In decades past, headshot photography was required just by entertainers, models, and high-ranking executives. Printed 8 x 10 on glossy photo paper, the pictures were sent to publications or handed out in auditions. Today, even mere mortals like you and I need a professional headshot due to the ubiquity of company websites, trade publications, and social media platforms. Commercial and editorial headshots often fall into the realm of portrait photography, yet they are different.
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At Wonderful Machine, we understand a portrait to “depict individuals who are aware of the camera and at least superficially engaged with the photographer.” Headshot photos are one of the types of portrait photography, normally construed as an image of a person’s shoulders and face.
Consider photographs from Washington, DC-based photojournalist and editorial portrait photographer Stephen Voss and San Diego, CA-based photographer Matt Furman. Both images are framed like a headshot focusing on the face and including the head and shoulders. However, the image of Frances Haugen (left) evokes a mood and alludes to her role as a Facebook whistleblower through deep shadows and her reflective expression. In contrast, the picture of a corporate executive (right) represents a successful businessman without highly interpretive elements like mood and lighting.
Simply put, a portrait tells us something about the subject’s character, mood, or role; it can evoke a feeling, make the viewer reflect, and be interpretative, like Voss’s portrait of Frances Haugen for the Wall Street Journal. A headshot is specifically a business portrait; it’s well lit, tightly cropped, has a minimal background, and without complex meaning as in Matt’s business executive above. The goal for the photographer is to create a pleasing likeness of the subject in this business headshot. Headshots used in editorial photography (like Frances Haugen’s) are composed interpretively to draw a reader into the article. They may be stylized and moody like a portrait but are framed like a headshot.
Many professional headshot photographers either work in retail photography, a business-to-consumer (B2C) type of photography (meaning that you’re working for an individual and the headshot photos are for their personal use) or commercial photography, a business-to-business (B2B) model (meaning that you’re working for a company and the images are intended for business use, like a headshot of a CEO for an annual report.)
The explosion of social media in the mid-2000s created a need for profile pictures for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. These images can also be headshots but are not always. For example, someone may want to use a casual profile pic on Facebook and Instagram if their followers are personal friends. Then, they may opt for something professional for LinkedIn to attract potential clients, build confidence, and reflect their brand. Although this retail specialty can garner thousands of dollars per session, we will focus on commercial and editorial headshot photography for the sake of the article.
Commercial or business headshots may resemble retail headshots stylistically, but the photographer is hired by a company to photograph all the professionals working for a corporate team rather than being hired by an individual. Therefore, the focus for the photographer is to create consistency in the images that reflect a company’s brand. These business portraits are used on the company’s website, in trade publications, and as part of advertising campaigns.
For example, when commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield went public in 2018, the people who stood on the New York Stock Exchange podium during the bell ringing ceremony were 14 employees from around the world. With the IPO, the company embarked on a global “Meet What’s Next” advertising campaign featuring the same employees as their brand ambassadors photographed by San Diego-based photographer Matt Furman. By putting their people at the center of the campaign, the company highlighted the diversity of their employees and the services they provide. According to Senem Goctu, Creative Director at Cushman & Wakefield:
Matt captured the true characters and diversity of our people, creating authentic and beautiful campaigns that have elevated Cushman & Wakefield’s brand position in the commercial real estate industry. Having real employees at the forefront of the campaign was a testament to our values and our commitment to an inclusive culture.
Shining the spotlight on employees can build customers’ trust in a company while reinforcing a brand’s values, integrity, and character. Real estate companies, financial institutions, healthcare and pharmaceutical organizations, and law firms are examples of the types of companies that require corporate headshot photography.
Consistency is the key to corporate headshot photography. Your lighting should be flattering and remain uniform from one employee to another. Your background should be minimal, and your subjects should know what and what not to wear so they maintain a professional image in the picture.
Corporate headshot photos are not as interpretative as portraits, but that doesn’t mean they need to be boring. Matt explains:
From my experience, the clients are looking for something different than the cookie-cutter headshot. I try to bring some drama to the images. I think a lot of times people hear ‘headshots’ and automatically think you have to play it safe.
Photographing in New York City, London, and Sydney with diverse subjects for the Cushman & Wakefield campaign, Matt made polished and professional headshots of people unfamiliar with being in front of the camera. “Time is usually tight for them, so you’ve got to be quick. The wardrobe is not always the best. Especially lately, I’ve had a few instances where guys were like ‘I haven’t worn a suit in over a year!’” adds Matt.
The hardest part is making someone you just met feel comfortable in a highly uncomfortable situation. If possible, I do my homework on the subjects, so I have some talking points. Often, I’ll throw a stool or chair in. Even if I know I won’t use those photos, just to keep them moving a bit.
Before you create an estimate of photographing headshots for that corporate law firm, you’ll need to know upfront how many employees will be photographed. Determine the location, lighting, and backdrop needs. Will employees come to your studio, or will you set up on-site at their office? Next, consider how many employee headshots you can make in a day. Does the shoot need to be one or two days? Also, will you need an assistant, Digitech, or a makeup artist?
