My Experience Shooting Cinematic Headshots Indoors

My Experience Shooting Cinematic Headshots Indoors

Recently I went to New York City to do a week of headshots. As many of you know, part of my cinematic style involves shooting outdoors, but flying from Los Angeles to New York City to put this on meant I couldn’t rely on the weather. Figuring out how to translate the look and feel of my style indoors was the only way to make it a success. As I’ve had many questions about how to make this look happen inside for those that can’t always be outside, I decided to share my own experience with you.

I haven’t shot headshots indoors since probably 2009 when I was first getting started (I take that back, I’ve done some corporate shots inside huge hotel lobbies in the last year, but those were quick sessions and in an environment that isn’t usable for all-day shooting). It involved a white sheet as a background and the shots looked nothing like my current headshots. Needless to say I was quite nervous.

I knew creating my cinematic look inside was possible with the right space. Once I found the space, I immediately realized I wouldn’t know what the look and feel would be until I actually shot in it. Keep in mind I booked all this months in advance from Los Angeles and didn’t have the time to scout anything. It was a gamble that paid off nicely.

When it came time to fly out I was getting exponentially more nervous. I had seen pictures of the space and it appeared to have the ingredients needed, but with 26 headshot sessions booked and deposits taken, the pressure was building. We were able to load in the night before and set up lights, but as it was dark I still had no idea what the results of the shots would be. The next morning my wife and I were there just as they opened and I managed to get some test shots in which put my mind at ease immediately. This was going to work.

Finding the Right Space

Here I'm shooting towards the windows, and as you can see what's beyond those windows isn't exactly pretty. Cell phone BTS shot courtesy of my awesome wife, Sass.

What I needed to find was a space big enough that I could shoot at 200mm, with lots of windows and light. I found that at Shetler Studios. They had a large space with four nice, big windows and some mirrors that made the room look even bigger. The space also sits on their top floor, which meant I would get as much daylight throughout the day as possible. My plan was essentially to use the space backwards of how a natural light shooter would use it. I shot towards the windows, which effectively created the appearance that I wasn’t even shooting inside. In contrast, if I were shooting natural light only I would want the windows behind me or to the side.

In this shot I'm actually shooting towards a wall of mirrors camera left, enabling me to get a different look for the client. The result of this is below. Cell phone BTS shot courtesy of my wife Sass.

So if you are looking at doing this for your own work, just look for a good daylight studio with a decent amount of room. For example, Shetler Studios Penthouse 1 (which is the space I rented) measures out to 38 feet by 27 feet (1,026 square feet). I found this to be more than enough room for me to shoot, have a small private changing area, and space for my makeup artist to do her thing. At 200mm, shooting through the windows meant that the ugly air conditioners, buildings, and satellite dishes had plenty of blur to be unnoticeable. The only tricky thing was that I needed to frame up the client’s head in between the windows (there are parts of the wall separating the windows). But once I found the right distance where their head would block the wall it wasn’t a problem from there on out.

Here is the result of shooting into the mirror. We were just on the low end of HSS here. Had I wanted an even darker, moodier image I could have made that happen extremely fast. 1/500 sec, f/3.2, at 200mm. © Dylan Patrick Photography

Lots of Flexibility

This is a shot of the guy in the BTS image above. This was taken at about 3:30 p.m. 1/1250 sec, f/3.2, at 190mm. The flexibility allowed me to get brighter shots along with some nice dark and edgier stuff with a simple change in shutter speed. © Dylan Patrick Photography

Shooting in high-sync speed (HSS), along with being inside, gave me very fast and easy flexibility to make the shots darker or lighter depending on the feel I wanted, even right in the middle of the day. I also didn’t have to deal with things like wind, heat, or a multitude of other drawbacks that can come from shooting outdoors. Needless to say the whole experience was pretty awesome. I have grown pretty accustomed to dealing with nature's various issues, solving the problems and powering through it, so shooting this way inside almost felt too easy. It was luxurious to say the least.

I also found that shooting into the mirrors gave me an entirely different background, which allowed me to switch up backgrounds for everyone as needed. As long as I stayed far enough away from the mirrors, I didn’t have any lighting issues with flashes bouncing inadvertently in random directions.

