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  2. Lighting

Shooting Portraits for the Web and Why it's Different

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If you have a website, use a lot of social media, or write articles for print, you need a simple portrait thumbnail that will support the content you are providing. I was so excited to be an author for Tuts+, but I needed a new headshot to go by my author bio. In this tutorial, we will walk through that process and you will learn 3-point lighting with flash using the Pocketwizard AC3 controller and what is different about shooting portraits for the web.

Building a Three-Point Lighting System

When you put together a setup with multiple lights, the key is to start with your main light and add one light at a time. When you add a new light, turn all the other lights off, so you can see the effect of only that light.

Then you can turn the other lights back on and see how they all blend together. Don't have a studio? No problem. I used my kitchen. The first step when working with flash is to find your ambient exposure. In this case, I didn't want any contamination of ambient light, so I metered to have an all black frame when no strobes flashed. In my kitchen, I metered f/14, 1/200 sec, ISO 100. Remember, your room will look different, so shoot at a low ISO and small aperture to get a black frame.

The AC3 zone controller allows you to change flash power from the camera position without having to go to the flash unit, which significantly speeds up the process. Each zone has 3 options: off, manual, and automatic. For this tutorial, we need consistent flash exposures, so we will only be using off and manual modes.

I used a mix of Einstein flashes and a Canon 430EXII speedlite, but please refer to the user manual for your specific flash unit if you have any issues setting up the zones for the AC3 controller. For the actual photo taking, you can use a tripod or a friend willing to help for half an hour (no photo experience necessary).

My first light is positioned to be classical portrait lighting, from the front side, pointed slightly down through a softbox. This light should be zone A, set to manual, and zero compensation on the AC3 controller. It wasn't bright enough, so I turned the compensation for zone A on the AC3 controller up until I had a properly exposed portrait.

AC3 set to zero compensation. Not bright enough.
AC3 set to +1 compensation. Great light.

Once you are happy with that light, set the AC3 to off for zone A and turn on zone B. I used a speedlite pointed straight up at the white ceiling to act as a general fill light. This one does not have to be as powerful as the fill light, so you are looking to have a photo that is a stop or two underexposed.


The flash set to zero compenstion was the right setting this time, so leave it there and turn zone B off. The hairlight is a bare bulb flash with a reflector dish set up behind the backdrop. I aimed it straight down so instead of pure black, I actually highlighted the texture of the background. Feel free to experiment with placement and background texture in your photo.


The power of the flash was fine, but here is why it is good to do one light at a time before you blend them together. See the highlight on the nose? That is a Photo 101 no-no, and it would have been very hard to see on the small LCD screen if I was blending all my lights together. I pulled the background and hairlight back, but since it was farther away from me, I turned the power up by dialing the AC3 up to +2/3 on zone C.


Now that every light works on its own, time to put them together. Take a photo with zone A and zone B turned on, and zone C turned off.


Now turn on zone C and take a photo. If you did the previous steps to properly expose each light on it's own, they should all work together. If you skip those steps and don't nail all your settings perfectly, then you waste a lot of time trying to figure out which light is causing the problem before you are able to fix it. You avoid that by knowing what each light does and doing them one at a time.

I get a little goofy, especially during lighting tests.

Here is a photo of the whole setup.


Taking Your Self-Portrait for the Web

When you are doing a portrait for commercial purposes, like a profile picture on the web, that is not a time to be creative with white balance. You want to make sure you are getting an accurate color for your skin. Too warm, and it looks like you don't know how to use your camera. Too cool and your skin looks like you are playing an extra as a dead body in a crime show.

To make sure I get accurate color, I always take a photo in my final lighting setup with a color checker or white balance card. Don't have one? Use a white sheet of paper, and when we get to the retouch, I will show you how to use this shot to get accurate color for your final photo.


Much of what we think about when it comes to a good portrait can actually be ignored when shooting a portrait that is going to be paired with content. When you reference the content with your photo, then people are much more likely to actually read it.


Looking at camera. Viewers look at the face and the eye contact, and not much else.


The photo is referencing the text. People still look at faces first, but then our instinct is to look at whatever that person is looking at. Not only do people read more of the content, but they stay on the page longer, and even look around to other parts of the photo and even the copyright info at the bottom.


Here is the chosen photo. When going through your shoot, look for the photo that has the best personality. Whether that is serious or goofy, stern or fun, make sure it reflects you and gives a proper message to the audience you want to attract. I am a wedding photographer, so I want my photo to look fun and happy.

Finishing Your Portrait with Retouching

When you open up your photos, open up the chosen photo and the one with the color checker. If you shot in RAW, then you can use the eye dropper to click on the gray tab on the checker to get accurate color, and sync that with the other photo. If you shot JPEG, then you can always add a levels adjustment, and use the eye dropper inside the levels dialog box.

I liked the texture I created with the hairlight, but in the end, I realized that it was too sharp and distracting to the finished crop. To fix that, I used the Quick Select Tool in Photoshop to select my body and add a layer mask. If you have CS5 or later, you can use the refine edge button on the top tool bar (setting shown below).


When retouching for the web, remember that your final output is going to be at largest, maybe 600px. More likely, it is going to be seen at about 200px as a thumbnail for a profile. Retouching does not have to be as detailed or accurate as retouching for print.

As you'll notice, the quick mask we just did actually did a bad job of cutting out around the arms. But I don't care for two reasons. First, those are probably going to be cropped out for the thumbnail of just the face. Secondly, the small size and background replacement of the same background as the original photo will make it blend with little effort.


I inserted a photo of the background texture without me in front of it, and added a gaussian blur by clicking Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Blur until you think it keeps good texture without being distracting. Quickly use the clone stamp tool to clone out anything you think is distracting including wrinkles, under-eye bags, etc.


Once you finish the photo, choose a good square crop that includes your whole face. You can hold down the shift key when cropping, and it will constrain the crop to a perfect square.


Think about the content you are using the photo for. If you can reference the content, then people are more likely to look at what you are providing to them. For examples of this in action, you can see my author bio on Tuts+ and see how the photo leads your eye to the content.

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