What to Wear for Headshots

Jule Kim Seattle Headshot Photographer

As a professional Seattle headshot photographer, there’s one question I get from every single client.

“What should I wear for the photos?”

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people express anxiety over taking photos because they think that they’re unphotogenic, so their fear is that the session will churn out yet more unattractive photos.

If you’re in this boat, so am I! I worry about the same exact thing for myself when I have to be in front of the camera, and there’s a runaway train through my head full of insecure thoughts like that my face will look fat, I don’t want to turn sideways because I don’t want to show my witch-like nose, and is my smile normal or do I look like I have major RBF??

Because I’ve seen so many bad photos of myself, I’m especially careful to prepare each client on every detail so that they get great photos. I like to run each person through the three main factors that really affect how well their photos turn out:

  1. Clothes and overall look
  2. How confident they feel in front of the camera
  3. Poses and angles

#2 and #3 are mostly up to the photographer, but luckily your clothing and styling are entirely under your control. Here’s everything I routinely tell clients on how to style themselves for the most flattering look.

Before I dive into everything, here’s a tldr summary:

  • Does your outfit make sense? Use your common sense as a reality check.
  • Outfits in neutral colors in shades of white, ivory, and gray work best. Black is also a great choice a lot of the time. Your outfit colors will depend on the color of your background or setting, and also where the photo is displayed.
  • How formal or casual your overall look is depends on what’s appropriate for your profession and where the photo will be displayed.
  • Your clothing should be well fitting; baggy or loose clothing is a very bad idea, especially for curvier or larger body types.
  • Sleeve length should be long or to the elbow. Short sleeves are meh and 3/4 sleeves are an absolute no. Sleeveless is acceptable when appropriate.
  • Style your hair and makeup similar to how you normally do it. Hire a professional stylist if you can afford it.
  • If you get a haircut, make sure it’s at least two weeks or more before the photo session.
  • Tops and bottoms are best when chosen correctly for your body shape. Also keep in mind that lighter colored clothing always looks bigger than darker.
  • Choose clothing and accessories that have vertical lines or vertical narrowing points, like long necklaces and v-necks. You want to lead the eye up and down, not side to side, which is why horizontal stripes are undesirable.
  • Make sure to pick something you feel comfortable and happy in, because if it’s something that’s too tight or is of a style you would never normally wear, then don’t wear it to the photo session. Your discomfort will show in the photos.

How will the photos be used or displayed?

This is usually the very first question I ask everyone. Where are you planning on showing your headshots? Will it be on LinkedIn? Your website? A conference? A book jacket? You get the idea. The reason why I ask this first is that I want to know what color background to use, or what kind of mood the portrait should have so that it matches the setting of where the photo ends up living. This in turn affects the colors you can wear and your overall styling.

Websites

If the headshot is going on a website, the background color should coordinate with the other colors you use in your branding. For example, if you’re a lifestyle blogger who often uses clean, light colors, then I would set up a white or other light colored background, or put you in a studio with colors and furniture styling similar to what’s already featured on your blog.

Background color

Business headshots typically use solid, neutral color backgrounds such as white, gray, or black. Gray seems to win out the most, with white coming in a close second.

Actor and model headshots also use neutral color backgrounds, and the subject is most often against a white or light gray.

No matter the type of headshot, you’ll usually want a background that’s a little more subdued or offers medium-level contrast so that the main focus is on you. Busy or very colorful backgrounds can be distracting, which isn’t what you want to end up with as the final headshot.

General style

The overall styling will depend on your line of work and how you want to use the photos. Are you a lawyer? Then most people would absolutely expect to see a very polished professional wearing a suit. If you’re a lifestyle or fashion blogger, than clearly the lawyer/business look isn’t as appropriate–you’d be better off showing your savvy sense of style. A creative like a singer/songwriter in a casual outfit would look natural accessorized by their guitar since it’s so closely tied to their profession.

How formal/casual/dressy/styled your look is heavily depends on your profession. The key is to pick a look that’s relevant to what you’re using the photo for, or where it’ll be placed.

Color

Choosing the color for your outfit can be a little tricky. You want colors that flatter you, especially for the top, but that also complement the photo background and its placed setting (website, brochures, etc.). For example, if the intended background is a bunch of grass, then wearing greens or blues wouldn’t be a good idea.

The safest choices tend to be neutrals:

  • whites, ivory, beige
  • gray
  • mauves and browns

Deep jewel colors also work well for many skin tones, and there’s always the trusty slimming black.

Patterns don’t yield as good results when compared to solids because they can accentuate the wrong features, and might look dated several years later. Wearing patterns isn’t always a terrible idea, and how appropriate it appears depends on your line of work. Corporate professionals look best in solid colors (see my business headshot gallery to compare solid color outfits versus patterned), whereas someone dressed for a more casual line of work can get away with wearing something more fun.

Fit and length

No matter what you choose, the clothing should always be very well-fitted. Loose, baggy, or puffy clothing is a very bad idea because it will always make you look bigger than you really are, which isn’t flattering at all. This especially holds true for people with curvier or larger body types. I know their instinct is to try and hide their body behind loose clothing, but that doesn’t work at all. Loose or baggy clothes do not look good on anyone in photos.

