Tips For Corporate Headshots On A Budget
- Use a wider focal length somewhere between 50mm and 70mm
- Find a space that is about 10 feet deep and 6 or more feet wide with a clean wall
- Single flash diffused by a shoot through umbrella placed just off camera as close to the person as possible without being in the frame 6 inches above the eyes angled down pointing to their nose
- Use a tripod and set the camera to be very slightly above the eyes of the person
- Bring a tall stool that has no back and some tape to put on the floor so that they will know where to put their feet
- Start out with aperture f/8.0, shutter 1/200, ISO 100 for camera settings and 1/8 power on the flash
- Track the people you are shooting to make sure you don’t miss anyone
- Pose the people and provide lots of instruction to help them feel comfortable
Defining the Budget
Our definition of the budget came from Shanon Franks, a listener of the podcast and a fairly new member to the Facebook group, who asked:
“I have my first headshot session Monday in the office of an insurance agency. They know I am new to formal headshots but I still want to be successful. I have a Nikon D850, Nikon 24-70 and Nikon 70-200 (both 2.8). I have a SB-700 flash, as well as a stand I can put it on for off camera, a cheap remote trigger and a cheap white umbrella I can use to diffuse. Any tips on setup so I have my best chance of success? I’ve been watching videos online but they all have different options.”
Thanks so much for the question Shanon, and we have to say right at the start here that the gear mentioned here is all you need to do corporate headshots. It can be done, and done very well, with the gear she listed in her question.
I will keep the conversation limited to the gear Shanon mentioned and go through how I would recommend setting things up. I can’t add another piece of gear to the equation. I also want to make sure we go into as much detail as possible in the thought process behind all of the tips we provide today. It is the thought process that is most important to helping photographers learn than it is the specific settings or setup of lights that you are using.
Use Shorter Focal Length
Let’s start the conversation off with the lens choice. Shanon has two lenses she could use. For shooting corporate headshots using a full frame sensor (the Nikon D850) would you choose the 24-70 or the 70-200 and why?
I would choose the 24-70 because I personally prefer the look of it. I end up shooting most of my headshots with that lens, usually somewhere between the 50mm and 70mm marks. I also like this lens, not only for the look of it, but also because I am often asked to work in relatively cramped quarters, and this lens allows me the most flexibility in doing so.
Not that you couldn’t do great headshots with the 70-200, but space could start to become an issue using that lens. So many photographers argue that the 70-200 provides better compression and produces more flattering portraits, but we recommend using the upper end of that 24-70 lens for corporate headshots.
If you only have a kit lens that came with your camera, say an 18-55mm /f.3.5-5.6 lens, you can use that lens at 50mm and create good corporate headshots but even better would be making a minor investment in a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens to raise the image quality significantly (just don’t shoot at f/1.8).
Find A Good Space
Now that we have decided on the lens, let’s talk about the lighting. I want to start with the space Shannon should look for. She didn’t share in her question the space that will be used for the shoot, so you don’t have any constraints at this point. What kind of a space should she look for to setup in?
Normally, I would be looking for a space where I could set up a backdrop and the lights etc, but since I am limited here, my first consideration would be a location that has at least a halfway decent looking background. This could mean if the place I was shooting in had a great view I could utilize, I may use that.
Otherwise I would start looking for a simple wall that I could utilize. A wall that doesn’t have a busy wallpaper or something really distracting on it. Look for one that has a decent width without light switches, fire alarm pulls, outlets, etc.
A space that is about 10 feet by 10 feet is pretty good, though you can go a little narrower on the space if needs be like 6 to 8 feet. You are probably going to need all 10 feet from the wall to the model to the camera.
Place the person about middle of the room, though if I need to light up the wall more I may put them only a couple of feet from the wall. There are honestly a lot of considerations that go into background selection so this is an area we could really dig in to.
Our budget only allows a single flash that can be diffused by a shoot through umbrella, both put on a light stand. How should all of that be setup?
Here is where I am going to break the rules just a little bit, but without breaking the bank. For my headshots, I often like to use a single light that is just off axis, and then a reflector to fill in on the side, but for that kind of setup we would be requiring the purchase both a reflector and a stand to hold it. This will give you a lot more options and it just isn’t very expensive to invest in that reflector and a light weight light stand.
To only halfway bend the rules, I am going to suggest the next best setup in my mind which is to shoot with flat lighting, and to possibly introduce a reflector to give it a clamshell effect where you have the person hold the reflector on their lap.
Now, she doesn’t have to go out and buy a 5 in 1 reflector. Those are pretty cheap, but for the sake of staying as close to the spirit of the budget as possible I recommend she go to her local Target or anywhere else she can buy a poster board and use that. She should be walking out of there for under $5 spent and an additional modifier of light that is available to her.
