How to Take a Perfect Head Shot with a Single Light

How to Take a Perfect Head Shot with a Single Light


head-shot-light.jpgToday’s tip on lighting head shots with one light was submitted by forum reader sarahgirl777. Check out her Flickr Account here.

You don’t have to have an elaborate lighting set up to get a great head shot, just one light and a couple of reflectors!

Here are the steps I took to achieve the photos in this tutorial, you’ll also see a picture of my setup.

1. Place your subject on a stool about 8 feet from a wall. Our wall was a white wall with some silver spray paint on it.

2. For your main light, place it on a boom stand so it sits just above and to the front of the subject and just slightly to her left bouncing into a large reflective umbrella aimed at her face. We used an AB1600 at I think about 1/32 power, however if you only have a speedlight, that would work also.

3. Place a large reflector about 3 feet to the subjects right and a smaller one at about her waist level pointing up to reflect light under her chin and nose to reduce some shadows. You can even have your subject hold that reflector if you don’t have a stand.

4. For this shot, your shutter speed doesn’t come into play much because you’re not using any ambient or natural light, so setting it somewhere around 50-125 of a sec. should be good. You will have to adjust your aperture depending on the power of your strobe to properly expose your subject. For this shot I used an aperture of f10. I was still able to through the wall out of focus because I used a little zoom (70mm) and had the subject away from the wall. I could have stood further back and zoomed in more to cause the back wall to blur even more. The distance from the wall also causes the wall to become darker. If you want it lighter you can move your subject a little closer to the wall.

That’s it! Just stand back and shoot away!



Yes it’s a different model in the set up picture, but the set up was the same.

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Some Older Comments

  • Bompagene December 2, 2012 08:14 am

    WOW! Just reading these posts now and have to agree with all. This is no place to (old school here) FLAME someone's efforts.

    P.S. just check out Visccara's website for further understanding!

  • Keecia January 5, 2012 02:47 pm

    Sarah, I'm somewhat new to photography, but having studied and designed theatrical lighting for professional productions, I can tell you that this light does exactly what it is supposed to do. I can also say that the individual who has spent so much time sniping at your work would have less time to criticize if they were out taking better pictures. They'd be way too busy. The subjects face is lit with even light, and that is the point of standard studio portrait lighting, is it not? Thanks for the article.

  • Actors Headshots Los Angeles March 3, 2011 04:24 pm

    One light and a large reflector is very efficient and sufficient in most cases with headshots. I often use one light on cloudy days shooting out side with portable battery and studio strobe. I usually set the subject further back close to the reflector and use a softbox a little lower and pointed more towards the reflector, creates a horizontal clam shell. Sometimes inches can make all the difference, patients required.

  • Marvin Rivera December 9, 2009 06:36 pm

    I love what you guys do in this website...... except for Viscara. Viscara I work with people all day long and I can tell you that I know your type. All ego and no peoples skills.

    As for the photographer... I thank you for taking the time and effort to show your ability. Please let me see more of your work. Perhaps we can as a group, here, brainstorm and fine tune your excellent technque into something even more exceptional. I for one would love to pitch in some ideas and if they are wrong I would not mind one bit to stand corrected. After all, I come here to learn from the best.

    Are you learning something here Viscara?

    Eternally thankfull.

    Marvin Rivera

  • Jesse Kaufman November 17, 2009 06:59 am

    Thanks for the post regardless of all the other comments (that I only slightly skimmed over to avoid getting wrapped up in the drama) ... at the VERY least, it gives me some good ideas of where to start with some pictures I'm planning to take soon ... before this post, i wasn't even sure where to begin, so it was very helpful to me :)

  • Sarah May 7, 2009 01:02 pm

    oldwolf - I know this has been awhile, but I was sorting thru a bunch of emails and just wanted to say thanks for your imput about the reflectors, really apprecite it!

  • Sarah May 4, 2009 12:22 am

    Jonathan Williams - I just wanted to say that I 2nd your opinion 100%! I think it's great when people want to learn more and better themselves. And you know what, if they don't learn enough or don't want to work hard enough or their style just doesn't appeal to clients then they're not going to make it anyway, and they'll find that out the hard way soon enough. So don't worry about it. Nothing wrong with technical critique, and it's incredibly useful when asked for, but unwanted advice just to prove that you're more experienced than someone else sucks.

