How to Take a Good Head Shot with an iPhone
Or, at least as good of a head shot as possible
That cell phone in your pocket is a pretty powerful camera, in case you didn’t know. While I’m a huge advocate for hiring a professional to help you out (I am one, so I may be biased), sometimes you just don’t have that luxury.
Below are a handful of tips / tricks / principles to help you make the most of your iPhone when it comes to taking a half-decent looking headshot. Don’t think that this negates the need for a professional, but know that there are certainly things you can employ to maximize the tool you’re using.
1. Clean Yourself Up
The first step to looking good in a photo is to… look good. No, you don’t need plastic surgery, but some things as simple as putting on a little makeup, choosing a nice shirt, combing your hair, shaving your face, all go a long way in a final photograph.
Now I’m not telling you put on enough makeup to make a clown jealous, or wear a shirt tight enough to rival Dwayne Johnson (although to be fair if I was that jacked I’d probably wear a shirt that tight too), but being conscious of what you’re wearing in your photo is important.
I always advise people to avoid overly distracting patterns and NEVER wear a graphic-tee (especially with an immediately-recognizable logo). Colour is not bad but it can become visually exhausting if this is the same head shot you hope to use for years.
Be conscious of the decisions you make when it comes to your hair / makeup / jewelry / clothing choice and what it says to the general public about who you are.
2. Get Someone to Help
Yes, if you try hard enough and own a tripod or something, you can definitely do this without the help of someone else, but I’m going to suggest you get someone to help you for a few reasons:
First, they can be your spotter for things like stray hairs, weird wrinkles in your shirt, spice in your teeth, you name it. Another set of eyes always helps with tiny details.
Second, and most importantly, if you’re only using your iPhone, the camera on the rear-camera of your phone is 10x better in quality than the selfie-camera. I’m 100% serious that the difference is large and justifies asking someone else to help you. The quality of the megapixels, the amount of noise in the photo, the focusing ability; it all adds up to making your life easier later. If at all possible, I really, really strongly suggest NOT using the front-facing camera on your phone.
Third, if you’re taking my advice above, shooting with the rear-camera and not being able to see yourself really makes it difficult for your composition, exposure, and expression. It’s pretty much a necessity to enlist the help of someone if you’re going to follow Step Two.
3. Find Good Lighting
Because we’re not going to be renting studio strobes to help light you like a model, it’s important to use the best free source of light we can find (the sun). But don’t be fooled: not all light is created equal.
To save you from a ten-page lecture on what constitutes good and bad light, I’ll jump straight to the application.
If shooting outdoors:
You’re going to want to find wide open shade (NOT under a tree or you’ll get some serious green-cast colours). This could mean in the shadow of a big building with a paved parking lot (generally your best bet). The parking lot (gravel or paved) will reflect more neutral-coloured lighting back into your face than grass would.
Generally speaking, if you’ve got the time to wait, an overcast day will yield the best results. Overcast lighting is soft, it’s even, it’s the same exposure level as your background. It will make your life easier to wait for the right weather.
If shooting indoors:
The Good Lighting you should be looking for here is soft window lighting. A window where the sun is being reflected into the house (a North facing window in most parts of North America) or a window on the side of your house opposite where the sun is. If you live in an apartment with windows facing in one direction, your best bet would be to wait for the right time of day to take your head shot. Direct sunlight coming through a window is NOT good lighting. Also: turn off all other lighting indoors (ALL other lighting).
4. Chin Up, Buttercup
No matter who you are, at whatever weight you are, it’s practically a stone-cold fact that the most flattering angle to capture a portrait of your beautiful face will be from slightly above your eye level, where your face has to tilt up to be looking at the camera. Get your photo assistant to be above your eye level by about 1-2 feet. Bring a step ladder if you’re unsure you can find something to stand on. I do it on paid shoots!
Looking up elongates the neck and, more importantly, helps define your jaw line a little more clearly. You don’t want to be looking STRAIGHT UP to the sky or you’ll be stretching your neck and losing all the benefits of doing this, but a bit of an angle from your natural resting position is going to do wonders.
Don’t believe me? Take a selfie with your phone in your lap. YIKES! Lighting is awful (your face is likely under exposed) and you’ve probably got 4 more chins than usual.
Enough said. Keep your chin up!
Another thing about taking a photo from above vs below is the feeling of balance and dominance. Below I briefly illustrate the different shape my body takes on depending on the angle you’re shooting from.
I’m already not a super tiny guy, but notice how one photo makes my body / mid-section look gigantic, and the other one is more slimming? That alone is reason to change your shooting angle.
