Lighting and Photographing White Seamless Background Headshots

Lighting and Photographing White Seamless Background Headshots


I photographed the staff headshots for both and 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:

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:

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

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 12.26.32 PM

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.

Light Metering

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.

My Settings

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.

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

BL owner, Max, and “mini Max” waiting for their headshot to be taken. Want to see the whole crew? Visit our Meet the Crew page!

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!

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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 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.


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

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

  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

  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:

  5. Alex,

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


  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…



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