How do I light headshots on Wednesday, May 29th? (Caveat: I change it up all the time...).

Kirk Tuck, Self Portrait. 2013

I was lighting a portrait today in my little West Austin studio and the photographs of the attorney would was my subject this morning turned out very well. They're not great art, they are good, straightforward headshots that he'll use in his business. I wanted to write about today's session because I used a mix of lights and modifiers that aren't necessarily mainstream. I didn't use monolight flashes or battery powered flashes. I didn't use softboxes or umbrellas. But I'm happy with the colors and the results I was able to get.

The image above is to give you a general idea of how the lighting worked out. No big deal. I used the smile detection automatic function (glorified, semi-intelligent, interactive self-timer) in my Sony a99 in order to get the camera to fire for this test. I had a different, more glowering expression in mind but this was as close a compromise to a "slight smile" that the camera would accept.... For a client portrait this would be step one of three or four steps of retouching and post processing. I wasn't paying myself so I decided I didn't deserve the extra steps. :-)   (humor implied--note added for the linear thinkers).

My lighting for this set up consisted of three lights, one reflector and one diffusion panel. (You can click on any of the images in the blog to see them larger).

Kirk's basic headshot lighting setup.

I started with a gray background at the far end of the studio and a Sony a99 with a 70-200mm f2.8 G lens on the other. I figured out how far I wanted the subject from the background and I set my posing stool there. Then I back away until I got the right head size at around a 100mm focal length. That's the basic starting strategy for me. Once I know where my subject will be in relation to the background I can set up my main light.

Fotodiox Day-Flo Max DF-1500 Fluorescent.

I really like the light I'm getting out of the new generation of fluorescent fixtures. The one above, the one I'm using for my main light, is a six tube version that belts out a lot of power. Today I was running it with only two of the three banks engaged since that was all I needed to get a base exposure of 1/60th of a second shutter speed and f4 @ ISO 320. The light is being diffused by a Chimera ENG panel outfitted with a one stop diffusion sheet.  I'm pretty old fashioned. I set the light by looking for a little triangle of light on the subject's far cheek from the light. I don't want the triangle to exend much below the subject's nose and I want a small shadow under the nose as well. I've probably been to conservative with my light direction lately and should move the main light further off axis to create some bolder shadows. But then, we are all creatures of such habit.

Kirk Tuck's easy fill light...
My preference is to always use a passive fill. That basically means that I don't use a separate light fixture to fill in the shadow side of the face, I use a white card, or in this case a white fabric panel on a frame to bounce light from the main light into the shadow side of my subjects faces. The one above is a Westcott Fast Flag frame and fabric. I like them because they fold down small. I am able to quickly move the "flag" in toward the subject or back away from them in order to control the amount of fill and hence the amount of contrast.

Kirk Tuck's Portrait Lighting Set-up from the side.

Please note that even in the controlled environment of my own studio that the main light and the diffuser in front of it are both anchored with sand bags for the safety of my studio guests. If you are using heavy lights and metal frames yours should be anchored as well..."a gram of prevention.."

Kirk Tuck's Net Covered Hairlight.

I used a second light in the set up to backlight my subject. He was wearing a dark jacket and I didn't want him to merge with the gray background, especially if I decide to add a bit of vignetting in post production. I used the smallest of the Fotodiox lights which features one bank of two tubes. There's no dimmer on these units so we dim them in the traditional film school fashion by adding "nets" to the then. In the example above I'm using a two stop net from my 4x4 foot Chimera ENG panel kit to make the backlight more subdued and rational. Set you backlit in the right place after you get your subject settled.

A close up of Kirk Tuck's "Net Technique."

The use of panels and diffusers, reflectors and nets gives me a lot of flexibility when it comes to fine tuning light. But not everything in the studio is given over to fluorescents. I'm using one of the best LED lights on the market today as my background light. It's the Fiilex P360 and I wish I had the budget to buy a box full of these guys. I'm using the fixture with a Broncolor grid to give me a centralized spot of light on the background but with soft edges. Almost light what you might get with a fresnel spot light spotted in tight.

Kirk Tuck's amazing Fiilex P360 LED light with grid and C44.

Why do I like this light so much? Well, it's very, very bright, small and handy, kicks out nice, direct light that's different than the panels and can be very well color balanced for just about anything. Today, set just a little under it's maximum (coolest) temperature setting it was the perfect balance for the fluorescents. And having a background light that can be dimmed without changing color temperature is great. Why the grid? The light spread would have been to wide and too sharp edged if used unmodified...

You can see by referencing the clothespin
that the Fiilex is a small fixture but it has 
high, clean output. And a cooling fan that's quiet 
enough to be used near a video camera recording 
sound. Amazing.

