Working as a headshot photographer can be one of the best ways to make consistent money as a portrait photographer. Whether you want to work with commercial clients or the general public, there’s plenty of uses for a well-crafted portrait, and you can start making money immediately, with only a minimal investment in equipment. Want to know more about how to start a headshot photography business? Check out this guide to the best equipment and business practices, and you’ll learn everything you need to get started today!
This guide will breakdown:
- What’s involved in a headshot photography business
- What gear you need to be an effective headshot photographer
- The techniques to create a basic headshot lighting setup
- How to price headshot photography
What’s Involved in a Headshot Photography Business
At the most basic level, working as a headshot photographer means finding the clients who have a need for a professional quality portrait, using your equipment and expertise to craft that winning shot, and delivering the product with a quick turnaround. Let’s look at each of those elements to better understand the skills and equipment you’ll want to have to do an effective job.
Finding the clients, like with any freelance business, can seem challenging at first. Fortunately, there is a wide range of people who need a quality headshot photo. You might have heard of getting a headshot taken in the context of an aspiring actor or actress - while this can be a great line of business for someone in the right geographic area, there are so many more possibilities.
Small and medium companies will always have a use for quality portraits of their employees for things like business directories, newsletters, and internal publications, along with uses like ID badges. On professionally-focused social media sites like Linkedin, individuals can make use of a high-quality photo to spruce up their profile. Some people even like to have a great looking headshot for their other social media profiles, with online dating being a great hidden market for a professionally executed photo.
Reaching out to these various groups can be accomplished in any number of ways, but as a visual medium, a photographer’s best marketing tool is their images themselves. With that in mind, make sure you have a professional-looking website with a portfolio of your shots. This can help you find organic search traffic, serve as an easy reference when pitching clients, and is an essential part of any business. Make sure your website also makes it very easy to understand your rates, area of operation, and how best to contact you - your customers shouldn’t have any excuse for not being able to get a hold of you for a job!
While a strong social media presence is essential for some types of photography, it’s less important for a typical headshot photographer, as many of your clients will be professional organizations themselves. As a result, prioritize your website, but still, create at least a basic social media presence. Even if you just want it to be used for social media ads, having an Instagram account and Facebook account can help capture these other potential lines of business.
If you’re brand new to professional photography, there’s actually one step you’ll need to do before you can even set up these pages, which is building a portfolio. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to create a portfolio for a headshot business. Just reach out to your family, friends, and neighbors. Offer them a free headshot in exchange for 5 minutes of their time, which should be all you’ll need to create a good looking image, once you get your technique down.
Speaking of technique, let’s talk about the basic elements of a headshot photography business setup. We’ll cover the fine details in greater depth later in this article, but this should serve as a good overview of what’s actually involved in a shoot. You’ll want to be working with an interchangeable lens camera, like a DSLR or mirrorless body, as well as have a good quality, normal to telephoto range lens. Depending on your body, this can be anywhere from 35mm to 85mm, but ideally, you’ll have a 35mm equivalent of 50mm to 85mm of focal length. Any wider and you’ll be dealing with unwelcome distortions of people’s features, while a longer lens can make it difficult to fit everything in frame in tighter quarters.
Fortunately, a good headshot doesn’t require a ton of megapixels, fast autofocus, or magical auto-exposure functionality. In fact, you’ll probably be working with manual exposure anyway! What you do need is a reliable way of triggering external flashes. You can work with speedlights that you already own, or look at purchasing studio-quality strobes, but external lighting will be a must. While some styles of headshot can work with natural light, particularly more artistic takes, for any business use, you’ll have to be comfortable working with artificial light.
Lastly, you’ll want to have a backdrop and a way of hanging it. If you’re just getting started, this can be as simple as a roll of seamless paper and a pair of stands, but as your business grows, you should consider offering additional background options. Just like with lighting, you can work with some of the natural settings, but you’ll always have a need for a traditional backdrop, even if it’s just for a shot or two.
When it comes to delivery, you’ve got a number of options. One of the most simple is just an easy digital delivery of the finished file. This keeps things simple for both you and the client but can limit your ability to upsell them to a more premium product, especially when dealing with individuals. For private individuals, consider offering add-on services like enhanced editing to help increase the value of each sale.
