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Sunday, May 19, 2024

How to Take a Slick, Professional Headshot With Your Phone

We’ve seen a lot of creative photography trends in the past year or so: taking pictures through windows. Documenting lockdown houseplants. Zoom photo shoots. Whether any of those will stick around is uncertain, but one photography fad that deserves to move into the post-pandemic world is DIY professional headshots or “selfie” portraits: cheap, cheerful, sweatpant-friendly—and high-priority after Covid-19 upended jobs and inspired people to reinvent themselves.

Luckily, you don’t need to know your way around a studio to take a polished self-portrait. Because smartphone cameras are getting better every year, with bigger sensors, multiple lens options, powerful AI, and high dynamic range (HDR) software, all you really need are a phone and natural light. Phone cameras can even achieve a shallow depth of field that separates you from the background by blurring it out (either through advanced manual settings or dumbed-down “portrait modes”), so you can transform a selfie into a professional-looking self-portrait.

To help you plan the perfect shot, we talked to award-winning portrait and editorial photographers and digital creators for tips on how to find your best light, backgrounds, and poses—without feeling like a narcissist. (We’ll also give you the best tips on phone settings and free photo editing apps to take you from start to finish.)

While newer phones such as the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra are obviously going to have the latest and greatest cameras, the old adage is also true: The best camera is the one in your hand.

“Tools are just the mediator; they help in the process, but they don’t create,” says Brazilian photographer Luisa Dörr, whose portfolio of iPhone portraits includes 12 Time magazine covers . “The best advice is, forget you’re using a phone. Treat this as a camera—because it is.”

Tell an Authentic Story

At its most basic level, a good professional portrait for your website, LinkedIn page, or social media profile should be well lit and welcoming, and it should accurately portray what you look like. Just like on a blind date, if you show up for a job interview looking nothing like your headshot, you’re not coming off as authentic and honest.

Blake Silva, a Los Angeles–based photographer and digital creator, spent a lot of time during the pandemic making self-portraits with cool lighting and fun props (think snow-dusted pine-cone crowns), but for professional headshots, he focuses on making sure an image delivers a message. “For me, my big things are, I want people to know I’m creative, or I want someone to know that I’m happy,” he says. “Even if I’m not always happy, I want people to know that I generally try to carry myself with positivity, so I’m going to smile.”

Do a Self-Study

Aundre Larrow is a Brooklyn-based portrait photographer whose clients include The New York Times, but he’s also a fan of the selfie-portrait, particularly as a tool for self-care. Before taking a professional self-portrait, he recommends doing a self-study—basically taking a lot of photos of yourself and figuring out what angles work for you. Being well rested, hydrated, and relaxed are key. Do that, he says, and "your body will really reveal how you feel."

Larrow also recommends taking the same photo for 15 minutes a day for one to two weeks, combining those sessions into a half hour every other day if needed. The advice he's given to trans friends who are in the process of transitioning and trying to figure out how to pose and photograph themselves is useful for anyone: Find an interesting piece of light and study yourself in it. Try things and ask yourself what your image is conveying.

Find the Right Background

You don’t need a fancy photography studio. A little creativity can go a long way. “I shoot 99 percent of my self-portraits in my bedroom, just setting up my $19 backdrop stand that I got on Amazon, hanging a white sheet over it, and having fun,” says Silva.

He also likes to stock up on color, going to fabric stores every few months to pick up pieces that inspire him. He recommends buying pieces that are about 1 yard wide and 2 or 3 yards long. They’re not only cheaper than a 9-foot seamless paper backdrop roll, they take up less storage space.

If you have dark hair, Larrow says, use a light-colored backdrop. Otherwise, there’s a good chance your hair will meld into the background. If you’re wearing bright colors, it’s better to take yourself (and your selfie) outside than to shoot inside against a white wall where “the light is going to reflect that, like a highlighter-yellow jacket on your skin.”

Dörr is also a big fan of outdoor portraits. “I’m fascinated by nature colors and shapes, and I feel that the human figure, or portrait, gets an extra layer of cognitive representation when they are both together,” she says. “They complement each other.”

If you’re a nature person, the outdoors may be the ideal setting for a professional headshot—just make sure there are no trees sticking out of the top of your head.

Karah Mew, a documentary-style portrait photographer in Portsmouth, England, recommends using contextual environments. If you’re going for a corporate vibe, for example, you may want to shoot in an office space. If you’re an artist, she suggests using a studio space.

Wear Something Classic and Know Your Colors

Does your skin have warm, cool, or neutral undertones? If you don’t know the answer, learn what colors (whether for background, clothing, or makeup) look good on you. One shortcut: Look at your veins. If they look greenish, you may have warm undertones. If they appear blue or purplish, you probably have cooler undertones. If it’s hard to tell, your undertone could be neutral. Warm undertones look good in reds, yellows, golds, and warm earth tones like brown and sand. Cool undertones look good in blues, purples, silver, and cool earth tones like grey. Neutral tones can wear almost anything, but photographers generally advise people to avoid black, white, patterns, or super-bright colors in head shots, because they can be difficult to expose and distracting to the eye. (Bright red is famously one of the most difficult colors to photograph, often appearing too vivid and oversaturated.) If you want to play it safe, go for lighter, muted colors and earth tones.

Style is highly personal, but if your goal is to create a versatile headshot that won’t look dated by next year, stick with something timeless like a solid-color pocket T, Silva’s go-to. Dörr, who prefers classic and timeless clothing, agrees. “Keep it simple,” she says.

