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Step By Step How to Do a Head Shot on a White Background

Today you are going to come ride along with me as I shoot head shots for a client in San Diego, California. I was hired by a company to create simple head shots of their instructors in the San Diego area.

There is a very big market for head shots and quite a few people want them shot on a white infinity backdrop. There are many ways to do this but I’m going to take you along on a shoot with me and show you how I do it:

Step by step how to do a head shot on a white background


First off, what is a seamless backdrop?

It’s a giant roll of paper – thats it! I used an 8-foot long roll in ‘alpine white’ color. Again, it’s just a big white roll of paper. When properly lit, this roll of paper gets ‘blown out’ or overexposed, so it appears as a perfectly white void on which your subject sits/stands in the middle. This white void makes the viewer focus on your subject rather than a cluttered background.

Setting up the seamless backdrop

As you can see in the animated GIF below, I start by finding an open area at least 8 feet wide. This is easier to set up with two people, but on this corporate shoot it was just me.

To make this easier to set up by yourself just lay the roll of paper on the ground and position the light stands on either side of the end of the roll of paper at their lowest height. Make sure the paper is set to unroll from underneath the back of the roll ,and not over the top and front of the roll.

When you pull from the back of the roll the natural curl of the paper will let the paper roll straight to the floor then curl toward your camera  into the room. This will provide a smooth curved transition from the vertical roll of paper into the floor and toward you so the background and floor will appear seamless. If the paper is pulled from overhand when it hits the floor it will want to curl backwards toward the back of the room. This won’t create seamless transition as you pull the roll into the room.

Run the cross bar through the center of the paper roll – the cross bar will stick out about 2 inches on either side of the roll. The cross bar has 2 slots at each end and the light stands have two vertical screws. Lift up the roll and place these two slots into the two vertical screws and then screw in the included wing nuts to secure the roll onto the light stands.

Raising the seamless backdrop

Now that we have the paper roll secured on the light stands at their lowest height, it’s time to raise it up. The light stands have two sets of clamps and two sets of vertical poles that raise up. With two people you can simply raise the paper roll at the same time to the desired height and lock the clamps down to secure the paper roll at your desired height. With only one person you have to slowly raise one side, then the other, until you get the roll to the desired height. Check out the GIF below and try not to laugh at the CEO jumping in during setup.


Unrolling the backdrop

Now that we have the bar to the height we want it, we can unroll the backdrop. I always keep little clamps on each end of the roll to keep it from unrolling on its own. Unclamp the little A-clamps on either side of the paper roll and slowly pull the roll down. If you don’t pull slowly the roll can gain momentum, unroll really fast, and go much further than planned! Since we were only doing head shots I just pulled the backdrop down to the floor. Once the roll is at the desired length clip the A-clamps back in place to keep the roll from unrolling further on its own like you see below.

seamless backdrop, studio lights, corporate headshots

Lighting the shoot

The way to make lighting easy is to light in layers, one step at a time. In this case I’m going to light the backdrop first. Once I get that done I’m going put a subject in front of the backdrop and light them separately. Once that is lit correctly we are ready to rock!

Lighting the backdrop

Now that the backdrop is set up properly we want to light it so that it appears solid white. I placed an Alien Bees 1600 studio strobe 3 feet away from the backdrop on the left side and angled it to shoot across the backdrop. The light had a reflector on it to contain the direction of the light. This will make the light rake across the middle of the backdrop to light it up white.

Dialling in the camera settings

I set my camera to f/8 aperture as it’s a good middle ground depth of field to start. The studio lights will give me all the light I need so I set the ISO low at 200. I then set the shutter speed to 1/160 which is the maximum shutter speed sync my camera allows. In this room a 1/160 shutter speed is fast enough that none of the lights on the ceiling would register – essentially I’m killing any ambient light in the room so the only light that shows up in the photo is from the studio strobes.

I take a guess and set the studio strobe light at 1/4 power. I do a quick test at f/8, ISO 200, 1/160 shutter speed and get this:

corporate headshots, white seamless backdrop, studio strobes, lighting setups

Looks pretty good to me! You can see the area closest to the light is perfectly blown out white, but as you move to the right the light is becoming weaker and the white backdrop appears more grey. Because the light is weaker on the right side it’s also showing the wrinkles in the paper. Because I’ll be placing people several feet in front of the light stand and zooming into the middle of the backdrop I’m not concerned with the right side of the backdrop. If I were shooting a wider shot I would add another light on the right side of the backdrop to light up that side, but that isn’t necessary for this shoot.

Lighting the subject

Now that we have the backdrop dialled in it’s time to light the next layer – the subject. I place an Alien Bees 800 studio strobe to the right of the backdrop, about six feet in front of the first light. I put an umbrella on the light which spreads the light out (diffuses it) as it passes through the umbrella and gives it a nice, soft appearance. I set the light at 1/4 power, at a 45 degree angled downward, and raised to about 8 feet high to test it out.

I step in front of the backdrop like the goofball that I am and get this:

studio lighting, seamless backdrop, corporate headshots

The backdrop still looks good, but I (the subject) am overexposed. This means the umbrella light is too strong. I reduce the power from 1/4 power to 1/8th power, have the CEO grab two nearby Nerf guns, step back in for a test, and get this:

seamless backdrop, studio lights, corporate head shots

Looking much better!

The light hitting the white background is bouncing onto the back of the subject and wrapping around his body too much. To correct this I need to move the subject a few feet toward the camera so the light bouncing off the background falls off before it reaches him. When I do this I also need to move the umbrella light the same distance toward the camera to keep the same exposure.

I also want more room to the right to compose my subjects so I move the umbrella light two feet camera-right, and one foot toward the camera. I then have the subject move two feet camera-right and one foot toward the camera so the background light won’t reach the subject as much.  I take another test and get this:

seamless backdrop, corporate headshots, digital photography school, seamless backdrop

This looks great to me. The background layer is blown out white, the subject layer is properly exposed, and as a bonus just enough light is bouncing off the backdrop to give some backlighting to the subject. Here is a closer crop to see what we are working with:

studio lights, seamless backdrop, corporate headshots

The only thing I should do to improve this is have the subject turn his body to face the umbrella so there isn’t so much shadow on the camera-left side.

Positioning the subject

headshot, seamless backdrop

The client wanted simple head shots of their instructors for use on their website profiles. I had the subject stand in the same place, square up their shoulders to face the umbrella light, and smile. You’ll notice that the umbrella placed up above the subject and pointed down at 45 degrees leaves a nice catch light (the white reflection of the light) in the top right corner of the subject’s eyes. When you can place a catch light at the ten or two o’clock position (like on an analog clock) in the subject’s eyes it brings them to life. Here is what we end up with:

 Quick positioning tip

To keep everything consistent, place some tape on the floor where you want people to stand. I didn’t have any tape with me but I did have an extra umbrella. I simply placed the umbrella at a diagonal angle and told the subjects to place their toes against the umbrella. This squared them up with the light so each portrait was consistent.

Wrapping it up

Overall it was a very quick setup, shoot, and breakdown. We shot 45 different instructors in about 45 minutes! Once everything was dialled in we just photographed one instructor after the next. The shoot was fun, the client was happy, and the instructors loved their head shots!


Would you like to see more real shoots?

Did this post help you and did you enjoy seeing some behind-the-scenes info on real client shoots? If so sound leave me a comment below. If it would help I’d love to start sharing more live client shoots to show everyone how they come together!

For more portrait tips using a white background see these articles on dPS:

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Mike Newton
Mike Newton

teaches photography learning shortcuts and other photo hacks at Hacking Photography.

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