Working in Vancouver, it is often difficult to get those interesting on-location hi-key photos during the winter months. The cold weather and dark rainy days limit shooting outdoors, and we get so few sunny days during these months. Many of my clients also work during the day, so a lot of my headshot photo sessions are done in the evening to accommodate busy work schedules. Quite often, I’m shooting in-studio using a plain backdrop, and using complex lighting setups to get the hi-key look for some of the portraits I produce.

So when I want to produce headshots that look like they were shot on-location, I sometimes need to rely on producing Photoshop composite photos to achieve the final product I’m after. Here’s a sample of what a Photoshop composite headshot looks like before and after:

Headshot composite before shot
Headshot BEFORE Shot – Shot in Studio against a white background

 

Headshot composite background
Background for Headshot Composite Photo
Headshot After Photo - Composited in Photoshop CC
Headshot After Photo – Composited in Photoshop CC

There are many Photoshop compositing tutorials on the web, so I won’t go into the nitty gritty detail of how to produce composite photos. But here are some valuable tips I’ve picked up along the way that will help you produce headshot composite photos that are easy to achieve and look realistic:

1. Use the Same Key for Composite Photos!

If you are planning to produce composite photos that is hi-key (i.e. lighter and brighter background), shoot the headshot against a background that approximates the color or key of the replacement background. So if the background you are adding in has a lighter tint (such as in the example above), try shooting the original headshot on a background on white or something close in key or tint.

Doing this will make it a lot easier to cut out your subject using Photoshop’s masking tools or a third-party tool like Topaz Labs’ Remask. This is especially helpful when you go to mask out the subject’s hair. If I had shot the above example on a darker backdrop, it would have taken a lot more work to mask out the subject’s hair for the lighter background.

2. Shoot Your Own Out of Focus Backgrounds

Whenever I see a cool potential background that combines colour, light, and shadow in interesting ways, I’ll shoot it out of focus and will save a copy on my computer for later use. As I shoot it, I’m keeping in mind the type of headshots I typically produce and apply just the right amount of out of focus blur in-camera. I also try to collect a number of different backgrounds I think can work for darker or moodier headshots as well as hi-key or brighter headshots.

Producing your own out of focus background doesn’t require you to scout out interesting locations. You also don’t need to purchase pre-made backgrounds for composites, although there are good resources out there if you do. Most of my shots are take around the studio, at home, or at a local park during a walk. There’s no need to find these backgrounds in hard-to-access places or to spend a lot of money buying them since they’re going to be out of focus anyway. Almost any place with a mix of interesting light, shadow, and color will do.

3. Use a Good Image Masking Program

Photoshop includes a good masking tool for a large number of objects, but I’ve found that other tools do a better job at extracting or masking out hair. If you’re extracting an object with a relatively smooth edge, Photoshop is fine. However, for subjects that have intricate edges (e.g. human hair or fuzzy sweaters), I’ve found that using a tool like Topaz Labs Remask, OnOne’s Perfect Layers, or Vertus Fluid Mask 3 makes the producing an accurate and clean mask a little easier.

4. Match up the Direction of Light

After you’ve extracted your subject and placed him or her on a layer above your chosen background images, the next set is to match up the direction of light. It’s usually easier to match up the background with the foreground subject than the other way around, but of course, that all depends on your particular image. A good way to achieve this is to use the Photoshop Curves tool to bring the overall exposure up or down to match the foreground subject. Then use a gradient mask to produce a directional lighting effect that matches the direction of light of the background with that of the foreground subject.

You may also need to flip the background image to match up with the direction of light on your foreground subject. In the image example above, I shot the background with the window light reflecting off a white wall on the right of the frame, but because I shot my subject’s headshot with an Elinchrom Rotalux Octa from the left, I decided to flip the image in Photoshop (using the Flip Horizontal adjustment under the EDIT > TRANSFORM menu) to match up the direction of light.

Keeping these tips in mind before and during production of your composite headshot photo will help you achieve final images that look as natural as possible. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them behind in the comments section below.

 

headshots white background

I often get requests for headshots against pure white backgrounds, also known as “hi key” backgrounds. The end product often looks simple, but many photographers struggle with lighting in creating such headshot portraits.

One of the main lighting challenges is getting the background a nice pure white, while exposing the subject properly in the foreground. I’ve struggled with this myself in the past, but found a simple formula that works well in most situations. Here are the steps:

1. You need a seamless white backdrop (no kiddin). Paper seamless background rolls work well, but you can easily get by with a white wall.

2. I recommend (if you have it) at least two strobes (or speedlights). One on each side of the subject, and vertically offset so that one set higher than the other.

