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Lighting 101: Headshot in a Corner

Abstract: Geometry — and light walls — are your friends.

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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