Headshot photography

Using three lights and a gel, Chris was able to produce this result. Canon EOS 6D, 85mm, 1/250sec at f/5.6, ISO 800. Credit: Chris Bailey

When it comes to taking headshots, you’ll be pushed to find someone better than photographer Chris Bailey. Based in the town of Frome in Somerset, Chris has photographed many actors and celebrities including Samantha Womack, Star Wars actor Alan Harris, David Warner and Jane Merrow to name a few. Chris conducts his practice from his independent studio, and invited AP along for the day so he could try out our Rotolight kit. For this photo shoot we armed Chris with three Rotolight lights: two powerful AEOS lights and a smaller NEO 2 as well as accessories.

Modelling for us was professional actor Theo Walker, who at the young age of 22 is just starting out in the industry. His aim from the shoot was to come away with approachable headshots that would reveal his likeable and easy to work with manner, as well as show his versatile look.

At the photo shoot, Chris used the Rotolights on the continuous light LED setting; they were plugged into the mains so we didn’t need to worry about battery life. However if we were out on location the AEOS on full blast is capable of lasting up to two hours, making it extremely versatile.

The AEOS and NEO 2 are both easy to use and have two simple dials on the back panel. One is to adjust the power output of the light that is measured on a percentage scale and the other alters the colour temperature of the lights in degrees Kelvin. Depending on whether Chris wanted to have a cool, neutral look or a warmer look to his images, he could creatively decide and also mixed the colour temperatures together.

With his camera as a starting point for each set-up, Chris would set the main key light to a daylight balance (5,600K), and then get Theo to hold a grey card to set a custom white balance on his camera. Chris shoots in manual mode with his shutter setting at 1/250sec, and his aperture varying between f/4 and f/6.3 to ensure Theo’s main facial features remain sharp. Chris mostly has his ISO set around 800-1000. In total we had three lighting set-ups that all portrayed Theo’s character and personality differently.

Rembrandt lighting

Headshots Rembrandt Lighting key light

Credit: Chris Bailey

1. The key light

For the initial set-up Chris started with just one light which was positioned over to the left, just slightly higher than eye level but not too high else the brow bones would have cast heavy shadows. This first light was Chris’s key light and he had attached the softbox over the top to spread the light more evenly.

Headshots Rembrandt lighting kicker rim

Credit: Chris Bailey

2. The kicker/rim

To bring a touch of light into the shadows on the right of Theo’s face Chris placed the NEO 2 behind his head to create a glowing rim. This is called a rim or kicker light. He also set the colour temperature to a warmer tone to create an orange glow.

Headshots Rembrandt lighting background light

Credit: Chris Bailey

3. Background light

Chris then lit the backdrop to separate Theo from the background. He placed this light close to the background and to one side. Placing the light closer to the background created a strip effect. Had he moved it further away the light would have spread more evenly; however this wasn’t the effect he was after.

Headshots Rembrandt lighting final result

Credit: Chris Bailey

4. Final result

In the end, Chris altered the kicker or rim light to a cooler setting – playing around with these types of settings can be fun. He also experimented with the background colour changing it from cool to warm, but in the end this was the final result.

Clamshell and loop lighting

Headshots clamshell lighting

Credit: Chris Bailey


On this set-up Chris placed Theo against a grey background at the back of the studio. The clamshell and loop lighting effects look similar, but at closer inspection there are subtle differences.

Headshots clamshell lighting set-up

Credit: Chris Bailey

Placing one light directly in front and above the subject’s head and using another light source just below this creates the clamshell effect. In this case for the second light source, Chris asked Theo to hold a reflector. The overall result creates a flattering and evenly lit effect.

Headshots loop lighting

Credit: Chris Bailey

Loop lighting

This is a very similar set-up to the clamshell; however Chris tweaked the key light’s position slightly over the left to create a small shadow loop next to Theo’s nose – hence the name ‘loop lighting’.

Headshots loop lighting set-up

Credit: Chris Bailey

To bounce light back into the darker shadows Theo once again held a reflector. For this set-up Chris asked Theo to remove his glasses that were creating a dark shadow on his face. Glasses can be tricky to photograph. Theo’s had an anti-reflective surface, but these are still another consideration to take into account.


Headshots gel lighting

Credit: Chris Bailey

1. NEO 2 with blue gel

To create the blue streak down one side of Theo’s face Chris attached a gel over the top of the light and placed it behind his head and over to one side. This essentially was a blue kicker/rim light to give a subtle blue rim glow.

2. Key light with softbox

The key light has a softbox attached and was positioned slightly to the right. Chris instructed Theo to turn his body slightly away from the light which created an atmospheric shadow down one side of his face.

3. Third light

On the other side of Theo’s head Chris introduced another kicker/rim light, but this time set the white balance to a tungsten orange glow. This complements the blue gel, as orange and blue are complementary colours on the colour wheel.

Headshots Gels set-up

4. Background

Although the grey textured background in this image example is subtle, the concrete textured effect brings another element to the portrait and lifts the background from being a domineering black space.

5. Black card

This piece of black card absorbs any light bouncing around and darkens the intentional shadow on Theo’s face to create a defined look.

6. Reflector

The reflector subtly bounces light back under Theo’s chin to ensure this part of his face has definition.

Chris’s headshot top tips

Headshots block light

Credit: Chris Bailey

Block the light

To make the shadows darker and more refined Chris placed a piece of black card over to the right-hand side of Theo’s face. This was simply pegged to a stand that could be swung in and removed when needed. The black card absorbs the light and thus creates darker shadows on one side.

Headshots reflect light

Credit: Chris Bailey

Reflect the light

A reflector is a handy piece of kit in the studio to bounce subtle light back in the shadows and lift detail. As there was no assistant to hand, Chris asked Theo to hold it in place. Theo’s instinct was to grab each side, but this made his shoulders wider. Chris asked Theo to hold the reflector like a pizza instead, which kept his body in a more natural pose.

Kit list

  • AEOS This disc-like LED can be used in the studio or on location. It offers both powerful constant LED illumination and High Speed Sync (HSS) flash with a runtime lasting up to two hours on a 95 w/h battery.
  • NEO 2 The NEO 2 is the most portable light in the Rotolight range (weighing less than 500g). Like the AEOS, it also offers a combination of bright, constant LED illumination and HSS flash.
  • Rotolight softbox A softbox diffuses and softens light, smoothing shadows and evening out contrast so it’s the ideal modifier for headshots. We used the softbox on the AEOS light in our set-up.
  • 85mm lens Chris was shooting with the lovely Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art lens that is the ideal length for portraiture and headshots. Shooting between f/4 and f/5.6 Chris wanted to make sure Theo’s facial features stayed in focus.