Portrait Photography: How to take better business portraits
Tips for taking professional headshots
“Speed and efficiency are key to ensuring a successful shoot, but there’s far more to consider than just that.”
Before you start shooting
When taking business portraits, it is essential to understand and remember the purpose of these images.
The most important thing to remember when taking business portraits is that your client will want your subject to appear confident and approachable. That’s easy in theory, but not everyone feels confident having their photo taken.
“Fortunately there are a few things you can do that will help your subject appear more confident.”
“As the photographer, you have to be confident too. Your confidence will transfer to your subject and help put them at ease.”
When I greet my subjects, I immediately talk them through what’s going to happen. I explain the process, what I’m going to be doing and what I’m going to be asking them to do. By explaining all of this to them, they’ll understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
When it comes to posing, again, it’s important to remember why you’re taking these pictures. The subject should look relaxed yet confident and approachable. For male subjects I ask them to put their hands in their pockets. This helps them adopt a more relaxed pose and also helps the shoulders to sit better. For female subjects I generally get them to hold their hands in front of them.
Lens choice is an important factor when it comes to portrait photography, and business portraits are no different.
This Lens Choices for Studio Work video, which forms part of our Portrait course, is a great example of the effects of different lenses and explains how to choose the right lens for your portrait photography.
The last thing you want is a lens that will distort your subject. Your focal length should place you the right distance from your subject. If you’re using a 20mm lens, it goes without saying that you’ll be too close and have distortion. On the other hand, a 200mm lens will place you too far away and you’ll feel disconnected from your subject. In addition to this, the perspective will appear too flat and chunky.
“My go-to lens for business portraits is my 100mm (which is the equivalent of an 85mm on 35mm format cameras).”
The background is an essential element for business portraits, but unfortunately it’s often overlooked. Backgrounds for business portraits should be fairly neutral, they shouldn’t be distracting. That’s why I often go for a grey background with a gradient light, unless the client specifically requests otherwise.
Paper backgrounds, although a common material, are actually one of the worst background choices for business portraits. Over time they tend to warp and you’ll start to see small ripples appearing. These become very obvious in your photographs, which means you’ll have a lot of additional retouching work to do. I avoid this by using a solid background wherever possible.
Studio lighting for business portraits
Throughout my photography courses, whether it be fashion or product shoots, you’ll often see me starting with my background light and working forward, one light at a time, testing each light individually.
I’ve used a number of different modifiers for business portraits. The first setup, with the parabolic reflector, is quite an aggressive lighting setup and although it isn’t always the most flattering light, it does create a lovely catch light and the slight shadow on the edge of the face has a slimming effect. The para also creates much more three dimensionality.
“If you want a softer light, or just don’t have a para, remember you can easily switch this out for different modifiers. Beauty dishes or Octaboxes are common substitutes.”
The second setup, a more conventional setup, has a softer wraparound result. In Chapter 59 of the Portrait Section I demonstrate a similar setup and go into more detail about how to take good business portraits.
Recommended camera settings for business portraits
Once you’ve set your lighting, you’re ready to start photographing. For this, camera settings are fairly standard. Your shutter speed should be at its fastest flash sync speed, which for 35mm format cameras is usually 1/250th sec to ensure you cut out ambient light.
For both the business shoots shown in the video, I shot at f11 (f8 on 35mm) to ensure the whole face was sharp. Generally speaking clients will ask for sharper portraits, although you could drop to f5.6 if you’re shooting for a client that wants slightly more creative portraits. Again, it’s important to remember why you’re taking these images.
Retouching business portraits
Retouching is the final step of a business portrait shoot and I never deliver the images without having retouched them.
The post production work I do is minimal, but makes a big difference when it comes to how the subject will feel when looking at the image.
“I never remove permanent features such as moles or scars, I simply correct things such as stray hairs, wrinkled clothing or non-permanent skin blemishes.”
If you want to learn how to take better headshots, we have a number of classes that will help. You'll learn everything from business portrait lighting setups to tips and tricks that will help put your subject at ease.