How to Create Cinematic Headshots Using Natural Light and Flash

Most photographers aren’t fortunate enough to have a permanent studio setting where they can spend time developing a personalized lighting setup that provides them with a consistent body of work. Rather, most professionals travel to photo shoots and have to work with the light and backgrounds that are available on site. This can be especially challenging for natural light photographers, who can generally only shoot in the mornings or evenings when sunlight is soft.

Enter the speedlite.

In the following video, Los Angeles-based photographer Dylan Patrick discusses his revolutionary flash-based lighting and compositional techniques for headshots. Using only one speedlite, this guy can make everyday folks look like movie stars—even at high noon:

1. Take test shots of the background

Before Patrick positions each subject, he shoots multiple images of the background while it’s completely out of focus. Examining these photos allows Patrick to select the most pleasing composition of colors, shapes, and bokeh dots for his models’ headshots.

2. Position your subject far away from the backdrop

One of the biggest mistakes that beginner photographers make with respect to portraits is placing their subjects too close to backdrops, often resulting in distracting shadows or any number of other compositional issues. By placing your model far from the backdrop, you will be able to make good use of the compression capabilities of your lens and ensure that your background is blurred beyond recognition in true cinematic style.

3. Shoot with a telephoto or telephoto zoom lens

“Standard” portrait lenses like the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 and the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 provide great bokeh, but at wide open apertures, they don’t produce enough background compression for Patrick’s liking. To create those beautiful, creamy backgrounds, Patrick primarily photographs models with his Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II. In the images below, Patrick demonstrates the differences between the compression levels of various focal lengths. The 70-200mm (right) clearly provides the most compression, blurring everything around the subject into meaningless shapes and colors.

telephoto zoom nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 wide aperture

These three Nikon telephoto lenses provide dramatically different levels of compression.

4. Simplify your setup

Believe it or not, Patrick’s lighting setup is incredibly simple. He doesn’t lug bulky scrims, strobes, and backdrops to his shooting locations and he doesn’t maintain a professional studio. Rather, Patrick uses minimal gear and a combination of natural and artificial light to expose his portraits, a technique that allows him to shoot at wide apertures (e.g. f/2.8) even in broad daylight.

Specifically, Patrick shoots with a Nikon D700 camera (discontinued—equivalent: Nikon D750), a telephoto lens, and one to two Nikon SB-900 speedlites (discontinued—equivalent: SB-910). When only shooting with one speedlite, Patrick mounts a PocketWizard FlexTT5 onto his camera so that he can position his diffused speedlite behind and to the side of his subject, targeted at a reflector panel angled just beneath the subject’s face. This setup provides for nice fill light across the subject’s face while still allowing natural light to do its work.

5. Get it right in camera

The most important aspect of running a photography business is figuring out how to streamline your workflow. Between shooting, editing, and the many administrative tasks that are necessary to keep your company afloat, you can’t afford to waste time in Photoshop trying to make your photos look the way that you want them to. Understanding light and your gear will help you to take wonderful RAW photos that need only minor tweaking to become powerful, cinematic shots.

6. Know your editing software

Even if you get everything right in camera, you must have a thorough knowledge of the ins and outs of your editing software and the techniques needed to create the look that you want. Without masterful editing skills, your images will suffer — you might even accidentally damage them! It’s clear that Patrick knows his stuff, as his final image results are absolutely stunning:

blurred blurry background out of focus bokeh colorful beautiful gorgeous lovely

“When you see a Dylan Patrick picture, you immediately know who took that shot,” said Lee Morris, founder of Fstoppers.com.

portrait headshot man professional woman night day flash strobe

Patrick’s lighting ranges from edgy to soft and bright depending on his model, but all of his photographs have that same characteristic cinematic quality.

“When it comes to shooting and running a business, the most important thing for me was streamlining the process from shooting to editing,” said Patrick. “It became really important to get as much as we could in camera so that the editing could go even faster. In the end, you should be able to retouch a headshot in about 30 or 40 minutes once you’ve really picked up on the techniques of things.”

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2 Comments

  1. Andrew says:

    Please explain the part that is “revolutionary”?

  2. Yucel says:

    Way to recap the method.

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