  • Jonathan Williams May 3, 2009 08:39 pm

    In response to Darren's post, it seem's to be a regular thing on this site now, bitchy comments! Like Darren said, people are putting a lot of time in to preparing these articles. Making comments about amateurs is also getting silly. Just because some of you get paid for your photographs doesn't necessarily make you better at it than say a lorry drive who takes photographs as a hobby. Photograohy is an art form, and like every art form it is open to interpretation, there are no hard and fast rules and people have differing opinions, it doesn't make people wrong just because you would do it differently. I have seen plenty of professional photgraphs which I as an amatuer can find fault with, a prime example is my Graduation Photo which as you will all know costs a lot to have done, the photograph was badly over exposed and i look like a snowman, this was taken by a professional photgrapher from a specialst company. I'm also curious as to why these 'perfect' photographers who are always complaining about the posts are even here, if you are so perfect what do you need DPS for?

    This site is about offering tips, guidance and advice either take it or leave it but there is no need to get personal and offensive, please find another resource for your childish behaviour (there are plebty of social networking sites for this)!

  • rohit.p.toppo May 2, 2009 09:24 pm

    I used to hav probs shootin headshots...Thankx for the tips!!!

  • gina May 1, 2009 09:08 am

    Hi, just wanted to say to Sarah, that the photos of you are awesome, and Beautiful.
    to you-know-who....if you can't say something nice, then shut your dill-hole k.
    She went to a lot of work to share this portrait tip, i know it worked, just look at the could anyone's perfectly lovely, and all that whining from you-know-who is
    like a rock in the drive-way....who cares about it.
    don't let anyone tell you that you can't teach taught me a lot reading your tutorial, and
    i thank you very much for it. nah...i can't teach anything, but iove it when nice people put up tutorials
    free, to help others. Kudo's to Sarah...i learned how to weave tiny beads into wide cuffs from tutorials on the net. thank you Sarah!!!! you are so beautiful....any pic of you would probably look great.
    Chicks take Pics!!! :)

  • Jim News May 1, 2009 08:59 am

    Nice tips Sarah...As always, we should use what we learn from others and adapt it to what we want our work to look like. Being a professional sports journalist, I work in some of the most difficult lighting you can imagine. I felt your article was quite helpful. Thank you for taking the time and being willing to contribute.
    I'm wanting to find a small studio light setup and since there are so many, can't decide which to buy. Anybody have any suggestions? I'd like to be able to shoot full body shots.

  • airbrushjohn May 1, 2009 07:35 am

    beautiful photos, very creative with what you had available! you know so many people are quick to jump with photochop, but it takes a creative photog to use what they have to get the best shot before using ps as a crutch. thank you for sharing!

  • ken rager May 1, 2009 05:36 am

    Sarah Girl

    "Ya done good." It's a good set up with good results. Those of us who are always looking for new ways to shoot and/or new setups appreciate you.


  • Gordon G May 1, 2009 05:10 am

    Not having an ara of lights, I use the bounce flash, and any natural light I can find, to add balance. I like the use of some reflected light to lighten the shadows, rather than doing all the work in Photoshop.

  • KenjiK May 1, 2009 04:40 am

    Thanks for sharing. This is really helpful for "Amateurs", "Beginners" and "Hobbyist" that have no resource right now except one flash. I also learned from Zack Arias and Francois Okeane. We do not need fancy equipment of softbox, reflectors, snoots, etc. Go to Flickr strobist and you can see amazing people doing incredible shots with DIY equipment with only hot-shoed flashes. Now for the "Professionals" who hate "Amateurs" with no expensive stuff and with online education who create better photos, you won't be here reading these, right? You'll be busy shooting "expensive glamour commercial" photos. As for us "Beginners" we love learning from each other, we enjoy our "hobby", we are very interested in improving our knowledge and skill. And maybe someday we'll become "professionals" and share our experiences and not nitpick on submissions on forums. Thanks again for your effort on sharing, you did good.

  • oldwolf April 28, 2009 09:11 am

    We have a couple of them. One is a 5 in 1 with a 42" diameter and the other is in the 30" range but can't remember off the top of my head.

