Capturing fantastic headshots/portraits only requires three things; a camera, a willing subject and good light!
I knew that I wanted to use a simple setup, without any artificial lighting which anyone can replicate at home. Therefore this ‘single light setup’ is what I settled on. That single light, is the one that we all have, the sun.
#1 Pick your Light source!
Here I have used one large window. This is the easiest scenario to get amazing headshot results! Using this single light source, allows you to know where the highlights and shadows will lie on your subject’s face, depending on wher they are positioned. Anywhere that you have one large window, you have a place that will create beautiful portrait light. Start to notice locations where this is the case, and be aware of what the light looks like on objects and people. The only exception to this is when direct sunlight is coming through the window, which will give a rather unflattering look to your sitter.
#2 Diffused or Hard Light?
So what kind of light do you want on your subject?
Simply a hard light source, is one that is small relative to the subject (like direct sunlight or a lightbulb), which causes a ‘hard’, sharp transition from highlights to shadows.
Whereas, a diffused (or soft) light source is one which is large relative to its subject (like light coming through a widow (the window is the light source here) or a cloudy day (the whole sky becomes the light source). With these light sources, you will see a ‘soft’, graduated transition from highlights to shadows.
In this example we are using a diffused light source, the sky was overcast so there was no direct sunlight and the window makes the light directional. Just in case the sun did come out from behind the clouds I hung a bedsheet in front of the window to diffuse the light further!
#3 Position your Subject!
Choose the background first if you can! Pick something simple without too many distractions. We will be using a shallow depth of field, so remember that there will not be anything in focus behind the person. However we don’t want any big shapes sticking out of our subjects head! I knew that my sitter would be wearing a multi-coloured top, therefore I wanted a totally unassuming background which would not distract from her.
The next consideration we need to decide on we will be angling the subject in relation to the window (or other light source). The angle of the lighting will completely determine how someone reads your picture. Lit from below we understand as ‘horrifying’ synonymous with the associated genre. Lit completely from the side, we are unable to see the whole of a persons face as the contrast will be extremely high. The more the person is rotated towards being flat onto the light, the less dynamic and more flattering the light will be. Spend some time rotating your subject (if they give you the time!) to find the perfect angle for the light! Remember, getting this step right will go the furthest to creating a professional looking headshot.
#4 Shallow Depth of Field!
Use a large aperture (small F/ number), like F/1.4 - 2.8 to throw the background out of focus. This ‘isolates the subject’ from the background, it creates separation for your subject. This ensures that the background is as unobtrusive as possible and the photograph is entirely about your sitter. The other big plus to using a shallow depth of field, is that it will emphasise the eyes (as they will be the only thing in focus). It is very important however, that you are very accurate with your focus, making sure that your focus point is over the eye. I recommend using ‘single point focus’ so that you can be as precise with this as possible! If you get this wrong, it will completely change the effectiveness of the portrait, so take some time to get this right.
#5 Choose your angle!
As a general rule, you want to be a couple of inches above the eye level of your subject, this will give a simple and accurate representation of their face shape - but also look flattering! You also want to give suggestion to your sitter regarding head tilt, chin height and expression. However, the biggest piece of advice I can give when taking someone’s headshot is talk to them. All the time. Get them invested and involved in the photo taking process. Make them laugh, and take pictures through the expressions that they display. Show them the back of your camera so they know what they look like. Explain what you are doing and why you are doing it. It will create a relationship, trust and inevitably more natural and expressive portraits.
After all this, remember you are photographing a person! Engage with them in conversation, smile and be respectful. Respond to how they react to your suggestions and questions, and adapt to them. Everyone is different, so the same methods will not work on everyone. These steps are some good guidelines to getting started, but is no replacement for practising yourself. Learn, photograph and have fun!
Tom Chaplin is a young photographer and educator based in London, UK. He runs ‘Master The Light’ offering photography workshops, tuition and tours. He also works as a commercial photographer, specialising in portraiture and travel images.