Kirk Tuck's portrait lighting from the background position.

The panel to the far right of the frame is black on the other side and I use it to keep light from spilling around from the main light and lessening the contrast on the background. If you look through the windows in some of the shots you'll see that the lights are very color neutral in relation to daylight. That's how my lighting rolled today. Slightly conservative to match the personality of the sitter and his intended uses for the photographs. But done with continuous lights instead of the old iris pounders.

A perfect blend of lights for someone who likes shooting with an EVF. Comments? Derision? Weird, disconnected comments that attempt to direct readers to weirder online shoe stores? Leave em below.

Edited in later: The cheating version:


  1. Very nice lesson. Clear, easily absorbed, and with adequate info on specific hardware to be of real value.

    I see e-books with video inserts on this kind of stuff. Low cost to produce other than time. Low in price but offering genuine value to the buyer. Single topics as in the example above. More revenue, more often.

    Great self-portrait, too, by the way.

  2. Thank you for sharing your deepest darkest secrets...I mean lightest secrets. Wonderful portrait.

    1. Darkest secret? Not fond of Cilantro. Allergic to wintergreen chewing gum...

    2. Cilantro? How do you eat Tex Mex? I couldn't live without wintergreen lifesavers. Darkest secret? I fantasize about FF sensors. :~)

    3. You need more FF sensors...

    4. My wife is allergic to cilantro and loves wintergreen lifesavers. I just thought I'd chime in.

      I seldom comment, pretty much a lurker. However, since I'm here typing I'll spend an extra moment and say thanks for this post. Like so many others, it's interesting and informative. Muchas gracias, Kirk!

    5. The cilantro thing is genetic. For people who have it, cilantro tastes soapy. I've got it, and it sucks.

      There's another genetic mutation that makes celery taste, essentially, like rotting garbage. A big-name chef in New York, don't remember who, refuses to put celery in his stocks. Chances are he's got that predisposition.

      A third mutation makes people oversensitive to bitter flavors--Super-tasters, they're called. Glad I'm just a soapy cilantro guy. I love my coffee and chicken soup too much. But I would dearly love to taste salsa as it should be.

      Can anyone clue me in on what cilantro tastes like when it tastes good?

  3. Thanks Kirk. Engineers always like to see "how it was done"!

    I saw the big black panel in the first set-up shot, but it wasn't until the last paragraph that I learned what its purpose was. Is that also one of these mysterious Chimera ENG panels? (The only ones I see at B&H and Adorama have 48" square frames...) Also there is a slight typo on the Westcott Fast Flash... it should be Fast Flag. I really liked seeing how you attached that grid to the barndoor of the LED using the C44.

  4. Nicely done, Kirk. Thanks for the BTS as well.

    Since you're shooting with the flos and LEDs at slower shutter speeds than you would with flash, are you (almost) always shooting with a tripod as well?

    1. HI Michael, Yes and no. If I don't care about noise/grain and I need to move around I'm happy to go to 1600 ISO on the big Sony and the heck with it. But I came from a world of 4x5" and medium format and we ALWAYS used tripods there so it's a habit with me. I love tripods and have a huge collection of them. When working with a background spot they sure help to keep you anchored in the compositional sweet spot...

      To be clear, I used my cameras on tripods even when I was using mostly flash...

    2. Having read a few of your books and blog posts over the years, I know you're a fan of the sticks. I've not used a tripod as often but am reluctantly embracing their value as I move into more motion as well as stills with the slower shutter speeds and video lights.

  5. Nice portrait Kirk. And great BTS article as well. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Wolfgang. Always enjoy hearing from you.

  6. Thank you! A lesson from the Master!

  7. "Simple" lighting has a lot of details, not to mention light/modifier stands! Thank you for the practical lesson.

    I was a bit surprised to see the white walls and ceiling don't cause any unwanted brightness anywhere. That might suggest that I should be more adventurous playing in the spare-room with some lights (5000K CFL in my case)...

  8. I had the good sense of appropriating all the black clothes pegs from the laundry room because I think they look more "professional" than the wooden ones! Haha! ;-)

    Have a great day Kirk!

  9. Kirk, your stills lighting is looking eerily like a motion picture set-up. I image this is part of your adaptation to be more efficient with your hybrid stills/video projects?

    1. I've been lighting this way for a while. I started when Using the LED panels and I found that I like it. It does work well for motion.


Comments. If you disagree do so civilly. Be nice or see your comments fly into the void. Anonymous posters are not given special privileges or dispensation. If technology alone requires you to be anonymous your comments will likely pass through moderation if you "sign" them. A new note: Don't tell me how to write or how to blog!