Setting Up a Successful Headshot Session: Part 1

Setting Up a Successful Headshot Session: Part 1

When I first began shooting headshots, it was a daunting task. Figuring out a rhythm for how a headshot session should go felt like an overwhelming problem. I slowly began to solve the problem through trial and error. It was when I began to realize that we have no control over almost anything in life that I began to find my own rhythm in this crazy photography business.

You Have No Control

It’s a terrifying concept to a lot of people, and it’s a concept exceptionally hard to embrace when we as photographers are always on a constant quest to control every aspect of a shoot. We put our lights up just so, with the model facing in the perfect way. Then a gust of wind comes up and blows her hair everywhere, and we shoot away just in case something good comes from the wind, but alas, nothing. Hair everywhere and nothing cool to show from it. Control: 0. Nature: 1. Embrace the chaos, and don’t let Mr. Murphy and his law dictate your mood, because keeping a photographer in good spirits for a shoot is critical. Once you are able to shake it off and shrug your shoulders at a problem, you can solve it and move on. If you can do this you are well on your way to making photography a career.

The Pre-Shoot Consultation

I don’t care how you do it - in person is better, but video chat or over the phone is acceptable too. Just make sure you do it. I much prefer consults to happen in person, this way you can get a real feel for how someone carries themselves which can help in determining how grounded they are in who they are, along with their confidence level. Below are some general rules or guidelines, in no particular order, along with quotes of my own words that I often say to clients during a consult. I also like to meet for consultations somewhere where I can buy them coffee or tea. I understand that not all of you work with actors, but you can certainly take these tips and apply them to corporate clients, high school seniors, and any other people you are hoping to photograph.

Rule #1

Ask them questions, and really listen and respond. Who, What, When, Where and How questions are always good icebreakers. For example:

When did you move to NYC?

Where are you from?

What made you decide to move here?

How do you enjoy it so far?

How long have you lived here?

Have a conversation first, and then go into the business stuff. This will help put people at ease after just meeting someone new.

Rule #2

Don’t be in a rush. Hurrying through a meeting is obvious and says to a client that you don’t care enough to spend more than 15 minutes with them. I’ve had pre-shoot meetings take 10 minutes, and I’ve had them take an hour. I always allot an hour for meetings, and if it doesn’t take that long, then I’m ahead of the curve. Typically, consults don’t take longer than that.

Rule #3

Be the person with the plan. Nothing screams a lack of confidence in what you do more than not having a plan of attack. For example:

We are going to need to meet at 1:30pm. We’ll probably start shooting by 2pm, and we should be done sometime around 3 or 3:30pm. Bring your four wardrobe options, cleaned and ironed, and if you don’t have an iron, come a little earlier and we’ll steam what we need. When choosing your wardrobe options, keep it to solid neutral colors, as we don’t want anything to take too much away from your face. Layers are also cool, so if you have a jacket or sweater you like, bring those too. Don’t bring anything that you don’t feel great in. Colors that tend to work well are earth tones, blues, greens, browns, reds, olive, brick red, etc. Occasionally yellows and pinks work, but I wouldn’t bring more than one option of either. Don’t feel like you need to go buy a bunch of stuff. You should wear things that you have as we want you to look as much like yourself when you walk in the casting room as possible. Within four days after the shoot, you will receive your images via DropBox or another electronic delivery service.

Rule #4

Have a backup plan if you shoot outside.

Now that I live in LA this is less of an issue for me, but when I was in NYC it was an everyday concern. While my headshot business was certainly slower in the winter, that never stopped me from shooting. I’ve photographed girls outside in tank tops in January when at a high of 25 degrees. You just have to be brutally honest, and wrap them in a coat. You only need to see, at the most, waist up if you are shooting a vertical, and shoulders up for horizontal images. So make your clients lots of tea and pop inside and outside quickly for 10 minutes or so at a time. Interestingly enough, sometimes the cold makes people focus much more than when they are warm and comfy, and shooting headshots in the snow can yield some awesome results! This is a sample email I send out before a shoot that could have inclement weather:

As you know I shoot exclusively outside. I’m going to book 2 days for you, one as a primary and one as a backup in case we run into weather issues. I also reserve the right to cancel your shoot at anytime including the day of the shoot. Due to me asking this flexibility from you, I do not require any deposit to hold the dates; payment is due in full at the end of your shoot. If you need to cancel for any reason please just let me know as soon as possible so we can reschedule your shoot. If I’m asking you to be flexible with the weather the least I can do is be flexible with your schedule.

A shot taken before she took her jacket off. This session was in early November in NYC. It was probably about 35 degrees out.

