Or, The Other Money Shot
There are at least as many ways to shoot a headshot as there are ways to skin a cat. We won’t go into WHY someone would want to skin a cat, but I can tell you why people would want to shoot headshots. This is a great basic skill to have in your repertoire. Think of it as The Little Black Dress of photography.
It’s amazing at all the different types of people and professions who need headshots; realtors, editors, authors, entertainers, models, CEOs, dancers, moguls, rock stars, travel agents, ministers, entrepreneurs, business owners, internet marketers and even the occasional porn star, just to name a few. Being able to shoot reliable, polished headshots can bring in infusions of cash, and hey, who doesn’t like a little infusion, from time to time?
For this tutorial, I will focus on the ‘classic’ headshot.
Beautiful headshots can be produced with three lights and a reflector.
You will need a key light, a background light and a hair light. The most important light, in my opinion, is the hair light. Hair, especially dark hair, soaks up an incredible amount of light and doesn’t bounce back much. This can leave the photograph looking dull and ‘dead’. The effects of a hair light can be subtle, but it can really bring life to an image, just like catch lights do in the eyes. Look at the difference it makes in these two images.
Just as the lack of a hair light leaves an image looking unfinished, a badly placed hair light can ruin an image. It is very important to make sure the light is placed well to the back of your subject’s forehead. Make sure the light is hitting from the midpoint of the head and falling off to the back. If you position the hair light too far forward, you risk racoon eyes and a glowing nose. Not pretty. You will have to play around with light settings and height, which will be different for brunettes and blonds. I usually find a height of about 3 feet above my subject is best and a setting of f/4.5 or f/5.6. If you’re not careful with blondes, you’ll blow out the top of their heads.
Place your background light as close to the background as possible, with the light aimed almost, but not quite, straight up. You’ll want to make sure it is somewhat lower than your subject. I usually put mine about 3 feet off the ground. I do not use a light modifier, instead I use a standard pan reflector to direct the light. I usually set my background light a stop under my key light and this gives a very nice gradient behind the subject. Background lights help separate the subject from the background and give dimensionality to the image.
A word about backgrounds. For headshots I want depth and dimensionality, so I prefer either black seamless paper or dark gray seamless paper. The shorter rolls are just fine for this type of shooting.
Place you key light, preferably in a VERY large umbrella, almost directly in front of and well above your subject. You will bounce the light into the umbrella, NOT shoot through it.
Place a large white or silver reflector at a 45 degree angle directly under the subjects face, low enough not to be in the photo. This will bounce fill light under the subject’s chin and cure a myriad of ills, such as double chins and soft jawlines. It also adds an extra little ‘kick’ of liveliness to the image.
Place yourself slightly higher than the subject aiming down. Shoot with longer focal length lenses, in the 85-150mm range. I prefer to shoot against either a dark gray or black background. And there you have it – the basic headshot.
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