Many of us will be asked at sometime to provide a head and shoulders photo for some publicity piece. Most of us probably do not have a suitable current file photo. We are tempted to make one ourselves and we get a poor product. With a little knowledge and a little effort, we can produce quite a good publicity file photo, like this one.
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Step 1: What Not to Do
Below is an example of what many of us do, but should not do. I often saw photos like this one in the small town newspaper where I was raised.
I simply stood with my back to some neutral wood panelling (a door), held my camera at arm's length, turned the lens toward myself, and squeezed the shutter release. It was quick and it was easy, but it is sub-standard.
There are several problems with this photo. The camera angle is too much lower than my eyes. Because the camera was only the length of my arm away from my face, it is proportionally much closer to my nose than to my ears and my head appears to be distorted (nose too large, ears too small). My expression is not flattering. The camera flash left a reflection on my glasses and on the finished wood behind me. It also cast strong shadows on the background. Further, I am too close to the background. The photo would also be improved if I wore a white shirt, tie, and coat.
Step 2: Ditch the Flash
The first step is to set your digital camera so the flash does not fire. Adjust the flash control so you see this symbol, or keep the pop-up flash unit closed (if your camera is so equipped).
Step 3: How They Did It in the Old Days
Photo studios in the late 1800s had a translucent side and translucent roof on the north side of the building. See the gray line in the illustration defining the roof and the side of the building. Indirect light from a northern exposure provides very pleasant illumination for portraiture. The light is soft and flattering. Such an antique studio can be seen at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. It used a white fabric on half of the roof and the north side of the building.
Step 4: Picture Window
Today photographers use light boxes, light tents, or umbrella lights to simulate this kind of light. You can also position the subject near to a large picture window with a northern exposure.
Ignore the cluttered background for now. In this photo I was facing a large picture window with a northern exposure. The photo was a bit over-exposed before I manipulated it with photo editing software, so I would set the exposure compensation on the camera next time to compensate and get a better exposure. Otherwise, the lighting is soft and flattering. The window did cause annoying reflections on my glasses. Sometimes photographers remove the lenses from eyeglass frames to eliminate glare.
Step 5: Managing Shadows and Reflections
There is one word of caution. If the subject is facing exactly parallel to the window, shadows on the dark side of the face may be too dark. Turn the subject a bit toward the window to soften the shadows or bring a large white surface near to the shadow side of the face. This white reflector will fill the lighting on the dark side of the face to make a more pleasing balance.
Again, ignore the clutter in the background for now. I was facing about 45 degrees to the plane of the window. I did not use a reflector to soften the shadows. The lighting makes my face look very natural and alive. Reflection from the window produced catchlights in my eyes, which is a very good thing. Because my eyeglasses were at a different angle than that in the previous step, no appreciable reflection from the window is visible in my eyeglasses. My left temple is a bit over exposed, even after manipulation in photo editing software.
If there is a problem with indirect light from a northern exposure, it is that it fills the whole room. Later I will discuss taking advantage of the inverse square law of light disbursement to darken the color of the background naturally.
Step 6: My Favorite Light Source
I like to use a halogen shop light with the protective basket removed from the lens.
(I borrowed this photo from another Instructable I did.)
Step 7: Positioning the Light
I position the shop light on a stand above and to one side of the camera. This usually eliminates glare on eyeglasses, but still allows catchlights in the eyes. Placing it a bit to one side makes enough shadow pattern to give a pleasing definition to the features on the face. The setup in the photo was for a group. For a photo of an individual the camera could be closer and the light need not be quite so much higher than the camera.
A one light setup is simple and is usually all that is needed, especially for a pleasing publicity photo. If someone has an unusually wide or narrow face, shadow areas on the side of the face can be maximized to make the face look narrower or reduced to make the face appear wider. This often requires more lights and more skill growing out of more practice.
(I borrowed this photo from another Instructable I did.)
