Lighting 101: Headshot in a Corner

As newspaper photographers, we shoot a lot of headshots.

That's just the way it is. It has always been thus. While you can look at it as a mental vacation (really, a trained monkey could shoot a newspaper headshot) they can also be an opportunity to practice with light.

Thing is, your subject probably does not know you could bang it off in about 30 seconds in some shade. So why not use the assignment as a low-pressure chance to work on your lighting skills?

To that end, I offer the quick and easy, one-light corner headshot. The concept is simple, but it allows you the chance to play with ratios to see how they affect your photo.

Exhibit "A," above, is actor Bruce Vilanch, in drag, prepping for his role as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.

All you need for a headshot that is crisp and detailed enough to get bigger play is an umbrella'd strobe, a stand and a neutral corner. Not the boxing-type of neutral corner, but one with white or grey walls.

If they are tan or some other warmer color, you can get away with that, too. But purple? Not so much. You're going to be using the side wall as a reflector, and the light will pick up the color of the wall.

Now, back to the ratios. There are two ratios at play in this photo. The first will control how bright the background is. The ratio would be the flash-to-subject-distance:flash-to-background-distance.

Simple English: if your strobe is much closer to the subject than it is to the background wall, you background will be darker.

The fill light for the headshot comes from a reflection off of the other wall of the corner. In this example, the strobe is at camera left, at a nice, safe, boring 45 degrees. At camera right is a wall. (The other wall that comprises the corner becomes our clean background.)

So, the second ratio at play is that of flash-subject-distance:flash-reflecting-wall-distance. In other words, the further your reflector wall is from the flash/subject combo, the darker the shadow side will be.

How does this work in practice? Simple.

For openers, you are shooting at the high synch speed of your camera (probably 1/200th or 1/250th) to minimize the ambient light in your photo. Dial up enough power on your flash to get a working aperture of f/5.6 or f/8. Start with 1/4 power on your flash at ISO 200 at a 4-foot light-to-subject distance and adjust from there.

This will give you sharpness and keep room ambient from screwing you up. If you cannot kill the florescents (sigh, there are always florescents) you'll have to gel green and balance for them if the ambient is encroaching on your photo.

Say that you start with the subject two feet from the side wall, with the flash three or four feet away (in an umbrella) and the background wall four feet behind him. Pop a test frame. Or better yet use your hand (placed where his head would be) to quicky get into the ballpark before your subject sits in his spot. I shoot my left hand a lot when testing light.

Adjust your flash power until the subject (or your hand as a stand-in) is well exposed. Now, play. Wanna make the background lighter? Move the whole shootin match (subject and light) toward the back wall. Wanna make it darker? Move it away from the background wall.

Same idea applies to the fill light. Move subject/strobe combo towards the side wall for lighter. Away for darker. It's pretty simple once you try it.

Your head shots will look good. And you will be gaining speed and confidence in your lighting skills.

Next: Lighting 101: Lighting for Glasses


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I'd love to see a plan diagram of your corner- I can't quite visualise it. Thanks, Bert

November 13, 2006 1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think a simple layout plan would make understanding of all these lessons easier to visualise.

November 26, 2006 9:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto - incomprehensible otherwise.

December 29, 2006 3:16 AM  
Anonymous Scott Campbell said...

As a newbie, I thought I would take a stab at drawing an illustration. David, let me know if I've got this wrong....

January 06, 2007 2:06 PM  
Blogger Sonny said...

Scott, I believe the flash is 45 degree to the subject, not 90 so the face will not be seen as eclipse.

............. |
......S...... |
............. |
F............ |
......C...... |

January 17, 2007 3:03 PM  
Anonymous philpal said...

A lot of time and work has gone into this site and I think much thanks should be given to you David, but like what others have already said is there any way you could create any disagrams to help illustrate the setups?

April 23, 2007 2:30 AM  
Blogger choize said...

ITA, with the others, The info is very informative, but visually, I'm impaired!!

May 15, 2007 10:10 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

This was good, I used this guide last night under a friends request and pulled off some good portraits for him.

June 30, 2007 12:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

6 out of 7 comments requesting a diagram...anyone reading these comments?

