How to Take Your Own Music Headshot


Even as a student musician, a quality headshot is a great asset to have, whether you’re entering a competition or getting a write-up in the newspaper. And while going to a professional photographer will of course yield the best results, it’s not always an option for every young player. Luckily, with a few simple tips, you can achieve a professional looking portrait with just your smart phone and a little bit of preparation. Read on for everything you need to know about taking a do-it-yourself photo, and check out some examples of great headshots from some of our favorite CYSO alums!

PREP YOUR LOOK

Hair & Clothing

Spend a few minutes before the photo fixing your hair—no need for a professional stylist, but you also don’t want to look like you just woke up! 

For headshots, it’s a good idea to stick to clothing that’s a solid color or consistent pattern. Avoid tops with logos, photos, or text, which can be distracting. Ask your family if there’s a color that looks particularly good on you. Jewel tones look great on almost everyone! Try one formal and one more casual outfit to give you more options in the final shots.

TIP: Wear your concert outfit if you feel comfortable in it, but remember that black can be hard to photograph. Make sure you have a strong light source if you choose to wear black.

Accessories & Make-up

If you feel confident wearing jewelry, do it! Just remember that less is more— too many accessories can be distracting. If you don’t typically wear a lot of make-up, don’t think you have to just because you’re taking a photo. That said, a little powder to help with shine or on a hot day isn’t a bad idea.

Bright colors, accessories, patterns—little touches bring big personality to a headshot. Pictures from left: Eunice Keem, Dallas Symphony Associate Concertmaster; Ava Ordman, Michigan State University Trombone Professor & Department Chair; Matthew Lipman, soloist and chamber musician; Lisa Steltenpohl, Baltimore Symphony Principal Viola

 

THE RIGHT SETTING

Lighting

This photo of Emma Steele, Concertmaster of the Royal Danish Orchestra, is a great example of how standing next to a window can provide great lighting for your headshot

Lighting is key to a great photo, and natural light is almost always best. If you’re shooting inside, set up next to a window on a sunny day for the best light.

It may seem counterintuitive, but taking a photo outside on a cloudy day makes for some of the most flattering photos. Avoid shooting in full sun—light from directly above creates harsh shadows. If you need to shoot on a very sunny day, step into the shadow of a tree or building for softer lighting.

Be sure that any light source is in front of you or slightly to the side—not behind you. Strong light from behind will leave you backlit and details won’t be visible. 

TIP: If you’re standing next to a window, turn your face toward the light to help alleviate shadows.

Setting

Find a simple, neutral background to set up in front of—you should be the star of the photo, not the setting! Indoors, a plain wall is great, or mix it up by standing in front of a curtain, painted wall, or even simple wallpaper. Outside, greenery can be a beautiful background, or try a brick wall or interesting side of a building.

Backgrounds don’t have to be boring! Check out how these alums do it with greenery, a brick wall, and even the outside of a building! Pictured from left: Emma Gerstein, Chicago Symphony Orchestra flute; Demarre McGill, Seattle Symphony Principal flute; Eunice Keem, Dallas Symphony Associate Concertmaster

 

THE SHOOT

Equipment

No need for fancy equipment—smartphones can take a great headshot photo! Make sure that your lens is clean, the battery is charged, and you have enough storage space for the shoot.

There are two ways to take the actual photos: do it yourself using a self-timer, or have someone else help you. If you’re doing it yourself, most phones and cameras have a self-timer feature that works by counting down a few seconds before taking the photo. If you use a self-timer, you’ll need a tripod or something to hold your phone steady in place (heavy books work great!). Check if your camera or phone will do “burst” photos that take multiple shots at once, that way you can try out different expressions or move slightly to get the best shot.

If someone else will be taking your photos, ask them to shoot from different distances and slightly different angles to give you options to choose from. If you have an example of the type of photo you want to recreate, show them ahead of time. When getting started, take a few test shots to review and make adjustments to the lighting, location, or your expression until you get what you like. 

Say Cheese!

Smiling is a great start for any photo. Real smiles will show in your eyes, so make sure you feel it in more than just your mouth for the most “real” looking expression. Try taking a few photos, some with your teeth showing and some without, to see what feels natural. 

TIP: To make your expression appear more natural, pretend the camera is a person you like and want to smile at.

An infectious smile goes a long way! Headshots from Angela Zator-Nelson, Philadelphia Orchestra Associate Principal Timpani/Percussion and Luke Fieweger, Seattle Symphony Associate Principal Bassoon

Strike a Pose

Most headshots include the face and shoulders, with the person taking up most of the frame. Try turning your body slightly to the right or left turning your head forward to face the camera. If you’re not sure whether you’re too close, take a half step back—you can always crop in a photo afterwards.

Add Your Instrument

To turn a regular headshot into a music headshot, just add your instrument! This can be easier said than done, depending on what you play and how natural it is to hold your instrument near your face.

First, try hold your instrument as you normally would when you’re resting during a performance. For instruments played near your face (violin and viola, woodwinds), try a few photos where you’re actually playing. The more naturally you hold the instrument, the more natural you’ll look. Keep in mind that you don’t need your entire instrument in the shot—the top of a bassoon or the side of your bass is plenty to convey what you play. 

TIP: Look up some of your favorite contemporary musicians online to get inspiration from their headshots. Take note of how they hold their instrument. 

It isn’t necessary to see your entire instrument in a headshot, just enough to get the point across. Pictured from left: Barbara Jöstlein, Metropolitan Opera horn; Andrew Sandwick, Dallas Symphony clarinet; Album cover from Richard Davis’ The Philosophy of the Spiritual; Steven Honigberg, National Symphony Orchestra cello

Final thoughts

After the shoot, go through all your photos and narrow it down to a handful of your favorites. Get feedback from family and friends about which photos feel the most like you. Keep a few of your favorites to use in different events or applications.

More than anything, a great headshot is about showing who you are, so grab that camera and get shooting!

Check out this post for musicians and this one about taking a profile picture for more DIY photoshoot tips.


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