Wednesday, July 28, 2010

High Key Headshot with One Flash

High key photos against a white seamless background are ubiquitous.  They've been in use for decades and still haven't gone out of style.  Usually they require 3 flashes.  See for example this 5-part tutorial from Zack Arias.  Not everyone has the gear for a proper white seamless shot such as the seamless paper, the stands, the lights, not to mention the space.  I don't.  Nonetheless, I tried to do a high key headshot with one external flash.

First, I chose to take the shot in front of a corner.  I reasoned that the light on the background would have a chance to bounce against the walls and illuminate my sides, in addition to bouncing up our ceiling and down to me.  I set the flash (SB800) on its stand at the corner, zoomed to 50mm and aimed it straight up.

At first, I stood about 2 feet away from the corner.  The camera was on a tripod (yes, a cheapo one).  The lens I used was a Tamron 17-50 VC (which has gone down to $550 btw), set at 50mm.  The camera was about arms length from where I was.  Here is the setup shot.  The crate is roughly where I was standing.  Note: our walls are painted swiss mocha or something like that, but appear gray due to manual white balance.

For the first test shot, I used only the SB-800 on TTL.  It was way too dark for my intentions, as if the camera was guessing that I was using the SB-800 as a background light.  I set it to +3 FEC, using the popup flash only as commander (inactive "--").  Exposure was on manual mode, ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/250 (the sync speed -- to get rid of the ambient).  Here's the result (note: the shots here are straight out of the camera):

Next, I wanted to compare the result if the popup flash were activated.  I set it to -1.7 FEC to act as a fill light.

Notice that if you didn't look very closely, it's not at all obvious that a popup flash was used.  That's in part because the shadow from the popup flash against the wall disappeared because it was illuminated by the SB-800.  Nifty trick. :)

I thought that the background was a bit too bright.  I tried moving a bit further from the corner.  At the same time, I aimed the flash very slightly forward, away from the wall and toward my head.  My rationale was that the flash would probably still illuminate the wall, while at the same time, aiming it slightly forward would allow more light to reach the ceiling and bounce from there to illuminate my face.  I also switched to manual because the TTL shots seemed to give inconsistent results.  I set the power to 1/5 (1/4 -1/3 stop).  The popup flash was inactive ("--").  Here is the result:

Compared to the previous shots, less light from the wall is wrapping toward my face.  Next I tried adding the popup flash as fill again (TTL, -1.7 FEC).  Here is the result.

This last shot looks kind of flat to me.  I prefer the previous shot.  Perhaps next time I'll reduce the fill.  I also plan to add a second flash (the YN-560) and see what results I get.


  1. Thank you thank you thank you for this. I was getting so frustrated, trying to bounce flash off the wall, off a reflector, but still got nasty shadows, I never thought of taking it in a corner!!

  2. Thanks! If you have a small bathroom or walk-in closet with white walls you can try that too. You might like the results :)

    Best regards,


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