If that reflector is simply not an option, position the light so that is off to the right of the camera but only enough so that the umbrella and stand isn’t in the frame. Put it as close to the person as you can, again without it being in the frame. Position the center of the light about 6 inches above the eyes of the person, point it down so that it points at the person.
This should make it so that you don’t get massive glare in glasses, will help shadows not show up on the wall, and allow you to use the smallest flash power possible to help your batteries last longer and recycle times to be shortest.
Watch out for shadows on the wall. If you are getting shadows on the wall, you can move the person away from the wall a little, but it most likely means your light is too far away from the person. You really have to get that light in there close. The closer you can get it the better. People tell me regularly that I position that light closer than they have ever seen.
If you can use a reflector the setup is similar, you can just put the light a little further off to the right.
How about a starting point on camera settings? Shanon has the Nikon D850, a camera many would argue the very best full frame DSLR camera ever made. She has plenty of camera to work with for sure, though corporate headshots can be done with far less like entry level consumer DSLR cameras. Where should photographers start off with camera settings and flash power and why?
Start with an aperture of f/8.0, shutter speed at 1/200, and ISO at 100-200 and a flash power of 1/8th power. This is assuming you are shooting inside and not out on a location where ambient light is more of a concern. The idea is to effectively cut out the majority of the ambient light and allow the flash to be the sole source of lighting.
In the world of headshots these settings have proven to be pretty good. You have a really good chance of having these settings work for you without changing anything but maybe the flash power. Not all flashes have the same power so 1/8th may not be enough or it may be too much. You will need to play around with your gear and figure out what is going to make it work.
Practice Shots and Adjust
Take a test shot before you add the flash and you should get a fairly black frame. Doesn’t have to be fully black, a little ambient light is going to be fine. If you have the unusual situation where you have too much ambient light with these settings then you could stop down your aperture a little more, just be aware that as you stop down the aperture to f/10 (or more) then you are going to need more flash power.
Experiment a little and see if opening up the aperture will still produce pretty black frames. If you can open up to f/5.6 you will be able to use less power on the flash, saving batteries and getting faster recycle times (the time it takes for the flash to “re-charge” and be ready to pop again).
Don’t open that aperture any more than f/5.6 or you have more of a chance of getting things out of focus. You could also bump the ISO up a little, up to about 800 at a maximum. The thing you don’t want to change is the shutter speed. Shutter speed blocks out the ambient light, aperture blocks both ambient and flash. Keeping the shutter speed higher (can’t go above the max sync speed) will help make sure you don’t get blurry shots because people moved.
Once you have found the limit on your settings where you get a mostly dark frame without the flash, add in the flash at the 1/8th power as a starting point. Too much light, no problem to decrease the power until it looks good. Not enough, increase the flash power one step at a time. If you get to 1/4 power and it doesn’t seem to be enough see if you can move the light closer or maybe you need to open up the aperture or bump up that ISO.
Track The People
Now let’s talk about the non-gear setup. First off, tracking the people who have been shot. Do you need to do that?
Tracking who you have taken photos of is pretty important. Not because you will be unwittingly taking photos of the same person multiple times. It is important to make sure you get everyone you are supposed to. You don’t want to deliver your photos to your client only to have them say they were sorry but Fred in accounting didn’t make his appointment and now you have to schedule a time to go out and get Fred taken care of.
I prefer to have my contact with the company help me with this. That person makes a list of everyone that needs to have their headshot taken and when a person leaves our session I have them sign the sheet next to their name.
Organize The Time
How do you get the people through to take the headshots? You have tens, maybe hundreds to do? Do you have them sign up for a time to come and get the shot or just have them line up and wait for a turn?
It can really depend on the number of individuals you are working with in an office. I work with law offices and smaller companies that have between 5 and 10 people. With that few, we can draw up an order and write out a list of names just after I arrive or get my room setup. When one person leaves, I ask them to go and grab the next person on the list.
For 10-20 people I can do the same, but often prefer to have the list made ahead of time. For larger groups of 50-hundreds I prefer to schedule out time slots in the day. I will usually break them down into 20 minute time slots throughout the day, allocate the needed number of spaces in those slots, and then have my contact with the company send out an email asking people to sign up with the time slot that works best for them. Put a deadline on the response or they won’t sign up. If they don’t fill it out on that deadline they are randomly assigned a slot that is available.
People who are going to need a little more time to get a photo they are happy with know who they are and naturally hang back in the line as they are waiting because they know they need more time. Those more comfortable or less picky about things tend to get up there at the front of the line because they want to get it done and back to their day. This makes things work out pretty well.
As a person is coming into the space to have their photo taken, how do you interact with them? Lots of people don’t really like having their photo taken or know how to pose, how do you make them feel as comfortable as possible and help them to pose and look their best?
