“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

– Ansel Adams

How do photographers always achieve those perfectly lit and well-posed photographs? They make them. While Ansel Adams was a conservationist who is most famous for his landscape photos - his wise words still ring true - particularly in portrait photography. 

In the following post, we’ll illustrate the different lighting elements needed to capture a great headshot. We’ll also let you in on a little secret: the reason your photographer requires you to be part-contortionist to look like a normal human in a photo. Stay tuned!


Ambient lighting is used to correct the lighting that does not look good on camera. In the below photo of our media producer, Jared Cunningham, you can notice the unattractive orange and blue cast created by a mixture of tungsten and daylight.


Adding a key light allows a photographer to control the direction and color of the light. In this instance, we used a daylight balanced strobe with a soft box attached. If you’re going for a moody or high contrast look for your photograph, you may want to stop here.


By adding a reflector to the opposite side, the photographer is able to fill in the dark areas. This technique is termed “fill.”  The purpose of the reflector is to bounce the light from the key light back onto the subject. With this, you are able to control how much fill you want by moving the reflector closer or farther away from the subject.


The use of a hair light reveals details around the back and side of the subject’s head. Hair lights can really make your subject stand out from the background. If you’re using a dark background, this is for you!


After being properly lit, it is time to pose your subject! Each subject is different and requires a unique amount of posing directions. Jared is used as an example for two different poses here. This is basically the ‘secret sauce’ when it comes to getting the best possible headshot.

  1. Holding a sub” - This pose has the subject holding an imaginary sub sandwich. The subject puts their arms out to the side with their elbows tucked into their sides. This pose is used to create a slimming shape around the shoulders and arms. 
  2. “Turtling” your neck - Turtling your neck helps to define a subject’s jawline and separates their chin from their neck. By extending their head towards the camera it helps to create a more attractive pose.

Although these techniques are subtle, they can make a BIG difference in how your subject feels about themselves in your photos. Even though some poses may feel weird, it looks good. These few tips can help provide your subject with photos that makes them look and feel their best!

nate houts in form creations blog

About Nate

Nate Houts is the IFC team’s Media Production Lead, and also their official office Hipster. He’s inspired by photographers Samuel Elkins and Garrett King and director Wes Anderson and can be found at local coffee shops listening to bands you’ve never heard of and pretending to like coffee.