2017 Week 4 Theme: Getting Up Close With The Headshot Challenge

Photo by Gabby Orcutt
Photo by Gabby Orcutt

Last November, we challenged you to shoot both candid portraits and self portraits. This week, we’re taking this to the next level with headshot portraits. But first, let’s talk about last week’s theme: Mastering Manual Mode.

I know the judges had a hard time. That’s because the quality of entries was so high! They were impressed by how many participants thought about their priority before shooting. Was your priority to freeze motion or imply it? Was a shallow or deep depth of field required? These are two important questions you should be asking yourself when shooting in manual mode.

Let’s see exactly how well the PhotoBlog community did…

2017 Theme 3 Winners:

Congratulations to these members! Look out for a PM from me in your inbox. Thank you to everyone who participated. Check out all the entries here.

I’d like to give an honorable mention to user Will Curran. He created this excellent self-portrait by experimenting with manual mode and his camera’s 10 second timer feature. Straight from the pages of a fashion magazine, don’t you think?

Photo by Will Curran
Photo by Will Curran

Will and I met when I was living in South Korea last year. I actually had no idea he’d signed up as a PhotoBlog member. I saw a blog post featuring photos from Seoul, commented that I’d lived there too, and he replied saying we knew each other. The world feels small sometimes!

2017 Theme 4: The Headshot Photography Challenge

Tiffany’s November theme was titled Practicing Portraits Through Candid Photography. Well, now it’s time to put that practice into use. Let’s tackle the real deal! This week, we’re turning our lenses on another consenting human being. If this is outside your comfort zone as a photographer, simply counter this by practicing on a close friend or family member.

Photo by Alif Saifuddin
Kudos to PhotoBlog member Alif Saifuddin for shooting and sharing this brilliant portrait

This challenge can be done outdoors, or you can attempt to replicate studio conditions in your home. Below, I’ll give you my top tips for shooting headshot portraits.

How to Participate:

Deadline: January 29th, 2017

How to submit: Add 2017theme4 as one of the tags in your post on the PhotoBlog platform

Check out the submissions: Use the Weekly Theme tab

Support and encourage: Like and comment on your favorite posts

Headshot Portraits: Top Tips

1. Selecting gear

A prime lens with a wide aperture makes the ideal choice for headshot portraits. You want your subject to be in crisp focus, while the background is out of focus or a plain color.

Photo by PhotoBlog member Luke Hagemann
Photo by PhotoBlog member Luke Hagemann

Be warned when shooting wide open (i.e. f/1.4 or your lens’ widest aperture). Often this isn’t the sharpest setting and subjects can appear overly soft. I’m finding this isn’t a worry with my new Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art lens. The sharpness wide open is mightily impressive.

Try not to use a wide angle lens for a portrait. The resulting image can look unnatural. 35mm is the minimum I’d advise, while 50mm and 85mm are classic focal lengths for portraits. If you don’t have a prime, try zooming in to the equivalent focal lengths I’ve mentioned above.

2. Choosing a background

Make your subject pop from the background. Why not replicate studio conditions by using a single color? Or if you’re heading outside, you can ask your subject to stand in front of a color background. Use your instincts to choose non-clashing colors that compliment your subject.

Photo by Rachael Crowe.
Notice how the dark green leaves don’t distract. Instead, they serve to make the red-haired subjects pop from the background. Photo by Rachael Crowe.

3. Composing the shot

It’s widely accepted there are some basic composition rules to master before you can break them effectively. One of those basic rules is you shouldn’t place your subject directly in the center of the frame. However, I’ve seen some excellent portraits using this composition.

The rule of thirds could work nicely this week. Another tip is to place your subject’s head slightly off-center, so one of their eyes is precisely in the center of the frame. This technique is proven to be attractive to our subconscious minds. Thank you, science!

I took this photo in Vietnam last year. I composed this by placing the woman's eye (the one on the left of the frame) directly in the center.
I took this photo in Vietnam last year. I placed one of the woman’s eyes directly in the center.

4. Putting your subject at ease

If you want your subject to feel relaxed and smile, it’s mostly down to the way you act. Try not to go about this like it’s painting by numbers.

A tense, stressed photographer transmits those vibes to the person in front of their lens.

Relax and chat with the person. Snap away as you talk, suggesting various poses, and all while smiling yourself. You’ll most likely be doing this with a friend or family member, so there’s nothing to fear. Above all, have fun!

And, if you decide to go the studio lighting route, be sure to read this tutorial on Rembrandt lighting. It’s an easy setup and you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to pull it off.

Photo by PhotoBlog member Ali Duquaine
Photo by PhotoBlog member Ali Duquaine

Another serious consideration is the lighting. Yes, natural light portraits are beautiful, but you want to make sure enough light is on your subject’s face. Take 10 minutes to watch this video by professional lifestyle photographer Jana Williams. She’ll explain how to use natural reflectors, discusses shooting angles, and also camera settings. It’s well worth a watch.


Your mission this week is to take headshot portrait photos. This can be of a friend or family member. It could even be a stranger if you’re a brave street photographer. Select the right gear and a suitable background. Start out by shooting on their eye level, then experiment from there. Compose the shot according to the rules mentioned above.

Focus on making your subject feel at ease.

Share your favorite images by entering them into the weekly theme. Best of luck!


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About the author

Ben McKechnie

Ben is a photographer, writer, and editor. His work is driven by a fascination in people, and the relationship they have with their culture. Currently to be found editing, photographing, and eating his way around beautiful Taiwan. Ben is a graduate of MatadorU's Advanced Travel Photography course. Check out more of his recent India-based photojournalism over on on his Facebook page and Instagram using the links above.

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