Beyond the Headshot

Portrait of a dark-haired man of European origin standing in front of a blue wall and smiling at the camera

Not all my portrait assignments are for editorial or corporate clients. From time to time, individuals commission me as photographer to help build their own professional identity. In a world where people increasingly work away from offices, and networking happens more often in a social media environment than face-to-face, profile pictures have arguably, never been so important. Whether it is to be posted on a consultant’s LinkedIn and Twitter profiles, or presented on the About page of an entrepreneur website, a professional profile picture, done right, is an opportunity for that person to step into the light, and communicate, without words, who they are.

More than just a body part

Clients who contact me for ‘a professional headshot’ often assume it should be taken in a studio, against a white backdrop. While it is true that a consistent lighting set-up and high-key style certainly make sense when a corporate client asks me to photograph dozens of employees, it is not necessarily the only, or the best, approach for a one-off professional profile picture.

Diptych of two headshots, a man and a woman, photographed in front of a white backdrop

2 headshots of 90 Collabora employees I photographed

‘Headshot’ isn’t a very pleasing word, is it? It suggests the simple act of photographing a body part (the head), probably rapidly and without much thought. When I’m commissioned by an individual, I prefer to approach their profile picture as a portrait – of who they are, not simply of their head.

42 facial muscles

On social media, profiles are often viewed at a very small size, and so wider, environmental portraits (that show subjects in the context of their surroundings), are not practical. A tighter frame is better for a profile picture. Yet there are still plenty of opportunities for a photographer to create an image that is far richer than a classic headshot – as well as shooting slightly wider than necessary, so that different crops of the picture may be made afterwards for different purposes.

I like to get to know my client before a profile picture shoot. We discuss what they do, their values, and look at their existing profile images. This conversation will be an important influence on the choice of shoot location, colours, lighting set-up, working angles and the subject’s posture; to bring harmony of mood and message to the picture. Last – but not least – is capturing the right expression (and in fact the ground is laid for this before the shoot even begins). We have 42 different muscles in our faces and the subtle distinction between a smile with genuine warmth and confidence, and a mechanical smile, will be felt instinctively on first glance at a photo.

Profile 1: the IT professional

Portrait of a dark-haired man of European origin standing in front of a blue wall and smiling at the camera

David, IT professional

David wanted an updated profile picture to use for conference publicity, and for his LinkedIn account. Instead of the conventional studio-style headshot he had in mind, we discussed the flexibility of a wider portrait, and I suggested shooting at his home to incorporate a sense of its style – original and minimalist. David was closely involved with the architects in the design of his villa and I wanted to weave his creative bent into this portrait – while keeping to a quiet structure and the cooler colours associated with the IT realm. We decided on a relaxed, semi-formal portrait, and I worked with natural light and the interplay of a blue wall and a dark grey one (once I’d asked him to change out of his blue shirt to avoid ‘overblueing’ the picture).

See how David’s left arm is positioned? Although it was off-camera, asking him to rest his hand on his hip instead of by his side, gave David’s upper body outline a more approachable vibe.

Profile 2: the rising startup star

Laure’s dynamic young startup company has a novel new product to bring to market: the keyless front door lock. To get into your home, once their equipment is installed, you no longer need anything other than a smartphone and your passcode. While Laure wanted a new profile picture for social media, the main reason for this portrait was for PR purposes, so while I wanted to capture her ebullient, warm character, we also agreed that a phone and door had to be prominent.

Instead of shooting in Laure’s office, positioning her in front of a demonstration door as she proposed, I asked if we could get access to a new lock installation at a client’s house. I wanted to work in situ with a proper front door in the background – and, as it was winter, with Laure comfortably wearing a coat. To convey the company’s confident message and Laure’s vibrant personality, I used a lighting set-up to maximise the scene’s colours, contrast and brightness.

Young woman of African origin in smart dress stands in front of a door with a mobile phone in her hand and smiles to camera

Laure, rising startup star

Profile 3: the writer & presenter

Benjamin, a presenter and writer, moved to the South of France recently. He booked a portrait sitting with me to update his profile image for a variety of purposes, and had initially wanted a similar portrait session to the one that I shot of writer Reni Eddo-Lodge (full body portraits shot in a makeshift studio with a white backdrop). However, he was interested in giving a visual clue to his new base in Provence, and so I suggested that we set up a a makeshift studio outdoors, in the medieval town of Vence. An old, textured, warm-coloured wall I’d found added a subtle hint of the Mediterranean, while keeping the background quiet and neutral. My marvellous friend and assistant-for-the-afternoon, Liza, made our outdoor studio happen, with my lighting chosen to shape and spotlight Ben, in a small echo to his role as presenter.

Dark-haired man in black T-shirt stands against a yellow wall facing the camera

Benjamin, writer and presenter

Professional profile picture prep: a checklist

Here is a summary of some things a photographer might consider when preparing to take a professional’s profile picture:

  • Who is the subject? What is their character, what are their strengths, and what is their style? This will influence technical decisions in all aspects of the portrait, from choice of location, to lighting, positions and how the image is optimised in post production
  • What is the subject’s business? Their brand values? The feeling they want to get across? (as above, this will influence many aspects of the portrait)
  • Where is the picture to be published? (Instagram and Twitter profile pictures are round so a 35mm format rectangular picture will be cropped; the About page of a website may require a horizontal picture, an environmental portrait, or a black and white result – all of this should be considered when framing)
  • Shoot location: aside from practical considerations, what background would best communicate the image that the subject wants to give about them and their business?
  • What is the subject’s physique like? Skin colour and texture, weight, glasses – all these will inform the choices of lighting set-up, positions and shoot angles, to ensure the person is captured at their best
  • What kind of outfit does the sitter intend to wear – full business attire or something more casual? What colours? The background will need to harmonise with their clothes, and positions that work for casual clothes may not work with more formal wear

> See Corporate & Portrait portfolios

Comments (3):

  1. preslier

    Jul 1, 2020 at 10:21 am

    très intéressant la photographie .tes commentaires me plaisent et sont superbes.Merci Rebecca

    • Rebecca Marshall

      Jul 1, 2020 at 10:32 am

      Merci pour ta commentaire Michel 🙂

  2. Zubida

    Jun 20, 2021 at 2:49 pm

    Thanks for providing a checklist for professional profile picture prep. I prefer a touch of concealer or foundation to try not to look excessively gleaming for business headshots. I’m considering having one taken to be utilized for my resume, so to dazzle the organization, I truly think I need to have a decent photograph. I’ll accept note of your recommendation and attempt to remember them all prior to visiting a studio.

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