Faces in the frame: what makes a modern headshot?

Portrait photographer Ivan Weiss shares his tips and techniques for capturing standout headshots and explains why Canon's EOS R System is key to his work.
A young woman with thick dark hair and wearing a high-necked woollen coat stares straight at the camera, her arms folded across her chests.

A portrait of actor Miranda Shamiso. Distancing himself from popular culture helps headshot and portrait photographer Ivan Weiss avoid becoming starstruck. "I don't watch TV, don't go to the cinema and rarely go to the theatre. My ignorance works to my advantage because it's really none of my business if somebody is a talented actor. The point is a client's picture should present them as already being successful. Whether they are or not, that's their business, not mine." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2 L USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/1.2 and ISO100. © Ivan Weiss

The headshot has evolved rapidly over the past few decades. An image that was once captured at a moment's notice – a quick face-on photograph shot against a plain background – has now become a way to convey who you are.

"Your headshot is arguably the most important part of your brand and therefore needs to express something about you, or something you want to portray to the world," says studio portrait specialist Ivan Weiss.

Based in London, UK, Ivan has been immersed in photography for as long as he can remember, thanks, in part, to his father's career as a press photographer. Childhood days spent in the darkroom instilled a creative drive that he still embraces today. "Portrait photography offers the benefits of being creative while working with somebody to achieve something useful that will be important to them," he says.

While there is no consensus on what differentiates a headshot from a portrait – "ask four photographers and you'll get four responses," says Ivan – he concedes that while all headshots are portraits, not all portraits are headshots. "A modern headshot involves finding out how someone wants to present themselves to their audience. A portrait is more of a subjective interpretation of that person," he concludes.

Here, Ivan explains how he encourages his clients to let their personalities shine through, and why the Canon EOS R System is ideal for capturing his striking headshots and portraits.

A close-up of a woman's face, a single tear running down one cheek.

Getting this close to a client requires building trust between the photographer and the subject. "I want a genuine emotional response," says Ivan. "Once we have that, I can work out how to get the response that we actually want. It's always easiest to start with laughing. If I can get you to laugh, I can get you to cry." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/2000 sec, f/1.2 and ISO154. © Ivan Weiss

A bearded man looks down and to the side of the camera, his eyes almost closed. He is wearing a brown woollen coat with a large collar and a dark brown flat cap.

Ivan used Canon's EOS Utility and Digital Photo Professional software to shoot this self-portrait, which was part of a project he completed during lockdown. By utilising Live View on his laptop, he was able to achieve a complex lighting placement, despite being the subject of the image. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/4000 sec, f/1.2 and ISO100. © Ivan Weiss

How do you gain the trust of your subjects to encourage them to show emotion – especially those who aren't used to being in front of the camera?

"You need to establish that you know what you're doing. I always start with a lighting setup I'm familiar with. As soon as the client walks in, I'll size them up. What height are they? What's their best side? And as they sit down, I'll make small adjustments that can be done without looking, so I can give them my full attention. By doing that, they feel more at ease and trust me.

"I also shoot with the camera tethered to the computer with a live monitor so the client can see what's happening. I'll ask them to pull a face, take a picture and delete it in front of them. 'It's a digital file – if we don't like it, it's gone!' I guess it's about being transparent and open with the client about my process."

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How do you direct your subjects to achieve natural shots?

"I give my clients a lot of direction, starting from the feet up, even if we're doing a close-up portrait. The way you distribute your weight through your feet will affect your stance and your mood, and that's going to be perceived by the viewer. Once I have them where I want them, I engage them in conversation. And it can be absolutely anything. I'll throw a maths question at them. One of my favourites is asking if they've ever been arrested.

"Once you've seen their reaction, you can find whatever is appropriate for that shoot. It almost gets to the point where it's like we've been friends for a long time. That's the thrill for the portrait photographer; to make a connection with a person who was previously a complete stranger."

