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
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.
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.
Lots of Flexibility
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.
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.
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:
- 1 SB-900 Speedlight (key)
- 1 SB-700 Speedlight (kicker)
- 2 PocketWizard FlexTT5
- 1 PocketWizard MiniTT1 with AC3 Zone Controller
- 1 Lastolite 24x24" EzyBox II (kicker)
- 1 39" Elinchrom Deep Octa (key)
- 1 30" silver Circular Reflector
- 3 lightstands, one with a boom arm for the reflector
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!