March 20, 2011

on-location headshots that work (w/ Meagan Lee)

This image is from the recent photo session with Meagan Lee, getting headshots for her portfolio. While this specific photograph is perhaps not useable as a headshot, I loved the way the wind whipped her hair around.

An uncomplicated portrait made stronger with a few things working in its favor:
- effective off-camera lighting via a softbox,
- a complementary but non-intrusive background,
- strong diagonal lines created by Meagan’s pose.

With that, this photograph again shows a simple and effective method for great portraits on-location:

Look for an interesting or neutral background, and then separate your subject from the background.

I used a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens here, set to f3.2  This wide aperture will help blur the background. More than that, the 70-200mm lens was zoomed to 200mm. With this, I purposely zoom to the maximum focal length, and then step back (or forward) until the shot is framed like I want it. If I had simply zoomed to frame the shot, then a shorter focal length would’ve had the background appear more distinct. So the method here relies on zooming to the max focal length, and then moving yourself until the shot is framed the way you need it to be.

It is imperative to look at the edges of the frame inside your camera. It may sound superfluous stating this, but I’ve met newer photographers that had difficulty looking at the entire frame inside the viewfinder, and then composing the shot. Perhaps it is something that really needs practice?  But you really have to look at what you are including in the frame, as much as what you’re excluding from the frame.

My camera settings here were: 1/200 @ f3.2 @ 400 ISO … TTL flash, at -1.3 FEC

Lighting was via an off-camera speedlight in a softbox, held up with a monopod.

Instead of an entirely neutral / bland background such as one of the buildings in this spot in Manhattan, I wanted something with a hint of color. Actually, I wanted a more dramatic shot of Meagan Lee against the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but we were told to move along. So we looked around for something else … and this street vendor’s cart worked well, adding that splash of color. Here is the pull-back shot of the entire scene.

Without flash, and at the same camera settings:

The flash in a softbox really made the portrait pop, giving directional light that is soft.

related articles:
flash photography essentials
effective on-location portraits (model: Anelisa)
review: Lastolite Ezybox (model: Jess B)

equipment used:
Nikon D3;   Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S II (B&H)
Nikon SB-900 (B&H); Nikon SD-9 battery pack (B&H)
Lastolite Hot Shoe EZYBOX Softbox Kit (24″x24″) (B&H)
PocketWizard FlexTT5 transceiver (B&H)

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ron Lemish March 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm

I see that you are starting to use the Pocket Wizard Flex TT5.
Why did you not use the Nikon capabilities of the system.Are you planning to use the tt5 more frequently in the future ( even on a cloudy day c line of sight)??

I am sure you were not using a tripod in Manhatten, you know better, probably used a monopod…But come on !!! You were told to move on from your position against the steps of the museum
What’s the problem Is there no freedom for photographers anymore ???


2 Neil vN March 20, 2011 at 8:10 pm

The line-of-sight restriction of using just the on-camera speedlight as Master, can be a problem. So I’ve been waiting for the new PocketWizards for Nikon to hit the market.

I wouldn’t have used a tripod anyway .. it slows me down.

Neil vN


3 rafiayub March 21, 2011 at 12:19 am

Hi Neil,
What a beautiful head shot it is…
I love the way the skin tone is depicted. Is there any post production to look the skin in that way? As you are familiar with Canon 70-200 2.8 mark II, are we able to get the same result with Canon 70-200 2.8 Mark II too with same set up?


4 Neil vN March 21, 2011 at 12:29 am

Rafi .. the post-production and retouching here is similar as described there.

And you most certainly can get the same results with the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 II. It’s a stellar lens!

Neil vN


5 rafiayub March 21, 2011 at 9:20 am

Thank you Neil, Actually there is a reason behind this question.
I have couple of good ‘L’ lenses from canon. My wedding photography business is not expanded in a commercial level but there is a possibility to do the same.

Considering the Canon 7D new focussing system,there is a hope for improving their focussing system on eos bodies for low light photography.
Still I have a chance to move from Canon to Nikon. What you will suggest Niel?


6 Neil vN March 22, 2011 at 9:12 am

Rafi .. changing from one system to another shouldn’t be done in the hope that it improves your photography. :)

Check my comment #1 in this post about the maternity photo session. I used three different camera systems there .. Sony, Canon, Nikon. The photographs look the same.

Neil vN


7 George March 22, 2011 at 10:23 am

The Canon 70-200 2.8 mark II is a great lens, but it can create some terrible looking bokeh if your background consists of plant life. Try some portraits out in the local park to see what I mean.

By the way, how do you communicate with your model when working at 200mm? For a full body shot you would have to be quite a distance away!


8 Neil vN March 22, 2011 at 11:26 am

… but these were headshots.

For full-length shots with a 200mm lens, you’d have to flap your hands in body telegram, or have a model who you are familiar with and knows what you want. Or have an assistant nearby that you’re talking to on your phone & headset. There are ways around this.

Neil vN


9 Rafiayub March 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm

@ 6, Neil said, changing from one system to ….
Thank you Neil for the reply with lots of example images and !00% I agreed with you …
I am trying to say that “The wedding photography required flawless and consistent focusing capability on low light low contrast image capturing. And the same time the complicated flash system(I mean, it will be complicated to one who not masted on flash system) should be more reliable and easy to use for the sake of the photographer. If you refer, you may find that Nikon is better than Canon for these departments. And that’s why I am thinking to move to Nikon before expanding my gear for a full commercial set up. I strongly believe that you can help me for the subject matter…..


10 Neil vN March 22, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Rafi, if you’re trying to get me to tell you to switch to Nikon … I can’t do that. You can create spectacular photos with either system. I do use Nikon, and for specific reasons, as explained there. That’s as much as I can do here.

Neil vN


11 Jeff April 6, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Hi Neil,
I’ve been asked to do headshots. I’ve never done them before! Do you have any articles on this type of photography? If not do you have any tips or books I should look into? Just recieved your new book on off camera flash! Can’t wait to read it. Keep up the great work.



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