The “Secret” To Soft Lighting For Headshots & Portraits

by William Lulow

What’s the secret to great headshot and portrait lighting? Well, if you understand studio lighting, the “secret” is really to surround the face with light! If your goal is to make salable pictures for either your client directly or a publication, faces need to be lit correctly. When I was learning portrait lighting I noticed that the mirrors the models and makeup artists used in our NYC studio, were surrounded with light. You know the ones I mean! The little round bulbs that completely encircle a makeup mirror. Also, as I looked at pages upon pages of magazine ads and editorial pieces showing headshots and portraits, it didn’t take me long to realize that this kind of  light would be ideal to use because it provided nice, even, soft light. Now, there are some photographers who have taken this notion quite literally and gone and bought RINGLIGHTS! A ringlight is a type of electronic flash unit that is actually mounted on the camera’s lens, completely encircling it. And, that’s basically the right idea. Except for the fact that it surrounds the lens instead of the subject and creates a really distracting circle-shaped catchlight in the subject’s eye  And, because it is attached to the camera, the light only travels to the subject’s face. Backgrounds and everything else are usually dark unless you light them separately.

Here’s an example:

Ringlight

Notice how distracting these catchlights are! It looks almost as if they were just painted on her eyes. And, just about everything else is black, including her cheeks! This is not an acceptable solution to creating nice, soft light for portraits.

So, borrowing examples from Avedon, Scavullo, Halsman as well as many other fashion and beauty photographers, I simply went and had a special, large photographic umbrella made with about twice the number of ribs as regular umbrellas to give the mainlight a real, roundish quality. Then I got a small light box that I could place directly under the subject’s face. Now, I had a setup that truly surrounded the subject’s face with light, both from the top and bottom as well as all around her to create a really soft look with virtually no shadows. This is one result:

AnnaTimoneCU(c)

If you look carefully at the eyes, the catchlights are visible but not distracting. Plus, the shot looks much more natural. The lighting is almost shadowless creating smooth-looking skin while highlighting all the woman’s features.

It really begins with a HOLLYWOOD light placed very close to the subject’s face and a low (MONSTER) fill-in light also placed close to the face.

And, that’s the SECRET to producing great, well-lit headshots like this! Of course, there are other lights on this set, but I have written about them before. The aim is to create a soft light that surrounds the face. I’ve seen all kinds of different ways of trying to achieve this effect, but the best, by far, is doing it with actual lights. Reflectors can be used to mimic the effect but are not as exact as lights themselves. Also, the photographic principle of “the larger the light, the softer the effect” comes in to play here as well. If you want a truly soft result, the mainlight needs to be as large as possible.