5 Steps For Perfect Headshot Lighting

November 10, 2020

As a photographer, light is considered not only your best friend but its also your wife, your child, your boss, and could be compared to nearly any other meaningful relationship we humans have. Sounds weird, I know, but as “painters of light” photographers must understand light in the most personal of ways. As it is with our bosses who call the shots at work; light, calls the shots wherever your shoot location may be. What excess or little light you may have available runs the show, and for professional headshot photography in Los Angeles, it’s all about how well you can creatively execute with what you’re given.

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When it comes to understanding light and the differences in quality they bring, theres no better canvas to showcase these details than in a human face; enter the staple, up-close, and intimate portrait, formally known as “The Headshot”. So without further a-do, here’s 5 steps to perfect headshot lighting, and why I use them in my own photography work. Mastering lighting allows me to offer beautiful, affordable headshots to anyone aspiring to take the stage!

#1 Ambient Lighting

To start this process off in your mind, The first question you want to ask yourself is, where do I want to shoot, and what is the ambient existing light like there? Are you planning on shooting in your garage with hard front lighting through the pull up door, or maybe you’re in a well light study with skylights? In any case, you’re going to want to scout the location where you’re contemplating shooting before you actually go out and do the shoot. And don’t forget to go as close to your planned shoot time as possible; for professional headshot photography in Los Angeles, punctuality is prime for the right lighting! Remember, light shifts throughout the day as the sun moves through the sky.

In my case, I shoot theatrical & commercial headshots for actors who are looking for 2 types of looks in lighting; dramatic for theatrical, and clean even light for commercial. Here’s two examples of the dramatic and clean ambient lighting locations that I found for my own sessions:

Top Dark moody parking garage | Bottom is bright and clean back alley

I adore natural light, and I am constantly trying to replicate or compliment it. Nothing looks worse, in my opinion, then the over exposed “flash in broad daylight look.” You want your subject to be well lit but you don’t want to notice that they are lit “artificially.” In order to combat overusing your strobes or flash and getting that “artificial” look, its best to find a location with lighting as close to ideal as possible. By providing afforable headshots, I am able to utilize the lighting of the environment around me to craft the best headshot, at no additional expense to my client.

On the top photo above, you see a dark and dramatic Parking garage with deep rich tones, and some orange accent lights on the ceiling that double as great hair lights for the subject. But more important than the moodiness of the location is that it possess a natural clean ambient light that acts as a key for lighting the face of your subject evenly. This is thanks to the garage’s open face design and white painted walls that bounce the clean light directly towards your subjects face. All that said, understanding the ambient location light is vital to setting a good foundation for your professional headshot photography in Los Angeles.

#2 Key Light

The Key Light is your main source of light for your subject. Typically placed directly in front of your subject, this is the light that determines the exact mood you want to convey as the light hits your subjects face. Perhaps, you want it to be hard and directional to induce a more high-fashion look? Or you might want to go for a dramatic side light that tosses deep shadows onto one side of your subjects face? Determining the mood you want to convey through the headshot is vital in how you use place your key light in relation to your subject.

In my case of shooting for professional theatrical headshots in Los Angeles for actors, I want a final image that is dramatic and moody, yet still highlights all of their natural features in a clean way. With this in mind, I always choose to place my key light directly in front of the actor. This ensures no shadows are thrown across the face that may hinder their natural features. Casting directors that view the actors headshots want to see the person displayed as naturally as possible.

Now in order to achieve my goal of lighting in a way the is as realistic and non-artificial as possible, my go-to light modifier is the largest umbrella I can possible buy. This allows a wide and soft light to be throw onto the actor which mimics natural daylight. Typically the smaller you go on your key light, the more artificial and direction the light will look on the face.

Larger key lights add a look that more closely resembles your every day clean and even light you see during a bright but cloudy day. The clouds act as a large umbrella or soft-box would, producing more even light, yet when it’s clear skies and sunny outside, shadows are harsher as the source of the light (the sun) is much smaller in comparison to a sky full of white clouds. Understanding the use of the umbrella is critical for your professional headshot photography in Los Angeles.

Deep White umbrella used as main Key Light

#3 Hair/Kicker Light

This truly is the secret to creating affordable headshots that stand out from the rest. Hair/Kicker lights are what bring that cinematic flare to images. Hair lights are great for separating your subject from the background and making them pop out of the image. You can also achieve this look through backlighting, which in many ways can produce a dramatic rim light glow around your subject that can play dreamy or edgy depending on the location/style.

The great thing about kicker lights is they give a nice rim light around the cheeks of your subject. This works great on Men when you want to accentuate their jawline and masculine features. On women they work great to bring out detail in their hair but should be used cautiously as they tend to be more harsh than necessary when shooting for a more feminine look.

Two Kicker lights on the left and right behind the subject

#4 Fill Light

Fill light, works exactly how it sounds. This is light used to fill in the shadows on your subject or background and works best to reducing contrast and creating a more flat image. Many times you’d also want to add a fill to retain more details that may be lost.

There are two main ways to add fill light. You can either add an additional flash if you have on handy, or my preferred way, by adding a simple bounce. You can use your typical expandable bounce or any large white surface. Anything that has a pretty size-able surface area and is on the brighter color size works well.

The idea with a fill light is to bounce a light amount of soft light back towards your subject or background to fill in the shadows. This can be light bounced from either your main key light, the sun, or even just the ambient light. Just be mindful of any color cast you may get on your subject, depending on the surface color of your bounce and the color of you fill light source. Being mindful of your fill light helps you create professional headshoot photography for your shoot in Los Angeles.

White bounce used to throw light back on to subject

#5 In Camera Exposure

Lastly, the way you’ll tie all these final steps together is through your camera’s exposure. This is the one thing you’re going to want to nail. It’s kinda like the icing on the cake. You can bake some awesome cakes but if the icing sucks it’ll ruin the entire cake.

Typically you’ll want to aim for a dead center exposure on your image to give you the most latitude when it comes to processing your image. If you under or over expose the image too heavily in one way or the other, you won’t be able to edit your image without loosing quality quickly.

Actor Headshots

All in all, when experimenting on your own lighting, or looking for professional headshot photography in Los Angeles, hopefully this guide will be a good help in what to look for. Don’t forget to experiment and try your own ways of lighting! You never know what tricks and styles you may develop.

If you’d like to view more of my work and stay up to date with future post, head over to www.glassdarklyphoto.com and join our mailing list. May God bless you, and happy shooting!


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