What Makes a Great Headshot?

Choosing the right headshot can be a daunting task unless you know what style you're looking for. Most of the questions we receive prior to booking, fall into one of three categories that I'll highlight below. Style (studio or destination), photographer (portrait, commercial or side-hustler) and pricing.

• What clothes should I wear? (see our prior post on this topic)

• Should I choose indoor, outdoor or something thematic to my industry or my brand? 

• Should I smile, show my “serious professional” look or even look at the camera?

Of these and many other questions we answer daily, it took me decades to realize that none mattered more than what experience-type of the photographer. I used to be mostly a reclusive nature shooter. When I look at my headshot attempts from the 90's, I can't believe some of those clients ever came back! (just sayin')

First, there is no single answer to style, clothing or location per industry. Unless your company has already decided on a brand or style, it's up to you to determine what you think will appeal to your ideal clients. This is something that I'm happy to help you with via phone consult or email. Most prep questions are answered with auto-responders when you book online.

”MOST” of our Portland Metro headshot clients are in a service industry. 90% of those require trust to build or maintain a relationship that is online. Just a few clicks away from your competition.

If the image you put forward is inauthentic, poor quality (and this includes your whole site), you are conveying the wrong subliminal message to your prospects or potential clients, even if you don’t serve a web-searching clientele.  

Business card scanners like Evernote’s Scannable pull in all card data, find their LinkedIn profile, and poof, your paper card just made you searchable.

Scrolling through your LinkedIn community or surfing the web, you'll discover a barrage of headshot styles, prices and providers.

Once you understand these three areas, you'll begin to see much more than simply  “good” or “bad”.  My goal is to help you make a better-informed decision on what style is right for you, and to help you see how expression can take you from “meh” (just okay) to “WOW”. 

Something that even after providing prep instructions, we still coach you on during your session. 

 Nothing says "I take shortcuts" like cheesy stock images on your website. (nevermind the cheesy use of props) Which doctor would you trust most, the one above or below?..

Nothing says "I take shortcuts" like cheesy stock images on your website. (nevermind the cheesy use of props) Which doctor would you trust most, the one above or below?..

STYLE
I've been shooting headshots since 1996. In that time, styles have changed dramatically!

In the first 10 years it seemed to be 90% realtors, 10% doctors, and they all seemed to expect the same head & shoulders, "blue-grey" background. You know, that old church-directory background that I refuse to own. (read my post "Undo The Blue" and you'll see what I mean)

It seems today, that nearly every service-profession has discovered the benefit of a professional headshot.

That said, style-needs vary greatly from one profession to another. We see wealth managers that want a simple studio background, and bankers that want a fresh urban look. (like bokeh backgrounds that convey "modern professional".)

 Props should be subtle if used. A natural setting helps to tell the story of a Naturopathic Dr. The bokeh effect allows your eye to go direct to her, vs. to a busy background. Fill flash softens shadows, and removes the "racoon eyes" that you would get with a phone or amateur-use of gear. (we do not charge location fees for this setting, since it's just across from our parking lot)

Props should be subtle if used. A natural setting helps to tell the story of a Naturopathic Dr. The bokeh effect allows your eye to go direct to her, vs. to a busy background. Fill flash softens shadows, and removes the "racoon eyes" that you would get with a phone or amateur-use of gear. (we do not charge location fees for this setting, since it's just across from our parking lot)

We see engineering firms that prefer a grey studio background, while others select on-site (Destination) with industry settings and/or props to help tell the story with a single image.

One of our real estate firms prefers a classic, black & white studio background for their agents and staff. (we do include a BW version for free on color sessions, so they can always change their mind) Others prefer location, but it varies by company.

  The larger the company, the more marketing directors we work with to give a unified consistency.  Frankly speaking, your “About” or “Team/Staff” page can look like a ransom note if you lack continuity. (something we can help you establish if your team consists of independent contractors or virtual offices.)


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If you're looking for versatility, my favorite recommendation is bright, clean, white! It's like functional green-screening, since you can either add a keyline border to match your branding, or knock out the background for superimposing on yard signs, marketing pieces or book covers.

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Choosing between studio, outdoor or lifestyle is purely subjective, but something we guide our clients through (when not already working with a marketing professional or publisher)

 


With our team (staff) headshot options, we recommend that you book a FREE CONSULTATION, which can be done by phone or in person, to help you decide location, lighting, clothing and a volume price for individuals. (much more efficient when they're already together for the group)

 Team/Staff headshots of the ProTech Solutions team in Beaverton/Portland. This image included the removal of parking signs behind them, parking stripe and asphalt crack removal (and one head-swap)

Team/Staff headshots of the ProTech Solutions team in Beaverton/Portland. This image included the removal of parking signs behind them, parking stripe and asphalt crack removal (and one head-swap)

 Individual headshots, on-location, at a rate better than even studio pricing since we can do more efficiently with everyone present. This is one of several created at a volume-rate add-on option after session consultation.

