Facebook Pixel 3 Handy Lighting Setups for Headshot Photography

3 Handy Lighting Setups for Headshot Photography

Lighting setups for headshot photography

If you’re looking to get into the business of headshot photography – or you want to refine and expand your portfolio to make it more attractive to potential clients – then you must be capable of reproducing several basic lighting setups.

You don’t have to be a lighting wizard, and you don’t have to know dozens of sophisticated studio patterns. But a few basic setups can go a long way; they’ll make your headshot images look refined and professional, and they’ll also ensure that you have a few different options to make your clients look their best.

I do a lot of corporate and actor headshots around Washington, DC, and I wanted to share some of the simple but effective lighting setups that I use over and over again in my own work. Feel free to copy the headshot lighting setups that I suggest and use them to improve your photos!

lighting for headshots
If you can learn a few basic lighting setups, you’ll be a very versatile headshot photographer. Here are a handful of the headshots I’ve taken, and as you can see, my go-to lighting techniques can suit a wide array of subjects.

1. The one-light wonder

My standard headshot lighting setup uses a single light source: one large, diffused strobe positioned to the left or right of the subject. I also add a reflector under the face, and I include another reflector opposite the main light source. I shoot hundreds of headshots per year using this simple setup.

I like to use a Paul C. Buff Einstein unit with a large octabox in my studio, but dedicated strobes and octaboxes can be expensive. You could easily put together something similar with a cheap speedlight, an umbrella, and a couple of $20 reflectors.

You can see this setup in the photo below, with my poor wife Karen standing in as a subject. She was just coming downstairs to make some tea and got ambushed!

headshots lighting
My one-light wonder setup does a great job of creating flattering headshots, yet it doesn’t require much work at all. Here, my wife is standing with a reflector under her face, and my octabox-modified strobe off to her right (my left). The huge white surface off to her left (my right) acts as the side reflector.

Adjusting the angles and adding the reflectors

Once my subject is in place, I like to do some tweaking. First, I adjust the light source so it is slightly above the subject’s eye level. For most people, I think it looks best to have the light coming from above so it can cast subtle shadows under the chin (this accentuates the jaw and helps to hide any double chins).

Then I adjust the reflector underneath the subject’s face and bring it up to about mid-chest level. This reflector helps fill in shadows on the face and adds a really nice extra catch light in the eyes. Some headshot photographers prefer to use a second light source instead of the mid-chest reflector, but I find the reflector to be much simpler to set up, and it’s also practically impossible to use incorrectly.

Why is a reflector so foolproof? If you have another light instead of a reflector below the subject and you accidentally overpower it (so it is more powerful than the main light), you’ll end up with some horrible Frankenstein lighting! It’s simply impossible to do this with a reflector – basic physics dictates that the strength of the light’s reflection can never be greater than or equal to the strength of the original light – which can save you from costly mistakes.

Finally, I make sure to add the reflector opposite the light source. In the image of my studio above, you can see the naked reflecting panel, but I do sometimes like to tone this down a bit by adding a smaller, black-sided panel to create a darker shadow on that side of the face. Note the portable panel here, turned so that the black side faces my wife:

headshots lighting

This effect can be very dramatic and has the added benefit of slimming the face. The downside is that, if your subject is very wrinkly, you’re not filling those wrinkles with light from that side. So it doesn’t work for everyone.

Here’s an example of a headshot where I used this effect to create a nice dramatic edge:

headshots lighting

But if you try out the darker panel and it doesn’t work for your subject, don’t be afraid to take it away and work with a pure white reflector.

