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Step By Step: Shooting the Perfect Model Head Shot

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Read Time: 10 min

Like making a perfect omelette, taking a perfect head shot for a modeling portfolio is a simple process. Yet, it's all the small details that go into the seemingly easy process that make the final product so stunning (or in the case of the omelette, delicious). Today we're going to break down taking the perfect studio modeling head shot, so you can nail it every time.

Standard Fare

A huge portion of the photography industry is centered around fashion and commercial products. Think about how many images of professional models you see in a day. The majority of television commercials have them walking around wearing the latest fashions, magazines are overflowing with their photos, and you even see them at bus stops and along the highway.

There are also a lot of photographers out there producing this images. The careers of these models and many of the photographers began with a simple head shot. Mastery of this detailed skill is something you'll be able to use for a lifetime.

Hair and Make-Up

The most befuddling and complicated part of making a model look good is hair and make-up. Hair comes in hundreds of different colors, thicknesses and styles, so I won't be going into that today. But there are some general make-up principles that are almost universal when shooting a standard head shot.

You might be asking why you, the photographer, needs to know about cosmetics. Well, models, both amateur and professional, often think that being photographed is the same as getting made-up for a prom or a special night out.

It's not. The same make-up techniques people use everyday often look horrible in photos. So you need to know your stuff, and pass along the knowledge.


There are three keys things to remember when applying cosmetics for a standard modeling head shots. First, use natural colors close to the model's natural skin tones. Clients don't want to know what a model will look like with Lady Gaga silver paint on their face, they want to know what the model looks like naturally.

Second, avoid anything glossy or shiny. Shininess looks wet and greasy in photos. Third, blend, blend, and then blend some more. A high quality, tack sharp 8x10 print will show where a cosmetic product stops and starts, so blend everything in a lot.

This first image shows my model with just her foundation on, it's a matte finish that closely resembles her skin tone and it was applied a little more heavily than you would for an everyday look.

All of the following images focusing on the model's make-up are straight out of the camera with no post-production work done to them.


The most important difference between everyday make-up and natural modeling make-up is the effect of dark areas under the eyes. Every day millions of people use a dark eye shadow to set off the eye.

It looks fine in person, but in photos in looks like the model hasn't slept in days at best, and at worst it looks like the model was in a bar fight the night before.

Keep it light, and again, do not use shimmery, glossy products. Here's a before and after comparison of the model's eyes.

This model used a concealer, two-shades lighter than her skin tone. She used an eye shadow that was almost white under her eye and under her eyebrow to set off the eye. The mascara was dark, but not shiny. And she blended out the eye shadow so it looked more natural.

All the time, you hear photographers say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Well that applies here as well. It's the most important part of the shot. Here's a shot of the model with her foundation, and now her eye make-up, applied.


The cosmetics used on the cheeks should do two things. First, they should add definition and shaping to the face. Photos are two-dimensional objects, so emphasizing the shape of the face is important. Secondly, the cheek make-up can bring some color into the face, as long as it's not overdone. Below you can see a comparison of the model's cheeks before and after she applied her cosmetics.

The model used a pink color, non-shimmery powder. Her skin is very light naturally, and because this photo was made in the winter, she didn't have any natural tan. If she'd been more tanned or darker complected, the pink could be replaced with a tan color if necessary.

She used long, sweeping motions all the way back into her hairline to make sure the proper blending was achieved. The image below shows her with her foundation, eye make-up and now cheek make-up applied. The technique has brought both definition and color to her face.


Unless you have access to truly professional make-up, you'll have a hard time finding a matte finish lipstick. It's alright for the lips to have a little bit of gloss to them -- just avoid anything extra-glossy and anything with glitter in it. Below, you can see a comparison of the model's lips before and and after the cosmetics were applied.

A lip liner of a similar color was also used to create addition definition of the lips. She used a pink color for both the products, though the color probably could have been a little more subtle. You can see in the image that there are shiny, blown out, highlights.

This is the risk you run when using a glossy product. Luckily, these drastic highlights just appear on her lips and can be fixed in post-production.

You can see her with all of her make-up on including her lip products below.

Making All The Difference

The final effect of all the make-up is transformative, but in my opinion, remains honest and natural to the model's looks. Compared to what she would undergo for a commercial shoot, this make-up is minimal and very natural.

Below, you can see a side-by-side image. The left image shows the model with just her foundation on, and the image on the right shows her with her with all of her cosmetics on. Seeing them side-by-side may seem pretty dramatic, but in terms of what make-up is capable of, it's a natural look.


