What is Headshot Photography?

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By The Light Committee

Wikipedia defines a head shot, more commonly referred to as a headshot, as a modern (usually digital) portrait in which the focus is on the person. The term is applied usually for professional profile images on social media, images used on online dating profiles, the ‘about us page’ or a corporate website and promotional pictures of actors, models, and authors. But is there a more modern definition? Perhaps. How about the following.

A business headshot of a woman in a suit in studio near Century City

A headshot is a camera-captured image of a person’s face to primarily use for commercial purposes. The use of the term “image” is of importance here given that artificial intelligence providers are attempting to claim they create AI headshots for people. Simply put, they are not headshots. They are as-close-as-possible digital interpretations of what a real headshot is, and often poorly done because they are based on selfies or smartphone camera technology. For this, and many other reasons, it is not a good idea to use an AI headshot but that is another topic.

To further define a headshot, its use for commercial reasons is also of importance. When a person has a headshot created and then uses it, it is almost always to directly or indirectly influence a commercial transaction from the viewer.

What might this commercial transaction be? Directly, it can say to the viewer “do business with me” or “choose me.” This can be an accountant, attorney, doctor, real estate agent, psychologist, and so on.” So a headshot is usually paired with an ad or profile of the person to help positively influence the viewer. There are dozens of studies you can find online about the power of images like a headshot to influence such business decisions.

Indirectly, your headshot can have equally powerful influence. For example, a recruiter looking for candidates on LinkedIn might be more persuaded to contact you over the other candidate that didn’t use a professional headshot on their profile. The same has been said about dating profiles, and more.

Headshot photography involves an art and technical understanding of equipment used to create a professional photo of someone’s face. There are other distinctions to point out between a headshot and other portraits that seem similar.

What Goes into Making a Headshot

May people might opt to use a smartphone, or other point-and-shoot camera-like device, to quickly take a picture of someone’s face to use as a headshot. However, this approach fails to consider the most important element of a headshot, and that is what it is intended for – commercial uses.

As highlighted, a headshot is used to influence monetary opportunities, directly or indirectly. For actors and models, it is a direct influence. Their headshot commonly serves as their main marketing tool to get cast for paying roles or shoots.

For other business professionals – doctors, financial advisors, insurance agents, lawyers, real estate agents, etc. – they are used to promote a person as such a service provider. Their headshot is one key element to brand themselves to customers as approachable, as a leader, or as any other branding message they are trying to get across.

None of this is best accomplished with a simple camera. There are four important elements to maximize how good a headshot can be. Since a headshot is used in competitive marketing, these elements become important to ensure. The following four elements are in no order, as removing one from the equation essentially renders results as inferior to any other professional results.

model beauty photo shoot of a woman in a studio in Los Angeles
A Beauty Headshot Such as This Can involve Multiple Lights and Props to Create Lines and a Look Desired by The Person

The Photographer for a Headshot

For a professional headshot to be created, it is important to work with a photographer that can be creative. If the photographer also has an understanding of branding or marketing, that is a bonus but if not, they should be able to pull off in the headshot the look for the branding or marketing the person is after in a headshot. In addition, the photographer should have a solid technical understanding of the following three elements, including the ability to work all of them in concert for professional results.

The Camera Equipment Best for a Headshot

The camera equipment is important as it impacts how good a headshot can look. There is a popular belief that most content is now consumed on the small screens of mobile devices. So, image quality matters less. This is simply not true. Furthermore, even when viewing an image on a smartphone, the quality of professional \ mirrorless or DSLR full frame camera equipment stands apart. Also, for most business applications – your headshot is more likely to be viewed on a large desktop or laptop monitor, because people are usually at work when doing such activities. So, the quality of the image is very important.

To maximize quality, a professional photographer will use a mirrorless or DSLR camera at a minimum. Further up the chain of quality will be the use of a full-frame sensor camera. These cameras range in the thousands of dollars, just for the body. Further up from this are medium format cameras, which can be ten thousand or more for a body.

Then there are lens choices that matter. An appropriate lens needs to be chosen for each person and for each session, depending on backgrounds, and so on. The usual focal length of choice can range from around 85mm to 200mm. Then there is the use of prime lenses versus zoom lenses, of which to use is dependent on the details of the shoot.

The Ideal Lighting Used for a Headshot

The use and manipulation of lighting is another important element. A primary consideration will be whether to use studio lighting or natural lighting. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Each requires a photographer to have different technical understanding of how to use it.

Studio lighting offers a photographer the most creative control. A photographer can place lighting wherever they desire for the effect they are after. They can control the power of individual lights, whether they are using a one or four light setup. In addition, they can use modifiers for more adaption of lighting. This is important because lighting a headshot for an actor that wants a dramatic look is very different than lighting a headshot for a real estate agent.

Natural light is often seen as very pleasing and natural in its look. This makes sense since sunlight is what humans are used to seeing on things and people being lit around them. However, today’s studio lights rival sunlight. A professional photographer can make a studio shot look like it was done outside in full sun.

Still, natural light is appealing because it is outside and background options are more abundant. It can be more challenging for a photographer to get the light he or she wants – the photographer cannot move the sun around like studio lights or modify it so easily. So, an outdoor shoot can require more planning and willingness to accept that fewer shots than in studio might turn out as desired.

