How to Make Headshots That Glow

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I’d like to share a particular technique I use to capture a “glowing subject” effect for headshots. You may be disappointed to hear that, by glow effect, I don’t mean your headshots will literally glow, like in the dark, because they most likely won’t. But that’s okay because this technique is actually better than that and who wants a headshot that literally glows anyway? To the point, when set up correctly, you’ll end up with a subtle, spotlight-like feel on your subject which appears to glow, hence the title of this article.

headshots that glow example

The process

The process consists of a pretty straight forward lighting setup involving the use of different light levels for your key and background light and a fairly long lens. Essentially, you emphasize your subject by allowing light and focus to fall off as it moves toward the background. Here are the details:

To get the effect I use a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at around 200mm. I recommend a long and fairly fast lens zoomed all the way into the longest focal length. A long (telephoto) lens will compress the scene and keep your subject from appearing distorted and bent, the way a wide lens would. It will also give you a nice, shallow, depth of field.

headshots that glow lens

Background choice

You’ll want to choose your background first before setting up all of your lights. Unless, of course, you enjoy moving them around for the exercise, which I don’t. I often like to add some interest to each headshot by choosing a background that suggests a kind of “on location” environment. I set mine up in the studio, but backgrounds like this can be found almost anywhere.

headshot background

Keep in mind that the background will be soft in the final photo as a result of using the long end of the 200mm lens and a large aperture, so plan accordingly. To find your background you may find it helpful to focus on something close, reframe, and get some shots of your background out of focus just for test purposes.

Also, keep in mind that you’re going to place your subject at least six to seven feet from the background. Make sure you have room to do this while also having the appropriate distance in front of your subject to frame a good headshot at 200mm. To be safe, give yourself 15 feet in front of the subject.

headshots that glow distance to subject

Lighting

After finding a good background, it’s time to set up the lights. First, I’d like to give special thanks to my model, the mannequin, for participating in this demo.

headshots mannequin

Main light

The setup I’m using here is called clamshell lighting, with a rim light or kicker (whichever you prefer to call it, also known as an accent light) added on the side of the face. The main light is above the subject and centered. I most often use an AlienBees B800 light with a beauty dish modifier, softened with a diffusion sock or two. Sometimes I’ll use more than one sock so that I can effectively keep my aperture around f/3.5 or maybe even f/2.8 with no sync-speed issues. If you’d like to sculpt the light further, try using a grid on the beauty dish.

headshots lighting setup

I’ve also used a large octabox in place of the beauty dish. However, I think the beauty dish works well for this particular look. I won’t go into great detail about how to best use a beauty dish, but ideally, you’ll want to line the center reflector up with the subject’s face.

Adjust the light depending on your subject’s bone structure, moving it further up and in for more definition in the cheeks, etc. Typically I have the dish about two feet back from the subject (toward camera) and about a foot overhead, focused down at an angle. Boom the light and beauty dish over the subject with a c-stand or whatever boom arm you may have handy.

Addition lights and reflectors

Next, add a reflector under the subject’s face (right above waist level or just out of frame) to bounce light back up and fill the shadows under the chin. The size of the reflector really comes down to what you’re comfortable using.

headshots reflector

Use a strip softbox with a grid for the rim or kicker light. I’ll place the light a few feet behind the subject and about two feet off to one side or the other, aimed back at the subject. Set this light to an exposure equal to your key light (as low as it goes with an AlienBees B800).

headshots lighting

Lastly, set up a background light. You can use any method of diffusion you have at your disposal for your background light. I try to keep mine fairly soft and even. The trick is to underexpose your background a few stops. By this, I mean a couple of stops under the exposure of your subject.

How many stops is a matter of personal preference. However, you don’t want to go too dark or have an exposure too similar to your subject’s exposure, or you’ll loose the effect. Because the key and rim are already set to the lowest light level, you’re going to want to either use heavy diffusion or put some distance between your light and background. Turning the light away from the background works too. Underexposing the background a couple of stops is a critical part of the process.

headshots background headshots background

Conclusion

That’s it. Don’t forget to thank our model, the mannequin, and you should be ready to go! Or shall I say, ready to glow? Hmmm.

Please post any questions or comments you have in the area below, and remember to share your headshots as well.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Carlisle Kellam

is professional freelance photographer, director of photography, and filmmaker based in Atlanta. He specializes in commercial and advertising photography and also owns a portrait and headshot specific business — CK Headshots Atlanta.

  • Von Will
  • xplorr

    Great tutorial! Thanks!

  • Carlisle

    You’re welcome. Thank you, also, for sharing.

  • Carlisle

    Thank you. You’re welcome.

  • Richard Feaster

    Wow, this is great. Thank you for sharing your ideas and set up knowledge.
    I am 83 yrs old and dabble in portraits for our family and this will be a great
    help. I just need to scrape up some money for the right kind of lighting.
    Cheers!

  • Carlisle

    My pleasure. Glad you liked it!

  • Al Christenson

    Thanks for the info. If possible a diagram of light placement would be a big help. (A picture is worth ……). I need to get more lights.

  • mike

    Grateful for your article! Can you share your specific camera settings as well as example light settings for the different lights? Also the type of stand used to hold the reflector.

  • Carlisle

    As for camera settings I’m usually at 2.8 – 160th ISO 100. I shoot RAW.

    The lights, in this case alien bees, leave you with few options. I just dial the power all the way down, and defuse a little extra, to achieve shallow DOF without having to worry about shutter and sync. The background light I adjust to be a few stops under the rest.

    Stand for reflector is just a cheap-o stand from I can’t remember where. Make sure it can hold something below waste of both a short and tall subject.

    Thanks.

  • Carlisle

    I’ll see what I can do. Thanks!

  • Sassy D

    Can this been done using speed lights, as that is all I have?

  • carlisle

    It sure can. You’ll need a modifier that works with your speed light.
    I like to use the following with speed lights for my main light:

    RB-90-0001 CheetahStand 36″ RiceBowl RB-90 Deep Para Softboxes – Profoto/Cheetah Speed Pro

    1 $179.95 $179.95

    BKTS Cheetah Speed Pro S Bracket

    1 $22.95 $22.95

    Always keep in mind, light is light. I like to think in terms of light quality—many different vehicles will get you there.

  • Sicplano

    Great lighting tips! Any suggestions for backdrop sources that resemble nice interiors. I’ve thought about just using overlay techniques in PS to composite blurred backdrops I take with photos shot on mid grey. Seems like a lot of trouble though. Appreciate any tips,

  • Carlisle

    I’ve done a lot of composite work dealing with other techniques, but not so much with this particular headshot technique. I find it hard to do realistically with the fall off of focus. But maybe that’s just me.

    With respect to nice backdrop sources, I’ve found that, because the background is so out of focus, a lot of otherwise ugly things can resemble nice interior atmosphere. In one of the photos above a latter is leaning against a wall next to an open bathroom door. I think in terms of shape and color and reflective quality of whatever I place in the background knowing the full quality of what’s back there is going to be distorted. Try shooting a bunch of stuff out of focus and you’ll see what I mean. Thank for the question!

  • Carlisle

    Ladder* sorry

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