How To Create A Compelling Headshot Photo

As the old adage says, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression”. In the context of a professional counselling registry such as, mental health professionals have the opportunity to craft that impression to precisely match what they hope to convey to a prospective client. It’s important then, that we spend time to ensure we optimize that impression by creating an engaging listing. Your choice of headshot photo is a great place to start as it’s the first thing a new client will consider when looking at your profile. Read on to learn more about the “Do’s & Dont’s” of headshots, with tips on both “do it yourself” photos, and on working with professionals with some helpful insights from Hayley-Rae Shehowsky of Hayley-Rae Photography.

The Basics

Your aim is to create a warm and inviting image of yourself, but let’s start with a quick qualifying statement: No modelling experience required! If you feel a little daunted at the prospect of creating the right image for the world to see, the first key to success is keep it simple. Your photo should be:

  1. In Focus
  2. Properly Exposed
  3. Simply Staged

The first part, focus, is self-explanatory (we hope!). Blurry shots simply don’t look appealing and can adversely distort the first impression for an individual that might already be feeling anxiety about connecting. Exposure simply refers to the amount of light in the image. The trend in modern portraiture (and social media imagery) is to err towards slight overexposure (brighter) rather than underexposure (darker), but it’s really a matter of taste. Underexposure is generally not recommended.

Simple staging refers to what is captured within the frame of the image. This can get highly nuanced, but basically the photo should have no more, and no less, than what you want within it. Resist the temptation for majestic backgrounds – the focal point should be you! Tempted to “cut and paste” yourself from an existing photo you like? Cropping a photo to single-out and/or enlarge a portion can diminish the sharpness of the image unless it was taken with a high-end camera to begin with, so we’d recommend taking a dedicated photograph if you can.

Leave it to The Pros?

So you have the basics down, but the image still doesn’t feel right? You’re not alone! Creating the image you want is no easy task. Undoubtedly, working with a professional photographer is likely to produce your best headshot photo, but what’s entailed in that process, and is the difference between a pro-photo and a selfie worth the investment? Let’s hear the professionals’ perspective from Hayley-Rae.

Hayley, why don’t you start by telling us about yourself
Hayley-Rae Shehowsky. Courtesy of Hayley-Rae Photography.

I’ve been a wedding and headshot photographer for 7 years! I fell into photography right after I finished my BA in Psychology at Simon Fraser University. I love using my psychology background to capture photos of people and all of the emotions they experience. I really enjoy creating an image of a person that represents who they are and what they stand for. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and I think this is especially true for a headshot image. I truly feel it’s a privilege to help paint that picture.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words and I think this is especially true for a headshot image.”

A bit about tech, could you describe the tools you use to create your photographs?

I shoot with a Nikon D750, and have a variety of lenses and lighting accessories. After the shoot is over, my work isn’t done! All of the photos are uploaded to a proofing gallery where I help clients choose the best shots. From there each chosen image is carefully colour corrected and lightly retouched in Adobe software. This is the final touch that gives your photo the polished and professional look. When it comes to a headshot photographer’s knowledge, camera gear, lenses, studio set up, and editing process, there is simply no way to match the quality using an iPhone, or even an ‘expensive’ consumer-level camera… It’s always best left to the pros!

Camera or cellphone? The latest ‘super phones’ feature excellent cameras, but it’s hard to compete with a professional kit.
In this day and age cellphone cameras are getting better and better, so why use a Digital camera?

While cell phone photos might look good at first glance, the Digital SLR camera gives me a lot more control over the image I’m creating. For example, when shooting a headshot, I’m selecting the lens that will be most flattering for the situation, and using my settings and flash equipment to capture the light in a way that looks best.

Results achieved using a cell phone with a light reflector, vs a DSLR with professional post work.

CounsellingMatch Tip: Many “selfie” profile photos suffer from poor image quality and awkward staging. They can appear rushed and that’s not the feeling you want the photo to elicit! If you’d like to use your cellphone camera, have a friend or colleague take the photo for you. Take several shots from slightly different angles/lighting and then pick your favorite after reviewing them both on your computer and the phone itself. Resist the temptation to use inbuilt “filters” which can make the photo appear too fake.

When working with your clients, how do you help people stand out/be themselves? Do you provide any coaching, or just let the shoot flow?

Another great question! I really like to combine both approaches. Getting in front of the camera is nerve wracking and usually feels unnatural, so I do coach people into various poses and facial expressions. That being said, I always let my subjects be themselves first and foremost. I find myself watching their natural mannerisms and expressions and then gently adjusting what is already natural for them.

“…I always let my subjects be themselves first and foremost.”

How do you recommend clients prepare for their headshot session?

highly recommend Professional hair and makeup! It really makes a difference on camera, and helps portray a polished, professional reputation. Don’t forget that this image will be in use for several years! Most professionals have new headshots taken every 2-3 years, so it’s nice to invest in them by adding on hair and make-up as well as fresh clothing. Many clients arrive to their session with a few outfit options, and I help them choose based on the background and lighting. 

Do clients have a say in choice of location? 

Absolutely! Some people prefer to have a session on location – for example at their counseling office. Others feel it would fit their personality and business model best to be outside. I always work one on one to help guide a great location choice. For a long time professionals were moving away from the traditional in-studio photos and opting to have their headshots taken outside. While this is still a great fit for some people, more and more people are moving back towards a modern indoor session. Having photos taken indoors definitely eliminates a lot of logistical challenges (such as weather, and lighting), and tends to be more consistent. The look and style of indoor headshots have come a long way since the 1990’s!

Shooting outdoors vs indoors can lead to different mood and tone, and both present unique technical challenges. Courtesy Hayley-Rae Photography
As you know, our site uses a personality matching system to help connect mental health professionals to potential clients, in light of that, should a headshot even matter?

This is a great question! The headshot is what gives prospective clients the confidence to move forward with you. It’s natural as humans to want to connect, and seeing the face you will be reaching out to is huge. Again, a picture is worth a thousand words, so the headshot photo you use to represent yourself online is going to say a lot about who you are in a way that you may not be able to convey in writing.

What should professionals look for when choosing a photographer?

The most important thing to look for is a consistent portfolio of headshots. Of course each photo within the portfolio will be different, but overall the images should look cohesive. This way you know exactly what you’ll get from your photo session. Also, make sure you book with someone you connect and feel comfortable with. It’s hard to be yourself if you feel uncomfortable.

Any other thoughts for our members?

For most people, having photos taken is something they dread, but in this day and age it’s really important to have a professional, up to date headshot online. Look up photographers in your area and feel free to reach out to a few until you find someone you’re comfortable with. Consider making the investment every couple years to keep your photo current. My studio is located in the Greater Vancouver Area and I’d love to be a part of your success. We host regular ‘headshot marathons’ where you can pop in for a relatively quick session and get the
photos you need. For more information visit and when you get in mention Counseling Match for a special discount.

Final Thoughts

When presenting yourself in your professional context, that first digital impression is key to making a connection. The photo you use for your website and directory listing should be chosen thoughtfully with your client’s first impression in mind. While it doesn’t have to be perfection in portraiture, it should befit the basics we listed earlier, and portray the professional you want the world to see. Unsure about whether the picture you’ve chosen is right? Our goal is to make your listing as successful as possible, so feel free to reach out to the CounsellingMatch support and we’d be happy to review your listing, including your headshot photo, and provide some objective feedback!