Lighting Isn’t Everything

This shot of Kara breaks several posing rules, but I like it anyway. That's why I'm not going to tell you which rules it breaks.

“I talk to myself, but I don’t listen.” So sang Elvis Costello in the early 1980s, but he might have been describing my photographic learning curve. I made careful notes before “Headshot Night,” but neglected to refer to them during the shoot. Oops.

To improve the work I do for community theater, I invited some friends over so I could practice simple headshots. I intended to replicate images I saw online. Actors use headshots to attract the attention of casting agents. The “commercial” image is typically a smiling, “I can sell cleaning products!” portrait, whereas the “theatrical” image is typically a little moodier. In both cases, the photograph should represent the person as he or she truly appears. This calls for relatively flat lighting and minimal post-processing. You don’t want the casting agent to hold up your heavily retouched image and ask if you have the number of the person in the picture.

A slight anomaly in the background light (aka an unintentional shadow) helps this image, but a slightly darker background would have ROCKED, especially with the cross light falling on her shoulder.

I did okay on the flat lighting, but found myself unhappy with the photos. Concentrating on lighting preparation, I neglected at least four other elements that complicated the shoot and detracted from the resulting images:

1. Backgrounds – The headshot must draw attention to the subject’s face, and thus requires a simple background, but “simple” does not mean “nonexistent.” A little color and texture provide context for a more complete and less boring image. In the future, I will use a third light to throw some color on the background, or I will choose a natural (but simple) environment and shallow depth of field. Or, I’ll move the model and lights farther from the background so it fades to gray.

2. Poses –Had I reviewed the images I was trying to replicate, I would have noticed that most of the time, the models were leaning toward the camera. It brings a sense of immediacy to the image. Also, I usually stand on a stepstool to vary the shooting angle and raise the model’s chin. Why did I forget this time?

3. Motivation – When it came time to shoot the theatrical images, I didn’t know what to ask the models to do. We brainstormed in real time, and I think that pressured everybody. I’m told the real trick is simple conversation. Chat and shoot, chat and shoot.

Holly is a compulsive smiler, but she is also an actress, so she just needed a scenario description to change her look for the theatrical shot.

4. Comfort – We always have wine and soft drinks for these sessions, but I did not provide food, and that means sagging blood sugar levels after an hour or so of work. Next time: cheese and crackers. I also need to supply a stool or tall chair, so the model will be more relaxed and better able to lean forward. Finally, I need to get some big, well-lit mirrors into the room, for preparation and real-time feedback.

For the record, these were shot with an SB800 and umbrella reflector as the key light, just slightly to my left and about seven feet high. I bounced an SB600 off the ceiling (from behind and to the right) to act as a soft hair light. A large silver reflector on a card table directly in front of the models provided some fill. To boost eye lighting a tad, I allowed the on-camera flash to fire at 1/64 power. Lighting is essential to a good photograph, but as I was reminded last night, it represents but one piece of the puzzle.

Jaye's natural exuberance means that when I ask for a quarter-smile, I still get all the fire in her eyes.

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Filed under Dance and Theater, Lighting, Portraiture

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