This shot was taken at about 12:30 p.m. I decided I wanted to do more of a dark portrait as he had a great look, so we jumped to 1/1600 sec, f/3.2, at 116mm to get it nice and dark. I also did a little color grading on this, as it's not going to be used as his headshot, just something for his website or comp card. © Dylan Patrick Photography

Still a little moody here, but not nearly as edgy as the shots above. The background here is through the windows. All that out of focus stuff is some air conditioning units and a satellite dish just to the right of her head. 1/1000 sec, f/3.2, at 200mm. © Dylan Patrick Photography


There are still downsides, the biggest of which is not being able to change things up entirely if I wanted to. When I’m outside I can literally just rotate around a client throughout the day to get all types of different backgrounds with different lighting. That wasn’t really the case here. While the backgrounds did change as the ambient light yielded different results, the results weren’t exactly dramatic changes. Sometimes I would get different colors, or a cloud would pass giving a different feel, but for the most part the backgrounds were all fairly similar. This to me is only a small drawback as headshots are not about the background, and they still had the cinematic feel. As someone used to almost limitless options, it did feel a bit constricting at times, but something I easily got over. The only other drawback was constantly having to keep a client's head in between the windows. This was a pain at times as it forced me to work in a smaller box than I’m used to, but again, something I got over pretty quickly.

BTS shot of the girl in the lead image of this article. The settings for the lead image were 1/1000 sec, f/3.2, at 195mm. You can also get a sense of placement of the head. I had her in between the windows and shot horizontal so all you really see is what is beyond the windows on either side of her. You can still see a bit of window frame top camera right of her head in the lead image, but it wasn't enough to be distracting with that electric smile. BTS courtesy of my wife Sass.

The Gear

I brought way more than I needed, partly because we filmed a promo for the next time I do this, but I essentially just used what I always use:

Hopefully this gets you all thinking about options that might work better for you if you need to shoot inside more. If you can get ahold of a good space with good light, either permanently or occasionally, you can still create the cinematic look. To learn more about my shooting style you can pick up a copy of my tutorial that walks you through my whole process. It’s currently on sale until Friday for $75 off when you use the coupon code FSSALE at checkout!

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Fred Glasser's picture

Nice work, as usual, Dylan... shots look awesome & great info!

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you Fred!

Prefers Film's picture

I really like the look, and the style. One body/lens, a couple battery powered flashes, and simple modifiers. Nice clean and simple images. I would shoot like this all day if I could do it for what my day job pays.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you Brian! I like to keep it as simple as possible! Less room for Mr. Murphy to screw it up :)

Jay Montez's picture

Great article. Shots are beautiful. As cinematic headshot photographers we need to learn to be flexible and you showed how great indoors can be. Thanks for sharing.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you Jay! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Chris Ingram's picture

Dylan, can you provide a link to the bracket you're using to connect the TT5 mounted speedlight with the Elinchrom Octa?

Dylan Patrick's picture

Here you are Chris! The build quality is decent, but I did have to tighten up the screws that hold it together, it's fairly solid given the design and cost.

Chris Ingram's picture


Chris Ingram's picture

Hi Dylan, and for others, I found this: Godox SType Bracket Holder w/ Elinchrom Mount for Speedlite Flash Snoot Softbox

They also do a Bowens mount version if people have that type of softbox mount.

I like that it a) mounts speedlites by the head, not the shoe, and b) is designed to work with the barebulb speedlites like the Godox/Cheetah/Neewer etc AD360, which are powerful and support HSS.

Ferch de Haro's picture

Why is Called Cinematic?

Karl Petersson's picture

Because it sounds fancier then Broad, loop or rembrant lighting so you can redistribute something old as something new. And yes the light behind is usually called rim lighting or hair light. I have yet to understand as well why this is called cinematic, probably because its not a hot shoe mounted flash. B.t.w I am being just a little bit sarcastic.

Karl Petersson's picture

Oh I just realised it is because its a short depth of field as well, I think that is what was called portrait light in the good old days when the photographers used film cameras and had to use tungstens lights and not flash and there was not enough light for a deep depth of focus. Ooh b.t.w I am being sarcastic again. I will be so flamed again as I usually get.

Karl Petersson's picture

I think it would be great if the writers that write this form of posts would ad the context of their information. I am in no disrespecting the the effort to spread information and knowledge which I think is great but please present the information in a slightly more contextual form.