A theatrical actor headshot of a middle eastern man in a studio near Burbank with a green background
A Theatrical Headshot Requires a Setup That Helps Create Dramatic Appeal Alongside the Person’s Ability to Pose and Create a Character for Such

Post-Production for Headshot Photography

Following any photo shoot, a professional photographer is likely to process their photos through image editing applications. Some photographers might even use multiple editing applications. It is arguable today that there is not a single photo made that could not be improved, even if ever so slightly, by processing it through an editing application.

For a headshot, a common goal is to preserve the essence of the person and to not edit so much as to significantly alter their appearance. An obviously altered appearance can be common with an AI headshot. For example, you might even skin tones, remove acne and fly-away hairs but avoid removing scars or moles, altering how wide a mouth, eyes, or lips are.

In addition, using an editing application is important for outputting the work. Most headshots are in a 4×5 crop factor (8×10” file), however a 1×1 crop factor for online profiles is also common nowadays. Then there are output file types to convert to, such as JPEG, as most photographers will shoot to create images in RAW file formats.

Common Headshot Uses

With an understanding now of what a headshot is and how they might be made, who are some of the people that might look to have one made? What might they use them for?

Actor Headshots

Actors rely on headshots as one of their most important marketing tools. Often, a casting director will view an actor headshot alone to decide whether they even want to look at their resume or demo reel. So, a professional headshot is critically important to an actor. They use them to submit for casting opportunities and to their online profiles where they can be found for casting opportunities.

Modeling Digitals or Model Headshots

Models use a headshot as part of their basic modeling digitals portfolio. Usually, this portfolio consists of 3-5 shots. One important one is the headshot. Then there is the full body shot. The other shots are a mix and can include second headshot or other shots that might be full body, half body, or three quarter body shots. Like actors, these shots are used to submit for photo or video shoot opportunities that a company is considering embarking upon for a marketing campaign.

Corporate or Professional Headshots

Almost any business professional can use a professional headshot for career or marketing purposes, especially in markets like Los Angeles. At the very least, nowadays professionals use a headshot for LinkedIn and other career websites. It is commonly understood most headhunters will not work with someone using a non-professional headshot on their LinkedIn profile.

For other branding uses, they can include the company website, brochures, digital or physical signage, advertisements, posters, and so on. Such professionals that use headshots include but are not limited to: accountant, CEO, chiropractor, COO, CTO, dentist, doctor, engineer, financial advisor, insurance agent, IT architect, journalist, lawyer, marketing manager, real estate agent, psychologist, software developer, and other such business professionals.

Dancer, Musician, and Author Headshots

There are a variety of creative professionals that also regularly use headshots. Dancers are often asked to submit a headshot for auditions and to promote them as part of a show. Musicians can similarly use a headshot to promote gigs they are performing at, in addition to using creative headshots for album art and more. Authors use headshots for a book publishing, and so on.

Then What is a Portrait?

With a full understanding of what a headshot is, and having touched upon how it is different than a portrait, one might wonder just how different is a headshot and a portrait? Quickly put, remember that a headshot is primarily to be used for commercial purposes. A portrait is completely for personal uses, such as to share with family, whether by social feed, email, or screen sharing.

Sometimes people go the extra mile and have professional headshots or lifestyle photos made – more on this below – for personal use for scenarios important to them. The most common of these is for dating apps. Obviously, the intent for professional photos on a dating app is not for monetary gain. People want quality photos on a dating app and often will not settle for point-and-shoot simple cameras. They instead opt to put their best foot forward to attract the best people possible to their profile.

What are Lifestyle Photos?

Lifestyle photos are also usually for commercial reasons. The main difference is that it pulls back away from a person’s face to show more of the scenery around a person. A lifestyle photo often still features a person, but the main attempt is to showcase a person in an environment to convey a message about a specific lifestyle. The message can be about that lifestyle or about the person’s profession.

chef headshot in her kitchen in Los Angeles for promotional materials
A Lifestyle Shot Can Be Used With Messaging to Create Branded Content That Helps Sell a Service, Such as for a Chef

In an advertising campaign, this might be an image of an athlete running on a track. The point of this image alone might not be obvious until the branded message alongside is consumed. It might be “foot stability to last the extra mile.” Now, the combined image and messaging draws your attention to the footwear and key features.

If a person is using it to showcase a lifestyle, perhaps in a dating app, this might be snapshot of a person in a coffee shop, walking in the park, with shopping bags, to convey without words that the person likes coffee and coffee moments, long leisurely walks, and shopping.

Headshot Photography Further Defined

To further strengthen the answer as to what headshot photography is, perhaps it is equally important to consider what headshot photography is not, especially from a professional usage perspective.

Headshot photography is not a selfie with a smartphone. There is no such thing as a professional selfie. Headshot photography is not a photo taken by a friend as an amateur photographer that happens to own a mirrorless or DSLR camera. Headshot photography is not a still grabbed from a video. And it is definitely not an AI-generated shot.

Remember that headshot photography is a professional photo made of you to convey your professionalism. So, it is important to work with a professional to create one. This, in turn, helps provide you with the best opportunity to be taken seriously for business opportunities.