Studio Lighting for Headshots – Tutorial

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?

Studio Lighting for Headshots - Photography Tutorial

For this tutorial, I will focus on the ‘classic’ headshot.

Beautiful headshots can be produced with three lights and a reflector.

Studio Lighting for Headshots - Photography Tutorial

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.

Studio Lighting for Headshots - Photography Tutorial

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.

Studio Lighting for Headshots - Photography Tutorial

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.

If you would like to read more, check out these articles:

High Key Studio Lighting – Tutorial

Low Key Studio Lighting – Tutorial

Photographing Young Children With Low Key Lighting

Using Bold Color in Portraiture – Tips and Techniques

How to Set Up a Photo Booth in Your Home

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio

Make a Beauty Dish for Studio Lighting

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  1. Cool – will try that one today in the studio. I use a different method, but this makes it look simple and easy to get really nice effects.

    cheers lassy!

  2. Thanks for writing up this blog. I came across many many articles on the web, and found yours one clear and concise, right to the point and extremely easily understood by a beginner like me.

  3. deborahwolfe says

    Wow Thean, thanks!

  4. thank you so much for all the great ideas trying them all tour the BEST!!!!

  5. Thank you so much Deborah, You are awesome, You are very talented, but the best part you like to share your knowledge with the word! God Bless you!

  6. deborahwolfe says

    Thank YOU, Nivaska!

  7. Michael Jones says

    Great article!

    One question, where does the key light go in the diagram?

    Is it in front of the camera, or behind it?

  8. deborahwolfe says

    Hi Michael. Good question and the answer depends on the size of the space you’re shooting in. In a perfect world, there is enough space to back up far enough away from the subject to place the key light slightly in front of the camera. However, I have shot in spaces so tight, I’ve placed the key light against the wall and wedged myself slightly in front of and to the side of the key light.

  9. Deborah,
    I loves this article. although I don’t know that it will help me. because of the lights you are using.
    I have recently purchased the Promaster 300ws to do a head shot job for a company. I also rented a light meter. I went in, set it all up (against their blue wall) and started adjusting my aperture and shutter speed according to the light meter. It washed out ALL of my pictures. I’m not sure if you can tell me some tips and trick so I can get this done correctly. I have read and read and read on things and it seems your articles make more sense to me. I have the 2 light set up. One facing towards the subject, one away. I am shooting with a canon 40D… do you have anything that can help me? ALSO the place they have me taking pics is against a blue wall, in a 5ft wide area (they can’t give me more width) they also all have on white shirts!

  10. deborahwolfe says

    Hi Shauna,

    First let me absolutely recognize that the situation you have described is a very tricky and frustrating one. Been there, done that. However, before I can offer any sort of guidance I’ll need to know a few things. What type of light modifiers are you using; shoot through umbrellas, umbrellas with the light bounced, soft boxes etc? Are you using any reflectors? Also, you mention you are using a two light setup, correct? Give me some idea of where, exactly, you are placing the lights and at what angles to subject and what ever else you are lighting.

    I would love to help you solve this lighting pickle, as that is one of my favorites things!

  11. Thanks for the write up. Wouldn’t a more “classical” head shot evolve a fill light to produce a light ratio across the face for depth? Here I only see a key light providing an evenly illuminated face with little to no depth.

  12. deborahwolfe says

    @ Tuco-You are possibly referring to Rembrandt lighting, which is much more directional and therefore yields more ‘depth’ to a portrait.

    For the purposes of this tutorial, I am designing light for ‘real world’ situations, such as a business headshot or the traditional 8×10 ‘glossy’ for models, dancers, actors etc. In these cases, it is most important that a person’s features be easily and clearly ‘read’. Rembrandt lighting, by its very nature, creates a strong light and dark side to the face, making it difficult to fully discern what a person actually looks like. It is a fantastic type of lighting, but is impractical for an all purpose headshot.