Just after she took the jacket off

Rule #5

Pay attention to body language.

If your subjects are fidgeting and not looking you in the eye, you will most likely have some confidence issues when they get in front of the camera. If they are cool, calm and relaxed, and carry themselves well, then you will probably not have too many issues.

If they are fidgety, or seem to be nervous or shy, ask them more questions. Have they ever had pictures taken before? What is it about the process that makes them nervous? How was their last headshot experience? This will help you aid in easing their fears. 

I also have a principle that I generally don’t shoot more than 2 people a day, and most of the time, just one person a day. This is mainly because I don’t want to ever feel like I’m running a headshot factory. Take your time with people. If you rush, they rush, and the experience isn’t always as pleasurable which leads to your clients not saying good things to their friends. When 95% of my headshot business is word of mouth, that’s a problem I want to avoid. I often tell people that there is a sort of general time limit, but I won’t stop until we are both happy.

Rule #6

Word of mouth is still the most powerful advertising weapon you have in the headshot business.

Certainly buying a little advertising on Google or in your local paper doesn’t hurt. Nor does printing out some postcards to leave at theaters or dance schools. You can also send cards to agents and casting directors, but I find the best advertising is to get people talking. In the first year, I charged about $150 for a headshot session to build up some clientele in my portfolio. Then I raised my rates to $350, and then to $450 and have kept them in that general ballpark ever since. However, all along the way, I have always offered discounts for reshoots and referrals. People who mentioned the name of the person that referred them got $25 off their session, and the person referring always got a decent deal on a reshoot when they needed it. Actors, and all people for that matter (but actors especially) talk. When an actor goes to an audition, often they see people they know. It’s in this conversation that one person will usually say something like, “I just got my headshots done by Dylan Patrick. Check him out!” Then, hopefully if they had a great time and enjoy the images, they say great things and help grow my business exponentially. This also applies to the pre-shoot consult. You want people to have a good experience the whole way through - to delivery of the final images. They are likely to say things like, “It was great! We met for coffee that he even bought for me, and he listened and asked questions while answering all of my questions. The shoot was awesome and I never felt rushed!”

Rule #7

Tell them how the shoot is going to go. This will get them excited. I like to reassure them again:

“I’m a really laid back guy and I love what I do. We’ll have a great time. We don’t have any strict time limits or exposure limits, and we shoot until we get what we need. Shooting outside is also a lot of fun and allows us to kick back and just take some pictures. It’s a really simple, relaxed process.”

Shooting in a studio can sometimes feel intimidating for clients, getting them outside can help ease that fear

Rule #8

If they appear stressed about the upcoming session, downplay the importance.

This is some advice I give that I really believe in:

Headshots are very important, don’t get me wrong. Think about what you want, and what you want to wear, but when you show up... let all that go! We will get the shots you need; there is no question about that. Nobody is looking at your headshot longer than you. The best headshots are the ones that make an impression within 10 seconds because that’s about how long it’s going to be looked at by a casting director when deciding whether or not to call you in. Provided you get called in and go through several rounds of callbacks, at this point your headshot may have been looked at for all of about 20 minutes total - if even that much. Your headshot needs to represent you - who you are right now - so embrace who you are right now and be grounded in that. If you are unhappy with your hair or your weight, or whatever else might bother you, you can always change those things later. Right now, in this moment, you are who you are. What casting directors want, is someone who fits all the requirements of the part, can perform, and is confident in who they are right now, plain and simple. The best way to approach this is to let it all go, sit down, and let me take your picture. In a way you have to just not care.

Rule #9

Downplay the importance of clothing. It isn’t really about what they wear; it’s the look, the expression, and showcasing them as accurately as possible that counts.

Headshot photographers will always differ on this, but here is my take on clothing. Obviously what they wear matters to a point. Generally plaids don’t work as well. I also don’t like denim jackets in a headshot. Solid neutral colors are preferred like earth tones and layers as I mentioned above. Obviously it’s important to make note if someone needs a business look, or if you want to do some specific character work. I always ask my actor clients how they are being cast and to bring options to fall in line with those characters. However, as a whole, nobody will be called in depending on the clothes they wear in a headshot.

To put it another way, if I were to hand you a stack of 200 headshots, and said you have five minutes to pick five dates for the next five nights, you would fly through them but probably wouldn’t remember what any of them were wearing. Actors are cast by their look, and physical attributes like their height, weight, hair and eye color. Casting directors may have already cast the leading lady part, and if she is 5'10", then they might need a male lead to be in the same height range. Thus they will weed out many actors just for that specification. So while clothing is important on one hand, it isn’t on another. Certainly you want to give options, and addressing this can help your clients not stress out as much about what to wear.

