The Perfect Professional Headshot

Theatrical & Commercial Headshots

I was recently contacted by a journalist who was writing an article regarding the perfect headshot. She wanted me to comment on “the top 3-4 things that are needed to create the perfect professional headshot.”  In particular, “how does a woman convey strength, intelligence and femininity in a single photo?”

Following is my response to her inquiry.

Considering the two most common professional headshots, Commercial and Theatrical, have contrasting functions, I am not certain which is the focus of your article. The differences are even more relevant with it comes to conveying strength, intelligence and femininity in a woman’s headshot portrait.

The Perfect Professional Headshot by Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan

The Perfect Professional Headshot – Commercial

Whereas Commercial headshots (which are business focused) strive to reflect character, presenting the woman as the consummate professional, Theatrical headshots aim to emphasize a slice of her personality. Consequently, each style must be approached distinctly, ultimately keeping the client’s audience at the fore.

Remember, unless the purpose of the “headshot” is for personal/family use (i.e. a “portrait”), it’s imperative to acknowledge that the reason for the headshot’s existence, whether Commercial or Theatrical, is for airing in the public square – it’s for promoting one’s professional service/business, or art/talent.

Theatrical vs Commercial

There are four fundamental differences between the Commercial and Theatrical headshot. These distinctions are seen primarily in the design elements regarding the selections in:

  1. Clothing
  2. Color/key
  3. Expression/pose
  4. Background

Before explaining the practical ways these four headshot elements are expressed the perfect professional portrait, it’s important to note that though it may be doable for a single image to reflect the trifecta of strength, intelligence and femininity, it may not be relevant to do so.

Yes, Commercial headshots are customarily fashioned to appeal to a broad market of potential clientele, where it may be prudent for the headshot to resonate all three attributes. Even then, an attractive attorney who will invariably expect me to emphasize her acumen and power, may also ask that I downplay those attributes associated with being overtly sexy.

The Perfect Professional Portrait for woman, conveying Strength, Intelligence, Femininity, by Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan

The Perfect Professional Headshot – Theatrical

Whereas the Commercial headshot tends to be broad in focus, Theatrical headshots generally highlight a singular characteristic designated by the artist or their agent. Think mannerisms, peculiarities, features, distinctions, eccentricities… The struggling actress working 9 to 5 as a dental hygienist comes to me to enhance her femininity, while deemphasizing her bookish tendencies.

More frequently than not, crafting the perfect professional headshot is not a matter of whether or not to elicit all three attributes equally, but rather identifying the extent to which any one of the three traits are expressed.  Were I to ask my headshot clients to rate each quality, where the tally of the three totaled 9, the valuations would differ for just about everyone. While some might give a 3 to each trait, others would give the preponderance to a single quality with a low value or nothing to another.

In other words, a prefect professional headshot is far from a one-size-fits-all. Instead, it’s all about meeting the individual needs of each client. The assumption that a female wants her headshot to reflect strength, intelligence and femininity may sound rational, but in the real world, it’s not as black and white as it seems. Though it may be more true for the Commercial headshot, it’s not so much the case for Theatrical headshots.

As to which approach is best for either the Commercial headshot or Theatrical, following is a rule of thumb for creating the perfect professional headshot that has worked for me for the last three decades:


  1. Clothing: whatever reflects the profession, generally structured, conservative, simple, traditional, little to no pattern.
  2. Color/Key: darker shades (i.e. low key), even contrast, subdued tones (avoid orange, red, yellow, white, pastels).
  3. Expression/pose: friendly, approachable, trustworthy, capable, honest / vertical with diagonal accents.
  4. Background: simple, non-distracting, dark to complement clothing,


  1. Clothing: anything goes and complements the message intended to be expressed.
  2. Color/Key: anything goes and complements the message intended to be expressed.
  3. Expression/pose: slightly exaggerated and single focused for greater emotional impact/connection / heavy on diagonal lines
  4. Background:  anything goes and complements the message intended to be expressed but in key with clothing, color, expression.

Strength – Intelligence – Femininity

Once the design elements have been articulated, as well one’s audience/market been identified, the next step in designing the perfect professional headshot is to execute. Briefly, following are few salient points:


Exuding strength is best accomplished by commitment to one’s expression, which equates to vulnerability. A position of strength is possible only for those who feel comfortable and secure in their own skin. This translates in to being open and vulnerable to one’s emotions during the photos session. The viewer interprets this as being strong.

As a headshot photographer, I take it upon myself to create an atmosphere conducive to my clients feeling safe, secure and free to letting it all hang out. Consequently, the most common remark we hear at the conclusion of a session is amazement the session “went by so quickly,” and that it was “painless” and “fun.” Mission accomplished.

To wit, if strength is key factor in one’s headshot message, the best approach is to give it all you’ve got – no fear. This involves both, embracing the process, and trusting your photographer. It cannot be faked.

So then, if you’re not having a good time and you’re questioning your photographer’s ability, it’s going to be exposed as doubt and insecurity – both of which are perceived as being anxious, unaware, uncertain and weak.

On the other hand, when you’re in the moment, excited and enjoying your session, and trust the photographer thoroughly, you can’t but help emote power and strength.


Intelligence is best communicated by directness of expression and the genuineness of it. Generally speaking, the softer the expression, the better (i.e. large grins rarely equate to quickness of mind).

Softer, less intense smiles are not only beneficial to the entire face, but maintain wider, more relaxed eyes. The viewer perceives this as being insightful and discerning.  Squinty eyes, on the other hand, are interpreted as sneaky and untrustworthy. Thus, it’s also vital to keep one’s eyeballs fairly centered in the eye sockets, not shifted into the corners – such elicits a devious, furtive response, neither of which is
viewed as being real or smart.


Femininity is largely a function of the photographer’s skill. The trick is not only being adept at one’s craft but to be a student of beauty. Technically, the session requires soft, forgiving light, facial positions that reveal rounded, smooth facial contours, make up that well defines lips and eyebrows, a slightly elevated camera angle, a long lens to compress facial features and widen eyes, and a sixth sense for mitigating a lady’s less favorable features while emphasizing the most appealing.

As always, should you have questions regarding any aspect of The Perfect Professional Headshot, no concern is too small.

Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan

Mark Jordan
Master Craftsman Photographer
American Society of Photographers
International Photography Hall of Fame & Museum
Orange County Photographer of the Year
3-Time Honoree -EPCOT’S World’s Greatest Photographers Exhibit

When looking for a professional Orange County Family Portraits photographer, or Orange County Headshots Photographer please call 949-888-8071 or complete our online request form.

The Perfect Professional Headshot

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