October 11, 2019
Headshots are the bread and butter of many photographers. They’re pretty straightforward, can be done quickly, and don’t require crazy, elaborate setups. Except for me – I’m extra. I love making things more difficult for myself to create unique images. So I did dramatic lighting for some actor headshots. with Todd.
This session was part of a deal I set up with the Emory University Theater Studies department. They asked me to give a lecture to their students about how to get great headshots and how to find the right photographer. They also requested that I take headshots of any students who needed them.
Here’s me from the lecture. I was a rambling dork, but the students seemed to enjoy it and take home some useful information and tips. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a good enough salesman and only had one person show up for headshots. On the bright side, that meant I could slow play the session and spend more time with Todd to get stellar images.
Todd is crazy talented – you can tell by how he carries himself that he’s a natural dancer. He’s currently a junior at Emory, with a desire to act and write after he graduates. After a quick chat to learn about his preferences, we decided on a slightly dramatic look for his headshots. With his awesome hair and 5 o’clock shadow, I thought something with good shadows would help show off his features and provide great depth and texture.
I was excited about these images because we opted to go dramatic, which meant I could dial in a painterly look. A painterly portrait is one that is typically dramatic but has very soft transitions from the brights to the shadow areas. The other aspect is that there aren’t any true blacks. You should still be able to see the detail in the shadow areas. This style takes a lot of inspiration from the famous painter & artistic style known as Rembrandt. I’ll walk through how I set up my gear to achieve these dramatic lighting headshots.
For a typical headshot, I’ll use a 24” or 32” Octabox. This sized modifier typically produces soft enough light for headshots so long as I’ve got it right next to my subject. The rule is, the farther away a light source is from your subject, the harsher (sharper transition from bright to dark) the light becomes. For a painterly look, the light needs to be super soft – so I opted to use my 48” Glow Octabox as my key light. It’s overkill for a headshot, but it created the smooth shadow transition zones that are necessary for the painterly look.
Next, I placed a 24” Octabox slightly behind Todd and on the opposite side of the 48” key light. This would act as my fill light to keep the shadows from getting too dark. Because this light was just working as a way to fill in the shadows, it didn’t need to be as large to maintain that soft look I wanted.
Finally, I placed a standard speedlight directly above and slightly behind Todd’s head. This light would act as my hair light, AKA it would add a touch of light to his hair and shoulders to help separate him from the background. I find this light is often overlooked, but it’s critical when placing a subject with dark hair or dark clothing in front of a dark background. In this case, I was using the black side of a V-Flat as the background. It was angled such that it would block any light spill from the hair light or the key light entering my lens and creating a flare effect. Fun look, but not for a headshot.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the full set up.
I shot these images with the Canon EOS R, and 85mm f/1.4 IS L – my absolute favorite combination for headshots. The EOS R has Eye Autofocus, which means it always locks onto the subject’s nearest eye – perfect for any kind of photography but necessary for headshots. The 85mm focal length is also fantastic for headshots; I think it’s the ideal perspective. I shot the images at f/5.6 to keep Todd’s eyes, nose, and ears in focus.
The rest of the session was smooth sailing. Todd probably got tired of me asking him to rotate between full smiles, smirks, and stoic facial expressions over and over again, but once he saw the finals images, he got why. I find it keeps my subject’s faces relaxed, and they don’t get bored during their session! Neither of which are great for headshots.
Below are a couple of images from Todd’s session. I liked how they came out both from a personality and a lighting standpoint. I’d like to get faster at creating these lighting setups, which I know will come with practice. Is it weird that I’m excited by that thought?