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How to Take Low-Key Head Shots

When talking about head shots, there are so many different types of lighting and styles, that there almost seem to be no hard and fast rules on how to take good ones. There are the basic lighting patterns for portraits that are applicable to head shots. The most commonly used lighting for head-shots is often the clean, classic corporate look; generally speaking a bright background and even lighting. The type of head shot also depends on what it’s for, or if there are prescribed guidelines which must be adhered to.


Typical head shots: two light basic setup

This article will show you how you can take more low-key head shots. By tweaking a few things in your setup and settings, starting from the commonly used lighting setup, you can achieve darker lighting and a moody look, while still looking very professional.


The setup for this one is a light beige background, with a strobe attached on a gridded octabox as the main light, positioned 45 degrees to the subject. Opposite the the main light is a speedlight with a snoot, set up on a stand. The speedlight reduces any shadows on the background which may be cast by the main light, and also provides a hair light and a little backlight. A typical camera setting would be ISO 100, between f/2.8 – f/5.6 and a shutter speed of 1/125 – 1/200 (make sure you don’t go faster that your camera’s sync speed). Of course you adjust the power of the strobe, but the typical look is plenty of light, and pretty brightly illuminated faces (not much or deep shadows).


Normal head-shots have the face more brightly and fully lit, with less shadows. If you want a more dramatic low-key head-shot you can play around with using more shadows and contrast on the face and a darker background. Try split lighting or Rembrandt style which both have more shadow.

By stopping down to f/10, which is what I did on the photos above, still using exactly the same setup, you can cut out a huge amount of the main light, the background will be darker (less light will get to it), and there will be more shadows on the faces. You will have a more low-key look and feel to the image too, softer but with some light and shadow. However, this is still not low-key enough!


Low-key head shots: one light

Tweak the lighting setup further by removing the hair light, replacing it with a silver reflector (on the face), and stopping down to f/11 you will be cutting out more light. Now there is only one light, and any light that hits the reflector will bounce light back on the subject’s face. Remember, that the main light is gridded so there is not much spill at all. The background is so much darker, the catchlights are still visible on the eyes, but there are no more hotspots on the face. There is a lot more shadow on the unlit side, and no hair light. The result is almost painterly, as you can see below.


More shadows in this Rembrandt lighting pattern produce a more low-key result.

Low-key head shots: natural light and speedlight

I wanted to see if I could achieve this painterly look for head-shots by removing the strobe as the main light, and replacing it with a window light. The setup below shows the window light on camera left, and a speedlight, bounced into a silver reflector, as a secondary light on camera right. I also changed the background to dark green.


The results below show two catchlights on the eyes from the window and reflector; the lighting is flatter (less contrast or ratio) but the mood is soft and painterly. If you want deeper shadows use a white reflector instead of silver, or take it away entirely.

The portrait at the top of this article was taken using this setup. The lesson here is that by making small tweaks to your lighting setup you are able to achieve different looks for your images. Don’t be afraid to experiment.


Here are a few examples of really moody low-key head shots I found on Flickr to give you some ideas to make your own:

Scott Butner

By Scott Butner

Al Ibrahim

By Al Ibrahim

Stephen Poff

By Stephen Poff

Stefano Corso

By Stefano Corso

Jason Tan

By Jason Tan

Do you have any tips in getting moody low-key head shots and portraits? Please share them here.

People photography week

This week on dPS we’re featuring articles all about different kinds of people photography including portrait, event and travel photography. This is the first of the bunch, watch for more people photography articles over the next few days.

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Lily Sawyer
Lily Sawyer

is a wedding and portrait photographer based in London. Her absolute favourite past time is going on “mummy” dates with her kids and husband. Other than that, as a homebody, she is content curled up on the sofa, hot chocolate in hand, watching films with her family whenever she has a free weekend. Check out her work on www.lilysawyer.com Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.