One of my favorite things to do for corporate clients is to make headshots at their annual meetings. Their employees live all around the country, so this is the only opportunity to make pictures for them all in one place. This is a challenging shoot, but it’s a lot of fun — like a headshot factory that quickly turns out good portraits. My setup is simple and adaptive, and something similar could help you make a lot of portraits quickly.
As you can see, I’m not allotted a whole lot of room. This is in the hallway outside the meeting rooms in a conference center at a hotel. I’ve got the room between the pillars to the wall. It’s about six feet to the wall, and eight feet in between. The main light comes out a little bit and I stand in the hallway with my tripod, but everything else is pretty much contained.
Everything you see came with me on a plane from Idaho to Florida. The background is a Lastolite 5×6′ collapsible, gray on one side, white on the other. If I bought it again, I’d buy one of the less costly brands. (Here are instructions for folding it up.) The backdrop is supported by a cheap backdrop stand, and you can even get a kit with backdrops and a stand.
I’ve got two strip lights at the back with strobes in them. This could all be done with speedlights, but the batteries would die and you’d have to change them and that would slow production in the headshot factory. That’s why I’m using monoblock strobes. I’ve got Alien Bees, and they’ve treated me well, but there are many excellent options for not a lot of money. And remember that renting is the best idea. Anyway, the strips give a little rim light, and they are long and vertical so they work on people of all heights without needing to be adjusted. These are on Kupo Mini Click Stands. You’ll also need remote controls for your strobes.
The main light is a 36″ octobox. It’s soft and forgiving and large enough that it only needs to be adjusted for very tall or very short people. When folks are within a few inches of each other it stays the same height. The key thing is that you need to get a softbox that fits the brand of lights you buy.
The reflector in the front is essential to lift the shadows on the face. I like it on this angle because I can scoot it left or right depending on the height of the person and it rarely needs to be adjusted up or down. Mine is about five and half feet long, but I wish I had this smaller 40″ model. It’s sitting on a small collapsible light stand.
A tripod is essential because it lets you get out from behind the camera to interact with your subject, and it allows you to make perfectly repeatable pictures. In a small spot like this, you’re likely to frame things a little differently between shots and you’ll likely end up with a corner of a softbox in your photo. Furthermore, it lets you get to the right height on people shorter and taller than you without shooting downward or up their nose. I’m using Vanguard’s Abeo Pro, which is discontinued. The most important thing is to get a tripod tall enough for you and that is worthy of holding your gear in a high traffic area, like the Vanguard Alta PRO 2+ 263AGH. This isn’t the place to use a travel tripod.
Now it’s just a repeatable process to make portraits. The person steps in, I check the height of the light and reflector, photograph their name badge, tell them that I’ll coach them on how to stand and express, adjust the height of the tripod, get them posing and expressing, and shoot, shoot, shoot. “That one was perfect! Next!”
Repeatability is key
Not only do I need to be able to repeat this process for each person at the conference, but I need to be able to do it again for the next client at the next conference. This takes practice and a checklist. If I forget to bring one light stand, or one power cord, or one battery for a remote trigger, the whole thing is off. I can’t run home and get a spare. When you do this, you need to be totally ready to do it well.
Practice for free
I love this kind of shoot. Bringing a person in and showing them a terrific headshot in less than 3 minutes and seeing the delight on their faces is really fun. I think you should learn to do it, too. You should practice a whole lot at a lot of different events. I don’t think you should work for free, but I do think you should donate your efforts. Work at fundraisers to gain experience. Setup on the corner of your driveway and photograph every person who passes by. Do what it takes to get lots of portraits and lots of setups under your belt and you’ll be ready to do it for clients. I think you’ll enjoy it.
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