Some simple lighting techniques for better headshots

Headshots, portraits, whatever you want to call them, are everywhere. Every actor, model, singer, executive, realtor, and even the guy that cuts what little hair I have left seems to have a headshot. There is even a new market for professional-looking headshots for use on social networking sites like facebook (btw: GWC has a new facebook page, so join up here! OK, now that my shameless self-promotion is out of the way, let's look at some really simple techniques for producing better headshots with lighting.

Headshot 2

This was taken in direct harsh ugly mid-day sunlight, the kind of lighting that photographers avoid when at all possible. The sun is overhead behind me, and there is not a cloud in the sky. This is the recipe for harsh contrasty light that highlights skin flaws, produces dark shadows in the eyes, as well as causes the subject to squint. But if we can't avoid it, how can we improve the direct overhead sunlight? By holding a translucent panel (found inside most 5-in-1 reflectors), or even a big white thin sheet of fabric up in between the sun and your subject, you immediately soften the light. This gets rid of the harsh shadows, and reduces the intensity of the sunlight, allowing the subject to be more comfortable and squint less.

Headshot 1

This shot was taken in the exact same place, all I did was tell Valerie to turn around, so now the sun is overhead and behind her. This immediately reduces the contrast and harshness of the light since the direct rays of the sunlight are not shining on her face at all. In fact, all of the highlights on her hair over her left shoulder are from that direct sunlight. So now her face is being lit by the softer light that comes from the open sky, and the sum of all the light reflected off the sidewalk and whatever else is in the environment. Left alone, her face would be lit alright, but would look flat and uninteresting, and her eyes wouldn't have any pop, since there are no catchlights reflected from a close light source. So I used a large white reflector held under the right side of her face to reflect some of the direct sunlight that is behind her (no reflector? you could just as well use a white board or any white material). This adds some light and contrast to the right side of her face, fills in shadows that were made by the light from the overhead sky, and adds catchlights to bring the eyes alive. The unwanted side effect is a bit of squinting from the bright reflector, but the overall look is worth it!

Headshot 3

Now what if there is no direct sun because you're on the shadow side of the street and the sun is blocked by buildings? Well, by bouncing a single flash into a reflector (or a wall), we can add some nice soft light and contrast to the image. Simple as that!

Check out a behind-the-scenes video of this shoot here on YouTube!