Concannon acknowledges that for many beginner photographers, it is difficult to shoot someone in harsh light, or when they’re lit from behind. It’s possible to use harsh light or backlighting, but she says that getting up to the level where you can take advantage of those factors takes experience. Her advice to novice headshot photographers is to stay inside and take advantage of clouds.
“The most friendly type of portrait lighting is a cloudy day next to a window,” she says. “The clouds diffuse the sun. On a cloudy day, anywhere is going to be great for you. But if you’re indoors, get next to a window where the light is diffused by the clouds or there’s a roof over the window to block out that super harsh sun. That can create a beautiful, soft, even light for your subject.”
Working outside can often lead to great results, but with all of the potential variables that come with it, it can also lead to unforeseen issues. “If there’s a bright sun overhead during the day, I’ll make my subjects move into the shade,” says photographer Sarah Aagesen. “Overhead light creates sharp shadows on faces, which can be tough to correct during photo editing.”
Focusing on the human face.
A good headshot photographer takes into account the variation and contours of the human face. “You can get somebody’s eyes, nose, and forehead in focus and really capture their essence,” says Concannon. “Then you’re automatically smoothing out their skin. You’re smoothing out the background and taking away the distractions.”
A good headshot focuses on the subject while de-emphasizing or even blurring the background. What’s most important is how the subject appears and the way they’re looking at the camera. That emphasis can be aided by a shallow depth of field with an aperture of about 2.8 or a setting on the lower end of the aperture scale.
As for that nice, blurred-out background, a 50–85mm focal length works well — though greater focal lengths can be used to push for an even more blurry background bokeh effect.
A focal length of 50mm simulates how the human eye sees. That naturalistic approach works well for headshots and portraits. “You look into your camera and you’re going to see something that’s not super zoomed in or super zoomed out compared to what you’re seeing with your eyes,” Concannon says.