On November 18, 2017 I had an opportunity to take headshots for a friend who needed them for her business cards. This provided the impetus for me to study-up on headshot techniques that the professionals use, and to make a few upgrades to my equipment and software, so that I could apply some of those techniques to help improve my own headshots (‘Always looking to up my game.). This was just my second foray into headshot photography.
My first concern with this shoot was that the largest light modifier that I owned was the Fotodiox 50cm (20in) Quick-Collapse Flash Softbox, which, based on its small size, cannot be expected to produce the most flattering photos of women. Also, although the umbrella mechanism in this softbox seems pretty reliable, I’ve been concerned that the plastic articulated mechanism that holds the speedlight, and attaches the softbox to a light stand, will break. It hasn’t failed yet, but I expect that it will before it hits 50 installation/removal cycles.
So, for these shots, I decided to buy the Westcott RapidBox 26″ Octa Softbox, which I picked as the result of research over 6 months before (Although I would have rather bought a larger softbox, that would likely have forced me to also buy a studio light to drive it, instead of being able to use one of my existing speedlights.). I also bought the internal Deflector Plate for the 26″ Octa, to help ensure that the speedlight would not create a hot spot in the center of the diffuser, and instead, focus that energy in wrapping around the subject to fill in wrinkles, etc. Despite being a little larger, I like the fact that the 26″ Octa stows down to a very compact size.
The following photos show a comparison of the light produced by the Fotodiox 50 cm (20 in) Quick-Collapse Flash Softbox (left) and the Westcott RapidBox 26″ Octa (right). In both photos, the light source for each softbox is a Nikon SB-5000 AF Speedlight, with the Nikon SW-15H Diffusion Dome installed (automatically zooms the flash to 10 mm), and set to 1/16 power. In both photos, the Fotodiox softbox has the optional internal diffuser sheet installed. In the photo on the left, the Westcott softbox includes the Deflector Plate. For the photo on the right, it was removed.
From these photos, it is clear that for the Westcott RapidBox 26″ Octa, the Deflector Plate blocks a lot of the light at the center of the diffuser that could otherwise cause a hot spot on the subject, instead sending more of that light to the perimeter to wrap around the subject. More subtly, the horizontal long dimension of the Nikon SB-5000 flash head appears to manifest itself as a stripe of slightly brighter light right across the center of the diffuser surface. This stripe is not seen on the Fotodiox softbox (although there is a slight hot spot in the center), likely due to its secondary internal diffuser sheet. In the future, I may look for a softbox that is deeper, which should allow internal reflections to make the light more even. I’d also like it to have an optional a grid, so that I can make the light more directional.
In addition to a larger speedlight softbox, for many months I had been searching for the best way to create flattering catchlights in my subjects’ eyes. I had seen the work of Peter Hurley, and how he used a combination of 3, and more recently 4, 1’x2′ and 1’x3′ flexible LED light panels to create some pretty striking catchlights. But my opinion was that the reason his catchlights are so striking is because they appear so unnatural. His 3-light setup, to me makes the subjects’ pupils look something like cats’ eyes, where his 4-light setup, creates a square reflection in each eye. The 4-light setup costs roughly $5,000. On the positive side, the combined area of the panels does make the catchlights very noticeable, and because they are continuous LEDs (vs. flash), they constrict the pupils of his subjects’ eyes to show more of the color of the irides.
For myself, all I had for continuous lighting was a portable halogen work light, flashlights, and room lamps. I really wasn’t planning on dishing out more money to buy continuous studio lighting.
The first solution I came up with for producing catchlights was the Westcott Eyelighter. This device, which was originally developed by photographer/inventor Larry Peters, is simply a curved reflective surface that must be illuminated by a decent-sized softbox (At least one Westcott product video recommends a 36″ softbox minimum (i.e., Westcott RapidBox 36″ Octa XL)). From watching the video advertisements and reviews, I discovered that, since it is pretty large, it might be a pain for me to store, set up, and get around in my small (and temporary) home photo studio. The catchlights that the Westcott Eyelighter creates are basically a wide semi-circle on the lower portion of the iris, with the main light that illuminates the Eyelighter possibly also showing up as a catchlight near the top portion of the iris. This is pretty striking, and not too unnatural, but in order to optimize that effect, the relative distances between the subject, the Eyelighter, and the main light must be very specific (Westcott product videos recommend 30″ between softbox and Eyelighter, and 30″ from Eyelighter to subject.), and I wasn’t sure that I could make it work with a standing subject in a small studio with a 7-foot ceiling.
So, then my search led me to ring lights. The only commercial ring lights that I saw in my initial investigations were pretty crude, first-generation devices. So, I was thinking that maybe with some wire Christmas wreath framing, some Christmas lights, and a dimmer, I could make something that would work nearly as well, and hopefully that would cost much less. This could create large catchlights (if the wreath was very thick and the Christmas lights were very bright), and they would be completely round. Therefore, I figured, they would appear more natural. When I looked into it further, making such a thing didn’t seem quite as cheap and easy as I had thought. So, I dropped the idea for a while, that is until this opportunity came up.
So, I started looking once again. This time, I searched for ring lights at Amazon.com, and later at B&H.com. These searches came up with a number of hits for commercial devices, and I started comparing features. Finally, I ran across the Savage Luminous Pro LED Ringlight Plus. This light is only 19″ in diameter, which I wasn’t sure would be large enough (it’s barely larger than my small softbox).
But this second-generation device did have some nice features. With 480 LEDs and 96 Watts, I assumed it was more powerful than the first generation device that had only 240 LEDs (and unstated power output). It also has a built-in dimmer, with an LCD display that shows exactly what percent power is set.