Here is a script I use to help with this:
“Hello, my name is Connor and I will be taking your photo today. I will help you to look your very best. I am going to have you sit down on this chair over here, put your feet on that T on the ground and look straight at the camera. I will take between 5 and 10 photos or so and you can tell me which you like best. You can not like any of them but you have to tell me why you don’t like them so that we can see if we can fix it. Does that sound okay to you?”
The other thing that really helps people to feel comfortable is assuring them that you are a professional at this and you will help them look good. The more instruction you can give them, the more comfortable they will be that you know what you are doing.
Bring your own chair, one without a back and is a little taller than normal. Have them sit on the edge of the chair, not all the way back on it and use some tape to draw a “T” on the floor where you will have them put their feet. Companies usually want consistency with every photo and having that “T” on the floor helps every person get very close to the same pose.
Have the “T” be off to one side of the chair so that their shoulders will be angled slightly and then ask the people to point their nose straight at the camera. Ask them to lean forward a little bit from the hip, demonstrate it a little yourself, leaning more than they would normally do when sitting down (the higher chair helps here too) and get them to move their head more toward the camera until it is actually straight. If they go too far have them go back, even if it is only a little. This kind of instruction actually helps most people feel more at ease, makes you seem more like a pro.
This will make them have their head straight in the photo and their shoulders angled which is a very professional and flattering look for a headshot. If a person really wants to have their other side taken from the side you have setup, tell them you will do it but you will be mirroring it on the computer to make the final photo match the others. It is obvious to people who know the person that was done, but it works well.
Let The People Choose Their Photo
In other genres of photography most photographers choose the photos that they edit and deliver to a client themselves, without involving the client. The photographer sees it as part of their professional service. This will be a problem with headshots. People tend to be more picky about the photo with a headshot, this is going to be representing them professionally and they aren’t going to be happy until it does that. If you don’t make sure they like it before you (and the person) leave you are inevitably going to be going back, for free, and setting up to shoot a few retakes.
The very best way to make sure they are happy with their photo is if you can do a tethered setup. If you can tether your camera to a computer (wired tether is best to avoid snags with wireless technical challenges) then you can show them the 4 to 10 photos you took of them and they can select right then which they prefer or even tell you that they want to try again. Far easier to do that right then, even though others may be waiting, than to come back.
I also recommend indicating which photo they selected by using ratings (pick flags or star ratings in Lightroom for example) and also changing the name of the photo they picked to be their name by having them type their name into the computer (it will be spelled right). It is nice to be able to deliver photos where they are named with the names of the people. Even though the HR or marketing person who wanted the photos can recognize people it isn’t too hard to do and is a nice little touch.
If you can’t shoot tethered to a computer, look into getting a tablet and try using the wireless functions available on most modern cameras. Wireless tethering is being focused more and more by manufacturers and it is getting far more usable. If that isn’t possible, have the person take a look at the images on the back of the camera. Not ideal for sure as they have to leave the chair they are sitting on to take a look so take 4 or 5 shots and then have them come look. Still, better to do that and have them help you capture the right shot while you are there than to have to come back for a re-take.
Offer To Fix SOME Things In Post
Inevitably you will have a few people who just won’t be happy with their photo because they aren’t happy with how they look. There is nothing you can do while shooting to address some of the flaws they don’t like and some of that can be fixed in post. This is really the last resort. You don’t want to sign up for a lot of retouching on every single photo, so be careful.
Something like wrinkles or zits, maybe a little bit with double chins too. That’s about it. Most of those things are pretty easy to deal with in Lightroom and may require a little bit of Photoshop, so offer that to them if they just don’t like what they are seeing no matter how you pose them.
Just make sure that is all that is wrong with the photo and they like the rest of it. Don’t sign up to change significant things in post when taking another shot with the pose changed is going to better meet their expectations.
Connor: Peak Design Capture
Jeff: nonda USB Type C to USB 3.0 Mini Adapter ($8)
- Facebook group is Master Photography Podcast, you have to answer the question about naming a host on the show to join (Connor or Jeff will work)
- Instagram account for the show is @masterphotographypodcast
- Find Jeff’s work at https://www.jsharmonphotos.com. Check out his Photo Taco podcast over at https://phototacopodcast.com where you can search all kinds of topics and find shows discussing the details. He is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/harmon.jeff, Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/harmonjeff/ (@harmonjeff), and Twitter: https://twitter.com/harmon_jeff (@harmon_jeff)
- Find Connor’s work at http://www.connorhibbs.photography/. Check out the other podcast he does with Erica Kay on the Master Photography network called Portrait Session by going to http://portraitsessionpodcast.com/. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ConnorHPhoto and Instagram @connorhibbsphotography