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:
- 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 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:
- 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 Lastolite EZYBox.
- 3′ or larger softbox or octabox, such as the Westcott Apollo 4′ x 4′ Softbox.
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
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.