DIY Headshot Lighting Tips — from a Pro

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Let’s face it, everyone needs an attractive headshot. It’s essential for marketing yourself online. But lighting that DIY headshot can be a challenge if you’re working indoors.

A poorly lit shot can make even the most beautiful model look terrible. But what if you don’t have the budget for lighting gear? What’s a photographer to do?

Get creative!

The gear

Experimenting with common household items is an inexpensive way to get started with using artificial light. One of my favorite “illuminating” ideas is to use white paper lanterns for a softbox effect in your photos.

Most specialty/import retail stores carry these paper lanterns in various sizes for under $10 each. You’ll also need an electrical cord swag kit, which also retails for under $10, to hang your daylight-balanced household bulb inside the lantern. I also like a dimmer switch for adjusting the brightness of the light.

electrical cord swag kit for DIY headshot lighting

An electrical cord swag kit lets you hang the bulb inside the lantern.


lanterns and backdrop screen for DIY headshot lighting

A simple setup in my living room: paper lanterns, a shoji screen backdrop

Don’t worry about having the perfect “studio space” for shooting headshots indoors. A solid colored wall or something to throw fabric over can provide a simple background.

Be sure to position your subject about three feet away from the wall or the backdrop; this helps eliminate shadows falling onto the background. In this example I’ve positioned my friend Maria on a stool about three feet from a shoji screen in my living room.

I keep fabric swatches or scarves handy for hiding distracting objects in the background and providing interesting texture and color in the shot.

scarves for DIY headshot lighting

The setup

Position the lantern near your subject. You can hang it from a temporary hook on the ceiling or use a light stand and arm—if you have one handy!

I placed the paper lantern in front of Maria’s face and just above her eyeline (and out of camera frame). This diminshed any facial imperfections and also enhanced her cheekbones and provided “catch lights” in her eyes.

Maria is holding a small reflector in her hands that is tilted to reflect light back onto any shadows on her face. A professional reflector this size is under $20, but you could also line a cookie sheet with tin foil for a similar effect. This type of lighting brightens up the face and is very flattering for subjects of any age. (Watch my free videoUnderstanding the directions of light for more on this subject.)

setup for DIY headshot lighting

I threw a scarf over the backdrop and put the lantern in front of Maria, above her eyeline.

the first DIY headshot

The lantern above and reflector below provide nice catchlights in her eyes.

Scarf creates new DIY headshot

A change of scarf and background creates a different look.


When shooting, I often set my camera to Program Mode and take a few shots. I note my shutter speed and aperture settings, then set my camera to Manual Mode, use those settings as a baseline, and adjust from there according to my preference.

Manual mode image for DIY headshot lighting

Shoot in Manual Mode.

White balance can be an issue when shooting with household bulbs. Sometimes your images may have a red or golden cast; this has to do with the temperature of the lights. To remedy this problem, experiment with your White Balance settings or make adjustments afterward in an image-editing software application. (Watch my free video Understanding color and white balance to learn more.)

Now you have the basics for capturing an attractive headshot indoors, in a small space, and on a budget.

It’s time to get started. Have fun and experiment. This could be your weekend for creating the best-looking headshot ever!

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