In estimating your price for photographing multiple employees, consider usage. Will the images be featured on the company’s website or included in company advertisements? Is the company requesting exclusive rights in perpetuity? The usage should be articulated in your contract.
Employees leave and change positions often so clients most likely won’t opt for licensing the images in perpetuity. For the same reason, they may ask you to come back for more images in the future. If you land a contract with a large real estate company like New York-based photographer Francis Hills did, you may find that making headshots provides a significant income for your business. You can read that headshot success story here.
Wonderful Machine’s Executive Producer Craig Oppenheimer explains that he begins estimating corporate headshots at $1,500 (includes licensing) and adds $100 per subject. Then he adds a retouching fee based on a per-image rate. For a look at what these estimates look like, you can read Craig’s Pricing & Negotiating articles on headshots for a law firm and headshots for a pharmaceutical company.
Marketing directors, art directors, photo editors, and public relations specialists are a few of the clients that hire commercial headshot photographers for corporate headshot projects. Your portfolio and photographic style will come into play, but other characteristics are equally important — like how you make people feel comfortable in front of the camera and how flexible you can be when working with a large number of employees. Cushman & Wakefield’s Senem Goctu explains:
One of Matt’s strong suits is making people feel at ease and confident in front of the camera. He also has a very easy-going manner: he was very understanding and accommodating around schedule changes and travel logistics.
Editorial portraits and headshots fall within the realm of commercial photography. They are images made to accompany a story about political figures, business entrepreneurs, celebrities, or a feature on someone newsworthy. This type of photo is used to illustrate a story or provide context about the person. The photographer is hired by the publication to make the portrait and is typically given instruction and/or art direction from the photo editor or art director.
Stephen Voss, a Washington, DC-based photojournalist and editorial portrait photographer, told us that portraits are about 75% of his work and those assignments often require capturing at least one headshot.
When a publication hires me, I’m thinking about the readers of the story and making a storytelling image that is complementary to the article itself. These different approaches are informed by lighting and composition choices, among other things.
Photographing political figures requires preparedness. When you’re working for publications like Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic like Stephen, you may only have 15 minutes to make a profound picture of Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Stephen admits that he arrives at his portrait sessions early with a few lighting setups and backgrounds already picked out but that he’s always prepared to improvise along the way.
I want to respond to my working space. That could mean combining natural and artiﬁcial light or constructing a lighting set up on the ﬂy.
What happened when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg, got together? America’s youngest congresswoman @AOC, and climate activist @gretathunberg talk protesting, the climate emergency, and the future in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine. Pick up a copy today (UK only). pic.twitter.com/p1OZCtzeGX
— The Guardian (@guardian) June 29, 2019
Before a shoot, Stephen watches videos of the subject to get a sense of them physically and gather some ideas about how to pose them. Watching their body language in videos makes it easier to suggest a pose if he’s witnessed them do it before. Stephen explains:
I also keep a visual library of poses that I sometimes review when preparing for a shoot. I want my subjects to feel comfortable, but also work with them to ﬁnd a pose that works for the camera and the mood of the ﬁnal image.
In the most successful shoots, I want the sessions to be a collaborative effort, a give and take, that allows us to reach beyond my preconceived ideas.
It’s challenging to know what magazines and media outlets will pay for editorial portraits and headshots. What each publication pays will vary. Some determining factors are the publication circulation and distribution, usage (print or digital), and your experience and reputation in the editorial industry. In October 2021, Format magazine’s article “How Much Do Magazines (And Other Publications) Pay for Photos?” reported that CNN Online pays $250 for a slideshow of 10 images with the photographer retaining the copyright compared to the Wall Street Journal which pays $650 for a photo essay. While the Wall Street Journal also pays the photographer’s expenses, it retains publishing rights for 21 days before reverting them to the photographer. Although editorial work isn’t very lucrative, it’s about getting your name out there and being part of the conversation.
Comparing corporate photography income vs. editorial income, $3,500 for photographing 20 corporate headshots over $650 for a photo essay sounds like a no-brainer. However, the tradeoff is that editorial work will bring you a wider net of potential clients and followers. It has the potential to solidify your reputation and catapult you to success.
Since editors hire you for your photographic style when it comes to editorial portraits, you’ll need a unique portfolio that is distinctly you. Wonderful Machine consultant and photo editor Honore Brown explains:
You need to show consistency across specialties. For example, your lifestyle work should resemble your portrait work, which should favor your editorial work. Consistency is key.
WIRED’s Samantha Cooper describes hiring headshot photographers with strong technical skills and with something different to offer.
I love to see photographers who use alternative methods and provide our readers with something new and exciting. A strong WIRED headshot is bold and evokes emotion. It’s often uneasy, occasionally hopeful, and always curious.
Honore advises that photographers should be as specialized as possible with a strong voice and point of view to approach the editorial market as editors like Samantha will hire you based on your style and the strength of your portfolio.
PetaPixel: How to Make People Comfortable When Photographing Headshots
Format Magazine: How Much Do Magazines (And Other Publications) Pay for Photos?
Forbes: How to Make Sure Your Headshot Matches Your Brand
Design Beep: How can professional headshots build trust in business?