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Portraits are one of the most powerfully emotive forms of photography that can tell the viewer so much about the subject. To really bring out the personality of your subject you can use dramatic lighting to create strong contrasts, highlight details and bring out various aspects of their face.
The way you light your photograph of a person’s face will set the mood of the image. It will help you to make your photos stand out and really capture the attention of your audiences.
How Do You Create Dramatic Lighting in Portrait Photography?
There are three main ways that you can create highly dramatic lighting which will not only bring the best out of your subject but also allow you to express your own creative vision.
- Hard Lighting. This is a type of lighting that emphasizes the contrast between light and dark areas of the image. The hard lighting creates strong shadows and bright areas that have very little gradiation between them. This is a very striking way to light your subject’s face.
- Patterned or Focused Lighting. By using dramatic highlights in a controlled way you can create areas of focus within the image. You can either focus the light on certain spots of the face or else you can create a patterned lighting which gives the image interesting texture and depth.
- Contrast Lighting. Much like a black and white photo, a strongly contrasting image seeks to create absolute opposites between areas of light and dark. However, you can also choose the gradient between the shadows and light spots.
With the right techniques you can quickly set up the lighting to accurately express the mood and atmosphere you are trying to achieve.
How To Create Hard Lighting.
To use hard lighting you need to create strong contrasts between the light and dark areas of the face. This is a very dramatic technique that looks more powerful than softer lighting which produces more gradual variations between shadows and light.
You can use hard lighting whether you’re indoors or outdoors although it is more reliable to produce in a studio setting. In the studio you can use direct lighting, strobe lights or a flash to create the hard lighting. You could also use direct sunlight that is coming through a window and position your subject so they are facing it at an angle.
When you are outdoors it is best done on a bright sunny day. This will naturally produce sharp contrasts. You can also make softer hard lighting during the golden hour during which you’ll also have pleasant orange and yellow hues.
How to Create Patterned and Focused Lighting.
This is one of the most exciting types of lighting to use in your portrait photography and can be achieved in multiple ways. When you use a direct, unmodified light you will create a hard lighting but for patterned and focused lighting you need to make some adjustments.
When you focus the light on a small area of the face it creates drama while patterned lighting adds texture and interest to the shot. There are several main ways that you can modify the light as it travels towards your subject.
The three easiest ways that you can create focused or patterned lighting is by incorporating a grid, a snoot or barn doors into your camera set up. These items control the spread of the light from its source allowing you to create the effects that you desire.
You can also use these techniques to stop the light from reaching the background and therefore draw the attention of your audience to the exact spots on the face that you want. Although all three items control the distribution of the light they function in different ways.
- A Grid: This is a honeycombed filter that is placed over the source of the light. The honeycombed filter creates a pattern as the light passes through it which shows up on your subject’s face. The grid is placed over the flash of your camera and is very easy to use. You measure a grid in terms of degrees. If you have a 40 degree grid then it will allow the light to spread more than a 10 degree grid which produces a much tighter spot of light.
- The Snoot: A snoot is a simple cylinder that is collapsible. You can mount the snoot to a studio lighting set up to focus the light onto a controlled spot on the face. The snoot instantly creates a spot light kind of effect. Snoots are available in a number of different sizes that can be used in conjunction with varying sizes of light source, including larger studio lights.
- The Barn Door: These are used to narrow the light down to a controlled point and are more versatile than either a grid or a snoot. The barn door has four ‘doors’ which can be opened or closed to change the size and shape of the light beam that reaches the subject. When you close all four doors you can create a very narrow point of light, like a snoot would do. Alternatively, if you only close two of the doors then you can make a strip of light. You can also just close one door to change the angle of the light leaving its source. Barn doors are a fantastic tool to have in your studio set up and offer huge possibilities in terms of experimentation. The most convenient types of barn doors are all in one, with an LED light source and a stand included. The stands are height adjustable so you can position the light at the most suitable angle for your subject – depending, for instance, on whether they are standing or sitting down.
Patterned lighting can be created by using filters and other modifiers although in many cases natural sources are the best. For example, the mottled light that falls through the branches of a tree can be a great resource for portrait photographers who want to create soft, but dramatic, lighting in their work.
Creating Contrast Lighting.
When we talk about contrast in photography we are referring to the difference between the lightest and darkest points in the photo. The best way to create impactfully contrasted lighting is to use a strong source of light and a modifier to stop the light hitting the background of the image.
Another way that you can increase the contrast in your photo is use a black reflector on the side of the portrait that is in shadow. This will deepen the shadows by absorbing any light that might be reflecting back to the subject. You can also put black reflectors on multiple sides of the subject to increase the contrast while you’re focusing the light where you planned to.
Changing the Position of the Light Source.
When you’re working with dramatic lighting you always need to be prepared to move the actual source of light. This gives you the ultimate control as to where the shadows will fall and what will be highlighted.
If you’re working outdoors then you will have to move the subject in relation to the source of light to achieve the correct directional shadows. Of course, while working in a studio you can simply move the lighting to achieve the effects you want.
Dramatic Lighting Will Give Your Photos of People’s Faces Impact and Power.
Lighting is one of the most important factors in photography and when you get it right you can create stunningly dramatic images. The lighting that you use when photographing faces will set the emotional tone, atmosphere and the feel of the whole picture.
To fill your portraits with drama you can use a variety of lighting techniques; the most effective of which are hard lighting, patterned and focused lighting and the use of strong contrasts. To create dramatic images you should always consider using at least one of these methods although you can mix it up and combine them in one shoot for even more impact.
What type of lighting do you use when you are shooting portraits?