Simple Single Light Headshot

Having a go-to set of tools is a great way to take the confusion and stress out of a photographers workflow.

Today we’ll be arming you with a simple yet effective tool that you can put in your back pocket and pull out whenever you need. A nice one light  headshot setup.

Now this works for all kinds of  portrait work, just plug in the formula make a few adjustments as necessary and voila beautiful and classic softly lit photo!

In order to make this work we need to move our light off camera, by way of speedlight and push it through an umbrella or softbox,you can also use a reflective umbrella but my personal preference is the shoot thru variety.

You can pick up these items at any photo store or even london drugs , of course the rule of you get what you pay for applies but I have done well with the cheap versions pictured. I would prefer to have a taller stand in the 9 ft range as the 6 footers often leave me needing to raise the light.

We also need a way to trigger this light either wirelessly or with a sync cord. Canon and nikon both offer a built in wireless system  to support their flashes and they work wonderfully as long as your remote flash can see the commander from the camera. I  use pocket wizards as they are very reliable , don’t require line of sight to fire and have huge range. but before we can continue you will have to figure out how you are going to trigger your off camera flash, fairly straight forward stuff available in your owners manual.

So we have our light mounted on our stand and aiming thru the umbrella, and  we can sync our flash with our camera via wireless trigger sync cord or otherwise, we now want to place our subject and  get on with the show. A preferred lens for a typical headshot would be around an 85mm or longer.

Scout around for  an appropriate location hopefully something with a clean background as to avoid any unnecessary  distractions.  a plain wall will work fine in a pinch.

Place your subject so that they are comfortable and relaxed as an uncomfortable subject will look just like that in the photos.This also where you call upon your innate charm and sense of humour to help lessen any stress your subject may be experiencing and put both of you at ease, developing a friendly rapport only helps to add to the finished product.

Now we have our subject situated and comfy hopefully relaxed and generally enjoying the whole experience so far.

Lets bring in our light, we want to place it slightly above the subjects eye level and at approx 45 degree angle from the “camera to subject axis”.

Now you have to excuse the attempt at drawing a lighting diagram as my artistic abilities still have a long way to go before they reach the polished refinement of a cave drawing. 

We want to move the light in very close to our subject , so close that it will be just outside of our frame, so close that it is borderline intrusive. i say borderline  cuz if its intrusive we are probably going to have a shot that suffers for it. Basically just explain a little of your method to your subject  and that will usually go along way towards making them feel comfortable with the proximity  of the light.This closeness enables us to get an apparent large light source which provides  really soft light and fantastic catch lights in the eyes.

Ok for the all important camera and flash settings. The flash being so close to the subject doesn’t need a lot of power to deliver the kind of light we’re looking for , so I like to start out at about 1/16 power, and have the flash zoomed out to its widest setting probably around 20 mm or so , this enables us to fill the umbrella with light which then further diffuses and softens the light.

I like to control the ambient light ( basically all light that doesn’t come from our flash) by using  the highest shutter speed possible , most cameras will allow a shutter sync at 1/250 or at least 1/200. That essentially gives us blessed darkness everywhere but what our flash is hitting. My aperture (f-stop) is going to be as large (small number) as possible. This gives us a nice shallow depth of field ( the area of the photo that is in focus) and really aids in making the subject stand out from the background. So in exact numbers I aim to use:

a 2.8 aperture or  the smallest number available to me on the particular lens I’m shooting with. In the case of the two photos in this post a 70-300 mm at about 105 mm and the largest aperture available to me was 3.5.  2.8 would have been preferable but like  I said  “use the largest aperture(smallest # )available”

shutter set to max sync  1/250 or 1/200

flash set to 1/16 power  shooting thru a translucent umbrella

light placed slightly above eye level pointed approx 45 degrees from the camera to subject axis perhaps 2 feet from                                                                                     subject

That’s basically it, with our light in place our subject comfortable and enjoying themselves we can start firing away, keep an eye on your lcd to make  sure your exposure is correct, if it looks over exposed just bring your flash down to 1/32 power  and so on until you have an appropriately  exposed photo. It helps if you have “highlights” turned on in your lcd menu.  Any flashing portions of the picture are overexposed and  certainly not ideal. If you are seeing a black bar across a portion of your preview on the lcd that means you do not have  shutter and flash sync and will have to dial in a slower shutter.

You can play around with shutter speeds to let more or less of your ambient light burn into the photo, adjust flash power output and placement to give yourself different looks.

Put this technique in your pocket play around with it, when your comfortable add another light to the mix and the possibilities are endless. For another couple of one light techniques check out Mr One light himself Zack Arias, or David Hobby the strobist. these guys are great and  much more in-depth  that my meager offerings.

Thanks for reading and more to come….


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