What Gear You Need to be an Effective Headshot Photographer
Let’s take a deeper look at the gear you’ll want to have. A basic headshot photography business kit will consist of a camera body, portrait-length lens, at least two lights (ideally three) with modifiers, and a backdrop. With that kit, you can be covered for almost every need. To expand your kit, consider getting a laptop for tethering and adding some additional backdrop options.
For the camera, you’ll want to have the ability to change lenses. Compact cameras, or point and shoots, can do a great job in many situations, but with a limited lens choice and lack of flash sync options, it won’t be a guaranteed good choice. When it comes to the lens, as previously mentioned, you can’t go too wide, as wider angle lenses can distort the apparent distance between objects in a photo. What this means for a portrait photographer is a wide lens can lead to an unflattering shift in your subject’s features. Instead, look to keep your lens to 50mm or above.
If you have a full-frame camera, 85mm is a great, traditional choice, with a pleasing rendering. For APS-C cameras, both 50mm and 85mm can be a great option, but be aware of the distance necessary to fit your subject in frame at 85mm. Shooting in a cramped conference room might be made difficult if you have to stand 12 feet back.
For aperture, don’t be worried about buying a faster, more expensive lens. With flashes, you’ll end up stopping down to f/4 or f/5.6 anyway, both to reduce ambient light, and get sufficient depth of field on your subject (you want their entire face to be in focus, which you wouldn’t get with a large aperture like f/1.4). As a result, you might not need to go out and buy a new lens. Even a basic telephoto zoom like a 55-200mm or 70-300mm can work great. If you are in the market for a new lens, however, consider a 50mm f/1.8 or 85mm f/1.8. These are common to every manufacturer’s lineup, and are typically great performers, as the design is well established.
When it comes to buying external lights, your choice will be dictated by the camera you own, whatever lighting equipment you already own, and what your starting budget is. If you have a major camera brand like Nikon or Canon, there’s going to a large number of used Speedlight or flashgun options available for you. While these aren’t as powerful as dedicated studio strobes, they’re easy to transport and relatively inexpensive. It’s easy to build and carry a kit with these, and for individual portraits, they’re plenty powerful.
If you already own lighting equipment, like a studio light or Speedlight, consider just adding however many lights you need. Almost any external source of light will work just fine for headshots, so don’t worry too much about specs. Instead, make sure you have all the supporting equipment necessary - this means having enough light stands for your 2 or 3 lights and backdrop, lighting modifiers for your two main lights, and a reliable way of triggering the flashes.
If you’ve got a larger budget, consider stepping up to studio strobes. These lights offer more power and modification options but can be larger and more expensive. A basic Speedlight kit will be a few hundred dollars, while studio strobes can be hundreds each, as well as requiring more expensive modifiers, battery packs for field use, and sync solutions.
There are some other factors to consider when choosing between studio-style strobes and speedlights. If you think you’ll have a bigger area to work with or will need more ability to artistically modify the lights (think actor’s headshots vs a corporate portrait), you should probably be considering strobes. While they take up more space, you won’t go through a dozen AA batteries in a session or be lacking power to light a dark-colored suit or overpower unpleasant fluorescent lights in an office. Speedlights are easily portable, letting you set up and teardown more easily, which can be a plus if you’re just grabbing a few quick shots.
Fortunately, choosing your backdrop is a lot easier than picking a lighting option. The most basic backdrop, a roll of seamless white paper, is also going to be one of your most versatile. With just a basic light setup, you have a clean white background, and with a few tweaks, you can also create a neutral gray background. All the same, techniques you learn and equipment you use for the white paper can also be applied to a roll of black paper, or even a fun color if your client is looking for a more creative option.
Paper comes in a wide range of lengths and widths - make sure you get one large enough to give you a margin for error around your subject, but not so large that you won’t be able to move it. If you’re working in a city, expect to travel to your clients, or just want another option, consider a fabric backdrop. While a quality option will cost more than a roll of paper, it can be used for much longer, as well as being much easier to transport between jobs, as you just have to gather it up, as compared to moving around a 10lbs+ roll of paper.
For setting the backdrop up, whichever option you go with will just require a backdrop stand. This is effectively two collapsible stands and a crossbar, which you clip or attach the backdrop to. With some practice, you can get your stands set up in just a minute or two, letting you easily move your studio between clients!
The Techniques For Creating a Basic Headshot Lighting Setup
Once you’ve got all your gear squared away, it’s time to practice the biggest part of creating an appealing headshot, the lighting. For lighting a headshot, you’ve got a number of options. The most fundamental is created with just one light, a large modifier, and a reflector.
