Gear needed and/or methods to use to take a decent headshot/portrait photo
February 25, 2009 2:01 PM   Subscribe

Please help a landscape photographer take a decent headshot.

I'm a serious amateur photographer (read: I've got a decent digital SLR) that has been volunteered to take photos for use in a fundraising publication at work. These photos will mostly consist of headshots and groups shots, taken indoors, of busy people who'd rather be doing something else.

I'm hoping for two parts of advice: First, whether it would be in my interests to invest in any gear. I have an SLR, a Speedlight 800 and enough lenses to get through. Do I need an umbrella? One of those reflective thingies?

Second, as my use of the wholly technical term "reflective thingies" indicates, I need advice on how to set up and take the shot. I've read Strobist enough to know that I should light the shot with off-camera flash and try to balance ambient with artificial light. Cool. How best to set up the camera, speedlight, other lighting gear and subject to get a semi-decent result? I'm looking less for Karsh than more for something well-lit without the blown-out look of bad flash photography. Any advice on methods or materials appreciated!
posted by docgonzo to Technology (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
The basics of off-camera-flash:
- shoot in Manual
- shutter speed controls ambient, aperture controls flash
- max sync speed (1/200 for most Canon, 1/250 for most Nikon) eliminates most ambient
- flash too harsh? turn down flash power, move flash further away, or raise aperture
- flash too faint? turn up flash power, move flash closer, or lower aperture
- chimp chimp chimp: shoot and look at the histogram to see if it's over or underexposed, alter settings and shoot again

A good basic setup I use is 1/200, f5.6, bounced out of umbrella 4ish feet away, slightly above and to the right (or left) of the camera. I like my umbrella, and it's the only modifier (reflective thingy) I own. An option that doesn't require an umbrella or even a light stand is to bounce the flash off the ceiling or wall.

Grab a friend (I know someone who ran out of friends-as-guinea-pigs and started using a large stuffed bear; she now has hundreds of shots of this well-lit bear) and do some experimenting until you're comfortable with a setup, then use it until you start wondering what it would be like if the flash was over there, or you want more ambient, or what about doing something else? Then you can mix it up.

You'll also need a way to fire your flash off-camera, like a radio popper or a sync cable.

It's scary at first and you'll feel like you have no idea what you're doing, but keep with it and practice a lot. It's a powerful skill to have.
posted by rhapsodie at 2:23 PM on February 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

Read through some of the On Assignment articles at the Strobist and you'll learn a lot about strobe placement.

See if you can get your work to front you enough to rent a roll of seamless white paper, two Profoto, Elinchrom or White Lightning lights with appropriate stands, two soft boxes or shoot-through umbrellas and a couple of Pocket Wizards for a couple of days.

Commandeer a room, put the white paper up as a background and aim the two lights at the chair where you're going to seat the subjects. Set them at similar angles a bit above head height. Set the power on one to be roughly 2/3rds or 1/2 of the power of the other. (This is so the light isn't too boring and flat) Set your ISO to 100 or 200, your aperture to something like f/8 or f/11, and your exposure to something like 1/160 or 1/200. Sit an assistant in the spot and adjust until it's pleasing. Then you're pretty much set and don't have to worry about anything else.

If you're not too familiar with off-camera lighting, this is easily the most straight-forward way of getting good quality, pleasing, consistent results. It gets the job done. It won't be incredibly creative, but it's quite fun, especially if you've never done it before.
posted by Magnakai at 2:25 PM on February 25, 2009

Do they need to be portraits? I'd just point the flash at the ceiling and be done with it. Attach a business card with a rubber band to the top of the flash, with about an inch sticking out. This will produce a bright spot or "catchlight" in the subjects' eyes by reflecting some of the flash toward them, even with the flash pointed at the ceiling.
posted by kindall at 2:25 PM on February 25, 2009

I think you may be going overkill with the worries about lights. I see no mention of what kind of lens you're planning to shoot with, and this will probably have a bigger impact on your finished product than the lighting (assuming you can work in daylight). It's easy to produce shots that'll make your customers 'ooh' and 'aah' with only a cheap lens and natural light, assuming you're using the right lens and making sensible use of the available light.

Consider putting a fast medium telephoto prime lens on your camera. With a crop sensor, this could be something as simple as a 50mm f/1.8 'plastic fantastic,' or you could go with a slightly faster 50mm f/1.4. If you're shooting with a full-frame camera (eg film, or 36mm sensor cameras like the Canon 5D or Nikon D700), a fast 85mm prime would be ideal. Most lenses are weakest at their extremes, so try shooting at f/4 or so where you'll get the sharpest detail and low chromatic aberration. There's a great lens review page at dpreview which includes a magic app to show you a lens' optical performance at various f-stops.

Try to shoot in daylight during the 'golden hour,' late in the day when our planet's atmosphere provides you with a free warming filter. Use good judgement about placing your subject with respect to the light source. Finally, get tons of shots that you can filter through to find the real gems.
posted by mullingitover at 3:07 PM on February 25, 2009

kindall has it, assuming you can shoot in rooms with white or off-white ceilings not much higer than about 12 feet.