Rule #10

End the meeting with positive vibes. Say comforting words like, "I’m really looking forward to working with you. I know you're going to do great! If you need anything, do not hesitate to call or email me. It was a pleasure meeting you!” Shake hands, maybe offer a hug, smile and walk away excited. Kindness is contagious and always leaves a great impression with people.

The next article in this series will talk about getting people comfortable at the shoot in order to get the best out of them, along with addressing makeup and skin issues.

If you would like to know more on my process of shooting, check out the Fstoppers tutorial here.

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44 Comments

Francisco Hernandez's picture

Love this article. I'm trying to up my connection with clients as well as my headshots and this helped A LOT for both. Thanks, =).

Dylan Patrick's picture

So glad you enjoyed Francisco! More to come!

Alex Cooke's picture

GREAT article.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you Alex!

Fred Glasser's picture

Dylan, you rock man! Great article, and the expressions in your shots are killer... looking forward to reading more from you!

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you so much Fred!

Thank you for writing this. I read everything I can about headshots (I'm trying to specialize), but it's mostly just obvious advice or a re-hash of something Peter Hurley says (although I like his work). This is something different, something much more practical and applicable. Thank your for contributing signal among all of the noise. I look forward to part II.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you very much for the kind words Don, if you have any questions don't hesitate to drop me a line

Husain Ujjainwala's picture

Exactly what I was looking for. Simple language of the article made it more easy to understand. Thanks for writing this :)

Dylan Patrick's picture

My pleasure thank you!

James Howard-Davies's picture

Well written, looking forward to future articles from you.

Nice article, thanx for sharing !
Photographing great portraits, is 80 percent psychology...

Dan Howell's picture

I would agree and amplify that most of what makes the difference between an average headshot and a great one comes from the actor/performer, not the photographer. If a performer can arrive at the shoot with a sense of confidence that they have made the right choice in photographer and are ready to actively engage during the session, the shoot will run infinitely more smoothly and the results will show it. Headshots don't (and probably shouldn't) rely on tricky technique to get the point across. The human elements far outweigh the technical.

I learned over the course of shooting literally hundreds of head shots in the NYC market that as much can be accomplished in a pre-shoot meeting than on the day of the shoot. I routinely established times that I made myself available to show my specific headshot portfolio to performers who were 'shopping around' for photographers. I stated sincerely and still believe that performers should consult more than one photographer and go back to the one photographer that they made the best connection with. I believed with confidence that the people I was supposed to shoot would come back to me and the ones I connected with less would find a better photographer for them. The ones who did come back came with a sense of confidence in both me and the process which makes the shoot simply easier and better than diving into the unknown.

Although it sounds a little 'hippie'-like, this process is a way of partnering with the performer to get the best results. Unfortunately, that process is somewhat unique to head shots (at least within photography). Commercial work and editorial portraits require a different mindset.

Jason Ranalli's picture

I think quality partnerships yield the best results...there's a lot of merit to what you're saying.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Well said and agreed completely.

Rachel Gunther's picture

Fantastic! Thanks, Dylan! I appreciate your community style approach to photography and growth! :D

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you Rachel!

Humayun Mirza's picture

dylan sir what u think about sigma 70 200 2.8 nikon is 2 much expensive ?

Dylan Patrick's picture

Hey Humayun, I have not used the Sigma, but I'm sure it would be a great affordable option!

Humayun Mirza's picture

sir one more thing can we get same result witth a crop sensor apc dslr with 85 mm ? its 127mm lens on a DX body.

Dylan Patrick's picture

The compression won't be the same as shooting at 200mm but 85mm on a crop sensor is a good place to start!

steven spaulding's picture

good read, i've found a lot of these rules also apply to other genres of photography like family sessions, couples sessions, model portfolio shoots.

be nice, have a plan and show confidence in you. the rest will take care of itself, after all they contacted you for a reason. show them more then that reason.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you Steven! You are definitely right, this can be taken anywhere for sure.

Connie Anderson's picture

Great piece Dylan!

Christian Webb's picture

Awesome! Great tips Dylan.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you Christian!

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thanks Connie!

Brandon Adam's picture

Great article yet again, Dylan. Keep being awesome.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thanks Brandon!

Roger Paige's picture

Thank you for the amazing article Dylan. As a fledgling I do have a question. I was told to never cut off a person, i.e. if you go with the arm, don't cut off the hand in the crop. In your experience is there a rule you follow for the head, as I see you really focus in on the face and sometimes the top of the head is trimmed out. I'd appreciate your thoughts. :)