Two Stops Down

A journal on photography by Thomas Riggs

Improvised Headshot Lighting That Works

Headshot - Joel

As work on my current university project comes to a close, I thought I’d share a few tidbits of information I’ve picked up from the past few months.

Part of this project involved taking a series of headshots in a similar style. When it comes to headshots, there are a myriad of styles one could go for. To fit my own work though, and in particular other work in the project, I decided the portraits had to:

  • be simple and consistently executed;
  • be somewhat personal/intimate;
  • make some use of colour.

There was one big constraint, however: the university studio at the time had no strobes, no light-control devices, and no backdrops. Aside from natural light, the only available sources were the buzzing strip lights on the ceiling, and a selection of old halogen lamps.

Here’s the lighting diagram for what I came up with:

Devoid of anything to soften the light directly, I set up a flip-chart with a sheet of plain paper just out of sight, to the camera’s right. Bouncing the bright halogen lamp off of this created a much softer light, which could be adjusted for shadow softness by moving the lamp closer or further from the paper. Shadow contrast could be changed by moving the flip-chart further or closer to the subject.

With the main light provided by the lamp, I sat the subjects in front of a whitewashed wall, with a large window across the room to camera left. This provided a colour-contrasting fill light, which really gives a three-dimensional feel to the final images. Aside from cloning a pock-mark or two out of the wall behind them, very little post-processing work was done. A few colour adjustments were used to keep colour consistency between shoots.

Headshot - Joel Headshot - Maria Headshot - James
Katie Headshot Tom Headshot

Now the studio has a walk-in light tent, which does a decent enough job softening the halogen lamps. However, having a good understanding of these basic principles allows you to set things up in almost any circumstance.

This article was published on 9 March 2010.