Real world lighting: Studio Headshot

So, this will be a nice simple setup to begin with. However, so we can revise lots of what we’ve covered so far, I’ll go into quite a bit of detail about what is essentially a simple shot. A few technical details before we start. Here’s the shot we’re aiming for – a fairly straightforward headshot: 

Studio Headshot

I’m shooting on a Nikon D4, with an 85mm lens, which gives a nice, flattering perspective for headshots like this. When I’m using the flashes, my camera will be set for 1/250s – the maximum flash sync speed I can use, at an aperture of f7.1, and ISO 100. The amount of power flashes kick out allows me to use a low ISO like this, which, as you’ll remember keeps the noise in the image to a minimum. The fast shutter speed helps to reduce the risk of any motion blur, as although I’m on a tripod, Lisa might move a little. The aperture is chosen because I want most of Lisa’s face to be in sharp focus, and at this distance from her, with this focal length lens, this is about the right aperture to achieve that. If I wanted to increase or decrease my aperture to get more or less depth of field, all I would need to do would be to increase or decrease the power of the flashes. Remember back to when we talked about types of lighting, and you’ll recall that one of the big advantages to using flashes is the range of power output you can achieve – quite a handy thing to have.

Let’s look at how we’re set up.

Studio headshot setup

you can see a Profoto flash head with a medium softbox on, aiming at Lisa. Then off to the left you can see 2 more Profoto heads, one pointing back at Lisa, and one into the back wall. If you’re paying attention you’ll spot that 2 of the flashes have got power cables coming out of them, and one hasn’t. 2 of them are mains powered, and one is battery – I own 2 of each, so I’ve obviously got to mix and match when shooting with more than 2 lights. It’s worth pointing out that just because they’re powered in different ways doesn’t mean they don’t play along together. One of the big advantages of buying into a system like Profoto is that everything will be compatible, no matter what precise model you end up using. The modifiers for the battery heads fit the mains ones, and vice versa – they’re even all triggered and controlled by the same radio trigger, which is how I’ll be setting them off.

Don’t worry about the light you can see just above my head – that’s a 1kw tungsten light that I’m using to provide light for the video camera, and make it easier for me to focus. Don’t forget that whilst flash puts out a lot of power, and units like these have modelling lights, allowing me to see what I’m doing, there still won’t be much ambient light in the average studio, so it’s quite common to add a little bit of continuous light – particularly in situations like this where I’m also shooting video.

OK, that’s all the technical stuff we need to know before we start shooting. As with the exercise we did earlier, let’s take an image with the camera on full automatic, and see what we get.

Headshot with just ambient light

Well, the white balance is off, obviously, as we’re set for flash, and of course the room is lit by the 1k tungsten, so it’s come out very orange. If we ignore the colour, it’s actually not an appalling image – there’s quite a flattering shallow depth of field, and the light is soft, so doesn’t cast any harsh shadows across Lisa’s face. However, the exposure to get this shot was 1/8th of a second at f2.8, so not only does the camera have to be on a tripod, but if Lisa moves at all, there will be motion blur in the image. We can obviously push the ISO up to compensate, but that will increase the noise, and we’re keen to keep the quality as high as possible. Also, the light is actually very flat, and we’d like to create a bit more shape on Lisa’s face.

So, the first thing we’ll do is turn the flash trigger on, and switch our exposure to 1/250s and f7.1, which from having used a light meter I know is the correct exposure. To begin with, I’ve just got the flash with the medium softbox turned on, as we can consider this the “key” light, and we’ll adjust all the other lights in accordance to how it looks.

Headshot lit with just softbox

Taking each characteristic of light in turn, let’s start with direction, and within that, distance. The light has been angled in front of Lisa, and slightly to her left (camera right) Obviously, the more to the side we move the light, the more accentuated will be the shadow on the opposite side to the light. We want some shadow, to give her face some feeling of 3 dimensions, rather than being completely flat, but we’re not looking to create a dark, and moody shot (that will come later). There’s no hard and fast rule for exactly where to place a light to illuminate someone’s face, each face is different, and what works for one person may need tweaking for someone else. My advice is to start somewhere around here if you’re after a look like this, and then check the back of the camera – or use modelling lights if the flash has them – to ensure you’re getting the look you’re after. The light is also positioned slightly above Lisa, as that gives a more natural effect – don’t forget, the sun is generally above us, so we’re accustomed to seeing light falling from above.

