Mastering headshot photography with Ivan Weiss

Ivan Weiss is a portrait photographer based in London. Born with a camera pointed at him, he grew up surrounded by photography.

His interest in portraiture was influenced by 12 years living in Florence. By 2011 he began transitioning out of a corporate career in media into photography. He creates images that reflect a fascination with classical composition, a delight in the technical possibilities afforded by modern equipment and techniques, and a sensitivity for human emotion.

In this interview, he provides tips for mastering headshot and portrait photography—from how to direct clients to get the best shot, to creating the best set up, and capturing shots with personality and depth.

Can you tell us a bit about the profile of your clients and the kind of work that you do?

I primarily shoot people in the performing arts, which means mostly actors but also dancers and musicians, people whose appearance is fundamental to what they do as a business. I also work with corporate clients and entrepreneurs.

What’s the difference between a headshot and a portrait?

Usage. All headshots are portraits. Not all portraits are headshots, unless you use them as headshots. First, you have to know what the purpose of the final photograph is and who it is that you are shooting. What do they do for a living? What do they need it for? What do they want to convey? Listen for your client’s needs, not necessarily what they say, but what they need.

“All headshots are portraits. Not all portraits are headshots, unless you use them as headshots. First, you have to know what the purpose of the final photograph is and who it is that you are shooting.”

If you ask five different photographers the difference, you’ll get six different answers. It’s common for photographers to say ‘oh, that’s a portrait, not a headshot’ and they will talk about what the photo looks like.

A headshot is also something that someone uses to promote themselves. They used to only be for people in the performing arts, but nowadays everyone needs one to promote themselves on their website, LinkedIn or their CVs.

You said to “listen to what your client needs, but don’t listen to what they say”, what do you mean by that?

As a photographer, you have to listen to the words they choose and take everything with a pinch of salt. What’s important about how I work is that my camera is tethered to the computer so the client can see what is happening as it is happening and we can decide to move forward or abandon. You have to meet your clients halfway. It’s my job to give them what they want but also to guide them. It’s not uncommon for someone to come in with a very defined idea of what they want and then end up choosing something completely different. They know what they want, but sometimes they don’t really say what they want.

“What’s important about how I work is that my camera is tethered to the computer so the client can see what is happening as it is happening and we can decide to move forward or abandon. You have to meet your clients halfway. It’s my job to give them what they want but also to guide them.”

So how do you prepare for a shoot?

When someone books a session with me I do research, I google them and get a sense of who they are and what they are doing. But I do this with a light touch because they may be coming to me to change their image or maybe I’ve just found the wrong John Smith online. When they get to the studio, we talk about who they are and what they are doing. I try to get a sense of their expectations from how they found me, for example, if they liked my stuff on Instagram that will suggest they know what they are coming in for. Ideally, if your marketing is on point the people who book you are going to have bought into your style and your way of working from your social media and other marketing.

How do you shoot a headshot?

Proximity is hugely important and that should be the main driver of focal length i.e. choice of lens. If you stand a long way from your subject your viewer will feel far away, even if you zoom in. If somebody is standing a long way away they’re a bit more aloof and that can be great in a lot of contexts, for example, if you want to present someone as a hero or someone to aspire to. If you want to create a more intimate accessible feeling you need to get a bit closer to the person, which means using a shorter focal length. A good rule of thumb is to keep normal conversational distance, the distance you would stand from a shopkeeper.

“If somebody is standing a long way away they’re a bit more aloof and that can be great in a lot of contexts, for example, if you want to present someone as a hero or someone to aspire to. If you want to create a more intimate accessible feeling you need to get a bit closer to the person, which means using a shorter focal length.”

What kinds of technical challenges does this create?

Most photographers will understand that when you get closer and use a wider lens you start to introduce perspective distortion, that can be used creatively or it can be a distraction because it exaggerates people’s features. It’s always a balance. Your viewer needs to feel that they are having a conversation with the person. 85mm is my preferred focal length for a tight head and shoulders shot but if I am including a bit more of the upper body, waist up, I prefer 50mm. If I go wider than that, to say, 35mm, it’s either because I want to include more background or context, or I want to intentionally use perspective distortion to create a more dynamic image.

“Most photographers will understand that when you get closer and use a wider lens you start to introduce perspective distortion, that can be used creatively or it can be a distraction because it exaggerates people’s features. It’s always a balance.”

Where do you want the viewer to look?

It depends, but that’s the question you have to ask yourself with any image you create. Let’s say you are taking a picture of a dentist, you want the viewer to connect so you want to highlight the eyes and all of the communicative parts of the face. And you are probably going to want to portray them as confident and caring, all of the things we want a dentist to be. Whereas if you are taking a picture of a musician or actor you might want to create more intrigue by using shadow.

What do you want your viewer to feel?

If I am going to pay someone to stick power tools in my mouth, I want to feel reassured. Whereas if I am looking at a musician or actor it should be more exciting. Maybe I’m supposed to find them attractive, or interesting in a way that suggests that I need to watch their film or listen to their music to find out more. An obvious example would be that you wouldn’t take a picture of a dentist wearing sunglasses, but you would of a musician. You want your viewer to feel this is the person to hire for the job, or this person has a bit of danger or drama. Although to use the dentist example, you’d probably want to steer clear of danger.

What is your approach to lighting in your work?

Shadow is interesting because it creates some ambiguity—what’s in the shadow? It’s great for creating an interesting image, but it’s not always appropriate for what your client wants to use the image for. If someone is in a caring profession, such as a doctor, you wouldn’t use heavy shadow even if it looks good. It reduces the amount of trust the viewer feels. It’s a question of balance. If you go for a very flat light, while it will feel very open it won’t be very interesting to look at. For images where I want to present them as very open and approachable, I use shadow on the z-axis, so that the front of the face which is nearest to the camera is brighter. This allows me to create images that have contrast and create interest for the viewer without using shadow on the communicative parts of the face—eyes, eyebrows, mouth and nose.

What kind of retouching do you do on your headshots?

The fundamental retouching that I do in Affinity Photo is about removing distractions. So if I want my viewer to be looking into the person’s eyes and they have a blemish or some hair out of place, those are the things I will remove so that the viewer’s eye is not drawn away from the central focus. If I’m doing a shot for a financial advisor’s website, I want to represent them in a fairly natural way and I’ll use Affinity’s colour tools to make sure their skin looks realistic, whereas if I am going down the dramatic route, I may use colour tools to create a different mood. In that case, I am not so much concerned with accuracy, it’s much more about feeling.

How do you capture photos with personality and depth?

It’s not an absolute rule but for most clients, you need to establish some kind of rapport, especially if they are people who do not regularly have their picture taken. The goal is to get them to forget about the camera. You only need to achieve this for a fraction of a second at a time. Engage them. Talk to them. Direct them. If you haven’t got a connection to them it’s unlikely that you’ll get a picture that conveys a connection. For the type of work I do, the emphasis has to be less on what they look like and more on what they feel like.

“It’s not an absolute rule but for most clients, you need to establish some kind of rapport…if you haven’t got a connection to them it’s unlikely that you’ll get a picture that conveys a connection.”

If you want to learn more about headshot photography, I’d recommend Headshotcrew.com as a great resource, where I host a weekly webcast every Wednesday. I’ve also made a couple of videos for Affinity’s Creative Sessions about my post-production workflow. You can view them on Affinity’s YouTube channel.


To see more of Ivan’s work, visit his website, Instagram and Headshotcrew.com.

You can also read our previous interview with him and go behind the scenes on a commissioned shoot with Ivan here on Spotlight.