A man with thick black curly hair and wearing a white top stares intently at the camera against a dark-grey background.

When taking headshots, Ivan uses specific setups and modifiers, such as an umbrella or a softbox, to create dramatic results. "The most important thing to know about every modifier is where the edge of the light falls, because that's how you create depth in a photograph," he says. "Don't just light the person – point it so the edge is near the person to create more drama." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/1.2 and ISO100. © Ivan Weiss

You use the Canon EOS R5 and the Canon EOS R. What advantages does mirrorless technology give you as a photographer?

"The Eye AF function on the Canon EOS R5 gives you freedom to concentrate on composition. It's so intuitive, you can position the person anywhere in the frame and it will pick out their eyes. Once you have your basic composition, you can move your angle to get things exactly as you want without losing your focus point. My aim is to not think about the camera – and for the sitter not to think about the camera either. That's what mirrorless gives me."

What are your go-to lenses for portraits and headshots?

"If I'm on location, a zoom lens is a great option. The Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM gives me everything in one lens. I can shoot close-ups at 70mm at f/2, which gives you that feeling of really drawing into the eyes and everything else receding into the soft wash. It performs as well as the previous generation of prime lenses at smaller apertures. So, it's really sharp. I'll use it at 28mm for full-length portraits and 35mm to include more background. A lot of my clients are actors, so I'll probably shoot horizontally so it looks like they're on a movie set."

What about prime lenses?

"The Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM is the best lens ever made in the history of photography. Full stop. Close up it can introduce a bit of perspective distortion for an intimate feel. Used in landscape orientation, there is room to use negative space to frame a head-and-shoulders portrait. For a half-body shot, it gives a natural perspective and, even in a small studio, it can be used for a full-length shot.

"The Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS is my go-to lens for corporate headshots when the client wants something that looks good on everybody. The 85mm is perfect for head and shoulders. I shoot it horizontally so you get a bit of room to use some negative space. My 85mm is the DS version, so when I open it up to f/1.2, it has this defocus smoothing so you get an even smoother feel to the out-of-focus background. It saves a lot of time on retouching."

A woman with shiny silver hair and wearing a red silk top rests her face on her hand as she leans elegantly on a tabletop. She is looking into the distance.

"A lot of photographers assume there's a responsibility on the part of the subject," says Ivan. "I think that's wrong. It's not about finding a person who's photogenic, it's about directing that person to give you what you want, and taking responsibility for getting that from them." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2 L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/8 and ISO1600. © Ivan Weiss

You primarily use continuous lighting setups. Why is that?

"With continuous lighting, you can see what you're doing. And that's helped me to develop this style of precise lighting. Most of my clients aren't used to being photographed. 'Look relaxed, but freeze,' are two very contradictory instructions. Having the freedom to create more precise setups with somebody who doesn't know what to do in front of the camera is very liberating."

Can you tell us a bit about your workflow using Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software?

"I use a combination of EOS Utility and DPP for tethered shooting, and Canon's Picture Style Editor to create my own colour profiles for the camera. When I look through the electronic viewfinder, I see my colour profile and contrast settings before I take the shot. It's a much faster process and enables you to get things right in camera which, from a commercial point of view, is an advantage. But perhaps the biggest bonus is establishing your credibility in front of your client. If the first shot you take is spot on, that's going to have an effect on how they perceive you and how the rest of the session goes.

"DPP is the first step of my post-production workflow. I use the built-in rating system to review all the images from the shoot and create a shortlist of the best. Once we've selected the images for final editing, I make any necessary small adjustments to exposure, white balance, mid-point and clarity on the RAW file, and usually take down the overall contrast a little bit so that I have more latitude for pushing specific colours and selectively applying contrast. I apply my preferred sharpening settings and create a 16-bit TIFF file which I then export to image editing software for the more detailed retouching and colour grading. I’ve got it set up so that the TIFF files are saved to a subfolder so that everything stays organised."

Mark Alexander

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