Step 8: Where to Set Up Your Studio
A long room with neutral colored walls makes a good studio, especially if furniture and wall hangings can be moved away temporarily. Failing either of those, you can hang a blanket to use as a backdrop. Try to eliminate as many wrinkles as possible so the the surface will appear as smooth and even as possible. If the photo is to be in black and white, the color of the background does not matter. Its lightness or darkness of shading may matter. If the photo is to be in color, you may be more limited in what shade and color of blanket (or walls) are used.
You can make your background darker by using the inverse square law of light disbursement. It says that the light falling on an object decreases by the square of the distance from the light source.
All squares in the graphic are the same size. The yellow circle represents a light source, perhaps a light bulb. The pink squares are twice as far from the light source as the red square, but the light falling on the pink squares is one-fourth the intensity of the light falling on the red square. Place the background material as far away from the camera (and from the subject) as possible, and it will tend to go dark in the final photo. You can use this principle to hide unwanted features of the background and make them more neutral. It is especially useful where light colored walls are your background, but you want them to appear in the photo as if they are darker than the subject's skin tones.
You want to be able to control light. If you are using a room in your home as a studio, you might want to take the actual photos after dark when there is no extraneous light you cannot easily control.
Step 9: Another Useful Phenomenon
Depth of focus or depth of field is also useful for controlling and manipulating the background in your photo. Below is a photo of my wife's angel figurines. I focussed on the two at the right side of the picture. The focus becomes progressively more blurred as you move to the figurines toward the left side of the photo.
Imagine your are photographing twelve objects in a row. You are at the end of the row looking toward its other end. The objects are equally spaced from one another. Focus on the fourth object. A shallow depth of focus will show the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth objects in focus. A long depth of focus will show all objects from the second through the eighth sharp and in focus. Depth of focus extends from a bit in front of the object on which you focussed to twice or more beyond that object. That is, more objects behind the subject will be in focus than in front of the subject.
Without a lot of technical things to consider, keep the subject closer to the camera than halfway between the camera and the background. Make the distance between the subject and the background as great as possible to make the background as blurred and neutral as possible. If your camera has manual settings, choose a lens opening of f/4 or f/2.8 rather than f/5.6 or f/8.
Step 10: A Credible Result
This photo was made in a large basement. I had no helpers, so I took numerous exposures to insure I had a good one. (It would have all been easier with a helper.) I used the camera's self-timer and tried to make a natural expression. The camera was about seven feet from me. That meant I used the zoom feature to gain a bit of a telephoto effect. That minimized the distance differential between my ears and the camera and my nose and the camera. My face appears properly proportioned.
I used one light placed a bit higher and slightly to one side for good shadow definition on my face. There are some catchlights in my eyes. I licked my lips shortly before the exposure to make a catchlight on them, too. I set the camera to shoot in black and white because the people who needed a head and shoulders shot of me wanted to print it in black and white.
Contrary to the bad photo in step 1, I made the camera lens the same height as my eyes.
The background was a plastered wall with visible blemishes. It was about a dozen feet behind me. Although it was white, the inverse square law caused it to be no lighter than my skin tones. The background should always be a bit darker than the subject's skin tones.
If I wanted to improve on this photo, I could have used a hair light. That would have been a relatively low wattage light bulb, say 60 watts, hung about four feet above my head. It would have been about one foot back from my nose and just to my left a few inches from the center of my head. It would probably have a dark paper cone around it pointing downward to keep stray light from going in all directions. It would have produced a pleasing highlight on crests in my hair and a little glint on parts of my left ear.
If I wanted to further improve the photo, I could also have used a background light. In that case, I would have wanted the background to be a bit darker than it was. A background light would be placed behind me and near to the wall. It would shine on the wall at a slight upward angle and would have given me a bit of a halo effect around my head. But, background lights can be tricky in my experience.
In the bad photo shown in step 1 there were shadows from my head showing on the background. The distance between myself and the background in this photo allows all shadows to fall harmlessly onto the floor and out of sight.
In the end, I have a usable photo of myself better than many I have seen in newspapers and elsewhere.