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3 Steps to Professional Looking Headshots Using One Flash

Ideally, every time we take photos of someone, there is a studio full of equipment at our disposal or wonderful sunlight that is perfectly diffused. This, however, is not reality. Usually, the sun is either too faint or too harsh. We don’t always have access to a studio, let alone one full of lighting gear that we can use. Sometimes, we also just don’t have the time to learn a new technique, rent more gear, or find the perfect location. Other times, the subject has very limited availability and locations. Still, we smile through the limitations and do our best to provide professional images every single time.

Do you feel prepared to compensate for these different light conditions that you may be forced to work with, though?


Natural light is always wonderful for any type of portrait, including headshots. Bouncing that natural light around with reflectors or just finding a bright shaded spot all work well. If you have a flash at your disposal, though, you can create even, or dramatic lighting to accommodate headshot needs.

The following three tips will help you create headshots using only one flash to compensate for less-then-perfect lighting conditions:

1. Diffuse, diffuse, diffuse!

When using a flash, the last thing you usually want is for it to LOOK like you used a flash. To do this, you need to find ways to make the light disperse more, reducing any harsh look that it will otherwise produce. There are several ways to do this, and each on their own will help. Combining techniques works best, though.

  • Bounce it – If there’s a wall somewhere to your side, a ceiling within a couple of feet from you, or if you have a reflector of any kind, bounce it. Aim the flash towards the reflector so that it fills in shadows to compensate for any uneven lighting conditions.
  • Aim the flash behind you to help disperse the light –  This may sound counterintuitive, but aiming the flash BEHIND you helps to disperse the light quite a bit. It provides a front light on your subject, but much softer than would otherwise be if the flash were pointed directly at them.
  • Use a diffuser on the flash – Whether it’s a plastic cover, a fabric mini-softbox, a bendable reflector that attaches, or a homemade version of any of the above – a diffuser directly on your flash will instantly soften the light and allow you more versatile light on your subject.
  • Set zoom on flash to the widest setting possible – your flash can be set to adjust to match the angle of view of the focal length lens you are using. However, this can be manually adjusted regardless of the lens you are using. When the flash is set to 70mm, for example, the light will be more narrow and direct than when it is set to 24mm. While this alone doesn’t make a drastic difference, it is another tool to add for further light diffusion.
Left - No flash. Right - Single flash, on-camera, turned to right of subject for fill light.

Left – No flash. Right – Single flash, on-camera, turned to the right of the subject for fill light.

In the before and after photos above, the left image shows the result using only natural light from the window. It’s beautiful light, but not always what you want.

The right photo shows same location, same position, with a single flash used to fill in the shadows. The flash is on-camera and has a flash dome diffuser on it. It’s angled to left of photographer (right of subject) so that it will bounce off walls and ceiling, and manually set at 1/8th power.

2. Use remote triggers

If you have access to remote triggers, play with using the light to add drama or emotion. This alone will give you a studio look and can be done just about anywhere. Be sure that this type of look is appropriate for your subject’s needs, especially since it tends to have a very strong look. For example, the owner of a flower shop may want something that is more natural-looking and shows the outdoors or her shop, while the owner of a tech start-up may like the strong look of dramatic lighting. While each situation is different, a few options for flash placement are:

  • Directly behind client
  • At 45 degrees behind or in front of subject
  • Directly to side of subject
Left - No flash. Right - manual mode, underexposed several stops, single flash towards right of subject.

Left – No flash. Right – manual mode, natural light underexposed several stops, single flash towards right of subject.

The before and after photos above show how to use a single flash to create some dramatic headshots in any indoor situation. The left photo is properly exposing for the space, using natural light only. The photo on the right is manually controlled to greatly underexpose the natural light (so that the background disappears as much as possible), and then a single flash is placed towards right of subject to give concentrated and dramatic light.

3. Manual flash mode

While it is best to always use your flash on manual mode in order to have full control over the lighting, this is an often overlooked method. Manual mode on your flash will allow you to adjust the strength for any situation. Shooting indoors and bouncing the flash? Start your flash strength at 1/8 of full power and adjust from there. Shooting in full sun? Start at 1/2 strength and adjust down as needed. Need a soft bit of shadow to be filled while indoors? Set your flash strength to 1/16 and adjust from there. Note that you will get to know good starting points for different situations, but adjustments are always needed since every situation is unique.


Left is using no flash, outdoors. Right photo is same position and location, using single flash on camera at 1/4th power.

The before and after photos above show you can use a single flash to compensate for shadows in daylight. The left photo shows direct daylight and no flash. The photo on the right is at the same time, same position, same sun condition, but with a single flash at 1/4 power to help fill shadows.

Regardless of what tools you have access to for each photo shoot, a big part of your job as photographers is to be able to adjust to any situation. While having lots of gear at your disposal is handy, it is not always necessary. Oftentimes, the gear you have on hand can do the job you need it to do; all it takes is some thinking outside of the box.

Do you have ways that you create beautiful headshot or portrait lighting on-the-fly? Please share in the comments below.

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Natalia Robert
Natalia Robert

, founder and lead photographer of Full Circle Images, brings her background as an architectural designer forward to produce luxurious images that create a sense of warmth and culture. Natalia is based in San Diego, California, USA. She has had the honor of shooting with AirBnB for 3 years and counting, as well as with various publications, TEDxSanDiego, and countless small businesses to convey stories through strong imagery. Today, her furry co-pilot, Daisy, inspires a daily sense of wanderlust while serving as a reminder of how valuable it is to maintain a sense of HOME.

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