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

Drawbacks

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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45 Comments

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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.

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

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

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!

Hi Dylan, love your work mate. I've been shooting headshots indoors (www.damonhunterphotographer.com) 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

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!

Great exercise in flexibility and adaptability. Awesome work!