What Makes a Good Corporate Headshot?

Updated: Oct 11

Often times, when meeting with prospective clients, they point out portrait and headshot photos from a few years past, and proclaim that they got the same quality I am offering for far less. But then we discuss the differences, and it makes more sense. There’s a reason why corporate executives call Skill Capture Media instead of getting their headshots at a $150-for-a-session studio.

Anyone can take a picture. Anyone can turn on some lights/strobes/speedlights. Not everyone can produce a quality image using those lights. Few photographers can then edit that image with full retouching, not only removing blemishes but evening out skin tones, creating even contrast, and removing ungainly details like “eye bags” and mouth wrinkles. This blog seeks to show what a difference that can make.

I volunteered myself for this assignment, as I am going to point out blemishes, skin inconsistencies, and other things that I would prefer to point out on myself instead of others. By the end though, I will be blemish-free and with even skin. I acknowledge that I am not as well-groomed as I would be for an actual headshot, nor as well dressed. The intent was simply to show the difference between what one might receive and what one should strive for.

To start things off, this is what my setup looked like for the shoot (modified a bit for one of the “bad pictures”):



Overexposure and Loss of Detail

One of the things I dislike most in a lot of corporate headshots is when a photographer overexposes, or doesn’t diffuse their flash enough, and the subject loses detail. Ultimately, even in the bright spots, you should still be able to see skin texture and detail. I should be able to bring down the highlights and still see what’s underneath. If you ask an amateur photographer why their photos turned out that way, you’ll hear things like “that’s just the flash” or “you have a natural shine to your skin; it’s unavoidable” or “it’s the lights in the room affecting my flash.”

The flash doesn’t create hotspots if you have the right size diffuser, you have the correct amount of diffusion on that diffuser, and you adjusted the flash appropriately. Too often, a photographer will throw a flash on a small umbrella, put it halfway across the room, and then wonder why the subject is unevenly lit with a big bright spot on their forehead.

Yes, people have natural shine; that doesn’t mean that the photographer can’t capture details under the shine. And if it is affecting the ability of the photographer to capture a glamor shot, particularly during clamshell lighting, then translucent powder can be used to cut the glare (another tool many lesser photographers don’t use often enough).

If any photographer tells you the lights in the room are affecting your flash, RUN. Don’t pass go, don’t collect $200… Just RUN. Flash/strobe photography is great because (unless you’re in direct sunlight and using a weaker flash), the flash will always overpower the lighting in the room. That means that the lighting will have minimal effect on the subject, even in a corporate office or brightly lit area.

We did our best to reproduce this effect, but I don’t have a very oily face, I’m using a high-quality strobe, and a 60” softbox close enough to my face that it was just not going to produce hard light, no matter the strength of the flash. But use your imagination – the bright spots should be overly bright (google Corporate Headshot and you’ll see a ton of great examples).

The last, and most important thing to this post, is retouching. I tell people that the reason I have no hair on my head anymore is because I pulled one out for every photographer I saw claim they retouched a photo by color balancing in Lightroom. Now, for male portraits, I don’t soften the skin or create that dreamy cloudy soft look to cut down on pores; instead, I sharpen and increase the contrast. That said, most don’t even do this, much less make the ladies look soft and angelic. For any photo a client receives, they should expect to see blemishes removed, distracting hairs removed, skin tones evened out, and upon request, ‘excess skin’ can be tucked away. Instagram can add pretty color filters; it’s the aforementioned that is what sets a professional photographer apart from every person with an iPhone.

Here’s a before and after of some mid-level retouching done to my portrait (NOTE: This is not as high-contrast as would normally be for my male photos. We put a bit more light into the shadows in order to allow the viewer to see the detail correction):



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