4 Headshot Lighting Setups for Professional Photos

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Quick summary

In this blog post, I will go over lighting techniques for headshots that will help you create impactful and professional-looking portraits. We will cover four headshot lighting setups: Timeless Light, Power Light, Punchy Kick Light, and Outdoor Natural Light.

When it comes to capturing compelling headshots, lighting is essential. The right lighting techniques can transform an ordinary headshot into a stunning portrait that captures the essence of the subject. 

I have crafted a strong set of headshot lighting ideas that are unique and new. By taking basic concepts and elevating them with small changes, these setups are a more modern way to provide your clients with beautiful images that have a powerful impact.

Importance of Lighting in Headshot Photography

When a professional comes in for a business portrait, they need their image to showcase their personality and company brand in a way that is highly professional (and of course, attractive!). The lighting plays a vital role in creating such effective portraits for your business clients. Even if you would like to use natural light, there is a way to wield the light that still creates a headshot your client will love!

When I began crafting my lighting setups, I saw my business increase dramatically. My clients loved sharing their images, their experience in my studio, and referred others to me consistently. If you would also like to see your business grow, start by perfecting your lighting so your client’s new, professional headshot images help them achieve their career and business goals.

Lighting Setup 1: Timeless Light

This type of lighting is typically called Rembrandt Lighting. Named after the famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt lighting is a classic technique that adds dimension and depth to a headshot. It involves positioning the key light at a 45-degree angle on one side of the subject’s face, creating a triangle-shaped light on the opposite cheek. This technique is particularly effective at highlighting facial features and creating a sense of drama.

Timeless Lighting Setup.

Gear Used:
1- Monolight (like my Elinchrom 500)
2- 1 large reflector board, like the V-flat featured
3- A large, round reflector with a stand
4- A 7′ Westcott umbrella with diffuser (and stand)

gear for lighting.

One of the reasons I love using this type of headshot lighting technique for my business and corporate clients is because of how classic and flattering this light is. This lighting works well with nearly any backdrop. 

I prefer to adjust my large Westcott umbrella until the light is soft and subtle. The beauty of this lighting setup is that it is beginner-friendly. If you are just opening a photography studio or collecting professional photography lighting gear, you can affordably create powerful headshots with just one big, soft light source and a reflector or two.

This classic image lighting style carries dynamic impact and professionalism, which is what every business person is looking for in their headshots. 

The Timeless Headshot Lighting Setup

We are looking for a soft triangle of light on the cheek opposite the umbrella.

triangle of light.

I start with my monolight at low power and adjust up until I have the correct exposure

Angle the umbrella slightly downward, and ideally, position it just above eye level (or as high as you are able in the case of a lower ceiling, as I have). 

Position the umbrella just in front of the subject so that it “throws light” in front of the client. This feathered light will help the light travel to the other side of the face. I face the umbrella slightly toward my client and toward the V-flat in front of him or her. You can experiment with how directly the umbrella faces your client.

Place the white side of the V-flat opposite the umbrella to soften the shadow side.

Create a “clam shell” with the umbrella and reflector for extra softness under the chin, and a beautiful catchlight in your subject’s eyes.

studio portrait.

Here are more examples of this classic setup for professional business headshots:

examples.

Lighting Setup 2: Power Light

My unique Power light headshot lighting idea is best used for professionals who need to communicate strength, such as high-end realtors, sales people, lawyers, and actors.  

power lighting.

Gear Used: 
1. 2 Monolights (like my Elinchrom 500s)
2. 2 large reflector board, like the V-flat featured, black side facing the subject
3. A large, round reflector with a stand
4. A 7′ Westcott umbrella with diffuser (and stand)
5. 100cm Rotalux Octobox (with speedring and stand)

With only 2 light sources, we can create an edgy, powerful image for your clients that looks like it came straight out of a high-end magazine. This look is consistent, flattering, and has a serious “wow” factor.   

The Power Light Setup

We want a strong, front-on light with rich but still soft shadows.

– “Sandwich” yourself between the 7’ umbrella (behind you) and the Rotalux (directly in front of you, just above the client’s eye level). 

– Place the reflector, white side up, flat and at your client’s waist.

– Position 2 V-flats on either side of your client. Use the black side to create this powerful, carved-out look. 