    I think if we had to do it again then we'd get the one you linked and the 42" one that we have now.

    The one you have linked now can also be used as a diffuser so that's always good when shooting groups or more than one person if you want to diffuse the direct sunlight. We have a hard time with the little 42" that we have so we need to build or buy a bigger panel diffuser when we can't find shade.

  • Sarah April 28, 2009 09:07 am

    Thanks - Is that pretty much a basic size then? And not way larger than what I'd need (more expensive?) I guess I'd rather that it also work with full body shots. A lot of my subjects are pretty short however *L*, so maybe I wouldn't need such a large one.

  • oldwolf April 28, 2009 09:01 am

    That's a pretty good one Sarah. Especially if you're going to use it for full body shots. Just remember someone has to hold it up or you'll need to prop it up somehow.

  • Sarah April 28, 2009 08:54 am

    A few things -

    Robin Ryan - Thanks, I'd like to learn more about working with just one light only. Thanks for all the lighting links.

    To Anyone/Everyone - What size reflectors do you usually use? When I get to that point in my purchasing, I was thinking of getting these from B&H - (this won't be for quite some time yet though - I need to get a "Nifty Fifty", a better flash than my on-board, "Portrait Professional" software, a Zenfolio gallery...Anyway.... :)

    Thanks for the message to everyone and thanks for taking the time to put so much work into this site for photographers like me. :)


  • Darren Rowse April 27, 2009 03:33 pm

    thanks to everyone for the comments. DPS is a place where we as photographers of all levels come together to share what we're learning. I posted this post because I thought it has some worthwhile lessons in it for those starting out with lighting.

    I'd encourage all those leaving comments on DPS to remember that those writing the posts put time and energy into them. This doesn't mean that they're always right - but in my books this means that they deserve a little respect.

    if you have a different opinion than the ideas in posts please by all means express them in comments - but all I'd ask is that such a critique was respectful and constructive. ie tell us how the article could be better rather than just write it off. This way we all learn.

    Lastly - if anyone feels they could write something more helpful at any point then they're more than welcome to head to our write for dps page where we are always actively seeking the contributions of those that feel they have something to share.

  • Robin Ryan April 27, 2009 03:09 pm

    Staying away from the drama...

    I recently finished a course on One-Light Portraiture at Focal Point Studio (Vancouver) and learned a ton. We didn't even use reflectors - one light, one backdrop, that's all you need. Usually used a softbox, but a few times we used a gridlight for more dramatic effects.

    To add to this article, I'd also suggest experimenting with the light at different heights as well as the angle from the face, as this has huge effects on the shadows which make this style so interesting.

    Softbox on a boom:

    Softbox on a stand to the light:

    Gridlight "monster lighting":

    If you like those, I'll be posting more of them over the month, catching up on my backlog of studio work.

  • KCDale April 27, 2009 12:57 am

    Thanks Sarah! I am actually heading to that same studio later today to do some headshots! I am definitely trying to perfect my one light abilities and will give this setup a shot. This came at a perfect time as I was looking around for inspiration.

    I was out of town that weekend and was unable to attend the "One Light Workshop". After seeing some of the great images coming out of it I know I missed out.

  • oldwolf April 26, 2009 11:47 pm

    @Vizcara: get off your high horse. If you actually looked at the setup and knew about white balance then you'd notice the set up shot was probably taken with auto white balance and the scene was lit with a tungsten bulb which will give you a warmer feel to the picture. I can see that it's a silver reflector on her right clearly on this very old piece of crap LCD that I'm using.

    I don't recall the title stating they were taking a glamour shot or a commercial shot or something for an actor's compcard and it didn't say anything about getting perfect butterfly lighting. It said head shot. While you might disagree with how it's setup because in your perfect world this is not how you would do it, the other's can take away from it a lot of things. You don't need millions of lights to light someone up. You don't need to invest in thousands of dollars to light someone up. You can make a white wall dark.

    I rarely get riled up over people getting on their high horse but I'm in an ornery mood this morning and I think you need to go get an enema or take a laxative because that might be why you're trying to be so high and mighty and crabby.