I used to use one 580EX II speedlight or an Elinchrom D-Lite strobe to light the background, but I found the results inconsistent. One strobe often resulted in a gradient background that went from 100% (RGB, 255, 255, 255) white to an off-white that was around 80% – not exactly pure white, and more work was required in Photoshop to create a pure white effect.

3. You need a way to flag the strobes so that light is hitting the background only and not directly back into the camera. V-flats work well for this setup.

4. Set the distance of the subject from the background to around 6-8 feet (or more, depending on exposure). This will allow you to control the background exposure separately from the subject. The more distance you have between the subject and the background, the more control you’ll have.

5. After lighting the subject, use an exposure meter, measure the exposure of the background and subject separately. The difference should only be about 1/2 to 2/3 difference between subject and background, with the background reflecting only slightly more light. This is important. If you have too much of a difference, you may create a hazing (low contrast) looking image. If there is too little difference between the subject and background, it may appear light grey rather than white (not a big deal, but will require a little more work in Photoshop to adjust).

hi key white background headshot setup
Hi Key Pure White Background Setup for Headshot Photography, diagram by Proheadshots Vancouver by d’Soleil Studios

Using these steps will get you very close to a pure white background for your headshot portrait. You may not get 100% white in camera, but if you can get close, you can use Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom to take you the rest of the way.

If you want a slightly easier way to create a white background, you can use a Lastolite Hilite for hi key photography. The same steps apply, except you won’t need to flag your background strobes in the same way you would strobes pointed at a wall or white seamless background paper.

 

Corporate Portraits

Shooting corporate headshots on location can be one of the biggest challenges for a portrait photographer. Often times, I’ll be a location with tight spaces, such as boardrooms with large tables that make it challenging to position people and lighting . For example, I once had only an employee lunch room to work in that was no more than about 70 sq.ft. in size.

Using the Elinchrom Quadra as my studio lighting unit is one way I’ve been able to overcome this challenge. It’s small, relatively light weight, and more importantly, doesn’t require an AC power source for plugging in. This saves me from having to locate my power pack near a wall outlet, which is a big life saver when you are working at unfamiliar locations.

Also important are my Wescott umbrella-style softboxes, which fold up quiet easily for travel. They also have a smaller footprint and allow for easy setup in tight spaces, such as the boardroom in the photo above.

For this corporate portrait, I set up in the board room and moved some furniture around to get the exact look I wanted. There was a large window camera right, but it didn’t provide enough light on this particular cloudy Vancouver day. So as my main light, I set up my Westcott Apollo Orb on camera right and a Apollo Strip Box camera left and back to create some hair and background light.

The lighting ratios were adjusted to exactly what I wanted, which I accomplished by moving the rim light further back and by letting some light spill onto the frosted glass wall behind my client.

Posing and getting just the right look was one of the more challenging aspects of this shoot. I wanted something professional looking, conservative, but also welcoming and fresh. We spent about a half hour shooting and created a handful of photos that worked with what I envisioned. Further editing work was done with Adobe Lightroom 4 and Adobe Photoshop.

Headshot Photographers, here’s how you travel light!

 

Last year, we decided to close up our bricks and mortar photography studio in New Westminster and go completely mobile. We discovered through working with our clients that they often prefer to have a professional photographer visit their office to do head shots. In many cases, it means more business for you as a photographer because they will often book you to photograph a longer list of people.

After doing this a few times with my studio gear, I really started to hate lugging around all that extra gear that is actually meant for a studio and not mobile use in rainy Vancouver. I’d had my share of lugging around heavy lighting stand bags and cases for my monolights, not to mention my camera bag, which was always on the heavier side.

So recently, I said goodbye to my studio equipment and started to build a kit for mobile use. Here’s what I came up with base on extensive research and months of actual in-field use: “The Ultimate Vancouver Headshot Photographer‘s Mobile Toolkit”.

This list is ordered by the level of highest benefit for mobile on-location portrait work. Items near the top are things I can’t live without and things at the bottom are nice-to-haves, but not as critical.

1. Lowepro Pro Runner x350 AW Rolling Camera Backpack

 

Lowe Pro x350 aw rollerThis is bag I really can’t live without. It’s a smaller roller bag, but it carries just about everything I need for a headshot session on location. It won’t carry all my lighting gear, just my Canon flashes (aka. speedlights), but it will take 2 bodies and all the lenses I need. I chose this bag because it can be easily converted to a backpack in case both my hands are busy with other gear. On a recent business trip to Calgary, Alberta I had no problems bringing this on board WestJet. I stuffed it pretty well and my only warning is that it will fit very snug in the overhead compartment. Had I got the x450 version, I’m not so sure it would have passed a carry-on luggage. As a Vancouver headshot photographer, going downtown to do corporate headshots is a real pain the neck from carrying all that heavy equipment from parking lot to corporate office. Having a roller-bag is a real life saver and it just looks more impressive to walk into an office with all your gear stuffed neatly into a small bag, rather than crash in with five camera bags hanging off your shoulder.

