How to take your own headshot

A guide to taking a more professional-looking self portrait

It’s 4:45 on a Thursday. You just got an email from your manager saying you’re going to be featured in the company newsletter tomorrow for your hard work on a large client’s account. They’d like to feature a professional headshot alongside the story. The problem: your headshot is at least ten years out of date, your Linkedin profile is a cropped version of your family’s holiday card and your Facebook profile picture is a selfie you took in the car. Not exactly professional-looking. They need a photo by tomorrow at noon, so no time to hire a photographer to get a new headshot. What can you do? 

While hiring a professional photographer to take your headshot will produce the best results, it isn’t always the most feasible option, especially when the need for a photo of yourself comes up unexpectedly. Below are some tips and tricks to take your own professional-looking headshot.

Headshots don’t need to be mugshots.
  1. Equipment
    Choose your camera. If you have access to one, you can use something more professional like a DSLR camera. If you do not have an actual camera, any modern smartphone will work. Enlist help from a friend or colleague, or use a tripod. Selfies do not make good, professional-looking headshots. The closer your face is to the camera, the more distortion happens. Having a colleague help you or using a tripod ensures your new headshot will be taken at a good angle.

    A selfie-stick can even work in a pinch. The goal is for the camera to be a comfortable distance from the subject (you), and to be level with/slightly above head-height.
  2. Choosing a location
    Choose a spot with indirect, natural light. Indirect diffused lighting is soft on all skin-types and eliminates distracting, harsh contrast in a headshot. Choose a spot next to or facing a window, and make sure the window light is diffused (like on a cloudy day, or from a north-facing window). It is also important not to be back-lit.

    Turn off all fluorescent/office lighting. If you are shooting near a window, turning off all additional lighting will ensure that there is no mixed lighting in your headshot. Window light tends to be “blue” while fluorescent light tends to be “yellow.” You won’t want to mix the two in your headshot. Fluorescent lights also cast a harsh yellow spotlight, exaggerating bags under eyes and making your hair have a yellow tint on top.

    Choose a simple, uncluttered background. To avoid making your headshot feel like a mug shot, position yourself so you are at least three feet from your background, which should be a white wall, or a wall with a soft color, texture or slight pattern. Or, utilize your location’s architecture for a unique backdrop, if applicable.
  3. Choose your wardrobe
    Choose an outfit that conveys who you are at a glance. Avoid wearing all black or all white, and stay away from textures that will cause a moiré effect in-camera. You should also steer clear of wearing logos or accessories you don’t normally wear. You want people to be able to recognize you from your headshot. Try different outfits. Don’t be afraid to swap shirts and compare, or take some with a suit jacket and without.
  4. Set up your DSLR or smartphone
    If you are using a tripod, set up your camera horizontally. If you’re using a smartphone, make sure that you’re using the rear camera (not the selfie side). If you are using a DSLR, make sure it is set to autofocus. Consult your phone/camera’s manual to set up a self timer and to ensure that you have your camera set for maximum resolution.

    If you are having a colleague help, make sure they take the photo horizontally and have the camera even with or slightly above your face. If you are giving them your smartphone to use, give them a quick run-down of how your camera works (make sure they know to tap on your face on the screen to focus the camera, where the shutter button is, how to review photos, etc.).

    Try different angles and poses but always keep your eyes looking at the camera for a professional-looking headshot.
  5. Shoot
    Take a few test shots, then refine. You probably won’t take the best one on your first try, so take a few, review and adjust to get your best headshot. Do different poses, facial expressions and even try different backgrounds. It is better to have a couple options at the end.

Other tips and tricks

  • Make sure your camera is set to the highest resolution. Look into the setting in your smartphone and camera to ensure your camera is set to the highest resolution. And if sending this photo to someone to post online or publish in print, ensure your email settings do not automatically compress the photo’s resolution.
  • Square up your background. Make sure background elements are level and square in the frame. This will give your photo more composure. Adjust the brightness and clarity. When taking your own headshot, you don’t want to do much more than adjust the brightness, clarity and do minimal color correcting. Avoid using filters and dramatic effects—this will make your photo look unprofessional.
  • Don’t use the built in flash. The flash in your camera or smartphone will be very direct and harsh. If you feel your photo is still too dark, try taking it at a different time of day, or make your own homemade light bounce card by holding a white poster board beneath your face, out of frame.
Holding a bounce card under your face will add more light.

Have fun and practice

By using these tips and tricks, you should have an up-to-date headshot in less than 30 minutes. At the very least, a photo that was taken expressly for your use as a professional, not repurposed from your personal life. 

As a good practice, it is best to have a new headshot every one to three years (depending on your line of work) taken by a professional photographer. See if your fellow coworkers would also like new headshots, and have a photographer come in for a half day and take everyone’s photos all at once. Especially when updating a company website, it is best to have headshots that match in quality and tone, and the best way to do that is to use the same photographer at the same time.