Lighting and Photographing White Seamless Background Headshots

Lighting and Photographing White Seamless Background Headshots

Lighting basic, corporate-style, higher-key headshots is an essential skill for most photographers. Here is a step-by-step guide for how I set up my lights to create even, white-backdrop portraits.

Lighting Gear I Use for White Seamless Headshot Portraits

For a large space, I used the following items:

The Elinchrom BX-RI Kit comes with two small umbrella softboxes, which are perfect for using for your background strobes because their black backing prevents unwanted light from spilling onto your model.

For a smaller space, I used the following items:

These can be varied for budget 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.

Where to Place Your Lights for White Seamless Portraits

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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.

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Background lights are pointed either into the modifier (if reflective/bounce softboxes) or directly at the wall (if direct/diffused softboxes). I keep my subject as far from the backdrop as possible.

Light Metering Your White Backgrounds for Headshots

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 light is getting across your backdrop evenly. For example, if one side of the wall is reading at f/8 while the other side is reading at f/5.6, then the side reading at f/5.6 is getting only half the amount of light on it as the f/8 side. Increase your strobe power in this area until the entire wall or backdrop is reading at f/8.

 

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Draft example of one of my corporate-style headshots. If you’re a Lightroom user, Soft Proofing is one of my favorite tools to quickly check if your backdrop is really as white along the edges as you think it is.

Checking your histogram is also a great tool, whether in-camera on your built-in LCD or in Lightroom. Here you can see where my hot spots are.

Checking your histogram is also a great tool, whether in-camera on your built-in LCD or in Lightroom. Here you can see where my hot spots are.

Your backdrop should be several exposure stops higher than the light on your model to ensure that nice, seamless white look. Start with a 2:1 ratio, knowing that you may need to go with 4:1. Your backdrop strobes will be set at higher powers than your key and higher still than your fill. The key and fill will be a 2:1 ratio, for those who like to think in ratios. Or you can try out my settings below.

The Settings I Use for Evenly-Lit Headshot Portraits

I tend to shoot between 1/160th-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 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. A good one is the SmallHD DP7-PRO OLED SX Field Monitor if your camera has HDMI out. Field monitors are designed for filmmakers but are perfectly acceptable for photographers who need something a little bigger than what their built-in 3″ LCDs provide.

BL owner, Max, and "mini Max" waiting for their headshot to be taken.

A behind-the-scenes look of the final portrait below. BorrowLenses co-founder, Max Shevyakov, with his papier-mâché props.

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Knowing how to shoot a white seamless headshot is essential for portrait photographers. Businesses, theaters, and schools 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.

A variation of my setup for at-home use. This is what I used to photograph the portrait of an actress at the top of this post. I didn't have access to flags here but would use them next time. Without flags, you'll get more light spill on the subject's hair and shoulders.

A variation of my setup for at-home use (crappy phone photo but still illustrative). This is what I used to photograph the portrait of an actress at the top of this post. I didn’t have access to flags here and used bald lights on my backddrop but would use flags next time. Without flags, you’ll get more light spill on the subject’s hair and shoulders.

I didn’t use them in this example, but flagging off 2-4 Speedlights with black foam core (or a pro black flag, like what’s found in this kit) is a great option when shooting in small rooms. Practice your own variations of this setup.

A special note on glasses: the positioning of my lights in the setup above is forgiving of those in glasses and a little glare, if not distracting, is usually tolerated. If you’re getting bad glare, have your model tilt their head slightly before attempting to move lights. See more about the directionality of lighting and the incidence of reflection in my Glare Aware: Photographing Portraits of People in Glasses tutorial.

To test out the relative ease-of-use of my lighting setup, I had our non-shooter Operations Manager mimic the entire process exactly as shown above for a couple of BorrowLenses staff shots and he was able to replicate the look very easily. If you’re having any trouble, do not hesitate to ask me questions below.

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Alexandria Huff's photography and lighting tutorials can be found on 500px and her blog. She is a Marketing Coordinator for BorrowLenses.com and also writes for SmugMug. She learned about lighting and teaching while modeling for photographers such as Joe McNally and has since gone on to teach lighting workshops of her own in San Francisco. See her chiaroscuro-style painterly portraits on her website.

8 Comments

  1. What exactly do you use for background? Is that cloth or paper?

    Reply
  2. @Tor – That is a foldable black/white backdrop, stretched fabric. However, I have used paper and white walls with the same effect.

    Reply
  3. I have a white vinyl 10×20 backdrop,having some pink edges on top and bottom of setup. I am using two 24×36 softboxes to light the background and two 60 in umbrellas to light the subjects. My space to work in 11ft x 19ft. trying full lenght body shots.By the time I place lights my photo space becomes smaller. Some sugestions my help or should I just give it up. Thks Eddie

    Reply
  4. Eddie – Don’t give up. If you can swing it, the easy solution is to add two more lights to your background set up–that way you can have two aimed high and two aimed lower. Another option (but I don’t think it is necessarily easier) is to blast your background lights into two full-length white V-flats angled at your backdrop. Joe McNally used a similar tactic when blasting his speedlights into the side of a big white truck–creating a nice big light shaping tool through bounce: http://www.joemcnally.com/blog/2011/11/30/a-new-flash/

    Reply
  5. Alex,

    Can this be done with CFL set up or do you have to use strobes?

    Thanks,
    Sarah

    Reply
    • You can definitely use continuous lighting of any kind and mimic this setup – that is a standard practice for headshot gurus like Peter Hurley. Strobes are simply stronger. When trying this with CFLs or LEDs, know that you may have to crank your ISO, lower your shutter speed, or open your aperture more than I’ve done here.

      Reply
  6. How do you decide your initial lighting lighting ratios? Depending how far off the paper your subject is… the kick light from the background onto the subjects edges will vary…

    Reply
    • I’ve added more BTS imagery to this post with some additional tips, including ratios.

      Reply

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