What is a Professional Headshot?

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By The Light Committee

You are more likely now than ever to make use of a professional headshot. But what is a professional headshot anyway? If you want the quick answer, here it is. A headshot is a professionally created photo of your face by a photographer to be used primarily for commercial purposes. That is the simple answer. If you want drill-down details, let us continue.

A LinkedIn headshot of a woman in a suit in studio in Los Angeles
A Professionally Made Headshot Stands Apart Compared with a Smartphone Shot or Other Non-Professional Photo

It should be noted, it is usually spelled “headshot” but sometimes also as “head shot” with two words. The former is usually preferred, for what might appear to be an obvious reason.

There is much more to the above answer to fully understand what a headshot is, why someone could use one, who could use one, and why they must be professionally created. While there are a lot of details, they are not complicated.

What is Not Professional Headshot?

A portrait or selfie is a photo you take for personal use. More and more, you might use your smartphone for these and share them with friends and family or recall them later for good memories. You might also use amateur-level mirrorless or DSLR cameras for such photos.

Almost any other photo that is not professionally made to focus on your face for commercial reasons is not a headshot. There are some exceptions and further explanation for these. So, what other examples might exist that are not professional headshots? Sometimes people will take an existing photo and try to repurpose it as a headshot.

For example, someone might have a group shot where they are amongst friends or family. They then try and crop into this shot of just themselves. Usually, it is a poor attempt because it is easily visible that it is a group shot cropped in. Using such photos for professional purposes is often frowned upon by professionals.

Selfies and Smartphones for Bad Headshots

A selfie photo is another example of a poor-quality headshot. More and more, smartphone manufacturers push marketing and feature claims that confuse users. They claim portrait features and marketing partnerships with certain camera equipment makers to attempt to convince users of true commercial quality photography.

But this is like a general automobile manufacturer attempting to claim they make a supercar because they placed badges on their car. They then tell customers they can go about in their general car as if they are in a supercar. The problem is there are real supercars in existence that set an extreme benchmark for what a supercar really is.

This is similar in the camera world. There are real cameras in existence – truly high resolution full-frame sensor mirrorless or DSLR cameras and medium format cameras. They set a high benchmark in photo quality a smartphone cannot meet. This is because, like a supercar, they are purpose-built. In the case of high-end cameras, they are purpose-built to be super at photography, unlike a smartphone that is purpose-built to be just fine at many things.

So, while a smartphone is handy at snapping a quick photo, using an app, making a call, getting on the web, sending a text, using the flashlight, etc. it is not super at any one thing, and certainly not as a high-end camera.

One related point about AI headshots. They are not real photos and should not be used for professional reasons. They are based on the same smartphone photo output we just mentioned staying away from. Besides there are many other reasons to just never use an AI generated headshot. This is a timely lead-in to the next part, in what separates a professional headshot from all else.

What is a Professional Headshot?

A headshot needs to be professionally made because it is for professional use. Usually, your headshot might have an indirect impact on financial outcomes. For some professionals – actors and models – it has a more direct impact on financial outcomes. So, a headshot is often far more important than people think. Research has shown professionals are being judged by the photos they use for their profiles. Thus, make it a good one.

Because there is the possibility of a headshot impacting a financial outcome, it is important to have your headshots professionally made. So, now we get into the difference between a professional headshot and what is just a photo otherwise.

You “take” photos of friends and family, yourself, or a selfie. A good headshot photographer “makes” your headshot. It is a process and there is much more involved. There are professional equipment considerations, professional lighting considerations, backgrounds options, post-production work, and so on to consider.

A colorful theatrical actor headshot of a black woman in a studio near Pasadena
Actor Headshots Are Arguably a Critical Tool for Actors to Get the Attention of Casting Directors.

Photos to Make a Professional Impression

Again, studies show that a photo is a lasting first impression, and sometimes one that will not be changed easily. It can make the difference in someone wanting to do business with you, to hire you, or not. So, it is important to not use a poor-quality photo for a headshot.

So, a professionally made shot of your face starts with a capable photographer. This includes one that has full understanding of operating a DSLR or mirrorless camera out of auto-mode. But knowing the camera is not enough. They will need to understand lens choices too. This is not just deciding between a zoom or prime lens.

In addition, they will need to have an understanding of the laws of light. This includes strobe or artificial light, natural light, and how to deal with both independently, and together. They need to know how to manipulate light with modifiers, camera settings, subject placement, and so on.

Finally, there is post-production. More commonly this is known as retouching. Some in the field attempt to claim a headshot should not be retouched. They argue changing a person’s look is lying about their appearance. First, this is inaccurate. Removing a stray hair, some acne that will be gone next week anyway, some red eye, and so on, is not altering how a person looks. It is simply improving the quality of their natural appearance.

Also, and this might be a bit controversial, a photographer should ultimately remember a customer is paying them to professionally create a headshot. If a photographer does not want to retouch a photo in a way they think might alter a person’s real look – even if the paying customer is asking for it – then it is their responsibility to make this clear before accepting payment and scheduling the session.

A professional headshot of a chef in her kitchen in Los Angeles.
Actor Headshots Are Arguably a Critical Tool for Actors to Get the Attention of Casting Directors.

A Word on Lifestyle Photos

A headshot does not have to be a closeup of someone’s face. It can be from around the waist up or even full body. How the photo will be used should shape the decision as to how close or far back the shot should be. Often people use what is known as a lifestyle photo for similar purposes as a headshot.

A lifestyle photo and headshot have a similar goal of being used to market a person for commercial reasons. However, a lifestyle photo attempts to showcase a person in a particular profession or “lifestyle” to more easily convey this. For example, it might be a real estate agent in front of a home just sold, it might be a mechanic in front of their garage, a lawyer in front of a courthouse, a doctor in the exam room, and so on.

Why Are Headshots More Important Now Than Before?

So, in further answering what is a professional headshot, it is important to cover why they are so important. Imagine you post a selfie on LinkedIn. It is likely if a recruiter is viewing your profile that this selfie will have a negative impact. Research strongly suggests this. As noted above, most recruiters view this as an immediate reason to not consider you.

Nowadays seven out of 10 recruiters are looking at your social media profiles as a factor to consider you. In addition, one in three are looking to verify that your content is conveying a professional image. It is reasons such as these that make a professional headshot critical for anyone in the job market.

Actors and models in markets like Los Angeles rely on good headshots for their careers. They fully understand the importance of a headshot. But other professions are also very dependent on good headshots, though not as understanding about this need. Realtors, attorneys, doctors, financial advisors, and so on are often judged by their snapshot photos as to whether or not they are trustworthy.

Is it any wonder then why mature corporate teams have professional headshots done of senior management and they update them regularly? Usually this is because there is a marketing expert behind them that understands the power of high quality professional photography.

Professionalism today must be exuded at all levels of engagement. This starts from the photo someone sees of you on a web page or app before they meet you, to the clothes you wear when they meet you, and how you speak and engage with them during your meeting. Professionalism is end-to-end.