In today’s digital age, a profile photo is the new business card—it’s often your first impression. Your headshot is a representation of your professional self, and when your profile pops up on a search or a potential client lands on your LinkedIn page, you won’t want them to find an image that provides a poor reflection of you. You’ll want them to see a dedicated, well-groomed, optimistic person (since this is the real you, of course).

Professional photographers charge a pretty penny, and there’s a reason for that: it takes skill to nail that winning headshot and flashy equipment doesn’t hurt. Even so, that prime selfie is possible without your having to drain the bank account and obtain a degree from photography school. When it comes down to it, all you really need is a few basic principles of composition and of course a camera.

What makes a winning headshot?

Specter Gram skeleton logo
Keep your eye on the camera! Strong eye contact and good facial lighting are important traits of a high quality headshot. Design by bayuRIP.

All of this is well and good, but first, we need to understand how to identify the qualities of a great headshot before we go about creating our own.

When critiquing a photo, it can be helpful to think of it like an artist’s composition. This means that it can be broken down into elements such as the color (clothing, backdrop, contrasts), lighting (stronger on the face, contrasting against the backdrop to ensure you stand out), and facial expression (laughing, smiling, serious, or relaxed) which you can judge and improve upon separately. Tie these elements together and you’ll have formed a masterpiece ready to help you dominate the professional world.

Here is a short rundown of what makes a winning headshot:

    • Images should be framed from the chest up (three quarter shots, not super close-ups)
    • Maintain strong eye contact with the camera (don’t glare but make sure you connect with your audience)
    • Balance the lighting (stronger on the face, shadow one side of the face to create contrast and accentuate features)
    • Use a backdrop that doesn’t distract and can help to highlight you (contrast with the backdrop is good, aim to not have patterns or too much happening as to not distract your audience)
    • Showcase the personality you want people to see in your headshot (laughing, smiling, confident, etc)
    • Make sure you’re clearly visible even when the image is small (framing helps here)

Now that we know what makes a great headshot, let’s dive in and take a look at 7 steps you can take to create the perfect profile photo for you.

1. Find good lighting

Headshot of man with glasses
Subtle shadowing on one side of the face and beneath the jawline helps to make you stand out from the crowd. Image via Unsplash.

The right lighting is essential to a good headshot. Avoid places where direct sunlight is pouring over you. Direct sunlight will often blow out your features, whitewash the face, and create hard angular shadows, and besides, who’s trying to take a headshot where they can barely open their eyes?!

Taking a headshot outside is not impossible, but the light will need to be balanced between sun and shade in order to optimize the image. This means that headshots shot in the shade will provide you with nice soft lighting, and as long as there isn’t too many sunlit areas in the background, your shot shouldn’t have too many overexposed areas. Overcast days where the lighting is more diffused can also provide a good effect for outdoor headshots.

The best location for your shot should typically be indoors where the light is contained and under your control. When taking your headshot indoors, use artificial lighting to define your facial features and ensure that they will stand out on a two dimensional image.

Headshot of smiling man
Applying the main light source just above eye level helps to create subtle shadows beneath the chin and accentuates the jawline. Image via Unsplash.

When figuring out where to direct your lighting, think about what you want to achieve within your headshot. You want to look confident, sharp and professional. Light on one side of the face creates contrast, and subtle shading around the jawline will give you the strong look you’re going for.

To achieve this effect, aim the main light source slightly above eye level. Focusing light from this position helps to accentuate the chin and cheekbones. For an enhanced effect, using a mirror on one side of your face contrasted with a dark wall on the other will create a strong contrast and a professional look to your shot.

2. Use a simple backdrop

Headshot of older man
White backdrops are great for creating contrast with shadowing and helping you stand out. Image via Unsplash.

The backdrop to your headshot should be very simple, without too much going on. Including objects such as plants, decorations or even patterns on the backdrop of your headshot will steal the focus away from what’s important—you.

Solid white backdrops are great for helping you stand out and can be easily created using a white foam core or a sheet draped behind you evenly. Solid white won’t distract and depending on your chosen outfit, can create a nice professional contrast.

Black backdrops can be created using a piece of black felt or a black draped sheet. Similarly to white backdrops, these backgrounds won’t distract your audience from you. Place the backdrop far enough behind you so that the light in front does not illuminate the background, and you’ll be good to go.

Headshot of middle-aged man with beard and mustache
With balanced lighting, black backdrops can create a very powerful image and can provide you with the sharp, professional look you’re looking for. Image via Unsplash.

The above backdrops can be found very cheaply, and are simple to set up. Purchasing a collapsible backdrop will cost you a few more hard-earned dollars but offers a great alternative. With collapsible backgrounds you can set up and shoot anywhere, and also have the added ability of being able to play with the lighting against the backdrop to create a custom effect.

3. Contrast is king

Contrast is the difference between blending in and standing out. You’ll want to “pop” out at your audience and creating powerful contrast is key to making that happen.

Factors such as hair color, clothing, backdrop and lighting all make a difference to the contrast of your shot. For example, if you have black hair, a dark backdrop will make you less striking, so going with a light, soft, white background means you’ll stand out, so try to avoid having too much of the same shades or colors when taking your headshot.

A book cover design featuring a high contrast image
Contrast is key to a stunning image. Book cover design by Meella

Think carefully about which colors would make the most sense for how your headshot is going to be used. For example, a professional look might come across more clearly with neutral tones such as blacks and whites or muted colors. If you’re going for that casual social media profile pic, introducing some vibrant colors to your headshot will appear warmer. With your color selected, use the principles of design to find the best contrast.

Headshot of woman with short blonde hair
A striking contrast between you and the backdrop really helps to ensure you strike an image and stand out to your audience. Image via Unsplash.

