Creating Killer Headshots: The Cheap Way!

The Prince of Cheap is here again, but this time I’m gonna tell you not how to save money but a way to make money!

Lots of people ask me, “Whats a quick way for me to make some easy money with my camera?”

The first thing I seem to always think to say is “Learn to take head shots.”

killer_hs_smBy no means is that a shot (no pun intended) at the pro’s out there making a living with head shots, its just the first thing I usually think of. “Why head shots?” I’m asked. I tell them, “Its fast, it can be fun and (usually) doesn’t require a lot of equipment.” They’re often stumped when I say that last part. The truth is, for myself head shots are like a basic interview/chatfest between actor, model, musician or whoever is being photographed. Since I prefer to create head shots using natural light it really minimizes my equipment needs.

My typical equipment for a head shot session is my 85mm F1.4, 50mm F1.7 lens, Shepard Polaris Light Meter, 42″ Ebay 5n1 Disc Reflector and sometimes my 3x5ft homemade Diffusion panel. The panel is especially useful if I will be out at “Devil Light,” between 9a.m. to 4:30p.m. when the sun is high in the sky or I will be in an open area where there is nothing to cast a shadow to shade the subject from the full blast of the sunlight. (Its actually overkill going out in daylight with a lens faster than F2.8; however, I just love the sharpness of those prime lens’.)

All the images above were created using natural light and took only 2 minutes or less total time each in post processing.

As a matter of cheap, I could switch out my high speed primes (85mm F1.4 and 50mm F1.7) with a single kit zoom lens like a basic 28-80mm F3.5-F5.6 lens and simply up my ISO to compensate for the light loss. One thing I will say is a definite “bring along”, is a diffuser of some kind. For me, the $42 investment in the 42″ 5n1 disc has proven itself invaluable and the $14 investment in building my own 5ft x 3.5ft light panel has proven a lifesaver! I gotta make this point! I highly recommend that if your Digital SLR has a 1.5x crop factor or more – RUN out and find a used 50mm F1.7 or F1.8 fixed lens! On a Canon DSLR with a 1.6x crop factor the lens acts like a 80mm f1.8 portrait lens! For Nikon and Sony DSLR users it would act like a 75mm F1.8/F1.7 portrait lens! For almost all camera brands – they should run from $50.00-$100.00 used from ebay to local camera stores! In the lens world, thats cheap for a good – piece of glass!

Now that you have your gear set for going outdoors and battle the light to make some fast money, heres some tips to jump start your head shots in the right direction:

  1. If shooting during “Devil Light” look for large areas of shade place your subject and photograph into (unless you know for sure it will compliment your subject you may not want to photograph your subject in shade while your background is being hit by direct sunlight).
  2. If shooting under overcast (cloudy) light – use the silver reflector to add more punch to your subjects eyes or to create beauty light by placing it underneath the subject just like when your in the studio.
  3. The key is to find some area that is NOT IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT (if shooting during the midday when the sun is high in the sky). Find an area that has something overhead to block out the top-light. Top light is responsible for the infamous “racOOn eyes” – where the entire eye area is pitch black!
  4. After you’ve found or created (light panel or something else you’ve set overhead) shade for your subject – you will take an incident meter reading while standing in the shadow area (just make sure the dome of the incident meter faces back to where the camera will be at).

    Note: Incident light meters give readings that if used will tell the camera how to expose the scene to look just the way it is under the light that is hitting it (as the scene is). It is only a starting reference point of exposure. I frequently over expose for slightly smoother skin or underexpose for more saturated backgrounds depending on how I want the final image to look like.

Here are some image example of my First Annual “Head shot Marathon Session” where I photographed over 30 Models, Actors, and Musicians in rapid succession as a (publicity stunt) marketing test. Good news! Following these techniques and a few unmentioned (yet) I came away with over 1200 photographs in 4 hrs and over 300+ usable head shots!

Killer Headshot 14

Killer Headshot 15

Killer Headshot 15

The Image above is an example of the outdoor hi-key lighting effect you can get at “Devil Light”with a panel or some kind of diffuser. You can find the technique explained in detail here:

Here’s a breakdown of the location (the why), lighting (what to look for), and results (complete with John Madden style X and O’s layout!). Study it well and your in business!

Find or make a large patch of shade and use it for balanced light!

Killer Headshot Location 1

Remember to get into the spot where your subject will be to meter the light. Make sure the meters dome is facing the cameras location (for incident light meters)!

Killer Headshot Location 2

Notice the common thread in all the diagrams? KILL THAT TOP LIGHT! The cool thing about this little location is that all I have to do is change the direction of the camera and I can have multiple background tones (notice the grey wall to the left, the pink solid color next to it, on the right – the beige colored block wall on the right and the blue/grey colored door.

Killer Headshot Location 3

What have you learned? Find your shade, block the direct sun, and VIOLA… KILLER HEAD SHOTS… THE CHEAP WAY!!!! NO EXCUSES! NOW GET TA SHOOTIN!!!!

-The Prince of Cheap

David Griffin

About David Griffin

The Prince of Cheap I am a "Jesus Freak" and a DIY photography junkie! I'm also the *second* cheapest man alive... but only 'cause my Dad is the first!

18 thoughts on “Creating Killer Headshots: The Cheap Way!