Check Your Camera Settings

Before you start shooting, choose the highest possible image quality, one that will give you more detail and flexibility when you have to crop and edit. Some smartphones include a RAW format setting, which results in massive uncompressed files. Photographers prefer that, because it allows them more control over the final image. The downside is that RAW images require more editing. If you’re comfortable with post-processing, including how to export images to JPEGs, RAW files are your best bet.

If you have a manual white balance setting on your camera, adjust it before you get started by looking at white objects in your viewfinder. They might appear too warm or too cool, which can affect skin tone as well.

Use a Tripod

Holding your phone, selfie-style, is OK for a snapshot, but for a self-portrait you’ll get better results without your arm in the way. A monopod (aka a selfie stick) lets you get the camera farther away, while keeping your arms closer to your body. Your best bet is a tripod or photo mount, though Silva has propped up his phone on a windowsill using a water bottle, or placed it in the nook of a tree. Larrow’s tripod hack is to put a phone on a pile of books on top of a table, making sure it’s at a 90-degree angle and roughly at eye level. “Having the camera too low will make you look really large, and having it too high will feel like 2004 Myspace,” he says. “It's just a strange perspective.”

If you don’t have a tripod, ask someone else to hold the camera and shoot, but be clear on what you want in the frame. It’s also smart to mark your spot with masking tape so you’re always centered as you’re trying out different positions.

Another hot tip: The outward-facing camera on your phone is better-quality than the inward-facing selfie camera, so use that instead. If that makes you nervous, Larrow recommends taking a few shots in selfie mode till you’re feeling good about it. Then flip the camera around.

Set a Timer and Take Photo “Bursts”

Take advantage of the countdown timers and continuous shot “bursts” on your phone, so you don’t have to go back and forth to the camera for multiple takes. If you have an iPhone and an Apple watch, you can use the watch to remotely trigger your camera. With many Android phones, you can use hand signals or voice commands to activate the timer.

Get In Your Light

“Photography is light,” says Dörr, who advises observing the light in your environment during different times of day and seasons to identify the difference in the spot you like most. One way to check how your skin will look in a particular light is to photograph your hand and look at the details. Dörr also recommends having some light in your eyes; she says it evokes a good feeling.

Silva uses natural light for that purpose. If the sun is peeking through the blinds when he’s doing a self portrait, he says, “I’ll always make sure that the light is touching the color of my eye.”

If you’re taking your self-portrait indoors, stand about 3 feet from your backdrop, face a window, and place the camera between the window and yourself. You want an abundance of soft light so it can wrap evenly around your face without harsh shadows, says Larrow. Photographers have a soft spot for early morning light (more blue) and evening light (more golden), but either way, you want to make sure you’re getting enough light on your face. If the sun is too strong, Mew likes to diffuse the light with blinds or voiles, or any other sheer fabric.

Strike a Pose

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As a general rule, mug-shot photos aren’t cute. Try this: Standing or sitting on a stool, instead of taking a photo straight on, line up your shoulder with the camera and tilt your face toward it . And don’t crop in too close. If you cut off your shoulders, Larrow says, it looks as if you don’t fit into the frame. Figure out which side you like better. If your hair is parted, go for the side where you can see more of your face.

Silva’s headshots always accentuate his jaw line. His best tip for making a jaw look longer (i.e., avoiding a double chin) is to make an L shape with your index finger and thumb. Place the tip of your index finger under your chin and the tip of your thumb against your chest. Now take your hand away but keep that amount of space under your chin. Then, try different angles with your face, look in different directions, including straight to the camera or to the side, and put on a serious face, smirk, or smile. Relax and have fun with it.

If you’re not sure what to do with your hands, try crossing your arms and placing one hand under your chin, says Silva. (Make sure not to smush your skin though; a lot of photography posing is for effect.) Or be dramatic! Try the playful “shy pose,” where you stick a hand out in front of you, laughing and feigning that you don’t want someone to take your picture. The hand is not in focus but your face is, which gives the photo more depth. Sure it’s awkward, but that’s the beauty of taking your own portrait. Nobody is watching — and you can delete everything you don’t like.

It’s the composition that makes a photo more than a snapshot, says Mew. But she agrees that posing in front of a camera can be weird. She recommends moving around to loosen up and not taking yourself too seriously. Her current professional portrait is one in which her cat jumped into the frame. “I've got my hand on my face and I'm really pissed off, because the cat is right in the frame. And it's so good. I use it for everything now.”

Edit Your Portrait but Don’t Overdo It

Two of the most popular photo-editing apps are Google’s Snapseed (which is free) and Adobe Lightroom Mobile (a free but limited mobile version of the desktop application). It’s never a good idea to overedit your photos, but there are some helpful tricks that even beginners can try. Instead of adjusting the “exposure,” which will lighten or darken your entire image, you can experiment with the “shadows” slider, which takes only the darkest points of the image and makes them lighter or darker. Ditto for “highlights,” which adjusts only the brightest parts.

The color mixing tool is another go-to for saturation, vibrance, and temperature—Silva often edits his portraits to be a touch warmer, making them more inviting.

Then there are sneaky little tricks, like sharpening, skin smoothing, and eye brightening, all of which can refine your portrait, but should be “less than you think,” says Larrow.

Both apps have various basic filters and advanced presets. Dörr’s favourite Lightroom Mobile filter is Profile Vintage 08, and Larrow has personal presets that you can download for free through Adobe. Larrow also has tips for shooting and editing darker skin tones and not abusing presets by paying attention to how they affect Black and brown skin. “Some people are out here looking shades louder than they are, and that’s not cool,” he says.

Whether you need a new headshot to find a job, to self-reflect, or just to put your best face out there, investing in your solo photography skills with patience and intention is worth the effort. And while we’re still social distancing, taking your own selfie-portrait is safer too.

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