Clothing is important to consider when getting your headshot right—even though a headshot is usually only taken from the chest up. If you’re male and going for a professional look, a jacket and tie or clean button-down shirt is a good fit. Looking for something a little more casual? No problem, aim for a clean polo shirt or well-fitted t-shirt to compliment your look. For females, you can decide whether you want the shoulders to be showing, or if there will be any jewelry in the shot. Whatever you decide, aim to keep things looking as clean and professional as possible.

4. Get your angles right

We all have that “good side” we like to take pictures from, right? Sounds like a small detail, but getting the angle of your headshot right can make a difference to the way you appear on camera and the impact of your shot.

When searching for the right angle, think of what you want to be both highlighted and concealed. The general go-to’s should be highlights of the cheekbones, sharpening of the jawline, and definitely concealment of that potential double chin you might get from turning your head too far downwards. If your hair grows more on one side of your head, use the side that is more visible to the camera as not to have hair blocking you in the shot.

Headshot of young child
Shooting from a slight downward angle conceals any double chins, and helps to emphasize your facial features. Image via Unsplash.

While everybody is unique and may have certain angles that work better than others, generally shooting from slightly above creates a less intimidating impression than a head-on angle.

Another strategy is to lean one shoulder slightly forward. Besides helping to drop the chin and highlight the cheekbones, this creates more of a connection with the viewer and creates more of a personable or intimate effect for your audience.

Keep things as subtle as possible. Making your headshot look effortless and natural should be the goal, so when making these adjustments to perfect the shot, try to be present with your audience on the other side of the lens and maintain that cool and relaxed positive vibe.

5. Expression is everything

A headshot is, well… a shot of your head. With this (not so) secret knowledge intact, it’s easy to see why the expression on your face is so important. The expression you make will tell a story of you, so closely consider the message you want to send when preparing to take your shot.

Headshot of smiling woman
Get your smile on! Image via Unsplash.

It may sound cheesy but the eyes are the window to the soul! Pay attention to what they tell your audience—happy shots will come with wider eyes, slightly sterner or more relaxed may be less exaggerated.

When posing, keep your back straight and your body at a slight angle to the camera. Doing so will present better posture and create a more commanding presence.

Relax your head, neck and shoulders, and position your chin in a way that highlights a stronger jawline. If your midsection is in the shot, folded arms or hands rested on your lap will look professional and relaxed as well as most comfortable.

Headshot of woman with glasses
Think closely about your audience and what you want to tell people with your headshot. Notice here how the eyebrows are slightly risen, the chin is up and the expression is very neutral. Image via Unsplash.

Think closely about your situation and who will be seeing your headshot. Is it a LinkedIn profile picture? Is it going on your portfolio to show clients who you are? Going in for an interview and needing a headshot to accompany your resume? No matter the situation, different facial expressions will have different impacts, so it’s up to you whether you want to come across as friendly and approachable or cool and serious.

For example, if you’re going for a LinkedIn profile picture, laughing hysterically with your hair running half way across your brow is probably going a little bit too far. That relaxed yet professional smile you bring out from time to time is probably a better fit.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and try a few different looks. Getting the right angle will help, but to put the cherry on top of a professional headshot, getting your expression right means you won’t be easily forgotten.

6. Frame to perfection

When framing your shot, you’ll want to ensure all the hard work you put in to getting the photo perfect is not lost by cropping out the most important features.

An illustration of an octopus taking a selfie
By PANG3STU.

Follow the “rule of thirds” when attempting to frame your headshot. Aim to keep your head and face in ⅔ of the frame. If you imagine lines drawn vertically and horizontally at 33% and 66% of the frame, the intersecting lines are known as the best focal points for images. Our brains are trained to look at these points and framing this way will make the most important point of the shot stand out—you.

Headshot of woman with long hair
Applying “the rule of thirds” to your headshots allows for better focal points. Image via Unsplash.

Your head should be in the top third of the image. If your head sits lower, there will be too much space at the top of the frame and your awesome headshot will quickly become a not so impactful shot of open space.

On the other hand, sometimes images can be cropped so closely that the very top of the head is cut off. When up close, this can be very noticeable, so aim not to lose the beauty contest winning hairstyle you put together for your shot.

If possible, keep your neck and shoulders in the shot. This shows your posture and attire while keeping the focus on your face, all in all giving you a more professional look.

7. Trial and error is your friend

Most importantly, have fun and don’t be afraid to experiment with a few different options.

An intentionally garish 90s t-shirt design
Experiment, but don’t go crazy. By MONCRAYON

Try different clothes, different smiles, laughs, angles, poses, and cries… well, maybe don’t cry, but experiment with a few different options before selecting the one that fits you best. Sometimes accidental shots become the best shots! What we’ve discussed here is advice towards getting the best headshot without requiring professional equipment, but sometimes being relaxed and having fun and getting that “happy accident” might just turn out to be the killer shot you’ve been looking for.

Think closely again about what you want people to feel when they look at your headshot. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience and make a decision as to whether your shot shows the best you.

Trial and error is your friend, and before selecting the image that fits best, you can enjoy a few laughs with some funny faces or interesting angles. Who knows, this might just reduce the stress of taking the shot in the first place and will make your final selected shot truly shine!

Shoot to score with your headshot

Sure, a super fancy expensive camera might make a difference to your shot, but ultimately you don’t need any professional equipment to get the job done properly.

Getting the lighting right, finding your best angle, and cropping your headshots to maximum effect can give you the ultimate profile pic you’ve been looking for. Don’t be afraid to try a few different shots until you get it just right, and when you follow the above steps and find the shot that matches you best, you’ll have a winning headshot ready to stand out in the professional world.