Sunday, April 21, 2013

Peter Hurley Style Headshots with Speedlights


Its been a while since I've been in the blog-o-sphere.  It seems time isn't something that many of us have an abundance of these days.  With wrestling our day-to-day jobs, families, kids, side projects, pets and a menagerie of other things, it seems we have to push, fight and elbow our way in to a little free time.  So what do I do when I have some spare time on my hands?  I play with lights and blog about it lol.

I thought today I'd experiment and write about how Peter Hurley does his headshots on white.  Peter is an awesome photographer and does some really cool stuff, but what is really interesting to me is the crazy lighting setup he uses for portraits done on white seamless.  From what I can tell, he uses Kino Flos for these types of shots which are basically, constant light sources that are neutral, daylight balanced.  Kino Flos are used a lot in the motion picture industry but there are some photographers out there who like using them for still work as well.  I honestly prefer strobes though, and as many of you know, specifically I prefer using speedlights.  So, I thought I'd try to come up with a solution to mimic Peter's lighting style, while using small, portable flashes.  The Kinos are awesome, don't get me wrong, but after buying a set or two, I could have a nice vacation in some place warm and sunny.. on the beach, drinking little foo foo drinks with those cute, little multi-colored umbrellas in them... I digress.

So the most notable thing to me about Peter's portraits done with this style of lighting are, how they are frontally lit, with minimal shadows and those cool catch lights. After doing a little research, you can find out that he uses banks of lights in either a triangular or square shaped setup directly in front of his subjects and shoots right through the opening.  Also I've noticed that he uses a tripod so that he can more easily interact with his subjects while shooting (more on that in a bit).

I'm not a tripod user, or at least not very often, especially when shooting portraits, so putting that aside, in order to create the wrap of light, I used two Westcott Apollo Strip boxes, one on either side, and then two Lumiquest SBIIIs, one at the top and one at the bottom.  You can see what this setup looks like in the pic to the right (click on it for a larger view).  This seemed to work fairly well and gives a very unique looking catch light in the eyes.  As far as power settings go, I kept the top and bottom light in one group, and the left and right lights in another.  I can't tell you specific power settings because I adjusted them til I got the look I wanted.  Also, since the top flash (a Nikon SB-910) is a more powerful flash than the bottom (a Nikon SB-800), it appeared to be a bit more powerful at the same power setting however, I believe it was barely negligible.  All four of these flashes were triggered with my D300's on camera, pop-up flash using CLS but you could easily have done this with radio triggers and slave modes on any flash that has that feature.

After shooting a few shots, I realized that the background wasn't as white as I wanted (see the pic to the left), so I added a fifth flash (a Nikon SB-600) behind my subject, pointed at the background.  This gave me more of the look I was after.  However, without using that light, the background is a little closer to gray which actually has a nice look too and I believe Peter Hurley shoots both ways... with a solid white background and a gray one.

This is a pretty forgiving light setup and will make just about anyone look good.  After reviewing the photos I took though, I believe I like a slightly more powerful top light than bottom as I like that shadow to be more prevalent under the subject's chin.  This is totally subjective though.  Also, I noticed in some of Peter's portraits, the depth of field seems more shallow than at other times.  It could be that because he is shooting medium format that his portraits have more of a shallow depth of field than mine did, or it simply could be that he's using a larger aperture.  I adjusted my aperture based on how I had my lights set, but could have easily shot with a larger aperture to get a more shallow DOF, which is something I may experiment with later.

Could this have been done differently?  Yep, I'm sure it could have but there are always subtle differences to any light set up.  I thought about using a ring flash, and also, just a big, reflective umbrella directly behind me and the camera, but in the end, I went with a set up that I thought would most closely emulate Peter's.

Something I alluded to earlier in this post is that, what may be more important to the success of his headshots than his lighting technique is, is his rapport with his subjects.  I would have thought shooting behind that big bank of lights would shield him from his subjects (actually it does appear to), but by him shooting on a tripod, he is able to step away from the camera more easily which enables him to have good conversation and interaction with his subjects.  He seems to be able to bring out the best in anyone he shoots and walks them through a myriad of expressions and looks which, in the end, will almost always give a look he (and his subjects) is after.  So if I take anything away from his style and technique, its not only his lighting, but how well he directs and interacts with his subjects.

This was a fun experiment and I learned a lot from researching his work.  Take the time to check out Peter Hurley and see what you can learn!