A few additional tweaks for even better one-light headshots

With this simple setup, it’s very easy to make tweaks and see what works best with a particular person’s face. Often I will leave the basic setup in place with the black reflector, but here are a few times I might make changes:

  • The subject has a double chin, so I really want to define the jaw. In this case, I may raise the light up extra high to cast more shadow under the chin (making sure I don’t go so high that I lose my catchlights), and/or lower or remove the reflector under the chin.
headshots lighting
  • The subject has long, dark hair. In this case, the dark reflector is not necessary because we already have a dark edge from the hair. Instead, I would go with a white reflector on the side or bring in a hair light from behind (more on that in the next section!).
  • The subject has deep-set eyes. We want to fire more light into those sockets, or our poor subject will end up looking like a serial killer or a caveman! In this case, I might lower my light so it is right at eye level.

In the photo below, you can see a lot of detail in the subject’s hair on the shadow side. That’s because I brought my big white reflector in close.

headshots lighting

2. The two-light headshot

You could run a whole headshot business using the one-light system, but if you’re anything like me, you get bored and like to try new things. So let’s bring in a second light.

The second light for me is usually a “kicker” (also called a rim or accent light) that comes from behind and opposite the main light. I use this to accentuate the jaw, especially for men, or to accentuate the hair when doing headshots for women. It’s especially nice for creating a little highlight on darker hair.

In the photo below, I needed a way to separate this young man from the dark background. My kicker light did the trick!

Headshots lighting

In my studio, I use a strobe with a stripbox for this purpose, but you could also use a bare strobe with a grid or even an old speedlight with a paper towel roll taped to it to make a simple snoot. The important thing is that you control the light so it doesn’t spray into your lens and create flare or lack of contrast.

You can see my kicker light in this setup shot with Karen:

See the stripbox (with the honeycomb grid) behind Karen? That’s my kicker, which adds an extra highlight to the subject’s jaw or hair. If you want to give your subject’s face a bit more dimension, it’s a great choice!

3. The three- or four-light headshot

headshots lighting setups

I use lights three and four to create a clean white background. If you only own three lights, you can place the third one just behind the subject and fire it at the background; if you own four lights, you can place lights three and four on either side of the subject and fire them at the background together.

The white background is my favorite look these days, and that’s for a lot of reasons. I think it looks super bright, modern, and happy. It also really pops on LinkedIn and other online profiles.

It’s also a great option if you’re doing corporate headshots for companies because it’s easy to replicate and get a consistent look from shoot to shoot. This can be a big deal when your clients want similar-looking headshots for all of their employees and you won’t be able to do all the headshots done on the same day.

For example, if you do an initial shoot and the company asks you a few months later to photograph a new employee, replicating the white-background effect will be far easier than trying to get the background color and brightness just right.

headshots lighting setups
If I need to photograph another employee for this company weeks, months, or even years later, reproducing this background would be quick and easy.

The white-background approach also makes it easy for you – or other photographers – to maintain the same look with shoots done across the country.

headshots lighting setups

Anyway, whether you use one or two lights for the background depends on your budget and the space in which you are working.

Two lights can give you a larger, more even spread of light, whereas one light might create some fall-off (i.e., darkness) around the edges that you need to clean up in post-production. So I usually stick to two lights. However, two lights also take up more space, so if I’m shooting on location somewhere and space is tight, I’ll switch to one.

headshots lighting setups

Create some beautiful headshots for your clients!

I hope you found this article helpful! Creating professional headshots doesn’t have to be difficult; as I said, with a few simple lighting setups, you can satisfy pretty much any client.

And if you can’t afford to work with multiple lights, a single speedlight and a couple of reflectors can work wonders!

So spend some time recreating the setups I shared above. Then use them to produce some amazing headshots for your clients!

Now over to you:

Do you have a favorite headshot lighting setup that you recommend? How do you plan to use the setups I shared? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Table of contents

Portrait Photography

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Dennis Drenner
Dennis Drenner

is a Baltimore-based portrait and event photographer and photojournalist. He has photographed over 350 weddings, completed thousands of portraits, and worked for a wide array of clients such as the New York Times, Washington Post, American Red Cross, Lululemon Clothing Stores, and JP Morgan Bank. His work has won awards in the Pictures-of-the-Year competition, three Maryland State Arts Council grants and two Fulbright Fellowships.

I need help with...