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Tips on Shooting A Killer Headshot from a Photography Idiot

I don't own a camera outside of my smartphone. I can't remember the last time I owned a camera and I have never once considered myself a photographer. Outside of snapping some mobile pics to throw on Instagram, my photographer cred is pretty nil.

This being said, after spending last week in Las Vegas for Photoshop World 2015 where I spent more time watching people take photos, snap selfie headshots of themselves and following around Mr. Peter Hurley to watch a master at work, here are my bulletproof idiot tips for taking an amazing headshot. 

For much better tips, pick up Mr. Hurley's new title, "The Headshot".

1. Lighting Matters A Whole Heck of a Lot

First thing is first, lighting your subject matters more than anything else. If you want to find your subjects' best side, if you want to take the glare from your subjects' glasses, if you want to reduce/play with shadows to highlight/lessen a specific facial quality and if you want to provide the best headshot your subject will ever get, lighting matters more than anything.

Peter Hurley Headshot Lighting

Now, from what I could tell, Mr. Hurley utilizes a custom built Westcott LED lighting setup which can be had for a few thousand bucks. Yet, if you are light in the purse strings, you can scour Amazon and a few photography blogs to build a setup like Mr. Hurley for a bit less.

Rule #1 of a Killer Headshot: Lighting matters.

2. Remove Your Subject From Their Mind

I know, it sounds strange. If I learned anything last week while watching Mr. Hurley at work is was this: everyone, no matter who you are or what you do, lives in their head when posing in front of a camera. More to the point, everyone lives in their head when they are taking a professional headshot with one of the best headshot photographers in the world, when in a professional studio or when in front of a crowd of a few hundred as Peter Hurley finds his shot. Everyone lives in their head. It's who we are.

Peter Hurley Headshot Lighting, Roberto V

To counter this, it is imperative that you make your subject at ease. When shooting, make your subject laugh, say something silly, tell a joke, slip something unexpected into the conversation and make up words (squinching is a good one Mr. Hurley). The single best idea when shooting a headshot is to bring your subject to a point of relaxation wherein they aren't thinking about how they look, how uncomfortable posing is and what side of their face looks the best.

Rule #2 of a Killer Headshot: Remove your subject from their head.

3. Everyone Has a Side

Watching Mr. Peter Hurley take headshots in Vegas last week was akin to watching an artist determine which base color would work best for the overall project. Before Mr. Hurley starting shooting anyone, he took a test shot and a good look at his subject to determine which side - left or right - comprised the best side of their face. On its head the practice sounds odd and very objectifying. In a way it is yet overall the process is about putting the subjects best face forward. Remember, the headshot is about making your client look his/her best.

Peter Hurley Headshot Lighting

To find your subjects best side, take a test shot or two on each side, study their face and ask your client which side they think is their best side. Once you determine which side you want to shoot, adjust your lighting for your shoot and adjust your client for the shoot. Positioning of lights and client will play a large role in determining the success of your shoot.

Rule #3 of a Killer Headshot: Find your subjects best face.

4. Take a Punch

If you have ever hung around boxing rings, a common adage is learning how to take a punch. For a boxer who knows they are going to be hit, they are advised to step into the punch, lower the jaw and jut the forehead out. Oddly enough, posing a subject from what I could gather from Mr. Peter Hurley, is the same process. Taking a punch in terms of headshot photography means having your client lower their jaw, jutting their forehead out towards the camera and slightly closing the bottom lid of their eye while keeping the top open. He calls the process squinching (spelling?).

Peter Hurley Headshot Lighting

From what I could gather, posing your subject is about finding what side of their face works the best and making them pose in an odd unnatural position. No one goes through life with their jaw down while simultaneously jutting their forehead out to a fixed location. Yet when it comes to snapping a killer headshot, that's what you gotta do.

Rule #4 of a Killer Headshot: Advise your subject to get ready for a punch.

5. Make It Your Own

Over the course of a week in Vegas, I overheard or directly heard Mr. Peter Hurley say some variation of the following phrase, "in front of the camera, in front of those lights, that's your turf." At the end of the day, as a photographer hired to take a headshot, you have a job to do. Make no mistake about it, outside of making your clients get out of their head and all the other auxiliary information mentioned in this blog, at the end of the day you have a job to get done and a goal to accomplish.
Peter Hurley Headshot Lighting

For this reason it is imperative that you make that place in front of your camera, in front of your lights, your turf. You decide on the rules. You decide on the environment. You decide on the feel, the look and the effort. While the client might be getting a paid for product, that product is a representation of you. Make sure you take that environment seriously and define it to your liking.

Rule #5 of a Killer Headshot: Define Your Turf.

For other cool headshot & portrait photography learning content, check out the Peachpit headshot title list.

Remember, if you like this content and want to chat about it, you can reach me at the following social spaces:

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