Written by: Joe Jenkins

 Professional Headshots in 2020 – Five Things to Know

The world of headshots is large, competitive, and saturated. When I say saturated, I mean it’s very, intensely, hopelessly so. To provide an analog, let’s take a cool pastel as our baseline. Pastels are colors that are generally known for being non-aggressive; if they were people they would  be described as ‘even tempered and well-mannered.’ For the sake of illustration we’ll then go ahead and further define the pastel as red. Pastel red is an every-day, non-aggressive value that isn’t too high and isn’t too low and resides somewhere in a goldilocks zone referred to as normal. 

Now take every available firetruck on the planet, extract the red, make it a flaming neon, add it to our baseline pastel, and the result would be a red so oversaturated it’d make your tomato soup look like bathwater. 

That’s the world of headshot photography. And that’s how many photographers reside within it. 

This of course begs the question, how do you choose? What do you look for? What are the photographer’s methods that sets him or her apart and how is it going to help you? Let’s look below at five items you definitely need to take into consideration about your headshots. 

Is the Headshot Photographer a Known Entity, Or is it a Business

Right now, if you go to google and run a search for ‘headshots nyc’ you’ll be greeted with a set of front-page results that’s for the most part a fairly even split between headshot photographers and headshot studios. Let me be clear, there is a distinction. 

Businesses that arise from a photographer’s name are the photographer. If something were to happen to that photographer, his or her business would cease to function. All of the art, imagery, and photography being produced would stop. Examples of this are Annie Leibovitz, Ansel Adams, and Henri-Cartier Bresson.  

Conversely, businesses that arise from a photography studio (at least in terms of headshot photography. This does not always apply to fashion photography, for instance) are not representative of any one given photographer. Make no mistake that they are started and founded by a photographer (or two), but at their present states are a collective of individuals that make up a company. They seek to fuel that company in the traditional business sense, just like Starbucks, Walmart, and the like.

This is important for a few reasons, but primarily of which because when you hire a photographer known by his or her name, your headshots will come from that photographer. If you hire Peter Hurley for your headshots, they will then be taken by Peter Hurley.  If you hire David Noles to do your headshots, they will then be taken by David Noles. If you hire me for your headshots, your headshots will come from me. Knowing this, you’re guaranteed a level of quality and consistency that comes from that photographer’s portfolio and is adherent to his/her professional reputation.

Headshot photographers (as I don’t wish to gain the ire of Milk Studios, again, I stress that this applies typically to headshot photographers) of this sort do tend to offer a product of considerably higher quality; with the drawback being their sessions are usually more expensive (a Peter Hurley mini-session will set you back a cool grand for thirty minutes, for instance).

When you employ the services of a headshot studio, on the other hand, you could have your headshot taken by any one number of photographers kept on its roster. Most studios will keep photographers around that are comparable in skill and proficiency, but there’s nevertheless going to be at the very least a variation in style and even quality based around who’s shooting that day. 

As well, studios tend to be predicated around shooting in higher volume; and so your session could be any one of three, four, or six for the day. Named headshot photographers on the other hand, whose services are more bespoke, will only have a couple slots available.

The difference is a bit similar to the choices confronting someone wishing to have a suit made. A headshot photographer that carries with them the weight of their name is a bit like a bespoke tailor, whereas a headshot studio that employs a collective of photographers at any one given time is a bit like Men’s Wearhouse. The bespoke tailor will make you a (sometimes substantially) nicer and more well-fitting suit, but will then charge you two to three times the amount for it. 

As well, studios that produce headshots generally tend to create photographs that look more homogenous than individual photographers. Individual photographers definitely adhere to a sense of style and one that’s been developed over the years, but their photographs generally contain a bit more individuality from one set to the next. 

Given this, you’ll need to figure out for yourself what fits your needs the most. One thing I will as well point out as that history tends to remember photographers; not studios. This being said, the  most influential photographs ever taken are done so by people employing and representing themselves (ie Leibovitz, Bresson, and Adams)

Outdoors vs Indoors

I personally prefer studio headshot sessions  over outdoor headshots, but mostly as a matter of preference. Both have a time and a place, and at the end of the day it comes down to personal taste, but I typically prefer studio shots for the below reasons. 

Photographers operate around and are reliant upon their schedules. The better and more in demand ones rely on schedules such as these that have been fixed for weeks, or sometimes months, ahead of time. Given this, it’d probably be fairly devastating to book a high-profile headshot photographer months in advance, only to have the weather force you to reschedule on the day of your shoot. Worse yet, it’d be devastating to have the weather cooperate just enough so that you can shoot but in a less than ideal environment (everyone knows what a day looks like where the rain is barely held back and always just at bay. They’re dull.)

