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Perfect Headshot Lighting

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

As a photographer, light is considered not only your best friend, but it’s also your wife, your child, your boss, and could be compared to nearly any other meaningful relationship we humans have. Sounds weird, I know, but as “painters of light” photographers must understand light in the most personal of ways. As it is with our bosses who call the shots at work; light, calls the shots wherever your shoot location may be. So, with the help of me, Rachel of Rachel Z Photography, your San Francisco photography guide, we will look at what makes for the perfect headshot lighting.


Ambient Lighting

I adore natural light, and I am constantly trying to replicate or compliment it. Nothing looks worse than the over exposed “flash in broad daylight look.” You want your subject to be well lit but you don’t want to notice that they are lit “artificially.” In order to combat overusing your strobes or flash and getting that “artificial” look, it’s best to find a location with lighting as close to ideal as possible. By providing affordable headshots, I can use the lighting of the surrounding environment to craft the best headshot, at no additional expense to my client.


Key Light

The Key Light is your primary source of light for your subject. Typically positioned in front of your subject, this is the light that determines the exact mood you want to convey as the light hits your subject’s face. Perhaps you want it to be hard and directional to induce a more high-fashion look? Or go for a dramatic side light that tosses deep shadows onto one side of your subject’s face? Determining the mood you want to convey through the headshot is vital in how you use place your key light in relation to your subject.


Hair Light

This truly is the secret to creating affordable headshots that stand out from the rest. Hair/Kicker lights bring that cinematic flare to images. Hair lights are brilliant for separating your subject from the background and making them pop out of the image. You can also achieve this look through backlighting, which can produce a dramatic rim light glow around your subject that can play dreamy or edgy depending on the location/style.


Fill Light

Fill light works exactly how it sounds. This is light used to fill in the shadows on your subject or background and work best to reduce contrast and creating a flatter image. Many times, you’d also want to add a fill to keep more details that may be lost.

There are two principal ways to add fill light. You can either add a flash if you have one handy, or my preferred way, by adding a simple bounce. You can use your typical expandable bounce or any large white surface. Anything that has a pretty size-able surface area and is on the brighter color, size works well.


Camera Exposure

Last, the way you’ll tie all these last steps together is through your camera’s exposure. This is the one thing you’re going to want to nail. It’s kind of like the icing on the cake. You can bake some exceptional cakes, but if the icing sucks, it’ll ruin the entire cake.

Typically, you’ll want to aim for a dead center exposure on your image to give you the most latitude for processing your image. If you under or overexpose the image too heavily in either, you won’t be able to edit your image without losing quality quickly.


About Rachel Z. Photography:

I’m a 28-year-old San Francisco-based photographer, activist, tattoo enthusiast, and guardian of 2 lovely rescued birds. I adore doing portrait photography for others, whether that’s indoors or outdoors, covered in flowers and nature or covered in fake blood. My goal with my photography is to empower you by taking the essence of who you are and turning it into works of art. I want to hear what YOUR ideas are and help make them into a reality. I want you to feel powerful. I want you to feel beautiful. I want you to feel confident, because we all deserve that.

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