Why you don't wear 3/4 sleeves for photos
Baggy shirt hides her figure, horizontal stripes make her look wider, and 3/4 sleeves make for T-rex looking arms, which is why you shouldn’t wear something like this
  • Fit should be very close, but usually not skin-tight unless you’re in a profession that requires showing your body shape.
  • Choose styles with shaping via cut or color that lead the eye up and down vertically, such as a v-neck or dresses with black side darts. You should always choose clothes that taper in and out. For example, a skirt that has a narrower bottom edge like (think upside-down triangle) wins hands-down vs. one that just looks like a rectangle. Blocky clothing shapes with no tapering are never flattering.
  • Pick the length of shorts, pants, and dresses for what is appropriate to your profession or what you’re trying to achieve. The length of your tops should be proportional to your overall height and body type–an overly long top if you’re on the shorter side will unfortunately make you look shorter.
  • Sleeve length is best when it’s long or to the elbow, just so that the amount of skin shown doesn’t compete too much with the face. Short sleeves and 3/4 sleeves don’t work as well because they also visually divide the arm unflatteringly (think T-rex arms in the case of 3/4 sleeves). Sleeveless can work well in the right poses if the arms don’t distract from the face.

When picking which tops to go with which bottoms, keep in mind that the lighter colored clothing will look larger. In the example of a pear-shaped body, wearing a darker color on top and white on the bottom will make the top look smaller and the bottom even bigger. The correct choice would be to have a lighter color top and a darker bottom. That’s why choosing both top and bottom in similar tones is best (both in shades of light to medium colors, or medium to dark colors), so that one half doesn’t pop out to the eye too much.

  • If layering clothing, darker color over a lighter color is more slimming. For example, a white tank top with a navy or charcoal cardigan is more visually slimming than if you chose a navy tank top with a white cardigan.
  • Dresses or coordinating pieces should have either the top or bottom well-fitted, if not both. Classically, a more fitted top for a woman is the norm, unless you have a pear-shaped body. In that case, a looser top and a fitted bottom makes sense so as to bring the top and bottom in closer proportion together.

Dress to flatter your body shape

Some people are just magically blessed to have the perfectly proportioned body. For women, the ideal shape is considered to be the hourglass, and for men it’s an inverted triangle.

Unfortunately, I don’t have one of those beautiful hourglass bodies; I’m more of a straight-up-and-down stick figure. Because of this, I like to buy clothing that has shaping to it, like pieces that use colors to create the illusion of a waist and has flare to the lower half.

If you’re like me and have a body shape other than the hourglass, then the clothing that will look best are the ones that balance out your proportions, i.e. make smaller and larger parts looks closer in size to each other, with some shape.

Here are some examples of how to dress by body type:

  • Apple body shapes look best in A-line or empire cuts. That’s because the apple body shape has a larger top and smaller bottom, so you want to even out the shape with a fitted top and more flared bottom. V-necks work well, along with darker tops and lighter bottoms, or all monochrome dark colors.
  • Hourglass shapes should simply wear clothes that fit, i.e. follow the contours already there. As long as the clothing all fits, then your natural body sihouette will shine.
  • Rectangle bodies are pretty straight up and down, so A-line clothes and anything that adds shaping such as waist darts and flared bottoms will look good. Showing skin up top and bottom (arms and legs) looks great.
  • Pear shapes have interesting choices. They often look just like hourglass body types if dressed right: looser tops + fitted bottoms. You can also choose to wear ruffles up top, or show more skin up top to balance out the bottom.

The key is to wear something that attracts the eye to your best features or to the smaller body half through color, fit, or accent (like ruffles, embellishments, shiny detailing, etc.), and wear fitted, darker clothing on the other half.

Hair and makeup styling

Wearing makeup that is similar to your everyday look or just a little more is quite enough. I know that popular opinion says you need to have a lot of makeup on to look good in front of the camera, but that’s not true at all. Overdoing makeup is a bad idea, because not only will it look too visible, as in like you’re wearing too much makeup, but it might even make you look tired or add years to your appearance.

What’s also important is not to fall prey to the current beauty trends out there, because those will most definitely look dated in a few years. Examples from the recent past few years include the heavy contouring look and the sharp cornered eyebrows.

If you can afford it, I absolutely recommend that you hire a professional hair and makeup stylist because it’s an easy first step towards ensuring great photos. The goal is to still look like you, but a little more styled and polished. The camera has a way of capturing and magnifying every little imperfect detail that our eyes normally never notice, so having a stylist on hand right before the session is a great way to minimize that. Plus, you’ll enjoy feeling like a pampered model being styled, which will ultimately boost your confidence levels when in front of the camera.

One last tip: go easy on the highlighter or shimmer foundation. If the photographer uses artificial lighting, the shimmer effect will pick up that light and can make the skin look way too shiny as if it’s greasy.

Be comfortable

After all the advice above, this last tip is the most important: pick clothing that you feel comfortable and happy in. Nothing is worse than being pushed so far out of your comfort zone that you end up feeling self-conscious the whole time during your photo session. Your discomfort will show, and you probably won’t look relaxed in the photos. If you wouldn’t normally wear it as your own choice, then don’t wear it to the session.

Jule Kim

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