headshot tip

Let’s be honest: most of us do not enjoy being photographed. However, between social media profiles, LinkedIn pages, and professional websites, having a flattering headshot is practically a requirement. To help those who might be considering an image update, we reached out to Charlottesville, Virginia-based photographer Ashley Cox for advice on how to achieve an effective and engaging headshot. From location and lighting tips to advice on poses and picture-day attire, here are her recommendations.

headshot tip

Choose your photographer wisely. Whether you hire a professional or are tapping a camera-savvy friend for the job, make sure the person shooting your photo is someone you feel comfortable with. “You should feel at ease in their company, and most importantly, they should be able to make you laugh,” Cox says. If your photographer checks those boxes, you’ll likely feel more at ease in front of the camera, which improves the chances that you’ll be happy with your final images.

Carefully consider the location. Cox recommends choosing your location based on the mood you’re going for with your portraits. For example, if you’d like your portrait to portray a more corporate look, you may want to find a simple backdrop outside (such as a plain expanse of building) or use a studio setting. If you want a more casual or creative route, Cox suggests shooting with plants behind you or seeking out more color and patterns, either inside or out.

Remember that light is the most important factor. According to Cox, lighting will largely determine how your headshot will turn out. If you’re shooting outside, she recommends that you always aim to be photographed in the morning while the light is still soft, or at “golden hour,” an hour or so before sunset when the setting sun gives off a lovely glow. Shooting outside during full sun will create strong shadows, she warns—plus, harsh light isn’t flattering for anyone. If you’re shooting indoors, however, it’s always best to find a spot with full sun. “Window light is beautiful, and backlighting by a large light source is another lovely way to shoot,” Cox says. No matter where you shoot, having enough light is key, so be strategic about your timing.

Keep it simple. You want the focus of the headshot to be on you, not what’s happening in the background. Be mindful of objects around and behind you and how they might read in the images (for example, Cox says to make sure you any trees or lamps won’t end up looking like they’re sticking out of the back of your head). Ornate art in the background can be problematic as well. That said, “You don’t need a studio to have a wonderful headshot,” Cox notes. A plain wall, bank of windows, or even a backdrop of greenery in your own backyard will do just fine.

Consider hiring a hair and makeup professional. In Cox’s experience, hiring a hair and makeup professional for your shoot is always a good investment. “Professionals know how to make you look really good in front of a camera,” she says. “And it will give you an extra confidence boost that will come across in the final images.”  If this feels like an extravagance to you, make good use of your time in the chair by asking for general makeup and hairstyling tips, so you can make the most of the session.

Wear solid clothing. When choosing your wardrobe, Cox advises against wearing anything with too much of a pattern. Instead, choose colors that look good with your specific skin tone and most importantly, wear something you feel comfortable in. Having multiple options on hand is a good idea as well. “I always recommend bringing a few outfits,” she says. “Then you can mix it up and try different looks.”

Remember to have fun. Even if you’re having your headshot taken for professional reasons, you can still enjoy yourself. “Have fun with your shoot, and don’t take yourself too seriously,” Cox says. If you’re the type of person who abhors having their photo taken, consider having a drink beforehand to put you in a more relaxed mood. “And play some fun music!” How you feel during the shoot will come across in the photos, so do your best to calm your nerves and embrace the experience.

Loosen up. This is not school picture day, so don’t feel like you need to sit still and force a smile. Instead, Cox suggests shifting around a bit, trying a few different smiles—showing teeth, laughing, smiling wide, keeping your mouth closed, and a few in between. “You may be surprised with the ones you prefer,” she says. In addition, Cox recommends trying a few shots standing, sitting, and leaning, which will give you a nice variation and keep you from locking into one place and looking too stiff.

TSG Tip 328 from Ashley Cox of Ashley Cox Photography in Charlottesville, Virginia. Featured photographs by Ashley Cox. Ashley Cox Photography is featured in The Scout Guide Charlottesville.