Headshots under pressure – multiple looks from one shoot

I gave a talk on behalf of Nikon to the Army’s photographers last April, on the subject of “Creative headshots under pressure”.  I’m not going to reproduce the entire thing here, but I’d like to detail the last section I covered, where I demonstrated how to get 3 different looks in a very short space of time, just under a minute in fact!

The idea behind doing this came from a shoot by Alexis Cuarezma and is driven by the same motivation.  From time to time I have to get a range of shots with someone, but I’ve only got a very limited time with them, as well as just the one location.  It’s similar to what happened when I shot Rory McIlroy last year, although on that occasion I used my Profoto kit, and for this example I’m using Nikon flashguns with their CLS system.

Here’s a quick look at what’s possible if you get organised, have lots of kit, and think things through carefully:

Headshot image 1
…then 19 seconds later
Headshot image 2
…then 14 seconds later…
Headshot image 3
…3 looks in 1 minute!


Finished headshots
Times straight from the camera

Essentially, what we have here is 3 setups in the one situation – I don’t even need to change backdrops as I did with Rory, as that’s all handled by the second setup and the light with the coloured gel.  To switch from setup to setup, all I do is change the channel on the flash transmitter I was using.  To save time changing the camera settings, it makes sense to ensure that all 3 of my setups all come in at the same exposure

Headshot Setup 1
Headshot setup 1 – a softbox right of camera, and a flash back left, flagged to keep the light out of the lens.


Headshot Setup 1
Headshot Setup 2 – a softbox to the side of the model, an orange gelled flash back left, and a blue/purple gelled light on the floor to change the colour of the wall.


Headshot Setup 3
Headshot Setup 3 – a softbox boomed overhead, and 2 strip softboxes as backlights

And this is everything shot in 1 minute – the times from the camera were 15:40 and 54 seconds for the first shot, 15:41 and 27 seconds halfway through the second setup, and 15:41 and 51 seconds for the last frame.

Headshot contact sheet

Some Points to Watch:

  • The sensors on Flashguns (if using CLS or similar) will need to be facing the transmitter – this may mean you need to swivel heads round, or place heads in funny places.  Systems like CLS need line of sight, although indoors and in a small area you can get away with a decent amount of signal bouncing off the walls.
    You may need to mount your flashguns back to front!


  • With CLS (as of 2017) you can’t change the powers of the different heads from channel to channel – if flash group “A” is at 1/2 power manual on channel 1, it’ll be at 1/2 power manual on channel 2, as will all flashes set to Group “A”.  You can deal with this by moving lights around, adding gels or ND filters, or more diffusion.  I’ve not had a chance to play with the new radio powered Nikon system, so I’m not sure how much more flexible it is, but I may be investing very soon.
  • If using a radio triggering system, beware other people in the same vicinity.  Before I switched to Profoto kit 2 years ago, I used cheap and cheerful Calumet triggers, which had 4 channels.  On a couple of large events I found my lights being set off by people on the same system, even though we were on different channels.  This isn’t usually a problem unless you’re working at a big event, but that might be exactly the situation where you find yourself needing a multi-setup solution like this.  On the subject of channels, don’t forget that for whichever system you’re using, channel 1 will be channel 1 – you may need to go and have a chat with other shooters at the same event and come to an agreement about who’s on what channel.
  • I’ve found it helps to label the lights or positions, if you’re getting your subject to change what they’re doing from, setup to setup, as well as telling them what to do in advance. Throughout the shoot, just tell them to look to “note 1”, “note 2” etc.
Headshots - different positions
Post-it notes or tape can be very handy for labelling lights

Now obviously, this was an exercise to prove a technical point, and provide materials for a lecture, but the principle of getting different shots in a short space of time can apply in a wide range of situations.  The “mad minute” I was shooting for was the result of rehearsals, and you may not need 3 different setups, and not have a professional subject in front of the camera.  You could just as easily come up with a setup that was lit by flash, but carefully placed to make use of the ambient, then all you do after 30 seconds is turn your flash trigger off, and quickly switch settings on the camera.  I’d suggest writing these down and rehearsing things – which will only take a few seconds, then just shoot the ambient version.  Don’t think that just because you haven’t got access to a dozen expensive flashes that you can’t get the maximum value out of a short window to shoot with!

Interested in learning more about lighting?  I have a full course right here that walks you through everything you need to know to understand lighting in photography.

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