The Headshot Photography Course – 1

ShutterSpeed: 1/125 Aperture: 3.5 ISO: 1250

Welcome to this series of headshot tutorials. I have been an actors headshot photographer for 25 years and before that photographed beauty and glamour. The purpose of these blogs is to share the skills that I have attained working in many different styles of headshot photography. Even though my niche is headshot photography for actors the techniques can be applied to any style of portraiture. I will deal with different lighting techniques and walk you through set ups so that it may help you improve your own skills.

Lighting Techniques

To begin with there is no such thing as a basic lighting set up for a headshot. Simple, yes – basic, no. You will here me talk about ‘quality of light’ a lot in these blogs as its this that will set your pictures apart from the crowd. It makes no difference wether the set up you use is just daylight on a beach or a mixed set lighting set up using speedlights and LED’s its the quality of the light that matters. I have been obsessed by the the way light can stroke the features of the face and enhance the look of the person. I have also been surprised that a great lighting set up can work for many clients but not all. Choosing the right set up for the face you are photographing to convey the energy of that client is crucial. But, in order to do that you will need experience in using a variety of different lighting setups, understanding how they paint light on your subject and knowing how you can fine tune them to your needs.

The following light sources will be used in the course of these blogs.

  • Daylight outside
  • Daylight inside
  • Daylight using modifiers and flags
  • Studio flash
  • Speedlites
  • LED’s
  • Mixed light sources using all of the above.

All the pictures in these blogs have been shot by me. Unless the pictures are of setups they are all shot on jobs or as candids. No models have been used.

The gear list:  (You can’t shoot all this stuff on a phone.)

A DSLR or Mirrorless camera with a lens that is the 35mm equivilent of 85 mm and above. (See this article should you need more technical info). Portraits are best shot with these lenses as they provide the correct perspective to display a face as you eyes would perceive it in real life. With shorter focal lengths the distance between nose and ears is going to increase, which is not the most desirable of perspectives especially when photographing a loved one (best to avoid confrontation), but can be useful when you want to exaggerate a quirky look.


Canon 5D Mk111 50mm lens, f11 1/125, Studio Flash. Beauty dish

There are of course exceptions and I regularly shoot on a 24-70 mm zoom at 70mm. You have to be careful to position yourself correctly otherwise you will see some distortion but it does add an intimacy to the shot.

Jason Segade

Daylight. 70.0mm ShutterSpeed: 1/160 Aperture: 5.0 ISO: 800

Headshots need to have some separation from the background. Thats not to say they a divorced from the environment that they are shot in but you dont want to be distracted with too much visual landfill.

There are two ways you can achieve that.

  • Shoot on a plain-ish background
  • Use a shallow depth of field.
  • Create some interest behind the client that compliments their look

Plain backgrounds explain themselves. You can use anything that is..well…plain – ish. But using a coloured plain background can incorporate its self as an integral part of the image. Using a strong vibrant colour can look very striking.


Comedienne Lucy Beaumont 62.0 mm ShutterSpeed: 1/125 Aperture: 13.0 ISO: 100 Studio flash

Using depth of field is the creative way of using lenses. They have f stops for a reason so use them. Basically depth of field is the amount you are getting in focus. The lower the f number the less you get in focus and this is exaggerated with longer focal length lenses. For the daylight style of portraiture explained in the previous blog, a narrow depth of field is desirable as it will nicely blur your background helping to make the your subject the most important element in the shot. The better (read more expensive!) your lenses the better this is going to be. ‘Fast’ lenses (thats f2.8 and below) are not cheap but you will produce a bokeh (out of focus stuff for the non techie) that just looks a lot better. Thats not to say you won’t do decent stuff with cheaper lenses. Canon and Nikon both do a cheap 85mm lens f1.8 that does a great job.

Jessica-Jane Stafford

‘Cheap’ Canon 85 mm ShutterSpeed: 1/100 Aperture: 4.0 ISO: 800 Mixed lighting

A Word on Cropping

Very important and terribly under rated. Get this wrong and your headshot will not have the correct impact. If all a picture is, regardless of content, is a bunch of lines and shapes and colours, then what makes those elements special is the relationship between them. You can have two pictures of the same subject but one is better than the other because its constructed better (relationships). So by cropping you change the relationships in the picture and then change the impact of the picture. As a rule with headshots you want the eyes to be in the on or around the upper third in a portrait shot.

