What Makes a Good Headshot?

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By The Light Committee

A good headshot can be all the difference. For actors, it can literally determine if you get cast or not. For models too. Even for business professionals, it can be a determining factor if a potential customer wants to do business with you or not, or if that recruiter will contact you. But what makes for a great headshot?

model portfolio photo shoot of a woman in a studio in Los Angeles
A Good Headshot is Also Dependent on the Goal of Its Use, Such as for a Modeling Portfolio

There are four main components that make for a great headshot, in terms of its quality and professionalism. One can argue it starts with the subject, or person, being photographed. Removing this, and so our question applies to anyone, let us rephrase the question to what makes a good headshot regardless of the subject?

First, a great headshot is a creation. It is made. It is not that someone “takes a photo” or snaps one. Anyone can do that. Making a headshot requires a professional photographer that is competent across three technical elements. So, the photographer and the three technical elements are what consist of the four components you should look for in a great headshot photographer.

Let us go back to school and letter grading. That is, getting an A, B, or C in class, and so on. Think of the four components herein as being worth one letter-grade each. Your best possible score if all four components are there is an A. If one component is missing, your headshot grade will drop to a B. If two are missing, it drops to a C, and so on.

And now, for the four components, in no particular order because they are all worth a letter grade. First, you need to have a good, technically, and creatively capable photographer. Second, that photographer needs to use a very good camera with very good lenses. Third, that photographer needs to have a solid working understanding of how to use studio strobe lighting, natural lighting, or a mix of both. Finally, that photographer also needs to know how to process photos via post-production software or applications.

The Best Headshot Photographer

First, you need to find the best headshot photographer in your area. Finding the best headshot photographer in Los Angeles can be a tough task. There are at least 1,200 such photographers just in Los Angeles. Then there are other photographers that add to this count. They claim to be capable of producing professional headshots but often lack in results from the better ones.

Of course, judging the quality of a headshot is subjective. But there are certain elements to the process that arguably are not. A competent photographer is one of them. A good headshot photographer will know how to use a high-end camera outside of auto-mode – actually in full manual mode. Some photographers will argue this is not necessary. This is true only to a poor point. For example, knowing how to microwave frozen food will get you a meal. Knowing how to cook like a chef will get you an extraordinary meal. Both can be classified as food but only one can be classified as fine dining. It is the same with professional photographers.

But understanding the technicalities of a camera is not the only factor. The many lenses to choose from are also a factor in the working knowledge as a professional photographer. There are many types and classes of lenses to consider.

They will know how to use studio lighting outside of auto-mode too. This is important because how a person is lit helps send a specific marketing message. Remember, the point of a headshot is to use it for commercial reasons. So, its marketing message – influenced by lighting, its quality, etc. – is important.

The photographer should also know how to advantageously use natural light or a mix of both. And, the photographer should have a stroke of creativity. If a headshot photographer’s portfolio is filled with photos that appear very much alike, it might be because their skills or creativity are very limited. Not all headshots should be shot against the same background or with the same or similar lighting setup. A good photographer will demonstrate a diverse portfolio with a variety of lighting and background scenarios.

a headshot of a woman in Los Angeles outside that can be used for a dating profile
Sometimes a Good Headshot Is Simple In its Background and Outfit But Made Good by the Vibe of the Subject

Headshots with Full Frame Mirrorless or DSLR Cameras

The quality of the camera also matters. There are layers of quality in the camera type. But before getting into that, do not ever consider settling for a smartphone shot as a headshot. The surest way to position yourself as unprofessional or inferior is to use a smartphone shot when other photos next to yours are professionally made, whether on LinkedIn or Actor’s Access, and so on. Similarly, using a professional shot is your opportunity to clearly stand apart from anyone that settles for selfies, or at least fit in with everyone else that went professional. So, first, do not work with someone using a smartphone.

When looking for a professional photographer, the quality of the camera and lenses they use should be apparent from their portfolio. So, you do not need to know the technical details of what makes for a good quality camera. That said, here are some quick highlights in case you want to inquire with a photographer.