– Take test shots and adjust the lights’ power and height of the light sources as needed.

– If you need more fill under the chin, you can slide the umbrella a foot or two off to the right or left behind you.

Here are more examples of this strong and effective headshot lighting:

Lighting Setup 3: Punchy Kick Light

Often, a client is looking for a headshot that is bold, bright, and powerful, or sometimes your subject’s hair or outfit is so close in color to the backdrop that it can seem to disappear. Create separation, and add “punch” by adding 2 kick lights* to the Power Light setup.

Punchy Kick Lighting.

Gear Used: 
1. 4 Monolights (like my Elinchrom 500s)
2. 2 large reflector board, like the V-flat featured, white sides facing the subject
3. A large, round reflector with a stand
4. A 7′ Westcott umbrella with diffuser (and stand)
5. 100cm Rotalux Octobox (with speedring and stand)
6. (2) Photoflex Medium LiteDomes with fabric grids, equipped with speed rings and Elinchrom 500 Monolights, on light stands

“Kick lights” are lights from behind that highlight the hair and shoulders of your client. 

The Punchy Kick Light Setup

This is my most in-depth lighting setup. This robust headshot lighting uses 4 lights to create a bright, bold look. We want a strong, front-on light with rich but still soft shadows.

It takes a bit of experimenting to find the perfect light power for each subject, as skin types, clothing, and hair colors vary.

Here are the important factors that create this winning, vibrant look:

– Place your gridded softboxes behind your client on either side, slightly higher than his/her shoulders, and angled slightly downward. Use the white sides of the V-flats and the silver side of the reflector.

Note: The grids direct the light specifically where you aim the boxes and also prevent the kick lights from creating flare or haze in your camera.  See that nice highlight on her hair above? That’s kick light magic!

– Use silver side of reflector.

– Point the gridded kick lights at a 45-degree angle toward the shoulders.

– Adjust the height of the key light (Rotalux Octabox) as needed.

– Position the white side of the V-flats as close as possible to the subject.

– “Sandwich” yourself between the 7’ umbrella (behind you) and the Rotalux (directly in front of you, just above the client’s eye level). 

– Place the reflector, white side up, flat and at your client’s waist.

– Position 2 V-flats on either side of your client.  Use the black side to create this powerful, carved-out look. 

– Take test shots and adjust the lights’ power and height of the light sources as needed.

– If you need more fill under the chin, you can slide the umbrella a foot or two off to the right or left behind you.

Here are more examples of this wonderful, punchy headshot lighting:

Lighting Setup 4: Outdoor Natural Light

Often, your clients want a look that is outdoors with more natural lighting. To achieve a professional-looking image in all-natural light outside, shoot when the sun is low (but still full power), and place your subject with his/her back to the sun. I like to shoot at 8:30 am or 5:30 pm during the summer months.  

Outdoor headshot.

Gear Used:
1 large, white reflector board, like a V-flat 

You can either put your subject directly with their back to the full sun, or for a softer look, find a shaded area to stand your subject in, but one that is still close enough to the sun to be able to reflect light back on to your subject with your open V-flat.

Use a wide aperture (1.4 or 2.8) and see how nature can look just like modern art as your background.

The Outdoor Natural Light Setup

Stand your V-flat up, directly facing the sun. Nestle yourself in the “crook” of the V-flat. Have your client stand 3-4 ft. in front of you.

This look is bold, bright, and very well-lit.

PRO TIP: Getting unwanted lens flare? Put on your lens hood or hold a piece of cardboard over the top of the lens to shield it from the direct sun. 

Want something a bit less bright? Find a touch of spotted shade (like from tree branches) to create a softer look. Here, I found a half-shaded area to position my V-flat near. 

Here are several more examples of outdoor natural lighting for headshots using only a V-flat reflector:

natural light headshots.

Conclusion

Mastering the art of headshot lighting is crucial for any photographer seeking to capture compelling and professional portraits. By utilizing techniques like the ones I have shared with you today about professional headshot lighting, you can elevate your headshots to the next level.

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Eldeen Annette is a dedicated headshot photographer based in Orlando, Florida, specializing in modern headshot lighting techniques for business and acting headshots.
Eldeen Annette is a dedicated headshot photographer based in Orlando, Florida, specializing in modern headshot lighting techniques for business and acting headshots.
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