Professional Headshot & Portrait Lighting Techniques

Professional Headshot & Portrait Lighting Techniques

Headshot and Portrait Lighting Techniques are often not noticed by the client until they see themselves on the computer monitor. How many of us have reviewed a magazine with amazing images or a favorite photographer’s portfolio and wondered, how did they get that shot? How were they able to control the lighting so the subject appears to be popping out of the picture? I’m sure some say, it must be an expensive camera or we question if it was heavily edited in PhotoShop. What these photographers share in common is the skill of controlling the light and knowing how to use light to create beautiful images that drive our inner desire to want to be as good as them.

First, for headshots, your body should be framed from the chest up with the client looking directly at the camera. Eye contact is one of the most important elements of a great headshot. A professional photographer will guide you through the process so you can showcase your personality. The photographer should couch and direct the client without making them appear staged or robotic.

There’s an art to taking images that pop or stand out. So before I get into the step-by-step, let’s quickly go through the elements of a great portrait. Starting with the camera settings, these tips will help put some of the steps in a better context. There are a few basic rules that you should follow to ensure the best possible portrait before going over the style of lighting.

The following steps eliminate all the light that is available in your space so the ambient light is not casting light on your subject. These basics have helped me understand lighting and I continue to use it to this day.

Camera settings:


Once I have my lights set up, and before turning them on I do the following. I set my camera at its lowest normal ISO of 100 – ISO measures the sensitivity of the image sensor. The lower the number the less sensitive your camera is to light and the finer the grain. By choosing a higher ISO you can use a faster shutter speed to freeze the movement.

Sync Speed

Adjust your camera to its maximum sync speed anywhere from 1/200 to 1/250 second – For most cameras, you can only get a flash to sync properly up to 1/250 second. Some camera bodies only have a maximum flash sync of 1/160 and some go to 1/320. You are in High-Speed Sync (HSS) when your shutter speed exceeds the maximum flash sync speed of your camera.


Set the aperture to a setting so when you take a picture the frame is completely black and there are no signs of ambient light on the subject. Indoors or a studio setting average is f/5.6 to f/8. Outdoors the aperture could range from f/11 to f/16 or maybe f/22 on a bright sunny day – The aperture controls the brightness of the image that passes through the lens and falls on the image sensor. It is expressed as an f-number (written as “f/” followed by a number), such as f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, /f4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, or f/32.

Now that you have a completely dark frame with no light interfering in your shot, you are ready to introduce a flash. Here is where the controlling of the light will begin to make a little more sense.

Lighting Styles:

Butterfly Lighting – Butterfly lighting (also called Paramount lighting) is named after the butterfly-shaped shadow that’s created beneath the nose. Place the key light source above and directly behind your camera, pointed down slightly on your subject. Butterfly lighting creates a shadow under the chin, nose, and cheeks. When the subject is turned at an angle, it can create more dramatic shadows under the cheekbones. The higher you position the light behind you and above the subject, the longer the shadows will get under the nose and chin. It’s flattering for most faces.

Loop Lighting – Loop lighting is created by placing your light slightly above eye level of the subject and 45º off-axis (give or take). This shifts the nose shadow to one side of the face. Instead of a butterfly-ish shadow, you’ll end up with a small loop. Loop lighting sometimes has a lengthening effect on the face. It’s flattering on most people and is used a lot for headshots and can be set up on either side. A shadow appears on the opposite side of where the light is placed. The size of the shadow depends on the position of the light and how much the nose is blocking that light. The end of the nose casts a loop-shaped shadow. You will also see a shadow appear on the cheek opposite the light. Loop lighting behaves much like butterfly lighting – it’s just further to the side.

Rembrandt Lighting – Named after the Dutch painter who used this style in his work, Rembrandt lighting is very similar to loop lighting. In Rembrandt’s lighting, however, the shadow loop of the nose is long enough to connect with the shadow on the cheek. This traps a triangle of light on the cheek. To get this, start with loop lighting but then continue to position your light up and to the side until the nose shadow and cheek shadows touch. This lighting style is moody, edgy, and artistic. Fill with a reflector for a softer look.

Split (or Side) Lighting – Split lighting (also called side lighting) is a form of lighting where half of the subject’s face is lit, while the other half is left in shadow. It creates a dramatic, unique feel and is not as common as other positions.

Position your main light to the side of your model at a 90º angle. You can leave the far side completely in shadow or you can use a bounce/fill light to show more detail.

Even if you don’t want much detail to show on the opposite side of the face, consider using fill to create catchlights in the eyes. Keep in mind, this kind of lighting will highlight the texture of your model’s face. Split lighting is great for very moody portraits and is stylish but not always flattering.

Those are a few camera settings along with some light styles that are commonly used during headshots or portrait sessions.

Corporate headshots lighting setup

To get started with your own corporate headshot lighting setup, you’ll want to begin by finding a space that has plenty of natural light. Lighting setups vary If you’re shooting indoors, try to find a room near a window where the light is coming in at a diffused angle. If you’re shooting outdoors, find an area that’s in the shade so that your subject isn’t squinting and the light is more evenly distributed.

One Light Setup: To create a more simple corporate headshot lighting setup, start with just one light. You can use either a natural light source or an artificial one.

Once you’ve found your space, set up your camera on a tripod and position your subject in front of it. If you’re using a DSLR, mirrorless camera, or point-and-shoot with manual controls, set your exposure by adjusting the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. If you’re using a smartphone or compact camera, tap on your subject’s face in the viewfinder to tell the camera where to focus, and then use the exposure compensation slider to brighten or darken the image.

Next, it’s time to add light. If you’re shooting indoors near a window, open up the curtains or blinds and then position your subject so that they’re facing the light. If you’re shooting outdoors, find a spot where the sun is behind your subject so that they’re evenly lit.

If you want to soften the light, you can use a translucent white sheet or muslin cloth as a diffuser. Just hold it up in front of the light source and position your subject so that they’re facing the diffuser.

If you want to add some drama to your image, you can use a reflector to bounce light back onto your subject’s face. Position the reflector underneath their chin and angle it up towards their face. You can use a piece of white foam core board, a silver reflector, or even a mirror. Natural light can be beautiful, but it can also be unpredictable. If you’re not getting the results you want, don’t be afraid to experiment with different lighting setups until you find one that works for you.

Finally, take a few test shots and adjust your lighting until you’re happy with the results. Then start snapping away!

If you’re interested in scheduling a free consultation, please contact us today. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you have and help you find the perfect corporate headshot lighting setup for your needs.

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Hector Cavazos