Recently, I have been experimenting with creating a sort of more intense style of headshot for certain clients who are interested in a more surreal, vibrant, look to their headshot as opposed to the more traditional headshot which is designed to to more closely emulate realistic lighting. The heavy cross-light look uses powerful lights that are positioned perpendicular to your the main light to create a strong highlight to the side of the face while living a distinctive shadow down the subject's cheek. Heavy cross-lighting can do a great job of building a sense of three dimensionality without sacrificing the soft, flattering, feel of a traditional headshot.
Note: Bear in mind this style of headshot is designed to be somewhat surreal so is not a good choice for clients who need a realistic headshot such as actors and actresses.
The Lighting Setup
The most important aspect of making this style of image work is by creating the distinctive look that the heavy cross light brings to the shot. A heavy cross-light like this differs from a normal rim light in that it is closer to the model and set to a higher power level. In my case, often a 1:1 ratio with the main-light.
I generally, use a pair of 12”x36” stripboxes as my cross-lights as they tend to give a beautiful pop to them but I will also veer towards using 24” inch square softboxes when I’m looking for a hint more softness to the cross-light.
For the main-light I use a 24”x36” rectangular softbox oriented vertically when I’m looking to create an edgy look and fall back to a 60” Octabox when I was to soften thing up a bit.
If I’m using a background light it is usually a simple bare bulb placed directly behind the model aimed so that the background is brightest directly around the model’s head.
Finally, I almost always include a round, white, reflector below the main light to provide a smidgen of fill to soften up some of the shadows.
One of the great things about this look is that you can slightly alter the light positioning in order to create alternative looks without sacrificing the style of the cross light. For example, by sliding your main-light to one side or the other you are able to create the hint of a Rembrandt look. The Rembrandt look tends to look best when you eliminate the cross-light on the same side of the face that the main-light is on.
You can also, easily, adjust the angle of your cross-lights both vertically or horizontally to slightly adjust the softness of the highlights.
I started experimenting with adding color to the background when one client mentioned how they loved how they looked but found the monochrome background a bit boring. When created a vibrant background I shoot, as normal, against a grey background and color the background in Photoshop. I often choose a color that is complementary to one of the existing dominant tones in the image.
Retouching these sorts of shots is pretty standard but I just wanted to mention that one of the potential downsides of a heavy cross-light is that it will make skin imperfections seem more severe. If you are not working with a client who has near perfect skin be prepared to address this increased severity in Photoshop.
By using a fairly powerful cross-light you can quickly add a very different style of look to your headshot toolbox that some clients will love! I'd love to hear about some of your favorite headshot lighting setup! Feel encouraged to share some of your work in the comments below.