How to Take Creative Headshots

TAGS: headshot, Photography, portraits, studio photography

What do you think when someone says the word “headshots”? You’ll likely imagine a photo, flat on a white background, seen as you scroll through your LinkedIn feed. Back in 2006 when I started in professional photography, I remember a very specific urge to copy what was popular — to emulate. It didn’t occur to me until years later that the last thing my town needed was one more photographer pumping out cookie-cutter portraits. Creating work that stands out is not only good for your creative soul, but also for your business. That’s why I try to produce creative headshots whenever I can.

When you start out in photography, clients come to you and ask you to replicate something that they saw somewhere. If you grow as an artist and forge your own path, that tide shifts. One day, you look up and realize that people come to you and say “I love your work, can you please do what you do for me?” 

Do you want to know what makes that happen? Style. This can be elusive, especially at first. Style is something you can’t do on purpose. Style comes from choosing specific techniques from a wealth of options because they please you. It does not come from a lack of equipment or a lack of knowledge. You can’t always see it when you have it — not at first — but when you do, it presents itself in the response of your subjects as much as in your work.

Photo by Gary Hughes

The Evolution of My Headshots

The truth is, even just a few years ago, the most prominent style of headshots included flat light, low contrast, high angles, and no drama with some bushes in the background. This is the exact opposite of the kind of photography that excites me. I’m a trained studio photographer — second generation, in-fact! So, as I moved forward, I began to combine the elements of classic portraiture and the other love of my life…the movies! 

Three-point lighting is a staple of cinema and always fascinated me. I remember sitting on the floor at my dad’s feet while my parents (photographers, remember) raved about the lighting in “The X-Files.” My brain was wired from a young age to appreciate cinematic lighting. That’s what I had been missing. That’s what I was working toward the whole time. 

I began to experiment in my space. How can I make my studio look like a scene in a movie? How can I bring out characters and archetypes in my clients? Slowly, I got there more and more over time. The actors and entertainers in my area began to notice. The business grew, but a funny thing was happening on the side. My corporate headshots — although improving — were still just following a mostly standard format. Eventually, I asked myself, “Why don’t I just shoot all my clients like they are in a movie”? That’s when the last tumbler fell into place. 

I stepped outside of what was expected. I began to approach all my clients like they were characters in a movie, or celebrities being photographed for a magazine feature. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way. 

Photo by Gary Hughes

Favorite Gear for Creative Headshots

A long time ago, I asked my dad, “What lens should I get next”? A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he replied, “Learn to use that one first.” With that burned into my brain forever, I am pretty slow to adopt new gear. You can be sure the items I use in creating headshots are battle-tested and the perfect intersection of price and functionality. 

For lighting, I rely on Flashpoint 400s300s200s, and 100s. They are reliable, powerful, versatile, and not so expensive that replacing one breaks the bank. I primarily use Glow EZ lock modifiers, including the 38” Parabolic Softbox and two 12×56 EZ Lock Strip Softboxes

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