Outdoor vs studio headshot photos, a headshot photographer’s guide
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
Studio lighting vs natural light for headshot photos
The main difference between an outdoor headshot session, and an indoor headshot session, is that during an indoor headshot session the photographer is in complete control of the light. To create a headshot photo, headshot photographers use studio strobes, light modifiers, and reflectors, that allow them to control the light with precision, and model it in a way that will give the results they are after.
When working outdoors, the light conditions will vary depending on the time of day, weather conditions, and time of year.
As an example, in order to obtain good quality headshot photos, I need to stick with certain settings on my camera. In the studio I simply decide which camera settings I want to use, and I then adjust the settings on my strobe accordingly. However, when working outdoors, I am not in control of the sun, and I will have to instead shoot at times, and locations where I know the light conditions will be suitable.
Said that, some of my favourite headshot photos have been taken outdoors, and as long as the headshot photographer you are working with is skilled at working with natural light, you can get great headshot photos independently of whether you are working indoors or outdoors.
Outdoor headshot photos and the weather
Another thing to keep in mind when working outdoors, is that you are going to be weather dependent, and the main three issues are: temperature, wind, and rain.
If it's windy and you have long hair, and/or are wearing clothes that are likely to flap around with the wind, then taking a headshot photo outdoors can be more challenging.
Depending on the time of year it might be cold outside, and given that you will likely have to take your coat off while taking the photos, that can be an issue, as you do not want to look cold and uncomfortable in the headshots.
Studio backgrounds vs natural backgrounds for headshot photos
Studio backgrounds for headshot photos
The other main difference between shooting indoors vs outdoors, is the background. When taking a headshot photo in the studio, headshot photographers will be working with studio backgrounds, and there are plenty of different ones. You can go from solid colour backgrounds (e.g. grey, white, black), to hand painted mottled backgrounds, and custom made ones, depending on what type of mood you are trying to create, and the look you are going for.
As an example I would normally start the session by taking a look at your outfits, and asking you what you will be using the headshots for. Based on that I will then select the backgrounds that are most suitable for what we are creating.
Natural backgrounds for headshot photos
When taking a headshot photo outdoors the background is going to be a natural background, and in my opinion nothing feels as real as a natural background. However, it is important to remember that the background is meant to complement the photo, and not take the attention away from the most important element in the photo, which is you. For that reason, the background in outdoor headshot photos is going to be slightly blurred, and I avoid getting any distracting elements in it.
It is also important to remember that when working outdoors, the paramount concern should be finding a spot with good natural lighting. As an example there might be plenty of good spots with a perfect background for a headshot photo, but if the light is not good, that will be a non-starter. That is why I always look for spots that have good natural lighting, as well as a suitable background.
As an example if you are after a corporate look for your headshot photo, and are wearing a smart suit, we need to make sure that we pick a background that fits that look. When working outdoors that means that we are going to have to walk around and find a spot that suits the mood and look we are trying to create. Whereas, if we are working in the studio, all we have to do is select the right background.
Taking a headshot photo indoors with a natural background
Alternatively, you could shoot indoors with a natural background (e.g. office, lounge, etc.), but that will come with its own set of challenges.
Indoor environments rarely have enough natural light to create good headshot photos, and the existing artificial light coming from lamps and ceiling mounted lights, is normally not strong enough, as well as too harsh and positioned at angles that result in very harsh shadows on the face.
The solution to that is often to shoot by a window where there is more light, and where the light tends to be nice and soft (given that you are not in direct sunlight). However, that will limit us in terms of background choice, as we can only shoot near windows.
The other solution when shooting indoors, with a natural background, is to add light to the subject’s face using a studio strobe. However, that can be really tricky as the strobe light will have to match the colour temperature of the existing artificial light in the room, and very often in a room there can be a mismatch of lights of different colour temperatures. The other issue is that if the existing artificial light in the room is too dim, in order to add enough light to the subject’s face, the rest of the room might end up looking too dark in comparison.
Said that, if the headshot photographer has the right skills and equipment, an indoor headshot photo done with a natural background can look stunning and give a bit more context to the photo.
Outdoor vs studio headshot photos: conclusion
To recap, when shooting in a studio, the headshot photographer is in control of the light, they can easily swap the background to fit the mood and look you are trying to create, and the weather will not be an issue.
Shooting outdoors, you will have to pick a time and location where both the light and the environment around you, are suitable for the type of headshot photos you are trying to create, and the weather might at times make it impossible to shoot outdoors.
I am not trying to sway you either way, as whether you go for an indoor or outdoor shoot, does mainly come down to personal preference. If you do not mind either indoor or outdoor headshot photos, then I would recommend finding a headshot photographer you like, and going with what they recommend. If however you have a marked preference for either indoor or outdoor headshot photos, I would then recommend taking a good look at the photographer’s portfolio, as even though most headshot photographers can deliver great results both in studio and outdoors, that is not always the case, and a headshot photographer who can take great headshots in studio will not necessarily take great headshots outdoors and vice versa.
I do hope you find this article helpful, and do give me a shout should you have any questions. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are few links where you can see examples of headshot photos taken indoors, outdoors, and indoors with a natural background:
Business headshots: https://www.david-photography.com/business-headshots
Actor headshots: https://www.david-photography.com/actor-headshots
About the author
David Tramontan is a headshot photographer based in Greenwich, London.