Variations on a Studio Head Shot

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A funny thing regularly happens when we at Photoflex® hold lighting seminars or demonstrations and we’re able to display the (before and after) “result” images on a large monitor. People will walk up, having looked at the results, and ask, “What model camera are you using?”

Their first impulse is to think that it’s the camera that’s making the result look so good. We’ll then point out that the results they’re noticing aren’t really reflective of the ability of the camera as much as they are the quality of the lighting. And that’s when you hear the resounding “ahhhhh.”

And even though lighting is arguably the most important element of a good portrait, it’s just as important in how you use it. For example, you may have a lighting kit that’s specifically designed for portraiture, but that’s not going to give you a specific look every time. In fact, the beauty of lighting gear is that you can use it in many different ways to achieve the look you want.

Topics Covered:

  • The Concept
  • The Gear
  • Emulating Window Light
  • Dressing up the Look
  • Clamshell Lighting

The Concept

For this lesson, I wanted to illustrate the effectiveness and versatility of using a shoe mount flash-powered SoftBox, available window light, and a light reflector in a studio head shot.

The Gear

I decided to keep it simple and start off by shooting against a white background. My assistant, James, got out a 9 foot roll of white seamless paper and supported it with a Photoflex® ProDuty Support Kit. Shortly thereafter, our model for the day, Whitney, had arrived at the studio with a few clothing options. Before any makeup was applied or clothing was picked out, I asked Whitney to pose for a snapshot in front of the seamless so that we could have a “before” shot.

I activated the camera’s built-in flash on the camera and set it to Auto to show how most people’s results would look in this situation. Notice the glare from the flash on Whitney’s skin, the tiny reflections in the eyes, and the harsh shadow on the background. All classic examples of Auto-mode shooting.

Next, I had James set up a Photoflex Medium LiteDome DualFlash Kit, which consists of the following:

  • Medium LiteDome
  • DualFlash Reflector Connector
  • DualFlash Adapter Kit
  • Medium LiteStand

Ideally paired with the HeavyDuty Swivel for maximum versatility, below you can see the LiteDome SoftBox and the DualFlash Adapter Kit (shown with the HeavyDuty Swivel).

The Choice of Lighting Gear

The DualFlash Adapter Kit is hardware that allows you to mount two ShoeMount flashes and wireless receivers inside a SoftBox. And what this means is that you can shoot with a large soft light source without being tethered to an electrical power source.

I had James set up the kit while I took pictures documenting the process. The first thing he did was set up a Medium LiteDome SoftBox, supported by a Photoflex® Reflector Connector. This connector is similar to other strobe connectors, only the opening houses a flat reflective metal disc, which is designed to reflect light from the ShoeMount flashes back out through the front of the SoftBox.

Next, James set up a Medium LiteStand, attached a HeavyDuty Swivel to it, and then mounted the DualFlash Adapter Kit onto the Swivel. Once this was set up, James attached the LiteDome and Reflector Connector to the DualFlash Adapter hardware.

Once the two units were connected, James closed the flaps of the SoftBox to prevent light from leaking out the back. Here’s a view from within the SoftBox.

There are four cold shoe mounts to accommodate your shoe mount flashes and wireless receivers. James first mounted two wireless receivers to two of the cold shoes. These receivers would then be synced with two shoe mount flashes.

Once the receivers were in place, James then mounted the two shoe mount flashes to the other two cold shoes. As you can see, the flashes point (and will bounce light) into the back of the SoftBox and Reflector Connector.

Emulating Window Light

Once James got the light set up, I positioned it off to the right of Whitney, raised it up to about 6.5 feet and angled it down slightly so that the shadows cast from her nose and cheeks would be naturally down-facing. I also had the studio window open to add supplementary light to the set.

With everything dialed in, I took a series of shots. Here’s one from that series.

As you can see from the result, the LiteDome provided a very soft quality of light, similar to that of window light, with soft shadows and bright catchlights in the eyes. Whitney’s left side, however, seemed a little dark for the look we were going for, so I decided to add a bounce fill to brighten up the shadow areas.

James then set up a FirstStudio® LitePanel Kit, which consists of the following:

  • 39×39 inch LitePanel frame
  • Reversible White/Soft Gold LitePanel fabric
  • Translucent LitePanel fabric
  • 39 inch Crossbar
  • Small LiteStand
  • HeavyDuty Aluminum Swivel
  • HeavyDuty GripJaw™ Clamp
  • LitePanel Carry Bag

He set it up with the soft gold/white fabric facing Whitney and attached it to a medium LiteStand by way of the GripJaw and Swivel. After the LitePanel was optimally positioned to bounce light from the LiteDome into the shadow areas, I took a few more shots.

As you can see from the result, the shadows are much less severe and the overall contrast levels are nicely balanced. A simple, yet elegant setup for a natural looking portrait.

Dressing up the Look

Next, I consulted with my wife, Tamara, who is a commercial photo stylist and was helping us out with styling, hair and makeup that day, and we agreed that it might be nice to add a little more makeup and lip gloss to “glamorize” the look somewhat. I also thought that a black background might make Whitney’s hair and features pop a little more.

So while Tamara applied makeup, and our daughter, Nola art directed, James and I set up another LitePanel with black fabric, only this one was a 77×77 inch panel. This would serve as our black background. Once everything was in place and Nola was satisfied with the makeup, I decided to first take a shot without the LiteDome going off to see how much light was coming in through the window.

As you can see, the amount of light was subtle, yet significant. The soft gold LitePanel was even reflecting some of this light into the left side of her hair and face. The idea here then was that the LiteDome would serve to boost or accentuate this light, rather than compete with it. With the LiteDome powered back on, I then took another series of shots.

One thing to keep in mind while shooting a portrait is vantage point. If you’re taller than your subject and you don’t crouch down at all, you’ll create an image where the viewer is also looking down at your subject. Often times in portraiture or fashion, it’s better to bring the camera to eye level or even lower for a more reverent point of view, for lack of a better term. Here, you can see how by widening my stance, I’m able to achieve a lower vantage point.

Clamshell Lighting

In reviewing the result shots, we saw that the change to a dark background, along with the added makeup, brought us closer to the look we wanted. Still, I wanted to get a little more sparkle in the eyes and to minimize the shadows even further.

To do this, James and I changed reconfigured the SoftBox and soft gold LitePanel into a clamshell lighting setup. This is where your top light is more or less positioned straight on and angled down, creating short shadows from the nose and chin, and the LitePanel is positioned directly below the LitePanel, bouncing light up into the shadows. And most importantly, you need to remember to leave a small gap between the SoftBox and the LitePanel for the lens to peek through. This is a very common lighting setup for tight fashion shots. [figures 19 & 20]

With this last setup in place, I took a final series of shots. This one ended up being one of my favorites.

After the shoot, while going through the images, I realized that a perfectly square format would nicely frame the black background and Whitney’s ebullient hair and draw attention to the sparkle in her eyes.

And if you look closely, you can see the reflections of the LiteDome, the LitePanel, and even the side studio window in her eyes, all of which help contribute to a natural looking, yet sophisticated studio portrait.

As always, remember to experiment with your lighting and have fun in the process!

Written and photographed by Ben Clay.

Basic Lighting,

Indoor Portraits,

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