Five things not to do in a headshot:

Bad headshots will undermine your efforts to advance your career.

The purpose of a professional headshot is to showcase your strengths. A good headshot showcases your confidence and approachability, assertiveness, and intellectual depth. A bad headshot can undermine your efforts to advance your career by sending messages of weakness, anxiety, and dishonesty to your network, clients, and prospects.

I recently wrote a short post about why sitting down in a headshot sends messages that undermine all the reasons you want a headshot and promised to go into more detail today.

African American Man's executive headshot in my Palo Alto studio
Jerrod Langston Ewell, Architect, Executive Headshot

Remember - the people you want to see your headshot are good at reading people.


It is said that “one picture is worth a thousand words.” This is never truer than when you are photographing people. Our expressions, posture, and how we address the camera speaks volumes about our emotional state and our social or professional status.

Below is a list of things not to do in your headshot and a brief explanation of why you shouldn’t do them and what to do instead.


1. Don’t sit down for your headshots.

The messages our headshots send change dramatically depending on if we’re looking up at someone or looking them straight in the eye. If you’re looking up at the camera, you’re sending messages of passivity and submission. If your gaze is direct, the message is one of strength and assertiveness.

When you sit down, you relax—your back and shoulders and slump. You can sit up to correct this, but that puts you in an unnatural position.

Stand up during your headshots. If you’re on your feet, you’ll feel more confident in front of the camera. You’ll effortlessly hold an erect posture and look more comfortable in your photographs.

When I began my career, I was taught to photograph all women from above their eyes to communicate submission and all men from below to communicate dominance and strength. The subtle change of simply raising or lowering the camera a few inches dramatically alters the status of the person being photographed in the eyes of the viewer.


2. Don’t use a busy background, even if it’s out of focus.

I’ve seen people photographed with a tree or bush about 5 or 6 inches behind their heads. The distinct light and dark spots draw the viewer’s attention away from the person being photographed.

Your headshot is your moment in the sun. If anything other than you is visible in the background, it’s going to draw attention away from you.

Use a featureless background if there is any pattern or texture behind you-no, matter how far out of focus-it’s taking up valuable real estate and competing with you for attention.

Whether I’m shooting a women’s professional headshot or a man’s, I work on a plain, featureless background to ensure my customers are the star of the show.


3. Don’t hold the camera. Use a tripod

At one time or another, we’ve all been so involved in taking a picture that we’ve stepped into the stream, tripped over a rock, or walked out into the road. Whether you’re an experienced photographer or not, at least half of your attention is on holding the camera if you're not using a tripod.

When photographing headshots, your photographer should be focused on capturing the perfect expression that speaks of your character, sense of humor, decisiveness, or enthusiasm. That expression passes in a fleeting instant. If they have to lift the camera to their eye to take the photo, they’re going to miss that perfect smile.

I learned that my photos are always better when I have my camera on a tripod very early in my career because then I’m focused on taking the photo, not holding the camera. When photographing headshots, my camera is on a tripod so I can focus my attention on my customer, not my camera.


4. Don’t hold a pose or a smile

The people you want to see your headshots are really good at reading people. No matter how many days in advance you practice a smile in the mirror, you’re not going to fool anybody. In fact, the more you practice, the more likely you’ll send the message that you are either uncertain, uptight, frightened or lying.

The worst thing you can do in a headshot is to hold a pose or a smile. Your photographer shouldn’t expect you to perform on-demand unless you’re a talented and experienced actor.

Most people experience anxiety when they’re being photographed. Your photographer should take this into account, coach you on your expression, and guide you in presenting yourself as an authentically confident and approachable professional ready for the next opportunity.

I had a job photographing children, and one mother had been promising her daughter that I would have bubbles. When I told her I didn’t use bubbles, she asked how I got the kids to smile. I replied by telling her that I simply related to them on their level. The girl was about 7, so I played with her as the Prince and Princess. We had fun, the kid loved it, and the mother was amazed at the result, but children are easy to work with.

I invest a lot of time into getting to know my headshot clients and am experienced in helping people relax in front of the camera. I’ve been there, and I know how hard it is. I care as much as my customers do that they look good. That means working to help them communicate authentic messages with their posture and expression.


When you’re having your headshots done, remember these five things:

  1. Don’t sit down - Standing up, you’ll feel more confident and look more comfortable and sends positive messages that will help advance your career.

  2. Don’t use a busy or detailed background - It’s your turn to be in the spotlight - nothing should steal your thunder.

  3. Don’t hold the camera in your hand. Use a tripod - You want the photographer to be focused on you, not their gear.

  4. Don’t hold a pose - Your stiff posture will be interpreted as anxiety.

  5. Don’t use a fake, practiced smile - Your photographer should help you naturally express your charm and good humor.

Wpman's executive heradshot on dark background in the Professional Headshots Palo Alto studio.
Chelsea Ramm, CEO, Founder Sum Savvy Consulting

Check out these articles on headshots to learn more:

First Impressions Your Headshot is Either Helping You or Hurting You Subtlety and Nuance Capture the Imagination

Click here to speak with Dean about booking your headshots.

Dean Birinyi has been a commercial photographer for 35 years with over 150 awards for his work. He helps his clients advance their careers and market their businesses with stylish headshots for executives, small businesses, startups, and corporations.

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