5 tips for taking a professional headshot

Nice lighting and a pleasant expression will get you off to a good start.
By Teri Saylor

If your LinkedIn photo is more than five years old, it may be time to post an update. Professional photographers are available to shoot the best portraits money can buy. But with the right tools and a little know-how, you can set up a shot on your own that just might help land you a coveted interview.

If you can choose between a smartphone or a regular fixed-lens camera, Durham, N.C., photographer Kevin Seifert advised a regular camera because of a phone camera's limited capabilities. "Use a point-and-shoot camera with a small amount of telephoto range," he said. "A typical headshot is made with a 105 to 135 millimeter lens." 

But Frank Myers, a photographer in Raleigh, N.C., doesn't rule out using a smartphone to take a decent headshot. "In real estate it is all about location, location, location," he said. "In portrait photography it is all about lighting, lighting, lighting."

Both photographers agree that good lighting and a simple background are two of the most important aspects of getting a successful professional headshot for social media, websites, or other purposes. 

Seifert and Myers offer some tips for putting your best face forward:

Natural light: Turn off the overhead fluorescent lights and turn your face toward a window with diffused or indirect sunlight. Or go outside and find a shady spot where the light is not harsh. Don't try to work in direct sunlight, Myers said. "Depending on the direction of the sun, you may end up squinting, or you may have harsh shadows on your face, your features may be too sharp, or your eyes may be obscured."

Clothing: Myers compared choosing what to wear for your professional headshot to choosing your attire for a job interview. "Dress for the job you want, not necessarily for the job you have," he said. "A suit would be appropriate for a professional job like a CPA or attorney. If you are seeking a job in an arts field or a more informal environment, then it's OK to dress more casually." Whether casual or formal, stay away from distracting bold patterns and avoid wearing bright colors.

Background: When choosing a background, Seifert advised considering your audience and your target market. "If you are a CPA, it makes no sense to shoot your professional photo in the middle of the woods," he said. "Instead, put yourself in a location where you would work." Choosing a generic background with muted colors and no distractions will put the focus where it belongs – on the person being photographed. Myers recommended standing a few feet away from the background. "If you stand against a wall, it starts to look like a mug shot, and you may cast a shadow. Or you may blend into the wall and look flat," he said. 

Facial expression: The days of stern facial expressions in portraiture ended after the Great Depression. On the other hand, a wide grin may seem over the top. Myers recommended finding middle ground by looking pleasant and approachable. "Wear a nice expression that is reflected all the way up to your eyes," he said. "As your photograph is made, think about what makes you happy, and you'll end up with a natural smile on your face."

Camera angle: The best camera angle is from slightly overhead. If you are photographing yourself, opt for a tripod, not holding the camera at arm's length or even a selfie stick. Sit on a stool and mount the camera slightly higher than eye level. This angle forces you to look up, putting the focus on your eyes and making you look more approachable. Turning your shoulders slightly to one side and looking up at the camera lens will result in a nice portrait. "Generally, we don't want shoulders square to the camera in the shot," Seifert said. "It looks standoffish and uninviting."

Next time you are scrolling through LinkedIn, check out the profile pictures, noting they are framed in a circular format. Keep in mind social media platforms are constantly changing, and one size doesn't always fit all. But if you structure your photo carefully, it will fit nearly any format and show off your best side.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C.

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