The two best quality still camera sensors are medium format and full frame sensors. There are other sensors known as cropped sensors, and even others. These are better than smartphones but not as good as medium format or full frame. In most cases, medium format is overkill. These are in cameras often costing $20,000 or more – for just the body without a lens. Full frame sensors are the sweet spot nowadays. Some photographers argue they have blurred the quality line with medium format. Generally, such full frame camera bodies are $3,000 to $5,000.

Next, is the lens and its focal length. Most headshot photographers will shoot in a range from 85mm to 135mm. Some will go beyond these ranges. If they do, it is usually because of a limiting location scenario. But you should know it can impact the look. Such focal ranges can be had in prime or zoom variants of lenses. A good photographer will understand selecting the best focal length for your look.

studio theatrical headshot of an actress in Los Angeles
Good lighting is critical in a good headshot, particularly for acting headshots

Headshot Lighting

Lighting also stands alone in its importance to creating a great headshot. Proper use of studio or natural lighting should be a strong capability of the headshot photographer you are considering. They should know how to do either, so you have better options. They should also know how to work with a mix of studio and natural light. The quality of the light also matters, not just with sunlight but with the brand of studio strobes and modifiers used. These elements can make for those subtle differences that make one shot standout from another one that was not created with equal lighting. These levels of achieved quality are often because of a mix of the studio strobes used and proper manipulation, or modifications, of lighting.

Lighting gear is one reason why a headshot will look good compared with a shot made using whatever light happens to be in a room. Different photographers will give you different reasons for why they chose a light setup. Some photographers will argue they only use natural light because it is the best light and others will tell you the same about studio lights. The better photographer can use either and decide which one might be best given the various dynamics of a headshot session: the location, time of day, your goal with the headshot, what you are wearing, and so on.

It is best to find out if the photographer can work with any kind of light or if they will be limited. If the photographer is limited, your options will be limited. This might be just fine if you know for sure up front of what you want. If you know you want studio light and find a photographer that works with studio light, great. If you know you want natural light and find a photographer that only shoot natural light, then you are set. However, most people like options and people change their minds after seeing results – sometimes right during a shoot. So, if possible, find a photographer that can accommodate studio, natural light, or studio with natural light setups.

creative director men business headshots created in a studio in LA
Post-production can polish an image for things like flyaway hair or lint on a jacket

The Importance of Photoshop in Headshots

A controlled amount of post-production goes a long way to adding pleasant finishing touches to a headshot that make it great. Put another way, it is arguable that any photo ever created and viewed right out of the camera – even great shots – could have been improved with post-production. Let us consider some common headshot scenarios.

It is often advised for actors to not have their headshots retouched. And this is also the case with modeling digitals. But even the best actor headshots can be improved with retouching without altering a natural look. So, this advice is probably not worth following. For example, you might get some acne the morning of your shoot. The one photo you like might have a fly-away hair or some excessive lint on your shirt. You might have darker than usual shadows under your eyes, and so on. All these imperfections are things that might not have been there the day before or day later. So, they are safe to correct without changing a natural look. In other words, none of these change your essence.

For a business professional, many of these same considerations hold true. There might also be a small wrinkle in a shirt, or a logo you do not want to show, and so on. So, even these basic retouches are essential to taking a very good headshot to the point of crossing over to being a great headshot.

Final Tips for Getting Great Headshots

So, when you are looking for a photographer to give you the best headshots, be sure they are not missing any of these elements in their capabilities. The risk if they are missing even one is that their results drop from what could be an A+ headshot to a B-rated one.

Do you need a quick tip sheet to do your research? Just follow the below steps for your area:

  1. Look up “headshot photographers” online and widen your search to 25 miles or whatever mileage you can travel
    1. You can get more specific too: “actor headshots” or “modeling digitals” for example
  2. Filter your results by: 5-star reviews, then 4-star reviews, and also by the number of reviews (the more reviews they have, the better and higher you should rank them yourself)
  3. Go through the top 10 and visit their website to see:
    1. Do they have a gallery of example headshots?
    2. Do they list their rates and what is included?
    3. Do they show pictures of their location or studio?
    4. Do they provide full contact details?
    5. What are their booking options?
  4. Call or message them and ask:
    1. Do they do studio or natural light?
    2. What camera and lenses do they prefer?
    3. Do they include retouching?