The lighting set-up for shooting a modeling head shot needs to be even. Dramatic side lighting should be avoided, and as with any high quality portrait, direct flash should never be used.

I used a simple two light rig. My main light, or key light, was in a small softbox about 45 degrees to the model's right (the photographer's left) and 45 degrees above the models line of vision. This is classic Rembrandt lighting.

I used a second light in an umbrella closer to the subject. It's about eye-level with the model, and in the opposite position of the key light. You can see my lighting set-up in the image below.

The key to creating nice, even lighting is to use a strong, soft fill light. The light in the umbrella serves that purpose. The light falling on the subject from this flash is not quite as bright as the light coming from the key light. There isn't even a stop of difference between the two, probably closer to half a stop.

The far-away position of the key light makes it direct and harder than the close, more diffused light coming from the umbrella. In the next photo, you'll see what the light from only the key light looks like. Notice the harsh shadows and dramatic effect.

This kind of light has its place, but not for a model's head shot. If you're shooting against a dark background and the model has dark hair, you'll need a third light directly above the subject's head illuminating their hair. This is make it stand out from the background and not get lost.


The angle you choose to shoot your head shot is very important. Unlike all of the examples above, it should rarely be exactly straight on. In the images above, the signature of the fill light is revealed under the model's nose, and her face looks too flat.

You usually want to be slightly above or below the subject, and have their head turned slightly toward the key light. In most cases, you should be slightly higher than your model, shooting down.

Occasionally, if you want to convey a sense of strength or dominance, you can shoot from slightly below. But be carefully not to make your image a nasal examination. Below is the final angle I decided on for the portrait. This image has had no processing and is straight out of the camera.


In portrait situations, you should have time to make adjustments to your white balance and exposure, so the image straight out of the camera should be pretty good. The first thing I'm going to do is run a levels adjustment to slightly correct contrast, exposure and color.

I didn't need to do anything too drastic. I slightly increased the exposure and the contrast, then pulled a little bit of the yellow out of the image. The result is below.

Stray Hairs

The next thing I'm going to do is clone out some the stray hairs at the top of her head. For this, I'll use the clone tool at 100% opacity. I use a large, but soft brush, I set the hardness at 30%.

You can see a close-up of the result below. Don't go too far into the head, or you'll give the model a fuzzy halo look. Basically, don't over do it, just get any hairs that stick way out.

Brighten the Eyes

It's alright to go a little overboard with the eyes. Ideally, you want as small as a pupil as possible to reveal the color of the model's eyes. If you're shooting in a dark area, you can have the model look into something very bright to get her pupils to shrink. I obviously didn't do a great job of this!

Either way, I suggest saturating the color of the eyes slightly. I do a lasso selection, the select the rough color in the hue/saturation menu so I know I'm only saturating the eye. Here's a before and after.

Taking Out The Shine

This is the part of the process that requires the most finesse. There are a few ways to do this, but the goal is the same. You want to get rid of the shiny streaks along the nose, on the cheeks and on the lips. It's fine if you have bright portions, so just look for the whitest, shiniest looking areas.

I prefer to eliminate these using a clone stamp. I use a soft brush, hardness set to 0%. I make it size of the brush about 150% larger than the area I'm trying to eliminate. And most importantly, I set the opacity of the clone stamp to 70% or lower. The opacity shift really blends in your changes.

Another helpful tip is to zoom in and out a lot. Zoom in while working and zoom out to check the look. This technique also works for skin blemishes. Here's a before and after of the lip area.

Before and After

The following before-and-after photo shows what the photo looked like straight out of the camera, and what it looked like after editing. I feel that it looks slightly softer, cleaner and brighter. I felt that the make-up and/or exposure was a little dramatic, therefore lightening it up lessened that effect. The key is for the image to look clean and natural, which I think this achieves.

The Final Effect

I hope that this tutorial will help you perfect a very specific, but very useful skill. There is always a demand for new models to get head shots for their portfolio. They need to have a very specific look, and the cosmetics involved are not intuitive to most people.

The lighting is straight forward, but not particularly thrilling for those of us who have spent a lot of time in the studio. Concentrate on precision, and don't go over the top.

The post-production tips are easy, but can be become fake and overdone quickly if you do not constantly keep in mind that your goal is subtlety. Now you're ready to head out and find a patient model to help you get started!

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