Allied Productions | Grand Rapids Video Production, Photography and Digital Media Agency
THE INTERSECTION OF STRATEGY AND STORY

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The Intersection of Strategy and Story

Headshot Photography Tutorial: Theory and Methods

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Headshot photography is often discussed in terms of specific methods, but rarely explored in terms of approach. We've compiled some of our basic methods and tools in this guide with the hope it will be useful in creating headshots with personality. Rather than approaching a headshot session in the mindset of 'I shoot headshots following this specific method,' consider approaching a headshot session with the mindset of listening first. Our process begins before the day of production. We have our clients complete a short questionnaire (easily created via google forms) and then guide them to our FAQ page that covers the basics of wardrobe, makeup, posing, and emoting. By the time the client arrives, we have a good understanding of what we're going to be shooting simply by completing our due diligence. 

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Pick a Character, Not a Style


From the feedback we gather in our pre-shoot conversation, we have a good understanding of the genre we'll be working in, and from there we decide what we want the images to say. Actors, for example, often have an idea of a specific role they are auditioning. We may get in to a specific scene or mood from the character and develop the image around that. No matter what style you pick, some basic guidelines do apply to getting the shot.

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The Basic Guidelines

The key elements to any successful headshot are clear highlights in the eyes, enough fill light to avoid intense falloff, and sufficient backlight to create separation. Remember, a headshot needs to show the subject's face in a recognizable way. While utilizing different portrait lighting patterns can reinforce the character, never let the pursuit of style get in the way of the main objective. 

Portrait Lighting Patterns

Reinforcement of character comes with an understanding of portrait lighting patterns and when to utilize which specific style. In general, each specific pattern can be presented in short or broad lighting varieties and this characteristic can be utilized to provide variety within setups. In headshots, the typical lighting patterns employed are Loop, Butterfly, Rembrandt and Split. 


 Favorable yet authentic, loop lighting is best used on confident subjects who wish to convey depth of character in the most favorable way. 

Favorable yet authentic, loop lighting is best used on confident subjects who wish to convey depth of character in the most favorable way. 

Loop Lighting

Loop lighting utilizes an angled key light that shows dimension and is often employed in headshot and portrait work. It's a simple pattern that effectively shows dimension and character yet is more favorable for the subject than split lighting. 


 Incredibly favorable, butterfly lighting is often preferred by older clients as it's soft characteristics provide natural smoothing. Utilizing this technique on younger subjects creates intimate, approachable characteristics. 

Incredibly favorable, butterfly lighting is often preferred by older clients as it's soft characteristics provide natural smoothing. Utilizing this technique on younger subjects creates intimate, approachable characteristics. 

Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly pattern lighting utilizes a top-down clamshell setup and creates a unique (butterfly shaped) shadow just below the nose of the subject. It can be adjusted to a beauty look with strong under-reflection, or more dimensional if the lower reflector is diminished. Often a favorable setup for clients seeking a clean, favorable aesthetic. 


 Classic and creative, Rembrandt lighting can be used on any subject to highlight depth of character and artistry of mood. Can easily be utilized in short and broad patterns, Rembrandt is a staple setup for the portrait photographer. 

Classic and creative, Rembrandt lighting can be used on any subject to highlight depth of character and artistry of mood. Can easily be utilized in short and broad patterns, Rembrandt is a staple setup for the portrait photographer. 

Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt is another setup that utilizes an angled key light. The goal with Rembrandt lighting is to create a triangle shaped highlight on the shadow side of the nose. It's often used to create mood and reinforce intensity. The technique is named for the great Rembrandt who often portrayed the technique in his paintings. 


 Severe and direct, Split lighting is used when a specific intention is desired. The technique can speak to the duality of character and possibly to life transitions as well. While not ideally favorable for reinforcement of brand, the technique can reinforce the right character. 

Severe and direct, Split lighting is used when a specific intention is desired. The technique can speak to the duality of character and possibly to life transitions as well. While not ideally favorable for reinforcement of brand, the technique can reinforce the right character. 

Split Lighting

A rarely used but distinctive style, split lighting is to be used sparingly and never with a subject you want to create a standard headshot. The technique divides the face in half, one side lit and one in shadow. It is utilized to communicate a specific feel, and can be perfect for certain roles but is otherwise too harsh for everyday use. 


Final Thoughts

Each of the portrait lighting patterns discussed takes time to master but are essential to learn. Each client brings different concerns and has a different character to convey. As such, we never rely on utilizing one specific style or approach, but rather let the style of the character inform the setup.