How to Pose for Professional Headshots – Photographer’s Tutorial

How to Pose for Professional Headshots

The thing I gleaned from early work as an assistant to photographers was that the best of posing was found by subtly directing and allowing for the subject to “get comfortable” in the directed position.  Add to this the face… expression.  Facially, more is accomplished with conversation or “cutting up”.  Never get pushy.

So, how does the photographer pose folks for a headshot? The key here is simple. Don’t pose. Get them in a position that is comfortable that allows them to look their best. Once that’s done just make slight suggestions about where to look and tilt of the head from your position at the camera. Talk and ask about their life. Be ready to do your real job. Shoot the pictures.

Don’t cross the line.

Subjects for headshots have a clear idea of how they want to look. Although, they may not talk about it. Your direction is welcome. It’s kind of a team of two making the photograph. Photographers who get physical about every little detail are hindering that freedom the subject thought they would have. Instead of directing and allowing the subject to interpret your requests, some photographers cross the line. They are too touchy-feely and think nothing of grabbing a shoulder and turning the body. Touching the chin to position it “correctly”. No, no, no.

Do not do this!

At a point, the subject realizes that their movements and decisions are quick to be overruled. You will lose their participation in helping you create a successful headshot and basically, they wait for you to put the shoulders correct or physically tilt the head. This is not good. Allow my experience with this to keep you from taking too much control. Back off. Direct with things like the dialog that follows and don’t cross the line of pushiness. Never be physical. If you do, you need to rethink your verbal communications so as to never make that mistake again.

Yes, capturing that prize expression is our job.  It is rarely a big smile. Maybe as happy moves to the big smile, it’s in the “happy” phase.  Or, as the smile calms into a slight grin…bullseye.

Let’s set the goal for much more that just a likeness.  Capture the detail of personality. Usually the look is happy or pleasant, not a big smile.

Shoot a Bunch and Shoot Fast

There is a good rule to live by in portrait photography and other types of photography

If you wait til you see the correct expression, you probably missed it.

With experience, you’ll learn to interpret expressions and see when something special is coming.  Don’t be wasteful with captures, just set on getting the keepers.  Get the good one.  So, instead of shooting 10…shoot 50 or whatever it takes to get the collection of likable images for your subject to select from.  Don’t show them all, thin out the number to a more digestible collection.

We’re gonna cover the setup of the shoot from greeting the subject and building to the goal of delivering an exceptional photograph.  You’ll see numerous things here and feel perplexed. How could the greeting have anything to do with the success of this shot?  It does!  Yes, it has lots to do with making this headshot. 

What’s The End-Use Of The Shot?

It may be just a good time shot for branding on Instagram but more than likely it’s a business look for LinkedIn and their company marketing.  Each of the purposes has a very specific look and you need to be sure the target is clearly in focus.  Sorry for the pun.  Haha

It’s the eyes and the expression.  Comfortable, confident and helpful.

Pose Defined

The pose is defined in multiple ways but all are helping to define what we do as professional photographers.

Eric, Culley, Headshot, BW,

“assume a particular attitude in order to be photographed, painted, or drawn”

So, with words like attitude, pretend, and impress we are charged with pulling and working with the subject to look their best.  Turning, tilting and leaning have always produced a headshot with the stiffness that I feel is not the goal.  That is, if it doesn’t come naturally from the subject, it may not tell the necessary story.  Just ahead I’ll explain my conversation with my clients.

“pretend to be someone or something”

“behave affectedly in order to impress others”

Take a Minute To Get To Know One Another. 

When your subject arrives, your work begins.  Chat, greet, take a seat.  In the conversation, look for small details that can help spur that little grin when needed on set.  As an example, the subject is a business man but also he coaches little league.  His son is the pitcher.  So when needed we can count on a smile in discussing the imaginary no-hitter coming next season by his son.  

Chat about what the Headshot is to be used for.  About family, kids, hobbies. What you’re looking for is tidbits that make that grin and a happy thought when making the headshot.   In reality, you’re getting to know your new friend.  On set, this info will be helpful for those happy looks.

Asking if they have kids, for many, is an opportunity for kid stories to be shared.  You may see the expression change as you are showered with these “proud papa” stories.  

Add to their comfort by explaining the mirror that is always available on set and the numerous shots that’ll be made in a short time.

Be warned, that a small number of folks will be protective of personal info.  Just redirect your chatting.  Move to hobbies, sports, and school.  

You have got to be sincere.  As your sincerity is felt by your subject it will be reflected in their openness to talk.  This small chat can be ended with “let’s go make a picture” as you move to the shooting area.

Pose by allowing the subject to get comfortable.  Find something camera-wise or lighting-wise that “will only take a minute”, this after placing the subject on the posing stool and directing them as to the position of the camera.   

The Conversation I Have to Direct Is Like This

I move to a position near the camera right or left so the subject is looking to the light or away from it.  The posing stool pivots and usually I’ll clarify that their feet need to move to that position, also. When I suggest that they put their arm on the table I’ll add to put some weight on it, that, naturally, gives the lean with chin forward many standing subjects feel awkward doing.  It’s not awkward from a seated position.

Some folks will make a gesture telling me they are concerned about their arms showing.  I’ll explain that the position of hands and arms are for positioning only of shoulders and the lean.  “They do not normally show in the finished headshots.”

Done.  90 percent there. We now start the pursuit of things learned from the subject during the greeting and early chat.  Keep talking. If they are not comfortable or if they are still not loose as a model I’ll move them to the opposite side.  They will reconfigure the pose all on their own and maybe a bit more comfortable than the first set of images.  As the shoot progresses, comfort increases naturally.

At any of these groupings of shots, if they are not showing their best I’ll return to the pose earlier or create a new position.  Maybe without the table.

The Table and Stool, Basics

You may have thought that the most important equipment on the set was the camera or the lighting.  Not really.  The simple folding table, easy to transport and easy to store is a key to our posing.  Think of the most comfortable place in your home.  Many would agree that’s found at the kitchen table.   We are comfortable there.  Same comfort moves to the set.

So the table is preferred over a special cut-out posing “accessory”.  Also, the pivoting stool is our way of not showing unnecessary chair hardware and allowing the subject to easily move, bodily, from side to side.  Also, be sure it’s height adjustable.

The Portfolio To See

Part of the success of this part of a business is found in mastering the situation and controlling it professionally.  It starts earlier than you may realize.  Your website needs to show the results of these techniques.  Convert the stress of “gotta get a picture made” to “these folks (subjects on the website) look pretty good and comfortable”. Numerous examples need to be on display so the customer sees the outcome of spending the time with you to arrive at the successful image.  Outdo their expectation.  

I have photographed numerous folks that as we make exposures I pick up on the feel they have that, maybe, they’ve had a picture made before and they don’t want to smile.  Something about their teeth or eyes or …. something someone said about their expression.  And then as we shoot and they loosen these self-restrictions, they give that happy look.  When that slightly successful, confident look is selected, I feel great.  We’ve given a preview as a choice, they thought they shouldn’t show.  They did!  It worked.

Success Achieved

The goal is to show qualities in your subject through your work…the headshot. To describe the headshot you may use the terms happy, helpful, interested in interacting, organized, and professional.  You may recognize these terms describing what people want to show in applying for a new job or in acquiring a new client.

This is quite possibly the quickest money you’ve made in your photography business.  The client shows.  You chat a bit.  Move to the set.  Make some shots.  The client exits with confidence all is good.  You have a new friend.