[Pho.Snap] Fake a Professional Headshot at Home

Recently I did a professional headshot for my mom at home and posted a video of it onto my Instagram story.

Right after that I got a flood of questions from interested friends, who feel very bothered by their weird-looking Linkedin photo.

So I decided to do a tutorial on how I built a DIY home studio for professional headshots!

The entire setup was totally affordable, which cost me around $85 USD (excluding the house and the camera). Here is my entire setup, check out their latest prices on Amazon via the links.

This is something very affordable for photographers/ individuals in most financial situations so I thought it is helpful to share.

Here is the absolute basic set-up in shooting professional headshots at home:

  1. A camera/ phone

  2. Access to diffused natural light

  3. A white, reflective flat surface

  4. An artificial light source (eg. phone flash light, camera flash)

  5. A plain background

  6. An extra pair of hands (optional)

You will also lean why professionals do certain things in a certain way.

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I have also made a video for demonstration purposes on how to setup a simple home studio for professional headshots on my Youtube channel.


Pro vs Amateur: Shadow Handling

As I said in my video, the one most important factor that makes a headshot look professional is the treatment of shadows.

Most people don’t notice any issues with having shadows in their shots. This is because they have never seen the version of the same shot with the shadows filled.

See this example below. I blurred it not only because mom is shy but most importantly because I don’t want the facial features to distract you from observing how the light falls off from the left to the right side of her face.

The gradient from bright to dark is much steeper in the left than the right photo.

Did nothing about shadows (left) and filled in shadows (right).

Did nothing about shadows (left) and filled in shadows (right).

Unless you are going for the high fashion look or trying out some wild editorial looks, harsh shadows do not look flattering in portraits, especially if you are photographing a female.

In the specific context of professional headshots, you want your images to give off an impression that your subject is confident, capable and pleasant to work with.

Shadows generally create mystery and makes the shot moody. That runs counter to what you want.

The reason why I made this point before going into any of the equipment is because there are so many different ways to build a home studio for professional headshots.

Feel free to be creative - you don’t have to follow my set-up to a tee. As long as you keep in mind the principle of handling your shadows, you are good to go.

5 Items you Need for the Home Studio Set-up and Why

A large window

Natural light is always the best light source if available. Artificial studio lights can replicate that to varying extents, but you don’t need to mess with all of that if you shoot by a large window in your house.

The ideal set-up is to have your subject face the direction of the light at a 45 degree angle.

Have them step back from the window if the highlights are blowing out.


The large window surface is acting like a soft box that diffuses the daylight, so that it hits your subject evenly. It produces a glow rather than a patch on the protruding areas of the face.

Technically, you get all the light hitting directly on your subject’s face if you have them face the window.

But this is not ideal. Since you are photographing from the window as well, yourself as the photographer might cast a shadow on your subject. Besides, this angle tends to flatten the structure and contours of the face.

Your subject might be too close to the window if the white parts of her attire are losing detail while the other side is deeply buried in shadows.

The further you place your subject from the light source (the window in this case), the more gradual the light fall off.

A Reflector/ White, Flat Item

If photographer is something you consider going into in the long run, do invest in a set of reflectors because they will come in handy along the way.

Usually the white reflector is used the most as it applies to a wide range of situations. But one hack for you photographer wannabe - get a 5-in-1 reflector set.

I got mine from Godox from Amazon, which was a huge bang for my buck because it had a diffuser (150cm) with a jacket, conveniently embodying 4 colours - white, black golden and silver. The whole setup could be folded into a circle with a diameter of 80cm. Check out its latest price on Amazon!

But if this shoot is more of a one-off thing for you just to get a few decent headshots, don’t worry about the reflectors. Simply get a white piece of flat material. It can be as basic as a cardboard wrapped in white paper.


When doing professional headshots, your subject is likely going to be wearing suits, or dark-colour shirts.

But ideally we want to recover some details in the attire to inject some life in your subject. Or else, that would result in a huge dark patch in the photo which in my opinion looks amateurish.

Also, the contrast that creates with the bright skin tones is too strong.

In addition to the fact that your subject is at an angle to the main light source, the window, the light falls off from one side of the face to the other.

Therefore, you want to bounce some of that light from the window back onto the darker side of your subject, to mitigate the shadows.

A potential perk of reflectors is that it normalises the colours in the shadows. Sometimes, the shadow areas have a strange colour cast to them. Reflecting the same sunlight onto the shadows evens out unwanted colours.

Fill Light

Depending on the situation, you might want to add another light source to counter the shadows some more. I usually stick to a minimal set up consisting of the below, all linked to Amazon if you would like to find out their latest prices.

For photographers wanting to go pro, a good starting point is to get a LED light with a light stand if you don’t see yourself hiring an assistant any time soon. Or you can get an off-camera flash and a trigger with a light stand.

If you just want to make a couple of good shots, simply a phone flash light will do.

We often think of the phone flash as a bad source of light that does weird things to pictures but that is partly because of how we use it too.

