Welcome to series of blogs concerning headshot photography. I have been an actors headshot photographer for 25 years and before that photographed beauty and glamour. The purpose of these blogs is to share the skills that I have attained working in many different styles of headshot photography. Even though my niche is headshot photography for actors the techniques can be applied to any style of portraiture. I will deal with different lighting techniques and walk you through set ups so that it may help you improve your own skills.

Lighting Techniques

To begin with there is no such thing as a basic lighting set up for a headshot. Simple, yes – basic, no. You will here me talk about ‘quality of light’ a lot in these blogs as its this that will set your pictures apart from the crowd. It makes no difference wether the set up you use is just daylight on a beach or a mixed set lighting set up using speedlights and LED’s its the quality of the light that matters. I have been obsessed by the the way light can stroke the features of the face and enhance the look of the person. I have also been surprised that a great lighting set up can work for many clients but not all. Choosing the right set up for the face you are photographing to convey the energy of that client is crucial. But, in order to do that you will need experience in using a variety of different lighting setups, understanding how they paint light on your subject and knowing how you can fine tune them to your needs.

The following light sources will be used in the course of these blogs.

  • Daylight outside
  • Daylight inside
  • Daylight using modifiers and flags
  • Studio flash
  • Speedlites
  • LED’s
  • Mixed light sources using all of the above.

All the pictures in these blogs have been shot by me. Unless the pictures are of setups they are all shot on jobs or as candids. No models have been used.

There will be a gear list at the start of each of the blogs. I will assume you have a camera that can do the job. You can’t shoot all this stuff on a phone.

Using daylight outside

  • Gear List
  • DSLR/mirrorless with a lens whose focal length is equivalent to 85mm or longer.
  • Tin foil and some board about A3 – A2 size.

Shooting in daylight is the most obvious solution when starting out as a headshot photographer. The light source is always there and it costs nothing to use. Using daylight is the most basic of lighting techniques but can be one of the hardest to manipulate to your advantage. Not all daylight is good daylight. To get your headshots looking a cut above the rest you need a great quality of light on the face. This can be achieved without any modifiers out in the open, but you have to pick your time of day and the angle you shoot at in relation to the sun (or where it might be if it’s cloudy). It’s not all about the position of the sun though. It’s the also the surrounding area. Is a it a forest, a beach, urban cityscape, are things around the area you are shooting generally reflective or do they suck in light. Is the light direct to the subject or is it being bounced back into the subject. So many variables and so many different qualities of light.


Beach bum, Malaysia


Recorder Player. South Africa

Daylight, No modifiers

Considered opinion is that you need 3 points of light to help structure the face, but as you can see from these picture, even in open spaces you can get still get a great light if your careful.

There are various lighting techniques and modifiers that can help manipulate daylight but all of these methods need a keen eye to implement properly. Lets deal with the basic tenets of good lighting.

Classic 3 point lighting

  • Key Light. Thats the main light, above the eyeliner and 30-45 degrees off centre.
  • Fill Light. Basically fill in the shadows created by the key light
  • Accent light. Could be a hard light on the hair that separates the portrait from the backgroundand perhaps a..
  • Kicker. Perhaps a hard light to accent cheekbones.

Now it might seem that this explanation of 3 point lighting refers studio lighting rather than daylight but the same principles still apply. Your key light is the sky, which is above the eyeline, the fill light is created by any reflecting surfaces around your subject and the accent light…..well that can be created as well using daylight.

The main (key) light is the most important and we might need to manipulate it to create a better quality of light on the face. The rest of lighting, fill, accent and kickers simply enhance the key light.

So where do we start. Open field, cityscape, beach? Choice is yours, there is no right or wrong time as there are so many variables, but as a general rule if you’re dealing with open spaces then the two golden hours, first light and twilight are the favourites for great quality of light but its by no means guaranteed.  So in order to guarantee a great quality of light then the way to go is to modify the light to your advantage. Time to stick that tin foil to the board and make your first modifier!

No need to go out and buy expensive reflectors, but it does make you look a bit more professional! A piece of flexible board with tin foil glued to it will do the job. If you want buy some then Lastolite make some great ones.

Your key light in this case is daylight. The sky above you and your subject. The first thing we have to do is control that.

Take your subject and put them in a doorway (or at the opening of tunnel) about half metre inside so they are out of direct light and there is certainly no sunlight hitting the face. Move your subject in and out of the area just a little and watch how the light paints the face. Find a place you like and and then use the modifier you just made and use it to reflect light back into the face by placing it 50cm or so under the chin and angle it towards the face. Check what it does. By adding the reflector you are controlling the depth of the shadows created by the key light. Generally the less shadow the more glamorous the quality of light on the face.

The following portraits are all based on that this technique. All shot in my studio doorway with one reflector bouncing light back into the face.

These were shot by the french doors in my kitchen.


and this was shot in the street under a small tree with one reflector.


So you can see with the most simple of tools you can create beautifully lit headshots

For more ambitious lighting follow the next two tutorials

Headshot tutorial -2

Headshot tutorial -3

For guided workshops click here

1 Comment

  1. Doorway photos are an awesome open secret. Great post.

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