Bruce Edwards's picture

Its so true about the convention of a vertical 8x10 headshot. I'm finding that I shoot a majority of my headshot work in landscape format now.

Dylan Patrick's picture

The term "Cinematic Headshots" actually began as something I used to explain the look to new and potential clients. Many of my clients told me they loved the shots because they resembled film stills, which is what I was after. My Inspiration came from studying acting for film, and my love of cinema. In most closeups in film you will see the actor lit and framed in a very similar way to how I do it, along with shooting a shallow depth of field. So from the technical side shooting horizontally (yes...I realize it's not a new concept), shallow depth of field (also, I realize this is not new) at longer than normal focal lengths for headshots (shooting at or near 200mm is not typical in the headshot world, or at least it wasn't...but admittedly also not a new concept) and controlling the ambient light and blending it with studio style lighting... typically outdoors. While none of these independently are new for the photography world, they were new for my acting and headshot clients, and the combination of them all were new to the headshot market in NYC. When it came time to title the tutorial of my process calling it the Cinematic Headshot with Dylan Patrick just made the most sense, and was a way to separate the concepts and style from someone such as Peter Hurley, who also shoots horizontal, just typically inside with his own style. I would be happy to add whatever context you think is missing, I'm just not sure what more you are looking for. Also remember it's not the ingredients that make the entree, it's the chef that puts them all together. We are all Chef's working with the same ingredients and it's been that way for a very very long time, but yet we still come up with different ways of doing things, with different results.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Hey Dan, sorry perhaps my wording didn't really convey my thoughts clearly enough...I completely understand that similar lighting on the subject and similar focal lengths and apertures have all been used in various configurations for many years, I thought I had said that, and I also know quite well that horizontal has been used for quite sometime in NYC, I'm also quite aware of the fact that it wasn't long ago everything was vertical. I mentioned that Peter Hurley shoots horizontal, and a host of other headshot guys I know in NYC do as well. I'm quite familiar with the history of headshots in NYC, and you are right who would have though actors are insecure :)

I know that there are outdoor headshots, and horizontal ones, and shallow depth of field ones, but I wasn't seeing the combo of all those with adding the studio style light outdoors in the 10 years I was there....that's all I was saying. I know that probably reads as arrogant (not my intent either) but it was just trying to answer the questions and explain my thought process for what is a cinematic headshot to me, as thats what the question to me was. I looked at all the headshots guys in NYC (some of whom are good friends of mine) when I was starting and there are some shooters that do awesome outdoor work with longer focal lengths and shallow DOF, and have been for quite some time, but none I ever saw were using studio lighting outside in NYC for headshots, and that's essentially what feels more "cinematic" to me and my clients.

While natural light can certainly have a cinematic feel as well, again my opinion of it is simply studio lighting those subjects outdoors gives a very "film still" "cinematic" look that is very different than just using natural light. I personally don't see any problem in calling them cinematic headshots, because that's what they are to me, and I believe it separates the style from outdoor natural light only, and indoor studio light only, etc etc

Certainly if you want to call them something else you can, and perhaps adding a line saying "I call these cinematic headshots" might have been a good sentence to add, but for me the article was about more than that. I do appreciate your thoughts and comments, and I'm sorry if my thoughts weren't made clear enough, and I absolutely give a lot of credit to all the shooters many years before even both of us started for giving us good ingredients to work with.

Jason Ranalli's picture

Great article Dylan! It makes us mere mortals feel at least semi-competent when you say that you were nervous right up until being able to take that first test shot!

Thanks for sharing!

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you Jason! Yeah I think it's healthy to be nervous, keeps you on your toes. Glad you enjoyed!

Bruce Edwards's picture

Hey Dylan. Thanks for sharing the experience. It's helps keep things in perspective. Your shots are as always, stellar.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you Bruce, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Sylk & Danny's picture

Awesome article. What adapter are you using for the speed light on the elinchrom?

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you Sylk & Danny! there is a link above in Chris Ingram's comment!

Sabin Shrestha's picture

Awesome stuff, great article and the way you explain is very easy to follow as well. I just had one question which I though was missing, i assume they change by the day depending on the mood, light avail. etc but what is the typical power you have for your key light and the kicker?