April 04, 2008 10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the diagram See Sonny's comment;
Two walls: one behind the behind subject (Background), and the other to the left (at 90degrees to back wall- ie it extends to the riht of the camera). SUbject directly in front of Camera and Flash to the left at 45degrees.

-------¬ Back Wall(side wall below)
```☺`| Subject
`☼```| Flash: direction 45degUp
``ٹ ``| Camera

April 19, 2008 6:11 AM  
Anonymous wedding photographer french riviera said...

Thanks for the light diagram anonymous. It makes it very clear!

July 08, 2008 5:56 AM  
Blogger Dusey said...

anon updated his diagram -

July 30, 2008 10:24 PM  
Blogger furtive said...

I found a slightly more useful diagram. Although it's got a 2nd strobe, it shows camera and strobe settings as well:

November 17, 2008 10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Pete: (A real newbie) CAn anyone please explain to me (A)what "synch speed" is? (B)How do I set it up or is it a given stated figure? (C) How do I adjust my set up - Nikon D60 with SB600 - to vary what is required. I appreciate I'm asking a lot but if anyone could answer or point me in the right direction to get answers I would be very grateful.

February 23, 2009 6:30 AM  
Anonymous sohil said...

@Anonymous -

A) Sync speed is the fastest shutter speed you camera will allow the flash to register. So while SLR's shutter speed will go up to 1/8000 or whatever, they are only good up to 1/250 WITH flash popping - meaning if you shoot at 1/500 with flash light only, you will see your camera curtain in the shot.

Why is this important? Becos shutter speed controls AMBIENT light only... and Aperture controls Ambient + Power of the flash.

B) There are no given becos you set it up according to how much ambient light is present.

For example, if you shoot in a direct sunlight, you can under-expose the sun's light by increasing your shutter (rem: shutter controls ambient only) and have the flash power be greater then that and set your CAMERA to read the flash properly. In a setting where the ambient as powerful, say indoors, then you can sometimes fully cut the ambient by setting your shutter speed to the highest sync speed. Its not complicated once you get it or better yet.. go try it!

C) Having the flash off-camera is crucial for this. So basically its like this, pick a place near a window light. Set up something to photograph - NO flash yet. Read the ambient light (whatever setting that will properly expose the subject). Say its F8 @ 1/30... now increase your shutter only to 1/60, then 1/125, then 1/250, 1/500.. so on. Whats going to happen? Its getting underexposed.

Now set up an off camera flash and set the power on that MANUALLY so it properly exposes the subject. Lets say that is F8 @ 1/60 - now you can control the ambient by moving the shutter up or down (rem: 1/250 is prob your limit).

This is where you start getting more control cos you can go from F8 > F5.6, and it will not only increase the ambient, but also the flash power. Technically, opening up 1 stop of aperture means you gotta increase the shutter by 1 as well to keep the exposure right.

Hope that helps..

March 01, 2009 4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Pete: In answer to point (3), you need to find out how to trigger your SB-600 with the small, pop-up, on-camera flash on your D60. I own a D80, and I refered to the camera manual & flash manual to find out how to do this. I'm sure the D60 has this capability (not 100% sure), and a manual which will help you (100% sure).

July 02, 2009 6:38 PM  
Blogger global001 said...

Thanks for this strobist.... as usual brilliant! :)

Anonymous stop bitching we're damn lucky he's sharing this info with us! :)

May 15, 2011 5:41 AM  
Blogger Enrico Pallazzo said...

Given the age of this post I don't know who will read this, but I would just like to say this setup saved my life at a recent shoot.

I was commissioned to do some headshots but only had one strobe available. Rather than cancel and lose out on the cash, I got into the office, found a corner, and got great results. Things went so well me and the subjects even found time to do a little more relaxed candids around the office.

It was great karma all around. Everyone loved the work, I got paid, and we all lived happily ever after.

Thank you very much, Mr. Strobist Blog Man.

July 29, 2012 5:35 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Indeed I read every comment. Thanks for the kind words. You rock.


July 29, 2012 9:33 PM  
Blogger Peter Denyer said...

Just got into the wonderful world of lighting photography. I was that purist you spoke of David. Although not scared shitless, but not confident enough. Now I have radio triggers and two strobes, I am now delving into DIY modifiers etc. I simply have to say thank you for your teachings, they are very valuable.

December 09, 2013 3:53 PM  

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