    Just my two cents and thanks for submitting it sarahgirl. Photographers should share information and not keep them secret because someone else doesn't know the secret handshake. :)

  • Sarah April 26, 2009 04:06 am

    "Whether I use them in exactly the same way or not, understanding the effects in what you used and how they were positioned is very helpful and worthy of consideration. Now I have an idea of what to try and experiment from there. Thank you!"

    Exactly! That's how I think of these too. Just because someone tells how they came to the result they acheived doesn't mean that you have to blindly follow their setup. But knowing that THAT setup works gives you a great starting point and then you can change it to compliment your own style.

  • Virginia April 26, 2009 03:11 am

    I am curious about whether vizcara or viscara (spelled differently with each post!) has ever contributed from his/her own experience. Perhaps, rather than criticize, you would contribute something positive. We are here to learn - most of us are!

    Thank you, Sarah, for taking the time to share what you learned. I enjoyed the article and found it to provide ideas for how to use lighting and reflectors. Whether I use them in exactly the same way or not, understanding the effects in what you used and how they were positioned is very helpful and worthy of consideration. Now I have an idea of what to try and experiment from there. Thank you!

  • sarahgirl777 April 26, 2009 12:16 am

    To respond to those who want to complain that I don't know what I'm doing. This post was submitted for a contest to give some tips, not to become a "Teacher". Also this was not my equipment or set up! I recently attended a lighting workshop with a very great photographer and this is one of the many set ups he taught us. He travels all over the country and people pay a good price to attend his workshops, he shoots commercially and has over 30 years experience, and so I'm pretty sure he knows what he is doing. I have had requests from many people here on DPS to share some of what I learned so that's what I've done. As far as that reflector on the left of the picture, yes it is doing something! I can't remember if it was gold or silver, It had two colored sides, so use the color you think is best, but what it is doing is catching some of the light from the umbrella that is at a bit of an angle and reflecting it to give her some hair light, if you look it is at a bit of an angle reflecting some of the light to the back of her. Look at the picture again and you will see the back of the blonds hair is lit, that is where that light is coming from. Is this supposed to be a "butterfly" set up, I don't know, but it works for me, I am still learning myself and was trying to share to the best of my ability what I picked up from this class. If you think your better than what I had to share then ignore it and try to help others without degrading someone else. (Again this was for a contest and I had to keep it under 350 words so I kept it short)

    To those who thought it was helpful, thanks for your comments!

    Oh and to share with you one more thing my instructor said, (not exactly quoted but in my words). .... There will always be someone who finds fault in your image, you can't listen to everyone, pick up the tips you learn from others but be careful and remember that if you like it and your client likes it, that's what matters, Photography is an art!

  • Sarah April 25, 2009 11:22 pm

    I think that the whole point is that this photographer learned more than some of us are able to other than by following tutorials like these. Even though she is still learning also, she's willing to share. I know I can't get away for a weekend to go to a lighting workshop so I appreciate seeing some of the things she learned there. It's infinitely better than the on-board flash I still have on my camera right now.

    I was under the impression that this forum/website was for people who wanted to learn and share what they've learned with other photographers. That's why it's called Digital Photography SCHOOL.

    There's nothing wrong with saying what you'd do something differently or to share ideas and give others advice, but photography is also subjective as an art and just because 1 person would do it in a different way or doesn't like the results, doesn't make it WRONG. It just makes it different.

  • Peter April 25, 2009 09:26 pm

    I agree with some of the commentors earlier. Lighting is a science, and there is no absolute way of doing it. The person sharing their suggestions obviously put a lot of work into it, even though it may not seem to some professionals. It is true that not all suggestions are great, but we can learn from them and use them if we think they will work....

    Not a bad shot over all, but I do agree that the gold was not that effective based on the models complexion, and hair color. The background saturated her facial features, but her reflection does seem "mallish". Nice job overall...

  • viscara April 25, 2009 11:06 am

    Well if its not gold thats fine "hard to tell it was" it is still completely 100% not needed for the shot. And if anything you are actually making things worse by having it in there. It will bring a tad bit more fill light to that side of the face and the other side will not have any slight reflective fill. Which in the end results "Destroys" the butterfly lighting effect. This is why its important to have the lights "Centered" on the subject for this particular lighting set up.