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thanks Sabin! Honestly the light power moves around quite a bit so it's really hard to say but on average both lights are around 1/4-full most of the time

David Guzman's picture

great read !!!!....could this be done without at normal max camera sync speeds 1/160-1/ bright ?

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thank you David! I'm sure it can be done, perhaps without the ease of flexibility. In my last article (link is with my bio above) I talk about why I don't like ND filters as much, but you could try that route, you may have more focus problems than you would using them outside though. Always more ways of doing something it might also just require a sacrifice in aperture or something like that...I would imagine it would be a more difficult going from bright to dark and edgy with the same person while keeping a shallow DOF but you never know!

Thomas L's picture

Dylan do you have any advice how to take a photo in this style in a county with almost permanent overcast ? i live in Ireland and for most of the time i cant rely on a weather to allow me to have person in the shadow. Everything is always in the shadow ;] So if background is correctly exposed so is the subject and the effect is gone. Any ideas except underexpose everything, hit subject with the lights and then brightened the background in the post production?

Dylan Patrick's picture

Hey Thomas! I love your country BTW...I proposed to my wife there, and spent almost 3 weeks driving around...Ireland is an amazing place, and funny enough we had sun almost the entire 3 weeks in April of all months...LOL...There are a couple options, I would say finding a place you can light backgrounds yourself is a good option, Just bring in a third light and shoot it at an angle with your background..more reflective services the better, metals, glass, playgrounds, cars, etc etc...and then yeah the other option would be to do some selective dodging in post, which I have done when I have had to shoot on overcast days in NYC.

Anthony C's picture

Hello, Dylan. Nice work. I have a question regarding your experience at the long end of your zoom when focusing close. I've read that a quirk of the Nikon 70-200 2.8 VR II (and possibly its predecessor) is that when close-focusing at the 200mm end, the photographer is actually getting only a 130mm+/- effective focal length. Have you experienced this? (I'm not referring to FX vs. DX bodies, but rather a trait of that particular lens at close-focusing distances.) Thank you.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Hey Anthony! To be honest I've never heard of that...interesting though I'll have to do some research

Yucel Yalim's picture

Tried it... Works awesome. Thanks

Dylan Patrick's picture


Rick Burgett's picture

Dylan, love your work. How often do you use shutter speeds faster than 1/4000? I'm interested in the D750, but wonder if that limitation could become an issue. when using high speed sync.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Hey Rick! Thank you! Answer to your question is next to never. I think 1/4000th is plenty of room, I can't say I've even taken a serious shot at that let alone 1/8000th outside of test shots. I usually hover between 1/1000-1/2500th and the most

Dylan Patrick's picture

Thanks Jerry! I do use the same setup outdoors, for headshots it works just fine, however, if you do need more power flexibility adding a couple more speed lights would certainly help. Subject to Camera distance was probably about 5-6 feet, subject to background window was 10-14 feet

Dylan Patrick's picture

my pleasure!

Mark V's picture

Your photographs look amazing! Good to know that it's also possible to do this indoors. I'm wondering how the elinchrom octa mentioned above compares to your lastolite octa. I guess it's better build than the lastolite octas but the lastolite octa's will be more portable. I already own a LAstolite hotrod stripbox but it's not a pleasure to reasseble and to be honest the ezybox II octas don't seem that well build for in windy situations. Thanks!

Dylan Patrick's picture

Hey Mark! Thanks so much. I love the Elinchrom Octa. But to be really honest I don't see a ton of major differences between that and the hotrod. Obviously it is a little bit softer at a slightly farther distance from the subject, and due to its deep design it has the ability to punch out a soft sort of contrasty light. But the differences are pretty negligible though. It is however much easier to set up!

Damon Hunter's picture

Hi Dylan, love your work mate. I've been shooting headshots indoors ( and after purchasing your 'Cinematic Headshots' DVD have tried shooting outdoors using your method, but every single time its been windy and my octabox has been swiveling around on the stand, making it impossible to shoot! In your DVD your octabox somehow stays put, how do you do that? Is it clamped or something? This is the only thing stopping me from being able to move forwards using your technique... Hope to hear from you mate! Damon

Louis Leon's picture

Have you compared HSS to using ND filters (in order to get that shallow DoF)? Both from a workflow perspective and from a battery perspective.

Brian Sullivan's picture

Great article, thank you!

david lange's picture

Great exercise in flexibility and adaptability. Awesome work!