Headshot photography lighting can be as simple or as complicated as you feel you need to make it. The simplest headshots don’t use any lighting equipment, just natural light and the know how to use it. Even the best headshot photographers sometimes use the most simple lighting setups.
Today we’re looking at 4 different headshot lighting setups that use natural light as the main light source or just one flash. The last lighting setup uses studio lighting as well as natural light, but it’s still a simple setup that you can use for most headshot sessions.
Starting with the simplest type of headshot lighting, the four different setups we’ll cover are:
- Natural light headshots outdoors
- Natural light headshots indoors
- Studio light headshots – one light setup
- Natural light headshots with OCF outdoors – two light setup
Portrait photographers often feel that they need to have their own studio or use strobe lighting to be considered a professional headshot photographer, but that’s not true. Great headshots can be created anywhere with any type of light. Here’s how…
Photographed late in the day in the open shade of a large building. To camera left there was another building with an alleyway between the buildings, allowing diffused light through to add a touch of rim light to his shoulder and hair on camera left. The ground was concrete and acted like a reflector bouncing light back into his face and creating catchlights. Headshot lighting diagram below.
1. Natural light headshots outdoors
The most important thing to remember for headshots outdoors is to position your subject in open shade. Just because you use the sun as a main light, or in this case, the only light, doesn’t mean that your subject should be in direct light. Just the opposite!
To avoid harsh shadows on your subject’s face, they need to be in shadow. But not just any shadow. It needs to be open shade that is solid.
So look for buildings with great walls that you can use as a background. Time your headshot sessions for when the sun is behind the building so that you can use the shade.
Don’t forget to set your white balance to shade to avoid images with a cold color temperature.
How to improve this available light setup:
- Use a reflector to bounce light back into your subject’s face and create catchlights in their eyes for more lively portraits
- Make sure the brickwork pattern isn’t too busy, otherwise it’ll be distracting.
- Position your subject at least 5 feet from the wall to blur the background. This prevents it from being distracting and creates separation between subject and background.
Type of headshots you can do with available light outdoors
Personal brand headshots, modelling headshots and actor headshots
Natural light is great for actor headshots and personal brand photography, because photographing outside makes images feel relaxed and relatable.
That said, with the right kind of wall, you can also photograph corporate headshots outdoors with natural light too.
Photographed in a small meeting room that had a row of large windows on two sides. The sun was on the other side of the building, so light coming through windows behind me and behind the subject was indirect and diffused. Headshot lighting diagram below.
2. Natural light headshots indoors
Ambient light is a great way to photograph headshots indoors. Again, I advise against using direct light.
The best kind of indoor light for headshots is indirect light filtering through a north facing window if you’re in the northern hemisphere (or a south facing window if you’re in the southern hemisphere.)
Like open shade, it’s soft light, and the soft shadows are flattering on skin.
Further reading: How to use window light 3 ways for very different looks
Indoor natural light setup for headshots
However, natural light indoors is more directional than open shade outdoors, because the light is channelled through the window. So you have a couple of choices for headshot photography lighting setups:
- Front lighting
- Side lighting
Front lighting headshots
Front lighting is the easiest of the indoor lighting setups for headshots and is the most flattering light direction for older skin.
For front lit headshots, position your subject facing towards a window for even lighting and large catchlights in their eyes.
Lighting patterns for headshots lit from the front:
- Create flat light with a large window.
- A smaller and slightly higher up window will create a butterfly lighting pattern, which is great for defining the face by creating shadows beneath the cheekbones and chin.
If you don’t already have it, download my cheatsheet for using window light indoors.
Side lighting headshots
For more dramatic headshots with some shadow, use side lighting.
For side lit headshots position your subject side-on and slightly back from the window so that they’re next to the wall alongside the window.
Your subject’s exact position in relation to the window will determine the lighting style, and therefore the shadows on their face.
For most side lit headshots loop lighting is best as it’s not overly dramatic, but creates enough shadow to give form to your subject’s features.
How to improve indoor natural lighting setups:
- If the background isn’t suitable, erect a background stand behind your subject with either a plain paper backdrop, or even a vinyl backdrop printed with an interesting pattern. My favorite vinyl backdrop looks like a white brick wall (example of this in use included at the end).
- Use a reflector for Rembrandt and loop lighting setups to fill in the shadows on the side of your subjects furthest from the window.
- Avoid shadows on the background by positioning your subject 5 feet from the background.
