How to Take Great Headshots Without Following the Rules

[Female Headshot Photographer in Los Angeles, Vanie Poyey]

Headshot rules exist because somebody somewhere messed up.

(That be-???? an amateur photographer) causing reps not to be able to use the headshot effectively and therefore creating blanket rules for everyone.

Aaron Pruner: American Tourist / Edgy Down and Out

Emily Brandau: Student / Best Friend

CAN YOU BLAME THEM? As laymen, they look at a photo, identify the problem and say, “I never want to see that again”.

However, the choice the photographer made isn’t the problem– it’s how that choice was executed.

The bigger reps know this and don’t have a long list of blanket rules ALL photographers should abide by. They often refer their clients to more reputable photographers who understand industry standards (their clients are often working actors who can afford the expense) so they trust the results regardless of whether or not a “rule” is broken in the process.

The headshots created still give them results!

James Larson: Creative Tech / Best Friend / Blue Collar

Jim Marsilio: Edgy Anti-Hero / BBQ Dad

Smaller boutiques however, rely more heavily on headshots because they don’t have as many relationships with casting directors as the bigger reps do. They don’t tend to have a lot of working clients who can afford more expensive photographers and often get stuck with sub-par headshots from inexpensive amateurs.

Therefore, they tend to be adamant about their rules.

BUT THERE’S A PROBLEM WITH BRINGING A SET OF CONSTRICTING RULES to a pro session. Pro photographers understand how to create headshots that work without having to abide by “rules”.

Often, a long list of blanket rules prevents pros from being able to give you the “look” they are known for.

Luba Hansen: Customer Service/ Love Interest

Michael Ehrenberg: Artist / James Marsh: Blue Collar

Let me give you an example.

I had a client come in for a session with a very long list of rules. He loved my work, but his manager’s rules prevented me from being able to produce the very look he loved about my work in the first place. His manager didn’t want textured backgrounds, didn’t want him leaning into the camera, didn’t want him sitting etc. etc. etc.

SINCE I HAVE ALL MY CLIENTS LEAN IN, that was the first rule I had to fight not to abide by.

I explained to him how with the lens I use, it almost requires that I have my clients lean in or their head will end up looking smaller than their body. Also, that’s the magic behind cleaning up jaw lines and getting rid of double chins (which he may have needed help with).

The second rule I fought to get rid of was the no-sitting rule. Some essences are just easier to capture when someone is sitting. If there’s a character that needs to look relaxed or more intimate, I have to have my client sit so I can bring out that essence effortlessly.

Flat backgrounds are okay, but sometimes having texture in the  background helps create a certain mood.

In the end, my client willingly went along with my suggestions and we broke all the rules his manager had given him. But guess what? She was VERY HAPPY with the results.

Miranda Wynne: Girls’ Night Out/ Hipster

Sandy Francis: Nosy Neighbor / Susan Dexter: Suburban Grandmother

This is why I don’t subscribe to the idea of headshot rules.

Below are a few rules (certainly not all of them) as a result of poor choices amateur photographers have made (no judgement, cuz we’ve all been there before). I also explain how a pro photographer would approach the same choices differently, break the rules, and still provide you with headshots that work!????

Betsy Beltran: Boho Chic (for print) / BBQ Mom (for print)


  • Rule 1️⃣: Don’t wear hats/beanies in headshots.
  • Explanation: Photographer allowed someone to wear a hat that they loved, but it didn’t do anything to create a look AND it took center stage.
  • Pro solution: Wear hats or beanies all you want, but not because you like them– because it helps clarify your character. Then it’s not distracting.


  • Rule 2️⃣: Don’t wear jewelry in headshots.
  • Explanation: Someone wore outrageously large jewelry in a photo because they love that piece, and it became distracting.
  • Pro solution: Wear all the outrageously large jewelry you want, but only as long as it helps clarify the character! Scroll up to see if you now notice any large pieces on clients that you didn’t notice before. Visit other pages to see large jewelry with the Boho look!


  • Rule 3️⃣: Don’t shoot with busy backgrounds, only use flat backgrounds.
  • Explanation: A photographer placed the subject too close to a busy background, and the background was not blurry enough to make the subject the focus of the image.
  • Pro solution: Place the subject far enough away to be able to blur the background and make the subject the clear focal point- as long as the background clarifies the character!


Seeing a common theme here? Read this article and you’ll understand how to figure out if the choices you make in a headshot are going to get you in trouble by your reps or not. If there is a rule you’re curious about, please ask about it in the comments below and I’m happy to explain!????

Daniel Solomon: Office Guy / Urban Hip


I love helping you by putting out this free information (often written on weekends and evenings) so please help me spread the word by commenting and or sharing this post on your social feed!????????


  1. Laura Walczak

    Thanks Vanie for the tips! I’m looking to jump back into the biz and these tips are helpful for me to evaluate what I want to project to get the roles suited for me. Hope to catch one of your Detroit sessions in a few months!

  2. Aaliyah Sadler

    Thank you. This was extremely informative.

  3. Kathy McGraw

    The tips are sooooo on point Vanie. Wish everyone would understand this!!


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