Photography Tips & Tricks

7 tips for creating great character headshots at home

Sevens tips for taking better character portraits at home with whatever camera you have to hand! No technical expertise needed – all you need to be able to do is switch your camera on!

Getting a great character headshot at home needn’t be expensive or boring. Whether you’re looking for a headshot for a creative business, or a picture to use as a poster for a show, here are some simple ideas that can help you make the most of whatever camera you have to hand.

Disclaimer: All the pictures in this article were taken on my camera phone, which does not have a great quality lens! You’ll likely get much more success from iPhones or high-spec Huawei phones.

1. Use what you have

Want a funky coloured background to inject some energy into the shot? Hang a bed sheet over a door. Make sure you iron out the wrinkles first, but if you’re only taking a head-and-shoulders shot then you don’t need to worry too much as long as it’s not too distracting. Otherwise, a nice, bright, single-colour wall will do the trick – just try to avoid taking pictures in marked or stained areas.

Another option is to buy some coloured A1 card from your local craft shop. It’ll probably set you back around £3-4, and you can then use blu-tac or electrical tape to stick it to whatever you surface you wish. See the pictures below.

2. Shoot during daylight hours

There are lots of things you can do creatively with household lights. For instance, pointing a desk lamp at one side of your face, and/or covering the light source with a coloured A4 folder to obtain some funky colour. But to give yourself the best chance of obtaining a nice, clear, in-focus shot – do it during daylight hours in a room where there is plenty of natural light. You don’t necessarily need to be next to a window, as long as there is a good amount of light coming into the room.

The reason for this is that if you’re shooting on a camera phone (or any camera that is using automatic settings), the camera will increase it’s light sensitivity setting (or “ISO” for those of you with DSLRs) to compensate for the lack of light, and a side-effect of this is that grain is added to the picture. How much grain depends on the processing capability of your phone’s built-in image processing software. You also risk a blurry picture as you camera will be shooting a very slow shutter speed.

Of course, this can also be used a stylistic choice – so if you WANT grain and/or blur in your picture – shoot out of daylight hours with artificial lights!

3. Use a tripod

If you have access to a tripod, use it. The tripod I use for anything I film on my phone is a simple piece of plastic I bought from a pound shop about six years ago! You can get them on sites like eBay and Amazon for a couple of quid including p+p, and it will make your life so much easier. If you want to spend a little more or position your camera at a higher point, you can get a standard tripod for around £15 that will be more than enough for a camera phone, though you might still need to get the phone holder adapter.

Above pictures: (L) My mini-tripod, and (R) My phone camera’s timer menu.

My camera phone also has a palm-detect function. This means that once the camera is in position I can flash the palm of my hand at the lens, and it will count down from three and then take a picture. Be sure to have a nose through the settings of whatever camera you’re using – and play around with the settings to learn how to use them. Don’t be afraid to take lots of photos – no one has to see them except you, and this is often the best way of understanding your camera! If you don’t have the palm-detect or similar function, most phone cameras will have a timer that gives you up to 10 seconds to get into position before it takes the picture. Some will also have a “burst-mode” option – this means that the camera will take between 5-10 photos in quick succession when the timer runs out. This can be really handy for capturing candid moments, though it will mean you have a lot of photos to delete.

The beauty of a tripod is that it allows you to structure the shot, then leave the camera in position. This is particularly useful if you’re taking your own pictures, as you’ll be able to work out the composition of the shot you want before you put yourself into it. Each time you come in and out, the camera will still be in the same position, so at this point you only have to focus on your own appearance.

4. Have someone directing you

While it can be fun to take photographs on your own, it’s always better if there is someone behind the camera who can direct you. A good character portrait can be enhanced by the smallest movements – particularly if you’re taking a shot of only your face. Having someone who can see the effect of each slight movement in real time can save a lot of frustration, and a lot of time involving you going back and forth to the camera after every single shot.

Above pictures: In the shot on the left, my ear has been cut off, and the phone leeches outside of the blue background. I recomposed for the image on the right, but this would have been a lot quicker had someone been telling me “lift the phone up, bring your head forward…”

A second person is helpful for generating ideas, particularly if it’s someone that knows you well. It can also help you relax, and feeling comfortable during a photoshoot is one of the most important aspects of capturing a great photo.

Crucially, a second person can select the correct focus point once you’re in shot. If you’re using a camera phone, this could be the difference between a good and a great shot.