Any flash, however expensive, is going to ruin your subject’s face when fired straight on. But if you take the phone flash and hold it at a distance and at an angle, it works just fine.

The phone flash is the sweet spot between getting decent lighting and staying under a budget for DIY shoots at home.


The fun thing about lighting is that there are many different ways to light up your subject, and that you can use different lights to achieve different things on various parts of the photo.

In this case, you want the face to be lighted up more than the outfit, because that is where the focus is.

Therefore, the reflector could be strong enough to recover detail in the dark garments. But it is usually not a strong enough source of light for the shadows in the face. The fill light is a brighter source.

By adding a fill light that primarily hits on the face, you have the control to achieve different things in the face and the garments.

Another thing to note is that ambient light changes across the day. If you rely solely on daylight, the light reflected from the reflector is also going to go down in intensity as the sun goes down.

Having an extra source of light allows you to make adjustments to include enough light at all times.


This should go without saying - it can be any camera you wish to photograph with and suits your workflow the best.

Plain Background

As we will see later, the background does not have to be entirely plain, like what you would have in a studio.

But ideally you need a minimal background that mimics the professional environment - mostly white walls with a few office decorations.

These headshots are not supposed to include so much background detail because we are only interested in seeing the person’s face and not much else.

An Assistant (Optional)

It is always helpful to get someone to hold the lights for you, so that you can immediately change the position of the light/ reflector on the spot by instructing that person to move.

Otherwise, you might have to adjust the light stand yourself and move the reflector while the subject waits.

Plus, it can be a challenge to see the effect of the change in the lights without having to move back and forth.

Of course, this is entirely optional if you don’t mind putting in that extra work to keep the shoot simple, just like what I did.

DIY Home Studio Camera Settings and Techniques

Aperture f/4.0

For professional headshots, f/4.0 is generally a good aperture on full-frame cameras. For crop sensors, that might mean a few stops lower depending on the crop factor.

Ideally you want the background to be blurred to not cause too much distraction and maintain the focus on your subject.

However, you don’t want too shallow a depth of field too. If the aperture goes below f/3.5, the tip of the nose and the hair starts to lose focus.

In professional portraits, we are not doing anything artistic here. It has to serve the basic function of showing your subject in focus.

When you shoot, the focus point is on the eyes definitely. But you also want the structures of the entire face to be in focus.

Lowest Native ISO (Usually 100)

Since I recommended doing this shoot when there is abundant sunlight, setting your ISO at 100 should not be a huge issue.

If ISO at 100 only manages to expose for the highlights and still leaving harsh shadows, bring up the intensity of the fill.

There should be no need to raise the ISO because the above set up gives you more than enough lighting power at your discretion.

The large issue I have with ISO is introducing UNNECESSARY noise. In an earlier blog post “Why you should Not Use Auto ISO and what you Should Do”, I explained further why ISO should be the last thing you ever want to change among all the set-ups and camera settings you have.

ISO should be the last resort and we definitely do not need to rely on ISO adjustments here.

This is of utmost importance to reduce the amount of digital noise in your subject’s skin texture as much as possible.

Wrinkles on Garments

Before taking the shot, I habitually check my subject’s clothes in the viewfinder before pressing the shutter.

This is because garments can become wrinkled or misplaced as the shoot progresses.

You get the subject to try out various poses and face various directions, which can cause crumples in their shirts.

This is someone you want to fix in camera because it is hard to remove creases realistically in editing. You can easily get rid of the crease but the light and shadows are hard to replicate.

If you can quickly fix something in 5 minutes during the shoot, don’t spend 20 minutes to do the same thing in post-production.

Subjects Wearing Spectacles/ Glasses

When photographing people who wear glasses, chimp your shots every time you make a change to the lighting to check if the light is causing reflections in the glass.

If you are using a flash that fires with the shutter, this can get tricky because you can only find out if the flash caused a reflection after you took the shot.

Other times, your camera might capture reflections that your eyes don’t see.

Not a huge fan of science (I guess so are you) but basic physics tell us that reflections are caused when light rays hit your lens directly.

Therefore, in order to change the course of the light, you either change the position of your subject, or change your light settings.

When at home, the flexibility of changing the height or angle of the lights might be restrained.

The easier way to go is to ask your subject to slightly look towards the side, or bow their head down. Because the position of the glass has changed, so as that of the light bouncing off from the glass.

Changes in Available Daylight

In this set up, we are using daylight coming through the window naturally as the main source of light.

Since we are shooting around one to two arounds before sunset, the direction and intensity of the light can change quite quickly as the sun moves closer to the horizon.

Therefore, stay alert on how the main light is playing out on your subject. Also, pay attention to the shadows because as the daylight softens, the fill provided by the reflector is also going to soften.

As in my video, I changed the modifier at the top of my flash a couple of times, to provide a varying degree of fill as the daylight changed.


In this article, we talked about:

  • Shadow handling being the biggest thing that differentiates the pro and the amateur;

  • The five basic items of the home studio set up;

  • The rationales for having each of those items; and

  • Points to pay attention to during the shoot

More sharing coming soon!

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