Shoot a bunch of test shots prior to doing this. Even in my well equipped studio, I do test shots of myself using either the camera's self timer or a remote trigger. Resist the usual temptation to put your subjects right against the wall to obliterate the faint shadw posibly cats by the bounced flash with business card fill card.

If the rest of the answers you get here run true to form, you'll get a ton of responses, many featuring ways to overcomplicate this; and quite a few of these will involve considerable expense.

If you're shooting with a DX format camera, make sure you do the head shots at at least 50mm, whether that's zoomed to 50mm or with a 50mm prime lens. If you have an FX (so called "full frame") format camera you want to shoot the headshots at at least 85mm.

I can not overstate the case to shoot a ton of test shots. Nail things down this way and you will not look like a spaz when the actual shoots take place.

Simplify things and work within your comfort lavel. Getting a nice smile and a good look out of each person should be your primary concern rather than fidgeting with tech stuff when you take these pictures.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:33 PM on February 25, 2009

I apologize for the typos in my response. "lavel" should be "level", "shadw" should be "shadow", "posibly" should be "possibly", and "cats" should be "cast".

posted by imjustsaying at 3:43 PM on February 25, 2009

A non-lighting tip: Use the burst mode on your dSLR. Fire off a few shots in a row to reduce / eliminate chances of catching your subject(s) blinking.
posted by geeky at 4:45 PM on February 25, 2009

Everyone here has posted good advice - although kindall has your best solution. If you have never used studio lights or strobes, this really isnt the time to learn, as it takes a bit of trial and error (read: its harder than it looks). Diffuse your flash, point it up, take a couple shots of each person using different shutter speeds and you'll be just fine. Happy shooting! (and let us know how it goes)
posted by rumsey monument at 4:48 PM on February 25, 2009

These folks have it down on the technical aspect of your situation, but you also mention that you will be shooting people who are not very happy to be there. So I would also suggest seeing if your company (or whoever is paying you to do this) can chip in for some cookies or snacks. That way, people will actively want to come over to you to get their headshots done, so they can have a cookie and take a moment to unwind, even if it is only a minute. It sounds kind of juvenile, but honestly it will help to get people's faces less harried and maybe a bit more at ease with the photograph.
posted by Mizu at 6:19 PM on February 25, 2009

On second reading, I see that a couple replies *did* mention focal length.

I don't think it can be overstressed, though. They don't call the 105mm (35mm sensor) the "portrait lens" for nothing. If you don't use a long focal length, and back the heck up, two things happen: you'll foreshorten the subject's face too much, and they won't look like "they know they look", and you'll also get too much background.

You really want to throw the background out of focus, and the longer the focal length, the easier that is to do (at the expense of needing more space in the room). It's worth noting that the smaller your sensor, the harder this is to do -- the depth of focus is proportional to the *absolute* focal length in mm, not the "35mm equivalent". Smaller sensors with proportionately shorter telephoto focal lengths will *not* give you as shallow depth of focus.

This is why "real pro" portrait shooters still use 220. :-)

Oh, and never shoot someone straight on: news anchors cheat to one profile or the other for a reason, and you should do head shots that way, too. This will tame Obama-ears, and many other assymetries.
posted by baylink at 9:09 PM on February 25, 2009

I follow mullingitover's strategy above. You can go very far with a 50mm/1.8 prime lens and good natural light, no extra equipment needed.

When I do this, I often shoot in aperture mode at 1.8 - 2.2 (when in low / indoor light) and focus on the subject's eyes.

Scope out the area so you can get a good neutral or natural background. There's nothing so annoying as taking a great headshot and afterward spotting a vibrant green EXIT sign in frame and impossible to crop out.
posted by zippy at 10:11 PM on February 25, 2009

When your subject is posed to your liking and right before you take their picture, ask them to take a deep breath, hold it for a second and then breathe. As they breathe out, take the shot. They will look much more natural and relaxed in the photo.
posted by studentbaker at 7:16 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I shot a meeting for my job early this week and got really great results with no flash at all, using the 1.8 50mm "plastic fantastic" on my Rebel XS. This was in a room with the most horrible light mix EVER (orange AND white AND blue, in different places, and all coming straight down from the ceiling) but I shot in RAW and was able to tweak the white balance afterward.

Granted, these were "photojournalist" style rather than posed photos, but I would encourage you to go to the site ahead of time if possible and try some things out. You might find it's a lot less complicated than you fear.

Also nthing the above advice to be careful of your background. There's nothing more annoying than getting the perfect shot of a subject but it's ruined by something crazy going on behind them.
posted by oblique red at 2:40 PM on February 26, 2009

Bounce your flash off the ceiling and call it a day. Umbrellas? For real?

That, or take people outside.
posted by chunking express at 3:48 PM on February 26, 2009

Also, the bigger reason people use telephotos for portraits is that the closer you get to the subject the more distorted they will look. GIANT NOSES!
posted by chunking express at 3:50 PM on February 26, 2009

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