If this was the case, not only would you have a less vibrant set of shots but you’d be out the money spent on them. Chances are, if you’re an actor living in New York and waiting for a break, I’m assuming the idea of blowing a bunch of money on a set of professional headshots set in a bleak environment is less than appealing (and make no mistake. Your photographer can not photoshop it to look like a sun-drenched spring day). 

This being said, indoor-studios are controlled environments. Assuming the photographer has paid his utility bills for the month, the lighting is controllable. It has air conditioning. You can stop and grab some water if you’d like. Additionally important is that if you’re shooting more than one look, there’ll be a place to change your clothing that isn’t the nearest restroom at a Starbucks (bathrooms at NYC Starbucks by the way are not bathrooms at Starbucks found in the midwest. They’re penal colonies with less janitors). 

Outside of not leaving things to chance, the NYC market is more suited to begin with to indoor, studio-based headshots. I’ve no real idea why this is the case other than it simply is. The Los Angeles market, on the other hand, typically is more suited to outdoor headshots. A casting director leafing through a pile of them will see a much larger percentage of images taken outdoors; with NYC being vice versa this notion. 

Posture and Posing

Posture’s fairly important for headshots. When I say it’s fairly important, I actually mean it’s critically, unerringly so. In fact, posture is everything. It may seem a bit overwhelming as there are an infinite number of poses and positions the human body can place itself in and has done so for the purposes of portrait photography,  but in the context of a headshot and luckily for you, there are really only two you need to worry about; straight-on and at forty-five degrees. 

Straight-on is my favorite position and is explanatory enough, in that you’re essentially just looking straight at the camera. The plane of your face is close-enough to the same plane that the camera is on and the lines of your jaw are pointed directly at it. Humans both prefer and respond to symmetry (casting directors are humans, keep in mind) and it triggers both strong indications of cognitive bias and visual affinity. 

An article in psychology today asks the question: Why Are Symmetrical Faces so Attractive? 


You may, of course, sharply object to this suggestion and worry that you took a test once that gave you a facial symmetry rating of 7.6 (or whatever metric they used to to gauge the matter), but even Angelina Jolie, whose face was scientifically rated at one time as being the most symmetrical on the planet, has a score of 9 or so. The vast majority, if not the entirety of us, isn’t really perfectly symmetrical and we only kind of get passing grades on this, so don’t worry about it. 

Forty-five is where your shoulders are rotated about forty five degrees away from the lens and your face is about forty-five degrees rotated away from the lens between it and your shoulders. If that’s confusing, see the below. 

One thing you definitely don’t want to do while employing this position is make the angle too wide and wander into profile-shot territory (profile shots are side shots). This is where your shoulders are perpendicular to the lens and, as a result, you’re hyper-extending your neck and craning it around at an unnatural angle to make your face parallel to the camera. This is where super canned and over-cliched headshots come from; you’ve likely seen them on commercial signage or stock photography sites of some sort and thereafter cringed.

Your Jawline. It’s Not Just Generally the First Thing Punched in a Fight 

Headshot maven Peter Hurley has explained, more than once, that it’s ‘all about the jaw.’ As a headshot photographer with years of experience operating within the same market (www.joejenkinsphoto.com/actor-headshots), I unequivocally and without compromise agree with him.  There are a few key elements to headshots that the photographer is responsible for providing (lighting and composition) and a few key elements the subject is responsible for providing (clothing/expressions/poses). The photographer can of course direct and coach the subject on how to pose and what to wear, but at the end of the day these are ultimately determined by said subject.

This being said, your jawline is paramount when it comes to framing your face, as it’s responsible for the entire under-area of the image and a huge portion of its overall aesthetic. It’s important that it be prominently shaped, articulated, and not blend in with your under-chin. There should be a clear separation of neck and jaw, is what I’m trying to say. Ohio and Pennsylvania, for instance, are adjoined but clearly separated by a distinct boundary line that runs between them. There isn’t this amorphous grey area the two share where travelers are sort of in Ohio but kind of in Pennsylvania, depending on the mood they’re in (which’ll be pissed-off because who wants to travel that way).

Given this, there are a few things you can do to ensure that this doesn’t happen and that your jawline maintains a cut, centered appearance. 

For starters, you can lean forward a little bit. I’m not saying you necessarily need to launch into a full-blown bow, as if the photographer’s your sensei and you’re a burgeoning karate disciple. Leaning forward, however, forces the head naturally forward and tautens up the skin underneath. This accentuates your jawline and makes for better photos; which in turn makes everyone high five and go ‘f*ck yeah!’

