SBPD Booking Mug Booth is a Pretty Good Little Headshot Studio, Actually

Live in Southern California, and can't afford a decent headshot? Maybe you should get yourself booked by the Santa Barbara Police Dept. Because their mugshots are actually … pretty decent.

And better yet, it's something that any home studio DIY'er could duplicate.

Take Iron Chef's Cat Cora, for instance, who had this impromptu photo session as a result of a recent DUI. She reportedly was very nice, somewhat embarrassed and thus behaving not at all like your typical celebrity DUI portrait session.

So that probably helped.

But also on her side was the lighting booth at the SBPD, which has been a fixture in the department's booking mug area for 15 years. It was designed as part of a (then) new digital mugshot system. The two ganged-fluorescent strip lights, one of which is seen below, were enclosed in wooden diffuser boxes by the city's carpentry staff:

There are one of these diffused strip boxes on each side, reports Strobist reader (and SBPD employee) Martin Alexander. They are supposed to be the only lights in the setup, and you are supposed to turn the room lights off before using it. But many in the department, not being photo types, ignore this advice and just turn on the box-strips in addition to the room lights.

Ironically, this evolves the setup from that of a typical booking mug to something almost Martin Scheoller-esque. That top (normal room) light becomes a high-vertical key. It's brighter because it is closer to the subject. The strip lights become the on-axis fill, thus completing the look:

It is perfect? Nope. But it beats Glamour Shots—and a fair bit of what else passes for professional portrait lighting these days.

So kudos to the SBPD, whose officers have the enviable assignment to occasionally photograph a celebrity in their most real, unguarded moments.

And with a pretty decent lighting setup to back them up.

UPDATE: They are having a little fun with this in the Strobist Flickr group...


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Blogger Dan C said...

Lighting reminds me a lot of the portraits in Brooks Ayola's series of people wearing glasses.

August 23, 2012 8:33 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Interestingly if you look for the catch lights in Cat's eyes, you can see the strip lighting.

August 23, 2012 8:47 AM  
Blogger k4kafka said...

Those "other-worldly" catch lights in the eyes are always a dead giveaway as to lightingts technique. Personally, I don't dig the alien look.

August 23, 2012 9:18 AM  
Blogger Ian Hay said...

You really have Strobist readers in every walk of life, don't you? I'm counting the days until we read Strobist articles along the following lines:

"These leaked photos of the torture of a political dissident in the repressive country have been much discussed in the international press. But less discussed is the lighting technique. Deputy head of the internal security services, and long-time Strobist reader, tells us how the basement chamber was set up for dramatic lighting...."

"Supreme Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and enthusiastic Strobist reader as it turns out, Kim Jong-un tells us how this otherwise bland propaganda photo of Kim and his entourage visiting a potato farm was lit. "We tried to synthesize Strobist principles and the national Juche ideology in this cross-lit scene, says Kim .....""

August 23, 2012 9:22 AM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

Love it! I guess it's better than most people's passport picture!

August 23, 2012 9:53 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I find two things interesting in this article. The first being that this is in Santa Barbara, which when I hear that name the first thing I think about is The Brooks Institute of Photography, and second, I noted that whoever set this up did so in a manner that no one can screw it up. That looks like a formidable mounting system for those lights.

August 23, 2012 10:15 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Better than your average mug shot perhaps, but I think most of us in the home studio would try a better pose and add interest in the lighting rather than the clinical look here.

August 23, 2012 10:42 AM  
OpenID Joe said...

After having some fun with shot in the Strobist Flickr discussion group, I was anxious to see what the set up was. Pretty cool for a mug shot. The color balance is also not bad. I'm curious to know if the camera's white balance is set for Fluorescent or AWB.

August 23, 2012 11:30 AM  
Blogger Sean said...

What I'd like to know is why you're at SBPD booking?


August 23, 2012 1:59 PM  
Blogger Patey North said...

It's funny, I've been noticing lately that a lot of mugshots have been very well lit! Glad to see the Strobist movement is having such far-reaching effects.

August 23, 2012 1:59 PM  
Blogger RE said...

I had no idea Schoeller moonlighted?

August 23, 2012 2:12 PM  
Blogger Nasty Clamps said...

As a bit of a sidenote, this lighting technique –- the matched set of banked fluorescent bulbs –- was often used in The Golden Compass to light Nicole Kidman's scenes. The folks over at Santa Barbara's police department have done a pretty good job of emulating the lighting style used throughout that film (or perhaps the film took inspiration from the police's technique).

August 23, 2012 2:39 PM  
OpenID Joe said...

Looks like they even selected a background that is close to 18% gray.

August 23, 2012 4:21 PM  
Blogger David said...

See also: Glamour Mug Shots

(Roll over the images to see the original version)

August 23, 2012 4:28 PM  
Blogger Matt Cook said...

Not to dampen the fun, but this the standard set-up for police agencies. It's part of AFIS. The lighting and backround are all the same so the image will be accepted by NCIC and can be used for photo spreads.

August 23, 2012 9:56 PM  
Blogger Rajiv Sarathy said...

It's "deja vu all over again. We discussed this about 4 years ago (

August 24, 2012 1:31 AM  
Blogger RFS said...

Honestly, they need to take one tube out of one side so the light would have a little more of a ratio to it. It would give better modeling to the face and make people a little more identifiable.

August 24, 2012 11:23 AM  
Blogger Al Tucker said...

I saw Gregory Heisler give a seminar once and he used a similar setup for portraits - he diffused them with a plastic grid he painted black. Maybe he got the idea from the police?

August 24, 2012 5:55 PM  
Blogger Reed said...

RFS said...
they need to take one tube out of one side so the light would have a little more of a ratio to it. It would give better modeling to the face and make people a little more identifiable.

Naw, it needs to match the "flashlight directly into the face" look

August 24, 2012 6:18 PM  
Blogger Joe McCary said...

The DIY home headshot studio is fine but has one small problem, The catch lights in the eyes bother me,little vertical rows of light. Okay, I know they can be retouched out, but would some translucent sheeting over the lights to make them a tad softer be better?

August 25, 2012 1:07 AM  
Blogger TonyQuotz said...

Interestingly, Joe Edelman has been using and teaching the use of this setup in his workshops. Check out these videos.

August 27, 2012 1:21 AM  
Blogger Mike Smith said...

Is this really a police mug shot?
If it is no one would miss noticing this person on the street.

August 27, 2012 5:29 AM  
Blogger Grant Flanagan said...

As a student at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, I can only assume that SBPD officer is a brookie. Which may work to my advantage some day, gonna have to write his name down...
Otherwise, great to hear my college town being mentioned in Strobist for mugshots, this is definitely going to get forwarded to my teachers.

October 13, 2012 9:22 AM  

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