The main things to watch for are the shadows cast by the light – particularly the nose, the eye on the opposite side of your subjects face, which can easily be lost in shade, and the amount the light falls off across your subjects face. Remember what we learnt about inverse square law way back – if the light is very close to the subject, then any changes in light intensity will be more dramatic. If we placed this light very close to Lisa, and then correctly exposed for the highlight portion of her face, by the time the light had progressed around to the shadow side, it would be significantly darker, and we’d struggle to keep her skin tones within a dynamic range we could accurately record. We’d be forced to expose for either the highlights, or the shadows – we wouldn’t see a full range of tones as we do here.

The last thing to mention in reference to direction is how inverse square law is affecting the background. If we go back to our original setup image, we can see how far away the back wall of the studio is to Lisa, and we can also see that it’s painted white. Yet, in this image, it’s a mid to dark grey.

Headshot setup image

I’m sure by now you’ve sussed out why – the effect of inverse square law on the light coming from the softbox means that since we’re correctly exposed for Lisa, who’s something like 2-3 ft away, by the time the light has travelled to the back wall, perhaps another 8 ft away, it’s lost a great deal of it’s intensity, so the white wall comes out grey.

That’s direction done – I apologise if I’m being very thorough, I’m very keen not only to revise lots of what we’ve learnt, but also to point out how all these 4 characteristics interact and are present in even the simplest looking of shots.

Now, onto quality. All we’re concerned with here is how large the light source is in relation to Lisa. Looking back at it, we can see that this medium softbox is pretty big in relation to her face, so what we’ve got is a soft light. We can also tell this from how gradual the transition is from highlight to shadow – look at the top of her forehead – and how soft the edges of the cast shadows are. Remember, don’t be fooled by how black some of the shadows get into thinking that this must have been shot with a hard light – look for the transitions, and the cast shadow edges. And whilst we’re on the subject of reverse engineering, can you spot another visual clue to how the image was lit?

Catchlights in subjects eyes

Look closely – yup – there in the eyes is a tell-tale catchlight cast by the softbox. Remember, unless these have been retouched out, they often give big clues as to where a light was placed, and if the image is high enough resolution, even what shape it was.

The next 2 characteristics are pretty easy to deal with. In terms of quantity, we’ve got enough light to allow us to shoot at a decent aperture, a low ISO and a fast shutter speed. There are no other lights in the shot yet, so we can’t compare relative qualities of light. The colour of the light is consistent, and there are no obvious colour shifts or casts. So, having completely taken apart our key light, lets add a couple more.

Now, I can use my swanky Profoto Air radio trigger to turn the other lights on from the camera, because I’m a show-off like that, so with a press of a button, I’ll turn on the flash head that’s aiming back at Lisa. Here’s what it looks like, let’s go over the 4 facets, but a bit more quickly this time.

Headshot with softbox and backlight

The direction of the light is obviously from behind Lisa, on her right hand side, and slightly above. Adding a backlight, or rimlight, as these are sometimes known, is a great way to separate your subject from the background, and add more depth and dimension to your image. They need to be placed in roughly this position – between your subject and the background, and aiming back to your subject to achieve this effect.

Be careful about placing a 2nd light anywhere though, for the fundamental reason that you will almost certainly now be introducing a 2nd set of shadows into your shot. Now, that might be your creative aim, but in a shot like this, it won’t look terribly flattering if Lisa’s face is criss-crossed by dark shadows. As with placing the key light, pay close attention to where the shadows fall, and move the light until you’re happy with the effect.