Type of headshots you can do with natural light indoors
Business headshots, modelling headshots and actor headshots
This one light headshot was photographed in the studio against a white background. The light was behind me in the butterfly lighting position and I used a large white reflective umbrella for soft light. Headshot lighting diagram below.
3. Studio lighting – one light setup for headshots
This is my recommended simple headshot lighting setup for corporate headshots for a company website as you can easily set up in the boardroom for as long as you need. As your lighting skills get better you can add a second light for fill and then a third light as a hair light and even a fourth light as a background light.
However, the great thing about headshots is that you don’t need a lot of space as they include just the head and shoulders of your subject. So it’s easy to do studio light headshots in your living room that look like they were done in a professional studio.
While you can use any shooting mode when using continuous light indoors, to use flash you’ll first need to be comfortable using your camera in manual mode.
Studio lighting setup for headshots
Use the same lighting styles for studio headshots as the ones I listed above for natural light indoor headshots. The main difference is that with studio lighting you have greater freedom of movement and can set up anywhere.
Lighting equipment for studio light headshots
For the best lighting with flash use off camera flash. A speedlight is perfectly adequate for headshot lighting, so you don’t have to use expensive studio lighting, but for the best results, make sure it’s not on camera.
Position your light on a lightstand and, if using flash, use a transmitter to fire the flash. Alternatively, if your camera has a pop up flash, use this to trigger your off camera flash by setting it to commander mode. It won’t light your subject, but will send a signal to your off camera flash to fire.
I highly recommend using an incident light meter to measure the light for accurate, consistent lighting.
My second most important headshot photography lighting tip is not to use a bare bulb. The light is too harsh for headshots. While it would be fine for modelling headshots and some acting headshots, it’s definitely not suitable for business headshots.
A photography umbrella is an ideal entry level lighting modifier for headshot photography, because they’re cheap, lightweight and pack up easily. The larger the umbrella, the softer the light will be.
So for a one light set up I recommend a large white reflective umbrella with diffuser fitted to a light source that’s off camera.
How to improve studio light setups:
- Use a reflector positioned below your subject’s chin for butterfly lighting setups to fill in the shadows. This creates a clamshell lighting setup.
- Get more variety from a shoot with different backgrounds to produce headshots for different uses, such as a website contact page image, LinkedIn profile and other social media profiles. Start with a white background and a gray background.
- Beware of off-white walls in the room where you photograph as the walls will cast the same color on the images.
Type of headshots you can do with studio lighting
All professional headshots
This was late in the day, just inside the shade of a building. I positioned my subject so that a sliver of sunlight acted as a rim light. I used a battery operated strobe with a beauty dish as my main light from camera left. Headshot lighting diagram below.
4. OCF with natural light headshots outdoors
My final simple headshot photography lighting setup combines available light and strobe light outdoors.
If you’re new to flash photography this might not seem so simple, but it’s a great way to start with OCF outdoors.
Further reading: Getting started with off camera flash photography
OCF outdoor headshot lighting setup
The big advantage of using flash outdoors, is that you can create a 2 light setup for headshots using either:
- Flash as your primary light and the sun as a backlight or rim light
- Or the sun as the main light source with flash as either a backlight, rim light or fill light
Again, you can use the different setups I mentioned earlier, namely:
- Flat lighting
- Butterfly lighting
- Rembrandt lighting
- Loop lighting
Lighting equipment for outdoor headshots with strobes
The power of your flash determines when and where you can do outdoor headshot photoshoots with flash. Adding a light modifier also reduces the amount of light on your subject. So, the more powerful your flash, the easier it will be to photograph outdoors in full sun.
If using a speedlight, set up in open shade or photograph towards the end of the day when the natural light isn’t so strong.
I’d suggest using a softbox rather than an umbrella outdoors for headshots as it’s really easy for a lightstand to blow over when using an umbrella. Also, make sure you weight the lightstand down with sandbags if you don’t have an assistant to hold the light.
How to improve outdoor OCF light setups:
- Add a reflector to the mix of lighting to fill in shadows on your subject’s face
- Pay attention to the background, ensuring that there’s no litter or other distractions and that it’s not brightly lit by direct sunlight
Further reading: Different types of lighting in photography – portrait lighting 101
Types of headshots suited to OCF outdoors
Personal brand headshots, model headshots and actor headshots
Photographed in my studio using OCF modified with a large white reflective umbrella, against my favorite white brick wall vinyl backdrop.
Camera settings for headshot sessions
Use a fairly wide aperture of F2.8 to F4 for narrow depth of field to blur the background, but not so wide that ears are blurred.
The best focal length to use for headshots is 85mm.
Further headshot photography tips
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