    This is why I do not like that "Amateurs" or "those new to photography" trying to take on the role of "Teacher" or "lighting lesson instructors".. Because it leads to individuals learning the wrong way or being lead astray. I mean if you are going to bring out a "Boom" and stand and use that boom why position the light slightly to the right? Thats the whole purpose of using the boom to have it dead center on the subjects face and be able to shoot without the lightstand in the way. The reason this is so critical to get that light centered is because you want that "Falloff" of "Feathered" shadow "Evenly" on both sides of the face that gives that "Sliming" of the face and "Depth" and contour. WIthout it you start loosing a large majority of what "Butterfly" lighting is all about.

    What your seeing here is a half hearted layout of lighting for a "Glamour" mall shot... Not a good "Commercial headshot" Also when doing "Commercial Head shots" or "Actors Compcards" with actual headshots not "Glamour Mall" headshots use a "White" reflector underneath not silver. Silver is far to "Spectular" and gives it that to much overdone "Glamour Mall" look to it. Also a large majority of most headshots are actually shot with special type of "Natural" light not studio flash...

    Lighting is not some sort of get the light in a close proximity of here and there. Lighting can change dramatically with "Slight" movement in angle and distance to a subject. Ever wonder how a true "Commercial" pros images have that "Look" to them? and you guys buy the same light modifier and it doesnt come out quite the same? Its "Details" like these that make "All" the difference in the world in the "Look" of the image. Want to do it like the Pro's? or do it like a guy doing it for a hobby?

  • Oliver April 25, 2009 04:26 am

    A beautiful shot, and a beautiful model.
    I have to agree with Jeffrey, that's a lot of criticism, considering someone is sharing their information with everybodt.
    Thank you btw, for sharing.
    @ Michael. A setup like this really doesn't cost that much. You can get away with a lightstand for about $20-25, an umbrella $20-30, and a couple reflectors for about $10-20 each.

  • Sarah April 25, 2009 01:52 am

    Great job Sarah!!! And thanks for showing us all how you accomplished it - I'm not going to be traveling to a lighting workshop anytime soon, that's for sure!

  • Jeffrey Kontur April 24, 2009 10:37 pm

    @Vizcara- The large reflector in the setup shot is silver, not gold. Look at the highlights in the top-right (rearmost) corner. I agree that all the lights could be angled better but the setup itself is perfectly sound. You should not be so quick to criticize.

  • Eric Mesa April 24, 2009 10:06 pm

    very nice and informative. I like it.

  • Theis Poulsen April 24, 2009 05:00 pm

    Funny I just did a little post on one light setups on my personal blog the other day. They are location and with only one light no reflectors to help. I have put up diagrams of the light setup so feel free to have a look.

  • michael April 24, 2009 01:49 pm

    I am very curious, however, how much does those setup cost in total (not considering the light).

  • Vizcara April 24, 2009 09:53 am

    What is that gold reflector on the left doing? Nothing... Waste... 2nd do not "MIX" your light source color balances by throwing in a "Whooppie I got a new toy" Gold reflector. So one side of her face is warm toned than the other.... Do not do this people... You will get a "half" suntanned face. The light is butterfly lighting the light source above should be "Dead" center above the head "Feathered" to the face and mostly shooting down towards the under the face reflector. So that it is "Evenly" light from top and the bottom. Do not point the main light to much to the bottom or you may tend to get the "Monster" lighting effect. The left side reflector is so so un needed.

  • Lori April 24, 2009 09:05 am

    This post came at the right time, thank you.

  • Patti April 24, 2009 08:55 am

    I think that all of these tips can be used in any situation. Even a natural light photographer can use a little reflected light!

  • Clemens Roeother April 24, 2009 08:52 am

    Beautifully done! Nice catach lights in the eyes. Simple and elegant. Thanks.

  • Ilan April 24, 2009 08:02 am

    Why so serious? :D
    So many things for one portrait?

    I'm just kidding. I more of a spontaneous shooter and I don't have all the equipment needed for photos like this - So I use the only light I have - The one that is available and each moment :)

    Here is an example for a party we had -

    Still, there are many things I wasn't aware of and it's great to learn from this post. Thank you!!