makeup too. There is also coming into the photo session with a positive attitude. Positivity comes across in your headshot and so do well thought out plans and execution.