Individual headshots, on-location, at a rate better than even studio pricing since we can do more efficiently with everyone present. This is one of several created at a volume-rate add-on option after session consultation.


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PRICES
As with any craft, expect to pay more for experience and guaranteed results.

A serious hobbyist may save you a few bucks today, but only if it doesn't cost you more time on a reshoot or pinning them down between shifts at their "real job".

I've had the honor (and misfortune) of being the 2nd or 3rd photographer after those "Cheap-is-expensive" experiences.

Before you pull out your credit card, ask yourself these three questions:

1 - Will this image be the first impression for my potential clients?

2 - Is authenticity and/or trust an important characteristic to convey to my clients?

3 - Would my client be appalled by a semi-professional image, or would it appeal to them to present a more appealing image?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, your headshot is not an expense, it is an investment. Not to say it will cost you an arm and a leg, but it should attract you more money than you spend on it.

PROVIDER (PHOTOGRAPHER)
I'd be a fool to think I was the right fit for every client. You might like the work of your photographer, but if you don't feel comfortable or confident with them, the results will show in your headshots.

Perspective

Whoever you do select for headshots should be marketing-minded, a great communicator and diverse enough to better understand what your end-user's perspective is. While many of our clients arrive with the belief that their clients are already on-the-hook, "no need to worry about expression, they already know what I look like..." They are forgetting 2008.

Complacency can cost us a great deal of money. You may not be sharing your photo with potential clients, but your would-be referrals are. Your LinkedIn clients, doing their due diligence may care more than you will ever know,

By the time my headshot client walks through the door, I'm done marketing me and I turn my focus to them - starting every session with this in mind: "If I was your client, what would I want or need to see in order to trust you?.." My job is to see you through the eyes of your next, IDEAL client.

Communication

Technical aptitude and creativity are huge factors, but these should be the second-nature of your photographer. This can take several years, which in my case was derived from nearly 20 years in retail. As Malcolm Gladwell makes that case for in his book Outliers, the 10,000 Hour Rule has more to do with mastery, than does our innate gifts. (5 years x 40 hours = 10k-plus)

I believe that it took me ten years in a speaking group, combined with my first 10 years of portraits, before my awards shifted from scenic photography (where I was the mere observer, nature already lit it for me) to awards in my people portraits.

You can stand in the mirror to see real-time response to what you think is a great expression. Sit down in front of my camera lens and POOF - "I can't see me, what should I do?.." Your photographer's job is to be your talking mirror. To have posing, lighting, composing and camera gear become 2nd-nature to the communication necessary to produce the best results.

Psychology & Science

Headshots do much more than to show what you look like. They are the amygdala-test for your clients' fight-or-flight response. There is science to support that we judge unconsciously, faster than we can process or define our "gut instincts" or impressions.

Think about this. We are inundated with images today through social media and websites. While we may feel safe from life-threatening experiences (that our two-million year-old wiring was designed for) we are unconsciously deciding "do I trust or run" with the people we choose to work with.

You'll never see the clients that clicked away from your "about" page, voter's pamphlet or profile because of a bad expression or poor lighting. (if they can't see the color of your eyes, chances are they'll decide you are cheap, you cut corners, or perhaps you're hiding something)

Think that sounds crazy?, try this little experiment. Look through your LinkedIn contacts or an "About" page that contains someone that you know.

1 - Find an image that you think looks just "okay" and then one that looks "WOW".

2 - Cover their eyes, to see the mouth, and then cover their mouth to see only the eyes. I can guarantee you that the eyes are saying something different than the mouth if it's just an okay image.

3 - Do the same for the WOW person. (perhaps even the same person, different shot) Notice that the eyes and the mouth are in-sync. The mouth and eyes are smiling (or other expression) at the same, believable and authentic level.

Your unconscious mind is doing this automatically. Your potential client didn't need to do this to make the decision. The amygdala in our brains is doing this at such a rapid rate that we are either appealing to or appalling our public without ever knowing.


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It's undeniable that photographers are challenged by a HUGE client-perspective-misnomer that "the camera does it all".  It seems that everybody and their dog is labeled "photographer" so long as they have a nicer camera than ours.

If you would like to set up a free consultation to discuss your marketing needs - I'm an idea guy that loves to help. No pressure to hire me, but expect me to ask questions! It's how I continue to learn the best way to serve my clients.

One more thing... If you've got questions not answered, please feel free to email, pm or comment and I'll do my best to add more clarity.

Best of success!

 Not all business are corporate. We serve a great number of creative industries as well. Musicians, writers and craftspeople...

Not all business are corporate. We serve a great number of creative industries as well. Musicians, writers and craftspeople...