5. Consider your Distance
A head shot, by definition, is a photo primarily composed on your head. That doesn’t mean it absolutely cannot include a bit of your shoulders or arms, but generally speaking, you probably want to keep the emphasis on your face.
Most cell phones have a 28mm focal length. This is really great for landscape photos, but it can lead to issues when taking portraits. You lose all of the compression that a 50mm or 85mm lens would provide. That being said, we’ll make do.
First: don’t zoom, EVER, on your phone. All you’re doing is cropping the photo. Your phone doesn’t have an optical zoom, and the digital zoom they advertise is honestly just a lie. Notice how the quality becomes positively dreadful the more you zoom? It’s because you’re not zooming. Just cropping. I rest my case.
Second: don’t put too much (or too little) space between you and the camera for your headshot. I would suggest an absolute minimum of 24” (the length of your arm) and a maximum distance of 5 feet. Again - it’s all subjective, but people want to see your FACE in a headshot accompanying a publication, so don’t feel the need to include your knees and everything behind you in the final photo.
6. Un-distract Your Background
If you’re unsure what you’re doing and just want something simple and straightforward: choose a simple background that isn’t going to be a visible element in your photo. If you choose to stand in front of a wall, stand AT LEAST 3 feet away from it or you risk having a weird shadow on it and it just looks like an uncomfortable mugshot.
If you’re a little more comfortable and want something with a little more personality: shooting on location isn’t out of the question, but (again) be aware of what it conveys about who you are to the general public. Shooting in a graffiti’d alleyway might not make sense for an accountant. But if you’re a muralist, it’s a little more logical.
Either way: beware of foreign objects “sticking out” of your head. These can be super distracting.
7. Angle Thy Body Just a Little
So we’ve established earlier in the article that we want to avoid a mugshot-style photo. Easiest way to do that right off the bat? Angle your body a little bit from the camera and turn your head back to the camera.
I love Wes Anderson——the famous movie director. Dude has an immediately recognizable style that involves a ton of balance and symmetry. Each of his shots is meticulously planned to the inch. His attention to detail is second to none.
While his cinematography style is really fascinating, it kind of sucks you out of the movie you’re watching. Why? Real life isn’t so symmetrical. It’s angled and disjointed and imperfect.
So in order for things to seem more natural in your photo, a natural angle rather than a meticulously-planned straight-on angle is going to do wonders. Sounds kind of weird, but it’s true.
8. Post Processing Ain’t Cheating
So after you’ve done all the above, if you want to go the extra mile, I highly suggest editing the photo you just took. My favourite phone editing app is Snapseed. If you adjust things like your White Balance to be correct, add a little saturation, and brighten the photo up just a touch, chances are you’ll have a really fantastic photo on your hands (kind of literally).
Don’t overdo it with post processing. It’s easy to get drunk on all the cool (cheesy / garbage) effects packed into an editing app. Don’t fall prey. Keep it simple.
9. Maintain Maximum Quality
When taking your photo, editing it, saving it, or sending it, make sure you maintain as much quality as possible throughout.
First: don’t zoom. I wasn’t kidding! The quantity of the megapixels in your photo drops significantly, as does the quality of what you actually keep. This makes your photo look like garbage later. DO. NOT. ZOOM.
Second: When editing your photo, don’t push it around too much. If your exposure was way off or your colours totally wrong, there’s only so much you’re going to be able to do to save it. The more severe an edit you apply to a photo, the faster the quality degrades. Again: keep it simple.
Third: Save your photo at maximum resolution / quality any time your photo editing app asks you to. Your publisher will thank you for this. We can always scale down an image, but you can never (truly and without quality loss) scale up an image.
Fourth: Sending a big photo can sometimes make your email choke. You can always upload it to Google Drive (free!) and send a link for your publisher to download, or you can resize a COPY of the photo for that specific publication. It’s best to check with them if you’re having issues sending it (although, with a cell phone photo, I would be surprised if you actually did).
Getting a good head shot with your iPhone is difficult but not necessarily out of the question. Follow these tips here and you’d be surprised just how fantastic your photo could turn out.
Bonus: Professional vs Phone
Remember at the beginning of this tutorial when I told you hiring a professional is still going to yield better results than photos with a phone?
Proof is in the pudding, folks. Just check out the difference between my best-of-the-best iPhone photo VS one that a professional would take.
You don’t necessarily need to hire me, but I hope that it’s pretty clear that there’s so much more going on when a professional is taking the shot. I know, I know: money and stuff. But keep it in mind when you can afford it!
A good head shot is an investment. It helps other professionals take you more seriously, and can last you a number of years.
All of this being said, if you do want to hire me, feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll set something up!