  1. Jerry Kibildis

    Thank you for sharing your techniques. I read most of the periodical mags on DSLRS and think they are mostly sales hype for the lstest bundled kits with useless lenses. Do I buy a D200 and then shop foe lenses? I’m also conflicted as to whether I should buy Adobe Photoshop or stay with Elements for now.

  2. David Griffin a.k.a. Prince CheapDavid Griffin a.k.a. Prince Cheap

    Your gonna hate this answer…
    if you can afford the D200 get it. Its an awesome camera! Then save up and get the lens’. If you can afford Adobe Photoshop CS3… get it (as long as you intend and have the time to seriously train on it).

    The answer: The D200 is a great camera! Good lens’ are a must! Adobe Photoshop CS3 is the best photo editing tool available known to man! If you cant afford Adobe Photoshop go with Corel Paint Shop Pro its only $99 and it runs circles around Photoshop Elements (in my unchanging opinion – on that subject)

  3. David

    I downloaded a free trial of photoshop CS3. It lasts 30 days and by the time the trial was up, I literally felt like a professional. I basically fooled around with it for about 2 hours a day and did a lot of reading on how to accomplish different tasks. My point is definately go for CS3. Its an amazing program that allows you to do so much (if you want to).

  4. Bob

    For those of you who love cheap a great, FREE alternative to Photoshop CS3 is GIMP. It has almost all the same tools (except for some of the really high end options) and it’s free. I have used it for years and it has saved me having to fork over the hundreds of dollars for Photoshop.

    Here is a link to the Windows version:

  5. Beth Haney

    THANK YOU so much for these wonderful tutorials. I agree wholeheartedly with you response on Photoshop CS3.
    Lighting has always been by most difficult challenge, and you explain it really well. Best, Beth Haney

  6. priteesh

    i was feeling helpless till i came to this article.its because i want to make some tight headshot only. things are making sens for me perticularly seeing the locations and your hinting. your head shot are all impresive, but the mentioned (28-80mm F3.5-F5.6 ) is i think is slow and i doubt any of the above shot is taken with this lens. in fact i have a 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 II USM canon lens. i think the f stop comes under your mentioned 28-80 lens. i keep my subject far away from background to get that background blur but seems its nt working.i have a canon 30d. pls help me. i love this article.

  7. rtyree

    WOW, I’m learining so much. As for lenses I found a couple of places that will rent high end lenses(ones I could never afford to buy) for a week usually around $85-$100 a week. If you have a shoot or a week where you can take as many photos as possible its not a bad idea.

  8. Steve Evans

    Crop factor refers to the fact that most DSLR (except “full frame” like Nikon’s D3) have a smaller sensor size than that of a 35mm film. That causes lenses to act like they’ve been magnified. So your 200mm lens will seems like a 300mm, hence your image will be “cropped” from what it would look like in 35mm land. It’s usually only a problem with wide angle lens people, for example a 25mm lens would act like a 37mm lens.

  9. Gary Soucy

    in reply to the comment on the D200 purchase. Forget the camera, buy a prime lens first and a good body second. A good body is useless without good glass up front. I’d use a D70 with great glass over the D200 with a crap lens.



  10. cathy

    Wow-great head shots–I am interested in knowing how you made your 3×5 homemade diffusion panel — would love to know — thanks Cathy

  11. David GriffinDavid Griffin Post author

    I bought white ripstop nylon from the fabric shop and sewn up the ends. Then I made a frame from PVC pipe from the hardware store. Clipped it to the pvc frame and viola! Instant mobile lightweight studio!

  12. Nicolas

    Hello Mr. Griffin,

    Im an amateur and I really love your work. I think that a good phographer needs to master light to create great photography and you obviously are a master, a generous master who take time to freely share is techniques. I’m very happy to have found your acrticles and I’m sharing theme with friends.

    Your articles are the best I’ve seen on the web so far, you show that we can take some great picture with minimal equipment. I Really like your cheap DIY tools and Il be building the PVC-Nylon diffuseur soon, its really a great idea and it will help my natural light outdoor portraits…

    Here is a portrait I took without any extra equipment:

    Thanks again and keep up the good work…

    You are a talented and generous man!

    Montreal, QC, Canada

  13. Lauryn

    Thank you Mr. Griffin for the information on lighting. I have been looking for a light meter, but they are difficult to find (or maybe I haven’t tried hard enough). My guy at J&R told me I didn’t need a light meter since I bought the D200.

    I want to buy a 2nd camera, D90 seems like a (lighter in weight) good choice for a backup camera. Any thoughts?

    Sincerely, Lauryn

  14. Ranger Ric

    Hi Lauryn,
    Yes, camera meters have come a long way. They are quite good but, they only read reflective light, thus they will easily become fooled. Thus your guy at J&R is correct (D200 meter is good) and incorrect (doesn’t understand light and exposure). Also, with a meter you can provide yourself with repeatable results.

    A incident meter measures light falling on the subject. In the same light a white cat and black cat will have the same exposure.

    Whereas using a reflective meter (your camera any camera) will, in the same light, apply to both cats a different exposure. Then, you’ll wonder why those cat photos appear a strange color.

    Here’s a informative short read with photos explaining the difference between reflective and incident meter:

    My meter is the Sekonic L-358.

    I’m not in any way affiliated with Sekonic, I own their product.

    Hope that helps you.

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