FocalLength: 85.0 mm ShutterSpeed: 1/125 Aperture: 4.0 ISO: 1250

Here I have used an example of Lightroom’s crop overlay feature. When in Lr Tools>Crop press o on your keyboard and it will cycle through all the crop overlays (this one is Golden Spiral). This by no means a perfect way to crop but by centreing attention to an intersection with one of the crop overlays should help your composition.

Using daylight outside

Shooting in daylight is the most obvious solution when starting out as a headshot photographer. The light source is always there and it costs nothing to use. Using daylight is the most basic of lighting techniques but can be one of the hardest to manipulate to your advantage. Not all daylight is good daylight. To get your headshots looking a cut above the rest you need a great quality of light on the face. This can be achieved without any modifiers out in the open, but you have to pick your time of day and the angle you shoot at in relation to the sun (or where it might be if it’s cloudy). It’s not all about the position of the sun though. It’s the also the surrounding area. Is a it a forest, a beach, urban cityscape, are things around the area you are shooting generally reflective or do they suck in light. Is the light direct to the subject or is it being bounced back into the subject. So many variables and so many different qualities of light.


Daylight on a beach. No modifiers


Daylight. No modifiers. Cloudy day

Recorder Player. South Africa

Daylight, No modifiers. Face is lit from sunlight hitting the sand on the beach

Considered opinion is that you need 3 points of light to help structure the face, but as you can see from these picture, even in open spaces you can get still get a great light if your careful.

There are various lighting techniques and modifiers that can help manipulate daylight but all of these methods need a keen eye to implement properly. Lets deal with the basic tenets of good lighting.

Classic 3 point lighting

  • Key Light. Thats the main light, above the eyeliner and 30-45 degrees off centre.
  • Fill Light. Basically fill in the shadows created by the key light
  • Accent light. Could be a hard light on the hair that separates the portrait from the backgroundand perhaps a..
  • Kicker. Perhaps a hard light to accent cheekbones.

Now it might seem that this explanation of 3 point lighting refers studio lighting rather than daylight but the same principles still apply. Your key light is the sky, which is above the eyeline, the fill light is created by any reflecting surfaces around your subject and the accent light…..well that can be created as well using daylight.

The main (key) light is the most important and we might need to manipulate it to create a better quality of light on the face. The rest of lighting, fill, accent and kickers simply enhance the key light.

So where do we start. Open field, cityscape, beach? Choice is yours, there is no right or wrong time as there are so many variables, but as a general rule if you’re dealing with open spaces then the two golden hours, first light and twilight are the favourites for great quality of light but its by no means guaranteed.  So in order to guarantee a great quality of light then the way to go is to modify the light to your advantage. Time to stick that tin foil to the board and make your first modifier!

No need to go out and buy expensive reflectors, but it does make you look a bit more professional! A piece of flexible board with tin foil glued to it will do the job. If you want buy some then Lastolite make some great ones.

Your key light in this case is daylight. The sky above you and your subject. The first thing we have to do is control that.

Take your subject and put them in a doorway (or at the opening of tunnel) about half metre inside so they are out of direct light and there is certainly no sunlight hitting the face. Move your subject in and out of the area just a little and watch how the light paints the face. Find a place you like and and then use the modifier you just made and use it to reflect light back into the face by placing it 50cm or so under the chin and angle it towards the face. Check what it does. By adding the reflector you are controlling the depth of the shadows created by the key light. Generally the less shadow the more glamorous the quality of light on the face. The following portraits are all based on that this technique.

All shot in my studio doorway with one reflector bouncing light back into the face.

53_NACK_3436-Edit by 17 14:42:23.

These were shot by the french doors in my kitchen.


and this was shot in the street under a small tree with one reflector.


So you can see with the most simple of tools you can create beautifully lit headshots

For more ambitious lighting follow the next two tutorials


For guided workshops click here


1 Comment

  1. […] List: Same as Photography Headshot Course 1 with addition of a large white […]


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