How to Light a Headshot Using Speedlights or Strobes

You have probably seen professional headshot photographers using powerful (and expensive) studio lights, and while there are certainly benefits to those, that does not mean you can't use things like speedlights to create compelling images. In this excellent video tutorial, well-known photographer Peter Hurley will show you how you can light a headshot even using only speedlights.

Coming to you from our good friend, Peter Hurley, with B&H Photo Video, this great video tutorial will show you how to light a headshot using smaller lights. Though they are less powerful, in a studio, you often don't need top-level power. You will notice here that Hurley is using the Westcott Rapid Box system, which is a great system if you are working with speedlights. I have had mine for a few years, and it is fantastic for whenever I need a portable and efficient setup. If you are new to headshots, you can certainly learn and even produce compelling work using just speedlights before you invest in a more powerful system. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Hurley. 

If you would like to learn more from Peter Hurley about lighting for portraits, be sure to check out "Illuminating The Face: Lighting for Headshots and Portraits With Peter Hurley!"

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1 Comment

Lee Christiansen's picture

I'll start by saying I thing Hurley seems like a really nice guy. He has a great energy to his tutorials and comes across as very genuine...

But - this fascination with either 4 Kinos or the new 3-light triangle lighting is all a bit daft. I guess when you've flogged the 4 light thing had enough, the only way to go is 3 lights or 5 lights, but it doesn't make it any less daft.

Let's look at the new "triangle lighting" that I know many photographers have copied, just because PH does it.

Essentially it is almost on-camera axis, ring lighting, but with a very awkward shape, far too much hardware, far too expensive a solution, that offers flat light - albeit with a modicum of control here and there, (but not much).

And we tend to see this in the results with flat lighting. Flattering to an extent because it fills in the pores and shadows of a person's face, (even Hurley seems to dislike shadows in his fill light explanation. Sure we can tweak the power of each light source, but that's giving us dubious modelling control.

And with a background needing to be lit or a possible requirement for hair/rim lights, we could be up to 6 lights... And the reasons people might use speedlights instead of strobes is cost saving or portability - neither of which is served by having such a complex solution that offers such results with so little control.

Now we all have our styles and PH is welcome to shoot any way he likes. Heck my shooting style isn't everyone else's either. But I'm always amused by the number of people who will copy a "celebrity" photographer.

One light with a modifier and two reflectors will offer more flexibility, faster workflow, more interesting headshots, cheaper solutions and less to carry. (I'll bet my granny that this triangle lighting was not borne from careful consideration of how to light a face, rather a thought of what-would-happen-if-I-used-3-lights-instead-of-4).

Try tweaking the lighting effect to work best with a person's face (every face is different so there is no cookie-cutter solution) when you've got 3 lights - each not lined up specifically to do a particular job well... It is going to be a real pain. Why lock ourselves into a high kit-load solution when is is less flexible.

With a single strobe and a single reflector, I can model a person's face oodles of ways and with tiny adjustments in seconds. Give me one more reflector and I can do even more. And the best thing is that with reflectors, the lighting relationship between main light and fill remains constant, although I can easily change this.

So I'd wager, before cutting costs with speedlights because you need to buy lots of them and lots of softboxes, and before you lock yourself into a one cookie-cutter solution for all, and before you put you back out with so much kit - try one good light (strobes are more flexible than speedlights) and invest in a couple of reflectors and lazy-arms. (There's even a reflector that is wind resistant for those of us shooting outdoors).

I wonder how many photographers rushed out to buy 3 strip lights and binned their 4 light setups - only to now have 3 strip lights sitting in a cupboard because, well... see above. :)

For the record I tend to use strobes and a headshot session with me will usually have a subtly different setup for each "look." I have used speedlights with softboxes up to about 60cm and they've given great results. If I need better fill in the softbox with a speedlight then one of those little Stofen diffusers makes the speedlight closer to an open-tube lightsource, if I can live wit the loss of output. But I much prefer strobes, because as Peter says, that modelling light is very useful to get the eyes right.

I know FS has an affinity with our Mr Hurley and he is much loved by readers here, so I'm not out to start a PC vs Mac type war against this lovely man. But sometimes we get things a little awry and in this case I think the tutorial errs in that direction.