5. Get stupid and use props

Seriously. Even if you’re taking more formal shots. Why? Because playing helps us relax and get to the core of who we are. Pull faces: open your eyes as wide as you can, flare your nostrils, stick your chin in the air, show your teeth, look suspicious, scrunch your face in anger, put a finger up your nose, hold your head, turn and point your ear at the camera, stick your tongue out – I could go on.

Find props: If you have anything you use in your business or show that could be used a signature item – try playing around with the placement of it within the frame. Look at it, put it in places it wouldn’t normally go, point with it, tell it off, put it in your mouth (if it’s clean), put in on your head. If you don’t have a signature prop, do the same thing with household objects: a broom, a chair, a banana, an item of clothing, a toy, a newspaper, a phone, a pencil… you get the idea. Immediately you’ve added an interesting narrative to your picture – even if you don’t know what the narrative is yourself!

The benefits here are two-fold: Firstly you might get a picture that you wouldn’t have thought about staging, or it might give you an idea to stage something more specific. Secondly, even if you don’t use any of these pictures, you’ll have warmed up some of the muscles in your face, probably made yourself laugh, and helped yourself to relax – meaning that if you take “straight” pictures afterwards, you will likely look a lot fresher!

6. Think about your style / talk to a graphic designer

Here’s a first-hand example of how not to do it: For a show I wrote and produced a couple of years ago, after I’d done all of the above, I took it even further and wrote the word “ARSE” on my head in red lipstick. Some of the pictures looked so ridiculous that I decided that I just HAD to use them.

The above images didn’t present my show in the correct light.

What I hadn’t considered was that this had nothing to do with my show. What I had produced was a poster suggesting that my show involved fooling and self-idiocy (is that even a phrase?), whereas the show was actually about pointing out the stupidity of those in power. I received feedback that audience members expected a more clown-based show, based on the image on the poster. So consider your style if you’re a performer. Is your character calm and serene, or loud and shouty? Do you have a deadpan style of delivery or are you loud and boisterous? This will affect your choice of colours, props and expressions. 

If you’re taking a photo for a website, consider where it will sit and how it will look within the site. For example, if your website has muted pastel colours, you probably don’t want a bright yellow backdrop ruining the vibe.

If you’re taking a picture for a show poster, try to visualise the layout of the poster before you take the picture. Where will the title go? Where will the show details (venue, time, date, cost etc.) be placed. If you’re unsure where to start, google some show posters for inspiration. If you’re employing a graphic designer, speak to them first. Failing any of those things – take as many pictures as you can in as many styles as you can, and a good graphic designer will be able to create something suitable for you. See the next images for an example of how to leave enough space for text.

7. Use the highest resolution, don’t crop unless necessary, and only use editing apps that export at high resolution

If your image is to be used for printed materials, check your phone’s resolution setting and always use the highest resolution possible. Don’t crop your image unless absolutely necessary – focus on getting the composition right in camera. Small crops are okay (for example, cropping 5% of the image in a corner to remove a distracting object) but remember that each time you crop the image, you lose detail. This could be crucial if you’re planning on printing posters larger than A3.

Don’t judge the design skills – I’m not the most skilled graphic designer! These images show how a graphic designer would use negative space, and how small details like the fact you can see the wall in the bottom-left corner can be eliminated fairly easily.

There are lots of amazing editing apps out there that allow you to add filters, stylise, and colour your images. If you are creating an image for a poster, ensure that the app can export in high resolution. For example – Instagram will export images with a file size of around 0.2MB, which would look terrible printed at anything above 6x4in. A graphic designer may be to advise and/or recreate filters, so always save the original version of a photo to pass to them.

Some quick bonus tips:

  • – Always make sure your lens is clean before shooting.
  • – For posters, shoot in portrait mode at a 3:2 ratio if possible. Some phone cameras default to square (1:1), 4:3, or 16:9. While this isn’t the end of the world, most poster sizes are in 3:2, meaning a 3:2 photo will fit more naturally. If you’re shooting in anything other than 3:2, be sure to leave lots of negative space (space with nothing of consequence in it) as you will probably need to crop the image for your poster.
  • – Shoots outside on location can work if the location is relevant to whatever you’re promoting, and the backdrop is not too cluttered and distracting.

I hope you’ve found that helpful. I’d love to know how you get on, and see some of your efforts! Drop me an email or connect with me on Facebook or Instagram if you have any questions or feedback.

The quality of your results will be dependent on the quality of your camera phone. If you find you’re not getting the sharpness or professional look that you’d like, you can book a character photoshoot with me from just £67 by clicking here.

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