What Makes a Bad Headshot?

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By The Light Committee

A lot more than people think goes into creating a great headshot. So, it is much easier to create a bad headshot than a great one. Obvious ways include settling for your smartphone or an AI headshot. But there are other lesser know factors. What makes a bad headshot can include an uncooperative subject, an unskilled photographer, bad lighting, lesser equipment, and a lack of good post-production. But what does all this mean?

Casual outdoor headshots of a woman
It Is Important to Be More Than a Willing Participant in a Headshot Session. Be Collaborative and Expressive to Maximize Premium Results

What the Subject Adds to the Headshot Process

Being a bad sport will ensure you get a bad headshot. It doesn’t matter what else the photographer does. Most of us have witnessed a moment when parents take their kids to a photographer for family portraits, and everyone knows they have until the moment the first child cries. After that, it’s a wrap. Crying watery eyes are not photogenic.

Similarly, adults that do not want to be a part of the process can ruin a headshot session. So, if you know you are going to need headshots and are not comfortable with the process, then get comfortable. What can you do to get prepared?

  1. Call and chat with your photographer before the shoot to develop a rapport. If you can’t do it with your chosen photographer, consider finding another one.
  2. Plan ahead with what outfit or outfits you will wear. Why those outfits? What goals do they help you achieve? Being sure of this adds confidence, which you can rely on to be more comfortable.
  3. Practice your posing and facial expressions in a mirror for at least 2-3 days before. Use the bathroom for extra privacy and turn on all the lights. Learn what is too much of a smile, a turn, a tilt, and so on, and what is not enough of a smile, etc.
modern colorful woman's headshot Los Angeles
A welcoming smile is almost vital in most headshot scenarios

The Importance of a Good Photographer for Headshots

Obviously, if you have a photographer with limited skills, you’ll have limited results. Study the photographer you are considering. How can you study them? Check out their work. They should have a website with plenty of examples. Do they demonstrate a knack for studio lighting and natural light? Are their photos sharp, colorful, vibrant, and pleasing to your eye?

Do they have breadth of skill, meaning can they pretty much only do one genre? If a photographer can demonstrate quality across many genres, they are likely better problem solvers, and most photographers will tell you problem solving is a necessary skill in photography.

For example, can they do headshots for acting just as good as they can do professional headshots for corporate use? What about other photo shoots, like portraits or lifestyle shoots? The more skill they demonstrate, the more they can bring to the table for the type of shoot you need.

So, a bad photographer can limit the results you want. Do not just settle for a headshots photographer near me in search results when you are not fully happy with how their work appears to you. Be prepared to go farther. Remember, the importance of a headshot is much more than people think.

How Does Lighting Contribute to a Good Headshot?

Bad lighting will make for a bad headshot. So, make sure you work with a photographer that can use studio lighting, natural lighting, or a combination of both. You might also want to decide what type of lighting you prefer. Much of this depends on your goal and how you might want to use your headshot.

For example, a psychologist may want to appear warm and inviting for their Psychology Today profile. So, they might opt for a shoot in a Los Angeles park with lots of greenery. An actor wanting to be cast for dramatic roles might opt for studio lighting where a photographer can make things appear more cinematic.

But it’s not just about the theme of lighting, it is also about the style of lighting. A photographer must know how and when to use soft versus hard light and how to create it and shape it for a desired effect.

Furthermore, there is the quality of lighting. Using poor quality studio lighting can make shots being created appear inconsistent in colors or brightness. Some might appear a bit more red at one moment and then a bit more green the next moment. With natural light, what it is bouncing off and around can impact what color is being cast on a person, which can be good or bad.

Thus, work with a photographer that is competent with studio lighting, natural light, a mix of both, and color theories.

Glendale CA studio shots of a commercial actor and outdoors commercial actor looks
One Sign of a Competent Photographer is One That is Equally Capable Using Studio Lighting, Natural Lighting, or a Mix of Both

Does the Camera and Lens Matter for Good Headshots?

Some people will say smartphones are good enough to take a headshot. A 1975 Ford Pinto is good enough to get you from point A to B too, but you’ll get noticed in it for all the wrong reasons. Similarly, when you settle for a smartphone headshot or using your smartphone selfies to generate an AI headshot, it will stand out in the wrong way when being viewed next to a great headshot that was created by a capable photographer and willing subject. It is an easy way to get pegged as unprofessional or uncaring, effortless, and so on.

There is such a thing as a portrait lens or focal lengths that are ideal to use. Furthermore, there is not one focal length that is ideal for all people. An experienced photographer will use a focal length suited for your face.

With a smartphone, there is not such an option like with a real full-frame sensor camera and premium lenses. So, even if you submit it to AI to generate a headshot, it will not stand up. AI may actually make things worse, warping your face and its features more than what came out of your smartphone to begin with.

So, yes, the chosen camera and lens matter in avoiding a bad headshot.

try it on example of a headshot looking unnatural
An AI headshot is not a real headshot, period. This example is telling. Sure, it can save you time and money but so does a 2-day old sandwich on a convenience store shelf. Both are terrible ideas

Does Post-Production Help Make a Good Headshot?

Smartphones filters are a bad idea, especially if you apply one to a headshot made by a capable photographer. Generally, if you are using a smartphone-created headshot, the filter will not matter because it is inferior to begin with.

Avoid using a bad headshot by not settling for your smartphone, AI, or filters. If you start with garbage, you end with garbage – garbage in, garbage out, as the cliché goes.

In the hands of a capable photographer or retoucher, a well-created headshot can benefit from post-production work. In fact, it is arguably safe to say that of all the photos ever created in time all of them might have been improved, even if just a tiny bit, by post-production work.

But it is a balance. It is easy to overdo Photoshop or not do enough to noticeably improve a headshot. Generally, you want the improvement to be clearly noticeable while still being clearly your natural likeness.

So, in summary, how can you avoid a bad headshot?

  1. Be a willing participant by preparing yourself to make the shoot a positive experience.
  2. Do your homework to find a competent photographer, even if it takes a little extra effort or time.
  3. Study your photographer to make sure they are masters of lighting.
  4. If the photographer uses a good camera and lens, their photos will show it – crisp, sharp, vibrant.
  5. If the photographer does good post-production, their photos will show it – headshots where the person looks polished, not tired.