I photographed the staff headshots for both BorrowLenses.com and Zenfolio.com using just a white wall as my background. Lighting basic higher-key headshots is an essential skill for most photographers. Here is a step-by-step guide for how I lighted the scene to create that seamless “white room” effect.
Lighting Gear I Use
For a large space, I use the following items:
- Elinchrom BX-RI Kit x 2
- Elinchrom 39″ Rotalux Deep Octabox
- Elinchrom Octa Light Bank – 74″
- Sekonic 358 Lightmeter
The Elinchrom BX-RI Kit comes with two small umbrella softboxes which are perfect for using on your background strobes because their black backing prevents unwanted light from spilling onto your model.
For a small space, I use the following items:
- Flashes, any brand that allows off-camera shooting, x 4
- Black-backed umbrellas x 2
- Small-to-medium sized beauty dish or softbox, such as the Photoflex OctoDome nxt Extra Small Kit.
- 3′ or larger softbox or octabox, such as the Westcott 28″ Apollo Kit.
These can be varied for budged and taste. Just remember the essentials:
- 1 large light modifier as your key source. The larger the source, the softer the results–especially with a diffuser.
- 1 smaller light modifier as your fill. A reflector may also be used but may not produce as even and soft results.
- 2-4 umbrellas or softboxes for your wall or white paper backdrop.
Placement of the Lighting Gear
I place my key above my subject by several feet, pointed downward at them and facing them at a right or left-leaning angle. I place my fill on the opposite side at a similar angle and below the subject by 1/2 foot–low enough to fill the area under the chin and on the neck but not so low that it doesn’t also provide some light on the cheek.
Background lights are pointed either into the modifier or directly at the wall. I keep my subject as far from the backdrop as possible.
Connect a light meter to your strobes or flash via a sync cable. Set your light meter to “strobe” mode and set the shutter speed and ISO you expect to shoot at. I suggest shooting between 1/100th of a second to 1/250th of a second–not so slow that your subject has to stand very still to prevent motion blur and not so fast that your camera shutter is unable to sync properly with your flash. Face your light meter toward the wall you are blasting light onto. Take a reading at several spots along the wall. The light meter should give you a consistent f-stop result. The actual number is not important here–you are just making sure enough light is getting across your backdrop evenly.
When metering your subject, remember that your backdrop should be several exposure stops higher than your model to ensure that nice, seamless white look. Your backdrop strobes will be set at higher powers than your key and higher still than your fill.
I tend to shoot between 1/160th of a second-1/250th of a second and between f/8-f/11 on ISO 100 and adjust my strobe power accordingly. Your settings will change depending on the power flexibility of the lights you are working with. I shoot tethered to a laptop so that I can see very well how the exposure at the edges of the frame look but this is not a requirement. You can also use a field monitor to at least see your scene better.
Pros and Cons of the White Seamless Headshot
Knowing how to shoot a white seamless-style headshot is essential for portrait photographers. Businesses, theaters, schools, and cooperatives all typically need professional headshots taken for their websites and a perfectly white backdrop with soft, even lighting is often requested. Corporate style headshots make a great addition to your portfolio. However, the lighting setup can be gear-intensive and preventing light spill can be tough in small spaces. If you are finding it difficult to get the edges of your scene white, consider adding more lights. I have used 4 background lights in the past just to be safe, though often 2 is enough when set to the right power and angled well. Practice your own variations of this set up and show us your results! To test out the relative simplicity of this set up, I had our East Coast Headquarters Operations Manager mimic the entire process for their staff shots and he was able to replicate the look very easily. If you’re having any trouble, do not hesitate to ask us questions below!