To create this look, get your Speedlight or strobe in a large softbox, octobox, or umbrella. Then, aim it at your subject and raise it slightly above their eye level. By tilting it down like this, you get pleasant, natural light filling in their face, with a clean, soft shadow concealing any problem areas under their chin. To finish out the look, position a reflector underneath them, almost like a tabletop. This will bounce up just enough light to fill their eyes, preventing that key part of a portrait from falling to shadow. This reflector can be a fancy collapsible option, or something as simple as a $1 piece of white foam core from a craft store. There’s not much to worry about modifying with this setup, other than dropping the height of the light a bit if your subject ends up with still too much of their eyes in shadow.
To add on to this look, bring a second light behind them, also in a small softbox. By positioning it behind them, you can help separate them from the background, as well as accentuate their jawline or hairline. Just make sure you don’t have the light too far into the frame, where you’ll either see it or end up with unpleasant lens flare.
For a third light, you can aim it at the background, helping you create a clean and modern look. By turning the background pure white, you can make sure every portrait you take for a client looks consistent, even if you move between settings or come back at another time to shoot a new batch of photos for them. Furthermore, this also makes it very easy to cut your subject out from the background, in case you need to do so for Photoshop work.
Whatever lighting setup you choose to go with, keep in mind that the key aspects of the portrait shouldn’t be too bright or too dark. That means the subject's eyes, face, and clothing should all be within the appropriate range. Having too bright of a spot on their forehead won’t work, nor will turning a dark suit jacket inky black.
If you’ve got a friend or family member, borrow them for a few minutes and practice these lighting setups. Try changing the ratio between the power of your main and rear lights and see what effect that has. Try moving the lights up or down, closer or further from the subject, and check out what happens to the shadows. When you find a look that you’re comfortable with, it’s easy to lock those settings in and use them for any number of portraits in one setup, so consider this experimentation an investment!
Two things to look out for when working with these external lighting setups are shooting faster than your camera’s sync speed and problems consistently triggering your lights. The sync speed issue can get messy, but as a photographer, you just need to know that it’s the fastest speed your camera’s shutter can expose for, without blocking some of the flash coming from your lights. You’ll know you’re over your sync speed if you end up with dark or black bars across part of your frame. To avoid it, just drop your shutter speed to a lower value. Something like 1/60th or 1/100th of a second should be reasonable for almost every camera, while still being fast enough to avoid subject movement. For more information, consult your camera’s manual, as a faster sync speed can help ensure you get maximum sharpness from a reduction in subject movement.
For actually syncing up with your flashes, or triggering them, you have a number of options. Optical triggers are one of the older options - these are essentially electronic eyes that fire of the flash they're attached to. These are easy to understand, but difficult to troubleshoot if they’re not working. The modern option is a radio trigger. The major brand name is PocketWizard, but there are plenty of cheaper options that use similar technology. The major benefit of these is reliability and range. An even newer option is radio triggers which offer the ability to adjust the flash’s settings at a distance. While this can be a big benefit for some types of photography, for headshots, it’s easy to just lean over and dial in the settings changes, so you might not need to spend this much on these fancy triggers.
How to Price Your Headshot Photography Business
Pricing your photography is a hugely personal question. It can be affected by your experience, the market you operate in, the style of headshots you shoot, and the individual clients and job. As a beginner, it might be easiest to quote for an entire job - essentially offering a shoot for a fixed price, covering a reasonably fixed time. For a larger job, like employee headshots for a 50 person business, you can consider quoting a rate per headshot, or just a single price for the entire job. Don’t forget, things can go wrong, increasing the time commitment for a job - if you think you’ll be able to 50 headshots in 50 minutes, you’ll be in for a surprise!
Instead of getting caught in the fine details, it may help to look at things from the perspective of how much you want to make. Say you’re trying to cover your basic expenses for the month, and think you’ll have 10 clients over the period. By dividing out your expenses, you can get an idea of the rough amount you’ll need to make, as well as how long you have to do it. From there, you can see if you can be a competitive option in your local market.
One way you can create more value for both you and your clients is by focusing on delivering plenty of options from one shoot - it doesn’t take much more time to get in a few extra poses or add a full-length portrait once you’ve already gotten your gear setup, but can make your client feel like they got more for their money.