It also has a separate control for color temperature, which can be varied anywhere from 3,200 K (Tungsten Halogen sources) to 5,500 K (sunlight), where other devices on the market required the addition of colored covers to affect the color temperature. In addition, the device could be operated on batteries, making it more convenient for use out in the field. And it even has a remote control, so you don’t have to crawl through your equipment to make adjustments. Finally, I figured that the ring shape could also make it useful for providing even lighting for products or food items from above. So, I settled on this as the solution I would pursue. I found it at District Camera, in Burke, Virginia, and on November 17th, I stopped by and picked it up.
After setting it up, I was immediately impressed by how bright it was! At a distance where the ring appeared to circumscribe the pupil diameter (about 24 inches), I found anything over 15% power to be uncomfortably bright. Unfortunately, the ring-shaped catchlight that it produces is much thinner than the partial ring produced by the Eyelighter (when it is set up to maximize this). In that regard, the partial ring is probably an advantage, because you don’t need an enormous light source in order to generate a significant catch light. It basically magnifies the size of the main light.
In the end, I found that the Savage Luminous Pro LED Ringlight Plus works well for constricting the pupils, since it is aligned directly with the eyes when the subject is looking at the camera lens (in the center of the light). And you might argue that catchlights aren’t as important, when you can brighten pupils using a dedicated adjustment in post-processing using Portrait Pro. When they’re brightened, the irides themselves serve to make the eyes more noticeable, even without catchlights.
My last purchase, which I had also scoped out long before, was my next roll of background paper. I already owned four 53″ rolls of Superior paper in Arctic White, Ultra Black, Deep Blue, and Flame (red). But based on what I had seen on the internet for professional headshot photos, I thought I should also have a darker grey available. From my research, it seemed that Savage was considered to have a pretty broad line of grey background papers, and it seemed like their most popular grey tone was Thunder Grey. So, the day before the shoot I ordered it at District Camera, and they had it delivered from their Washington, D.C. store the next morning for me to pick up.
Configuration & Settings
In preparation for this shoot, I asked the subject to give me some ideas of what she was looking for. She expressed an interest in having a white (high key) background, so I went online to figure out how best to do that. The one thing I learned is that white backgrounds will not show as white unless you give them a lot of dedicated lighting.
I had been assuming that we were going to go for a darker background (hence the Thunder Grey paper), so I was planning on using my second Nikon SB-5000 speedlight as an accent light, positioned over the subject’s left shoulder, to provide highlights on her hair and shoulders that would separate her from the darker background. But after attempting to use various continuous lights to illuminate my Arctic White background paper to generate a pure white background, I realized that I would need the greater (short term) intensity of my second speedlight for that purpose. I considered using just the bare flash for this purpose, but then I remembered that I had my original Fotodiox softbox that would provide much more even illumination of the background. That’s what I ended up using, in the same configuration that you see above (Shown with Thunder Grey paper), and it worked well. It was later that we switched to the Thunder Grey paper, which we used in the final product.
The lighting that I put directly on my subject included my other Nikon SB-5000 speedlight mounted to the Westcott RapidBox 26″ Octa and the Savage Luminous Pro LED Ringlight Plus, together with white foam board on opposite the softbox and under her chin to surround her with as much light as possible.
The camera was my Nikon D500 DSLR, with a 28 mm f/1.4 prime lens on it. And since my subject wore glasses, I also installed a 77 mm Pro Master circular polarizing filter to minimize reflections.
From this, one thing I’ve learned is that I need to find a much better way to capture equipment configurations and settings, so that I don’t have to reinvent them again in the future.
Real Time Photo Review
To the camera USB port, I connected a CamRanger wireless router. This was set up to send the photos to the CamRanger app running on my iPad Pro 9.7 as I took them. This seemed to work well for reviewing photos, but at times it seemed like having the router attached to the camera was somehow causing the camera’s LED display to shut off before I had a chance to make setting changes (which I discovered just before my subject arrived). I quickly checked the camera’s display settings, and none were set to turn off the display as quickly as it seemed to be doing. From that I suspected that it was the attachment to the CamRanger router that was somehow affecting how the camera performed. Luckily, I was able to deal with it by making the camera setting adjustments as quickly as I could, but this will need to be investigated.
Photo Screening & Selection
After the photo shoot, I uploaded the photos from my camera to my desktop computer using Camera Bits Photo Mechanic 5. This allowed my subject and I to quickly screen out rejects as the photos were coming in. Some of the main discriminators in selecting the final photos for editing were: expression, posture, and eyes.
At some point during my business trip the week before, I had run across an ad for a software package called Portrait Pro, where they were announcing a new update (version 17). After I took these shots, and after my subject left, when I was faced with the question of what I would use to edit the photos, I first tried searching YouTube for any video reviews for Portrait Pro. Sure enough, I found one of Dustin Meyer‘s videos that reviewed the just-released version. I was impressed with the power that Portrait Pro provides for making adjustments to portrait images. But with great power, comes great responsibility, as I would soon learn.
My first attempt using Portrait Pro resulted in a pretty striking photo, but upon first use, I couldn’t tell what I had control over and what I didn’t. All I knew was that the default settings looked pretty good. Unfortunately, I didn’t know everything that the software had changed. In particular, I didn’t realize that with the default settings, the software actually changes facial dimensions. This might make for some very glamorous photos, but they no longer match looks of the subject. So, I went back in and figured out how to zero out this setting. Most of the other changes in the final product were generated by the default settings.
After making the portrait adjustments, I exported the result to JPEG, which I then opened in Corel PaintShop Pro to do final cropping and straightening.
Here is the final product. It took just over an hour to capture, and somewhat less to edit.
This experience provided a significant step up the learning curve. There is much farther to go, but this wasn’t bad for a second attempt at portrait photography.