Tricks to a high key head shot.

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Tricks to a high key head shot.

The high key headshot is the most common and versatile headshot. It fits into any placement without clashing. The white helps reduce file size for fast loading. It seamlessly bleeds into white backgrounds yet can be given a border to stand out.

The setup is pretty simple. A white or light background is the base. The background light is going to blast any detail or color out through over exposure. It is such a small area that you can do this with one light. Use a gobo or barn door so the light does not accidently spill on to your subject.

It helps if the background goes very low, even to the floor, behind your subject.

Have a fill light dead center in front of your subject, placed higher than them. It should be a large umbrella to create a soft, omni-directional light that casts virtually no shadow on the subject. It is typically powered 2 to 3 stops below the main light.

The final tool is a main light, then for the shadow side of the face a reflector or even a kicker light that would be placed behind the subject skimming across the shadow side of their face.


Your main light will give the “character” feel to the headshot. In these images I have used a very large soft box, 30”x40”. The subject is placed at the back end of the light, which is in a horizontal position. It is placed very close to the subject’s face, giving the light maximum softness. The bottom of the light is just below the subject’s shoulders.

I used a reflector on some of the images, bringing it in close, angled towards the subject. I placed the back end so it was just in front of the subject’s shoulders. When In place it removes nearly all the shadows with a soft natural look.


The subject is about 10 feet from the background. It could be a bit closer. What I want to achieve with this distance is the elimination of flare from the background. This is the biggest problem I have seen from photographers working high key. Further reduction of flare can be helped by angling the light at the background, imagine a billiards shot, the light is the ball, bouncing away from the lens.

In these shots I used a reflector with barn doors. You will need something to stop light from background light hitting your subject.

The main light can be wrapped in different light modifiers. The soft box is the softest, most flattering light. More specular light with snoots, grids or just reflectors placed at varying distances will create different moods or character of the light.

In this setup my meter readings were: For the background light, F11.5, the main light F8.1, the fill light was F4.2

The real knack to getting great head shots is the subject’s body language. Getting them to smile, open their eyes, tilt their heads; communicate with their eyes and mouth. I like to shoot from a slightly elevated position; you don’t get shots up peoples nostrils that way.

Have them take deep breaths to settle them, turn their bodies, watch foot placement. You might need to act silly to get genuine smiles. It is all part of the process to get the shot that sells.

There are a lot of tricks to get the most effective headshot for each client. It is something to refine. Once you have it on the memory card you can still work it, like the image of Alison. Here I turned it into a Black and White sketch.

There are some photographers who have made international reputations and big incomes just shooting headshots. It is a great setup to master.


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