After you’ve done the leaning thing, extend your head out slightly and jut your chin forward a bit. Remember the Tortoise from Never-Ending story, who’s head remained retracted into his shell but rapidly extended outward after his interest was piqued over something Bastion started talking about (probably the empress, because at the time I had a huge crush on her and my eight year old head would’ve jutted forward too like that) ? Do about 10% of that. If you go too far, though, you’ll look a little silly and probably feel like a bit of a ninny.  So don’t go too far. 

DO: Lean forward a bit and jut your chin out

DON’T: Do it so much you end up looking like Billy Bob Thornton from Slingblade. 

Content is King, and You’re the Content

What’s being photographed is just as important as how it’s being photographed. The photographer in that sentence is represented by the how. He/she is responsible for the lighting, composition, and quality of the image. The what’s being photographed in the image is represented by you, or the person having his or her headshot taken. Make no mistake, both of these elements work together to create a singularly refined product and both of them are necessary to do so. 

The point I’m trying to make is that you should look as polished as humanly possible for your headshots, and it’s your job to do so. The headshot photographer can suggest hair and makeup and even introduce you to a hair/makeup artist or stylist, but it’s up to you to decide on whether or not you want to pay the additional money to hire one. If you don’t, it’s then up to you to create the content that’s going to be rendered by the camera (ie do your own, and well). 

If this sounds confusing, let me take you back a bit. A woman once hired me to take a set of professional headshots. She was applying to a number of medical schools, all of which required a personal photo. She did the smart thing and hired a headshot photographer (me) and we set a date. Because of an inborn fear of being photographed she then pushed it back twice over a multi-month period. Finally, the day of her shoot, she lay in bed for as long as humanly possible  before she couldn’t avoid the matter any longer, quickly did a once over in the mirror, and ubered over to my studio. When she eventually did show up, she was forty-five minutes late and soaking from the rain. Her hair as a result was wet and her makeup was non-existent; despite an extensive set of directions and pieces of conversation advising her otherwise (‘make sure you come camera ready’ was a phrase I used no less than 157 times over the course of our conversation). 

As a result, her headshots had numerous issues. Her hair was in her eyes and all over the place, her pores were the size of manhole covers, and she didn’t exude the confident, polished sort of look she was after. In fact, she didn’t even come close. 

When she emailed me about all of this, citing things like her hair sopping wet and in her eyes half the time, I replied back that that wasn’t my fault. And it wasn’t. At all. She couldn’t grasp the fact that she had played a role in the creation of her headshots, as if she wasn’t in there or involved in any way. She couldn’t conceive of the notion that I had no control over her wet hair or that she had any involvement in it’s creation. 

My point: A photographer photographs what’s in front of him or her and documents reality as it exists before his lens.  He does not create that reality but does shade, color, light, and maximize it’s aesthetic.  Granted, with the aid of photoshop he/she can embellish it and make it more palatable, but if the subject is grimacing in half the photos and makes no attempt to do otherwise, they’re going to get a bunch of shots of them grimacing. The “photoshop magic” you’ve heard of exists to do things like eliminate pimples, even out skin tones, and play with color. It does not exist to take a bus and turn it into a motorcycle. 

Ad-buyer: ‘Hey I know we’re doing an ad that involves a bus but we didn’t rent one in time, so we got this vacuum cleaner. Just work your photoshop magic, thanks so much!’ 

Photographer: ‘Thanks. No. I’m going home. I’ll send you an invoice.’

My point is that you’re responsible for supplying the content, because the content is you. The photographer can of course coach you, help you out, and ultimately direct that content (and that photographer should), but you need to recognize the fact that you’re there working together.

I do believe that for headshots, the photographer should have a decent and easy enough personality to connect with a person and help place them at ease, (like me, just saying), but it is not the photographer’s job to to take your stone-faced countenance and  spaghetti-stained tee shirt and turn it into an image of you in armani, smiling like you’re on the verge of an antidepressant overdose. 

Annie Leibovitz once said ‘I reject the notion that it’s a photographer’s job to put on some dog and pony show to make her subject feel at ease.’ 

I do agree with this, but only to an extent. As a headshot photographer I do believe that being personable and easy to connect with will take you hundreds of miles further than one that isn’t. I cannot, however, physically personify what you see in your head without your help. To summarize this section, the photographer and subject are just as critical to one another and both have parts in the creation of an image; so make sure you come looking your best and embrace the role you have that day. 


This was a pretty broad overview on getting your actor headshots done, and this article wasn’t geared towards getting into the minutiae of everyday shoots. The reason for this is that is because headshots, to be frank, don’t have to require a ton. Hopefully after reading this article you’ll gain a little more confidence prior to booking your session and it will, as well, give you a little more insight on the matter. 

Joe Jenkins is a New York based headshot photographer. www.joejenkinsphoto.com