Want a Free Studio Headshot? Just Get Arrested in Santa Barbara

Some people who find themselves on hard times try to have themselves arrested so that they can eat for free in prison. It turns out that people in Southern California can do the same thing for a free studio-style headshot. Cat Cora, a chef on the Food Network show Iron Chef, recently got booked for a DUI after drinking three beers and getting behind the wheel. Her mugshot wasn’t taken until 11 days after her arrest, so Cora had time to have her hair and makeup done in order to pose for a picture-perfect mugshot. When the photo made its way onto the Internet, websites began to comment on how it looks more like a studio portrait than a police station mugshot.

David Hobby of Strobist wanted to learn more about the lighting used, so he got in touch with Martin Alexander of the SBPD. Hobby found that it’s a simple rig that DIY-oriented photographers can easily recreate at home.

We got in touch with Alexander as well, and he tells us that after the police department switched to digital mugshots about 15 years ago, it was the vendor who recommended that they also install a lighting system in addition to the camera and software.

After purchasing some continuous fluorescent bulbs, they had boxes built to house the lights. Even though the studio lights have separate wiring from the room’s lights, the mugshot-takers generally leave all the lights in the room on while snapping the pictures.

The setup was also designed to be extremely simple, requiring no camera knowledge to use. Alexander tells us,

We don’t have a dedicated photo person that operates this system; it’s available to all staff, so the system is designed for simplicity. Even if an operator did have photo skills, there is not a lot they can adjust; just turn the lights on, have the subject stand against the wall, and then you click the button on the computer screen. I spoke with the person who did Ms. Cora’s photo, and she knows nothing about photography.

Here are some photographs of the mugshot studio. On both sides there’s a light box filled with fluorescent bulbs:

Attached to the ceiling is a Canon Rebel DSLR (why doesn’t the DMV just use DSLRs?) that’s tethered to a PC running proprietary mugshot software. While the camera, PC, and software are all updated pretty regularly, the lighting setup has remained the same throughout the years.

Who knew we’d be able to learn a thing or two about headshot lighting from a police department mugshot studio?

Image credits: Photographs by Martin Alexander and used with permission

  • Khalid Aziz

    If you don’t have the possibility to get arrested in Santa Barbara, the goverment offers a free basic portrait photographary course

  • Raúl

    Good setup on the cheap.
    Bad advice. Tisk tisk Petapixel.

  • maz-o

    so you just hang on reddit/r/photography all day waiting for stories to pop up

  • wickerprints

    It’s a good low-budget setup, and the use of continuous lighting makes obtaining a correct exposure more reliable–not to mention it avoids issues with the subject blinking.

    That said, for photographers who want to create a similar setup, I advise not to arrange the lights in a long, narrow strip, because this creates strange and somewhat unflattering catchlights. Study the eyes of the resulting portrait carefully: you can see the reflection of the two, long, narrow, vertical lights on each side, as well as the reflection of the overhead light. The overall quality of light is nice (with the exception of the central highlight that comes from the overhead light that you can see on the subject’s hair), but I would recommend housing the lights in a wider box with more diffusion. Of course, for the space the police department has, this is impractical; but for the rest of us, the takeaway is to pay attention to how your lighting configuration is reflected by your subject.

  • Bat54

    My son was arrested during an Occupy demonstration. His mugshot is one of the best portraits ever taken of him.

  • Angus

    Can someone explain how a camera mounted to the ceiling produced an almost perfectly eye level shot?

  • Billy Fox

    The subject is looking up to the camera….which also elongates the neck and makes for a great portrait pose !

  • Eric Silva

    If the ceiling is a standard 8 foot ceiling, and the box is roughly 1 foot lower than the ceiling the camera would be 7 foot from the floor. Given the average height for most people is between 5 and 6 feet (Cat Cora is 4′ 11″ according to Google), this results in a difference of only 2 feet. Given the fact that the camera is mounted at the opposite end of the room (maybe 10 feet), basic trigonometry tells us that the angle is roughly 10-11 degrees. This isn’t very extreme, but does explain why we see the top of her head a bit. Hope that clears things up.

  • David Hobby

    Wow, people are right. It does read much better with black type on white…

  • Baljit Singh

    I have always had great success photographing women from slightly higher than eye level, as is the case here. Strangely, men photograph better at eye level.

  • Joakim Bidebo

    What crime doesn’t cost anything? Guess taking your mugshot this way is lot more expensive then going to a real photographer. :)

  • bob cooley

    If you want horrible catch-lights in the eyes from that center overhead strip… That police station seriously needs to consider getting some octoboxes, or at very least a beauty dish… Sheesh Santa Barbara, get with it

  • Lame Joke

    Bob, with the effort you took to make this comment, you could have participated in the conversation you started in the lyric lapse video post. You made some rather direct demands on other posters and never acknowledged the considered replies. Don’t post if you can’t follow up