 2. Lastolite Reversible Collapsible Background (5×6′  White/Mid-Gray)

  I can’t believe that I used to haul a full background system around just for a headshot. What was I thinking? After years of filling my car with background stands, poles, clamps, and of course a long roll of background paper, I had enough and picked up a Lastolite Collapsible Background. I have the 5×6′ version in White and Mid-Gray. There is also a White and Black version, but I rarely ever shoot against a black background nowadays. Folded, the background is about 1/3 of it’s size and relatively easy to carry around. It’s still big, but no where near as big and heavy as a full background system.

3. Lastolite Bracketed Stand for Collapsible Backgrounds

 If you do decide to get this background, I also recommend getting the Bracketed Stand. It’s light and collapses to a small enough size to fit into any lighting bag. It will save you time and headaches trying to hang the background.

 

4. Photoflex Transpac Outbound Bag

  This lightstand and umbrella carry bag will carry almost everything a headshot photographer needs. I’ve stuffed up to 4 lightstands, and smaller Manfrotto tripod, a reflector arm, the Lastolite Bracketed stand, Photoflex umbrellas, the Westcott Apollo 28″, and several other small items in this bag (and checked it in at the airport too!). It’s not padded, so you need to add some padding or make sure it’s checked in with the fragile luggage, but man, does this think hold a lot of stuff. In future, however, I will be looking into a bag with wheels, but for now, this one bag takes care of all my on location lightstands and grip needs.

5. Manfrotto Alu Mini Stands

  These are the 6.75″ stands I often use for rim and fill lighting. They work great with my Canon 580EX II flash units and lightweight strobes such as the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra or even Alien Bees or Einstein E640 monolights from Paul C. Buff. I even used it with my bulkier PCB White Lightning monolights before with no problems – although be warned that you can’t use oversized modifiers (e.g. 53″ Elinchrom Octa Light Bank) with these light stands, they are simply too lightweight for that sort of thing. I love these stands because they are small and they click together, make it very easy to carry around three lightstands. If you are going to buy these lightstands, buy them in the 3-pack, you’ll be glad you did.

6. Elinchrom Ranger Quadra RX S Head

  Elinchrom_Ranger_QuadraThese are the bees knees (if you know what that means, you rock!). I love Elinchrom lighting equipment. They are one of the top lighting companies out there. The only other ones that are better are Profoto and Broncolor, but those are the Lamborghini’s and Bugattis of the studio lighting world. Elinchrom is up there with their Ranger series as well, but a little less expensive overall. The Elinchrom Quadras give off beautiful consistent light and have been around for a few years now. People who own them love them for their portability, and at 400ws max, the power output is good enough for most portrait situations, but it’s the overall convenience that draws me to these lights. They are battery powered as well, meaning you don’t need to worry about bringing along a long extension cable – and thus one less thing to worry about! They may seem expensive, but how many speedlights would you need to output 400ws? Maybe four or five? And do speedlights have modelling lights? Nope, they don’t and you need modelling lighting in some low light portrait situations. You simply can’t function without modelling lighting in some office spaces or homes, so the Elinchrom Quadras help solve a huge problem for me on location. And why the Elinchrom S head vs. the Quadra A head? Because for most portraits, you don’t need the extra flash speed.

7. Westcott Apollo-series Softboxes

 westcott_apollo_softboxI love these softboxes, especially my 50″ Apollo, and the only reason they aren’t listed higher is that there are so many good light modifiers out there. Some I’ve tried and others that have excellent reviews, such as the Photek Softlighter II and the Elinchrom Rotalux series of modifiers. I love these modifiers because they help create even lighting and they work with just about any strobe out there (for the Quadra, an umbrella bracket is needed). The Softlighter II does a similar thing, and perhaps even gives off slightly softer light. I’m looking to purchase the Apollo Orb too, so perhaps that will find a spot on a future list.

8. Reikan FoCal Automatical Lens Calibrator

 

If you’re a Canon shooter with a 5D MKII or other camera with fine-tune calibration options, the Reikan FoCal may help you. I say “may” because there are few minor bugs with the system, but in theory, it should help you get better focusing results. I’ve used it and for most of my lenses, it appears to have helped improve autofocus, which saves me a lot of time and frustration. The one major downside is that it only works on Windows computers, so if you don’t have a PC, get a Windows emulator or get something like the SpyderLensCal Focus Calibration Tool or LensAlign MKII Focus Calibration System.