The quality of a back light can be of any degree you like, I use everything from grids to softboxes, depending on how much I want to control the spill of light, and how concerned I am about the shadows that may be cast on the subject. In this instance I’m using the standard zoom reflector, set to its widest setting. This gives me a nice balance between efficiency – the amount of the light that ends up hitting my subject, as well as a fairly broad spread of light

Quantity now becomes an issue, as we’ve got more than one light on the go, so the relative quantity of each starts to matter. If this 2nd light is to be noticeable and have any effect, it needs to be a bit brighter than the key light. So, we need to take into account its distance from the subject, what modifier it’s got on it (as that might consume light) and then set the power accordingly. This light is set to be nearly 1 stop brighter than the key light – so since the correct exposure for Lisa is f7.1, the 2nd light is set to be about f9 – 2/3 of a stop brighter. Whilst you’ll want any backlight to be brighter in order to have a separation effect, be careful of making it too bright – you can very easily end up blowing out any highlights on your subject. If we zoom in to the highlights cast by this light, we can see that we’re just hanging on to the detail in the highlights – if we increased the quantity of this light much more we’d soon start to blow out.

Highlights thrown by backlight

As before, colour is a very quick one to deal with – there are no obvious colour shifts, and we’ve not gelled this light, so nothing to concern us here.

Before adding our 3rd light, is there anything else about this image that has changed by adding the 2nd light? Hopefully you’ve spotted that the background has got a bit brighter, and hopefully you can work out why. Yup, the backlight hasn’t just hit the back of Lisa’s head, but has spilled out around the studio, and some of it is falling on the back wall, thereby lightening it. Now, I could very easily limit this, by flagging it off, or channelling the light down in some way, but since we’re about to add a 3rd light to brighten the background, I’m content to let it carry on doing that, as it will save the 3rd light some work.

So, here comes our 3rd light.

Finished headshot

Again, I simply need to turn it on from the remote on the camera. We know the drill by now, where is it placed in relation to our subject, and where is it pointing? It’s aiming away from Lisa, and into the corner of the back wall. Since we’re shooting in a studio with what’s called an infinity cove – essentially a big white wall with no corners, this means the light from this 3rd head will bounce around quite a lot. Now, my main aim in adding this light is to make the back wall nice and bright, so I adjust the quantity accordingly – in relation to the key light, I probably want to be about a stop or so brighter. Since the light is covering such a broad area, this is a situation where I rarely get the light meter out I still tend to simply eyeball the effect on the back of the camera.

You can control how the light falls across your background the same as you can with anything else. If, instead of a big white wash, I wanted a highlight spot, and then a gradual fade to a darker tone, then all I would need to do would be to modify the light accordingly, and possibly add some black reflectors to limit the spill of light. If I was more concerned about creating a very even spread of light, then I would look to diffuse and soften the light before aiming it at the background.

In this case I want a big wash of light. So much in fact that if you look closely, the addition of this 3rd light has actually lifted the shadows on the front of Lisa’s face, despite being pointed in the opposite direction. Look at how the shadow alongside her nose has brightened. It manages this because there’s a lot of it – in terms of how much power the flash is putting out – but more importantly because of how we’ve set the studio up.

Shadows lifted by additional light

A big white infinity cove like this effectively functions like a massive reflector, unless you take steps to limit where the light falls, the white walls and floor will allow it to bounce around all over the place. In this shot, that’s just fine – it does the work of lifting the shadows without me having to pop a reflector in, and it even adds a subtle highlight to the camera right side of her hair. Remember, there are no hard and fast rules about how you have to shoot things, but you can’t escape those 4 basic characteristics, or cheat the laws of physics! In our next example we’ll do the opposite to this, just to demonstrate how much control you can exert over where light falls.

OK, let’s do the obvious, and look at our automatic mode, straight out of camera shot, and then our finished product.

Before and after headshot

Definitely an improvement, and even for a shot as simple as this, there’s an enormous amount that goes into creating it. Hopefully everything is still making sense, and whilst I’m going to great lengths to leave no stone unturned in describing how this shot was created, you can appreciate how all the various things we’ve talked about are coming together in one shot. Next, let’s take our lighting in another direction and make things moody.

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