Simple, fast, easy high key headshot background

Even though I do a lot of teaching, I am also constantly studying and trying to learn and apply new techniques. I’m definitely an info junkie. In part, it helps me to stay on the cutting edge of teaching; I learn new things, mix them into my own work, and then teach them to my students. I also run into ideas that I mentally bookmark so I can pull them out as needed at a later date. This technique is one of these bookmarked ideas.

Fast simple high key headshot lighitng. Tech: Canon 5D MKIII, 70-200L F4 IS; 1/160 @ f7.1, ISO 400

The core idea is to use a large softbox as your actual high key background.  This idea has crossed my mind a few times over the years, especially when I have to roll out the white vinyl and work on lighting it properly for a shoot.  I don’t have a permanent high key set because I don’t do a lot of high key, so to me it is a pain to set up. However, I do have a couple of large softboxes — couldn’t one of these be used as a background in a pinch? The answer is “yes!”

I had Darcey scheduled to come in for a bridal fashion shoot; I had a new background and a chandelier as well as a new wedding dress, and she wanted a bridal shot for her portfolio. I like it when a plan comes together.  When Darcey got here she asked if she could also get some quick “personality” headshots for her portfolio, too. Normally, not a problem. But after it took me an hour to put together the set and get my background to look sufficiently “wall-like”, I didn’t really want to mess with it. And of course my roll of white vinyl for high key was behind this wall.  Oy. My mind raced as I thought of how to Macgyver a high key background when the thought occurred to me to finally test a softbox as a background.  So I grabbed my 60″ Creative Light Octabox and placed it about four feet behind Darcey. I placed a speedlite (0f course) in the box, but I also modified it with a special diffuser (see photo).

My modified diffuser turned sideways so you can see how it attaches. For use the flash head would point directly into the softbox.

In order to dampen a strong central hotspot, I placed a strip of gaffer’s tape over the front of the diffuser, forcing the light to go out through the sides of the diffuser and more evenly filling the box. Along with the double interior baffles on the box, this technique ensures soft even light coming out of the box.  It does eat up the effective power of the light, so plan on cranking your speedlite up to full or nearly full power.

It also helps to have a power pack on your flash to help with recycle times when you are firing at high power.

I metered this light at 1.3 stops above my key light in order to give me a smooth, even white without overly blowing out the background and ruining my contrast.  Digital sensors are especially sensitive to an overabundance of light flooding onto them.

The rest of my setup consisted of my go-to beauty lighting: a 22″ beauty dish above the lens and angled slightly down to my subject; (2) 1×4 stripboxes, one on either side of the subject, to provide edge lighting; and a curved Eyelighter reflector underneath to bounce light backup under the hat and into Darcey’s eyes.

The resulting images needed no tweaking in Lightroom after applying my initial “headshot” preset at import. The only other work done was to crop the image and apply a small amount of skin softening using Imagenomic Portraiture when I exported from Lightroom.

Fast, simple, clean, effective lighting.  What busy photographer could ask for more?

View of lighting setup from camera position.

Side view showing angles.




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