Portrait Lighting AKA What Color is My Hair?

For the new website, my boss has assigned me to take everyone’s headshot. Sure, I’ve taken people’s photos before for various little things in the Library. The photos are okay for being taken in the Digital Media Lab with “good enough” lighting. However, my boss said that people will be welcome to take these new photos and use them for professional headshots. Uh oh. What am I doing.

I took some photos yesterday in our videographer’s studio using a “hey, this looks okay to my naked eye” approach with a colleague’s help. The digital camera lets you preview the photos, but not zoom in so we couldn’t tell what we were doing. Today I opened those photos and saw the problem right away: overexposed. I sat in my chair, having a slight panic attack. Photographing some resistant people is bad enough, but trying to figure out how to fix the lighting by yourself when you have zero experience in complex light setups is another thing entirely.

After I managed to stop panicking at my desk, I grabbed my phone and the SD card. I wished fervently for someone to help me in my endeavour as the model. Even went upstairs to the Children’s Library and made some lame duck excuse after chickening out of asking. Then I decided that the only way forward was to do this entirely on my own. First task was to figure out how to set the camera to take delayed shots. Four hours and 185 minuscule changes later, I found the best lighting setup.

Things I tested:

  • Body pose
  • Head pose
  • Lighting on hair
  • Shoulder angle
  • Glare removal on glasses
  • Portrait mode (softer)
  • No flash (automatic settings — winner)
  • High stool
  • Low stool (winner)
  • Backlighting
  • Fill lighting

My spouse has seen the full set of photos. He said that the first shots look like I’m “so done” with this project. The final ones show a smile as I zero in on the lighting. In reality, I wanted a neutral expression so I wouldn’t focus on my face in particular when reviewing the photos later. The final photos include half-hearted smiles as I wanted to check the shadows that would result from that change.

Overall, I’m thrilled with the final results. My elation is tempered by “does photographing the setup and marking the floor with tape mean I’ll be able to reproduce this setup in the future?” I found a giant sheet of paper and wrote a note pleading with people to not touch the space. Then I clipped it to a chair. I couldn’t remove the glare without messing up the key light, so I’ll have people take two shots of themselves with and without glasses to Photoshop the non-glared eyes into the frames. It’s a compromise.