Learning Pro headshots with Fujifilm X-E1

I have not been blogging for quite some time, there had been a number new things going on at the moment. One of which is my desire to shoot really good quality headshots. So how do I set about learning. A good place to start is to learn from others. One of the very best in the headshot business is Peter Hurley. A flamboyant character from New York who was once a successful male model that moved from the front of the lens to behind the camera. He has been extremely successful change for him. So how do you start the learning journey and what compromises do you have to make as a beginner.

This is a shot of model Izzie. Post processed to look old school art style. How did I get here you may need to enlarge theses images to read the annotations I have made.
It starts with reading and viewing Peter Hurley’s work. In this area Peter excels at sharing what he has learnt over the last ten years taking head shots. Peter is rich ! Really rich ! I don’t mean rich in the Β£’s kind of way I mean rich in his generosity and willing to share his knowledge in the hope that others like me will learn and become better photographers and support the business. The first compromise that I come across after absorbing Peter’s teaching is that I don’t own a $30,000 Hasselblad or $10,000 worth of Kinoflo lighting set up. Right off the bat does it mean I can’t take top quality headshots. Well I will say no at this point, and I think Peter H would agree. So with the Camera and lighting tech / budget out of the way I get started.
I’m a mainly strobist meaning I have taught myself to shoot all manual using strobe or flash lighting, and on my budget that means Speedlights. I understand what I am doing and I believe technically proficient. So learning that Peter Hurley is using continuous lighting I thought I would give it a go. With Kinoflo’s not in my budget range I looked for alternatives. Old technology would point me in the direction of Tungsten lighting, hot to work with and not a colour temperature that I would have been happy with. 3200k warm light was not my preference for good skin tones. Next up would be florescent lighting. Temp range 5600k and in my budget range however theses tend to be non dimming units. I was looking for dimming control if possible and being a strobist battery powered too would be a preference, this limited my options greatly. In the end I found LED light pannels. This is relatively new technology and typically very expensive and high end, but as with most things in tech world over the last few years manufacturing cost have reduced dramatically. I selected Aputure HR672W 5600k LED units. Theses are about the size of an iPad and run off rechargeable batter packs or mains power. These light panels pack a punch, wow on full power they produce broad very bright but soft light. Just what I needed. I set about running up many many test shots. I spent days testing camera settings, apertures, ISO, shutter speeds all vs the various dimming settings on the LED panels. I even ventured into RAW processing. (Not good with Apples Aperture RAW conversion the shadow areas are very nasty). I finally became happy with the following settings ranges on my Fujifilm X-E1. ISO range between 200-400. Shutter ranges between 60-250 aperture fixed at f/4 and focal length 35mm (52mm non crop) on the 18-55 fuji lens. I stuck with JPEG. Adjust dimming of LED panels to suit as required. Bizarrely Peter Hurley typically shoots at f/4, ISO 400, shutter 60-80 and focal length 120mm macro on medium Format. So I was learning something on this journey.
The following images have been annotated to help show what I have been trying to achieve including testing white blown out backdrops and soft darker backdrop, all against 17% grey paper just variation in lighting.

Firstly My target was to produce shadow free, or very soft shadow over the face and shoulders. Fast light falloff is needed for this. Next was that I wanted to try to simulate Peter Hurley’s signature catch lighting in the subjects eyes. This is not easy went you don’t have Peter’s Kino flo set up. So the LED’ s barrage round of shooting test were good, very good, the light is broad and falls off very quickly producing good shadow free cool light at 5600k. I was pleased with the results I was getting but not fully satisfied with the catch lights. I played with a huge number of LED configurations. Mainly either top to bottom clam shell or left to right butterfly styles.

Above is an example of left to right butterfly. Great light but very harsh catchlights in the eyes.
Next up is a example of top to bottom clam shell, I added a speedlight to hit a rim light to the rear and side. Again good soft light and fall off in general but again harsh catch light.

Good in my eye but still needed work on those catch lights. It became clear
I needed to diffuse those LED panels and add two more lights to get this quad style catchlights. Not having a large budget I could not stretch to another set of LED lights at this point in time, so I opted to use my Speedlights in soft boxes and shoot through screens over the LED panels. See below.

Now I feel like I was making progress, good soft light no shadow (unless I want them) good depth of field. Catch lights now soft and larger in the eyes.
A few hundred test shots later and I think I have a setup that I am happy to put some willing models in front of and start some serious headshot work.

However. I like working with the LED panels I would like to purchase another set and work on diffusion a little more. These LED.s are a strange beast they don’t like barn door type casting they get strange vertical lines appearing. There are very few modifiers on the market to help with the diffusion and to support control the size and output over them. It’s going “to be a continued” type post as I learn more about this type of lighting and taking good quality headshots on a tight budget.
I have converted this last shot to black and white. To be frank I am sick of looking at test shots of my head too, sorry about the number of times I have used my mugshot during this testing and post. I will see if I can get hold of a few more very patient models in future posts. I hope this post has been useful to others. If you are thinking about continuously lighting of portraits or interested in what it is like to shoot using LED panels, more to follow so please feel free to sign up. 😊 I would also like to say “Thank you” to Peter Hurley for sharing so much great information and help on how to take great headshots.


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