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Physical Direction to Help You Nail Your Headshot Session

As a photographer, I pride myself on combining both physical and emotional direction throughout my headshot sessions. When I was an actor, I had a number of headshot sessions in which I was left high and dry, not knowing what to do. The photographer pointed the camera at me and essentially said, "Go!" But actors aren't models. We aren't trained to know what to do in still photographs.

So I think that physical direction is a key component of a successful headshot session. I know some actors hear that and worry that they won't feel or look natural. In acting, we want everything to feel organic, truthful, and emotionally connected. All that is important in your shots, too, but I think it's helpful to add some technique, just like we would in a voice, acting or dance class.

If you’re reading this, and you’ve already scheduled a session with me, that’s great! Spend a little bit of time practicing these moves in front of the mirror, and you may feel even more comfortable and confident coming into our session. If you're shooting with someone else and don't get a lot of physical direction, you might find some of these tips will come in handy.

One last thing: a couple of the moves listed here feel VERY strange. That’s OK! I reassure my clients throughout my sessions that it might feel a little awkward, but it looks good on camera. Keep each maneuver relatively small. All things in moderation!



A very slight hinge at the waist to lean forward approximately 1 to 2 inches. A lean can make the subject appear more engaged and active. It also brings more focus onto the face and especially the eyes.


This term was coined by NY-based headshot photographer Peter Hurley. Squinching is a squint with the bottom eyelids only, by engaging the muscles directly below the eyes (this takes practice in the mirror!). You do this move naturally when you smile, so we're just trying to isolate it so you can use it in both smiling and dramatic shots.

Relaxed eyes can come across as blank in photos. I call this “the dead cod look." The squinch brings confidence and focus into the eyes. You might be familiar with a version of this move called the "Smize," popularized by Tyra Banks on America's Next Top Model.

Hint of a smile:

Exactly what it sounds like! Play with a range of a tiny smile, a hint of a smile, the essence of a smile, 2% more positivity, 10% more positivity, etc.

Even in your most dramatic, Law and Order: SVU shot, we still need a casting director to look at your headshot and say “Yes, I’d like to work with this person, and no, I don’t think they’ll hurt me!" A hint of a smile will bring this touch of approachability into your shots.


I have found an actual audible chuckle to be the best way to get a natural and organic smile. 

I like to have the chuckle build directly out of the "hint of a smile." Gradually increase the level of positivity by 5% increments until you’ve got yourself all the way to a chuckle

Chicken Wings

Rest your hands lightly just below your hips, and imagine a rubber band pulling your elbows together behind your back, without sticking your chest out. Your elbows should be pointed almost directly back.

This one is specifically for vertical shots when a significant amount of your torso will be in the shot. Chicken wings helps to define your body, and keeps your arms from looking awkward.


A slight head isolation toward the camera. I like to think of the forehead coming toward the lens. This move accentuates the jawline and engages the neck muscles, a very flattering look on-camera. 

Shoulder Action:

Shoulder action is simply the angle of your shoulders in relation to the camera (left shoulder or right shoulder forward to varying degrees). 

Everyone has different angles that work best for their face structure and body type, so this one tends to take some experimenting, and hopefully some guidance from your photographer.


Make sure you combine these physical moves with emotional connectedness. I'll cover some acting/emotional tips for headshot sessions in my next post!

Zach demonstrates the squinch, tiny smile, and shoulder action. Malin demonstrates shoulder action.


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