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6 Creative Ways to Shoot Portraits in a Tunnel

This post is part of a series called Environmental Portraiture: How to Go Beyond the Ordinary.
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Tunnels are are a ubiquitous landscape feature that present a special photographic challenge. Tunnels can provide great light for portraits and an abundance of photographic opportunities.

A tunnel can be a background, a prop, a compositional element, and a multi-use light modifier, all in one! Next time you see a tunnel, take a second to have a closer look. Where is the light coming from? Where can you find soft light? Hard light? Are the walls and ceiling close enough to bounce light? Is the tunnel short enough to get a two light setup without any lights at all? Or maybe the tunnel is long enough you can find a dark spot in the middle to do some long exposure work.

Here's the tunnel I visited for this article:

The Tunnel

Before we just start shooting, let's analyze what a tunnel gives you to work with. This particular tunnel was about 30-40 feet long and 8-10 feet high. This photo was taken just before sunset, and you can see the light direction going into the tunnel. This means we have one  side in direct sunlight, and one side in open shade. This tunnel is long enough to give use a dark area in the middle or enough light we can actually use both sides as lighting sources. The shape itself gives you strong geometric lines you can either compress or distort for your images.

1. Soft-Lit Dreamy Portrait

85mm, f/2, iso 400, 1/100 sec, straight out of camera, natural light

Look at the amazing light you can get from a tunnel! For this shot, I took Sarah to the dark side of the tunnel, about 2 feet away from the outer edge. Using a shallow aperture and a higher ISO I was able to create a dreamy looking portrait. By not taking her outside the tunnel we avoid harsh sunlight. By bringing her close to the edge, she is still in shade, but the light wrapping around the dark end and bouncing back into the tunnel creates a soft look that wraps around her face in the same way as classical portrait lighting. Since we were using a short tunnel near sunset, the sun is strong at the other side, sending light into the tunnel and just highlighting the back of her hair, creates a flattering rim light. We just created a perfect two light studio setup using nothing but nature and a tunnel.

2. Edgy High-Contrast Portrait

85mm, f/2, iso 50, 1/200 sec, straight out of camera, natural light

The idea behind this shot is the same as the first one, but with a dramatic difference. I still used my 85mm lens with a shallow aperture, metering for her skin. The difference is that instead of shooting at the back of the tunnel where it is dark, I shot at the front of the tunnel in direct sunlight. It was sunset, so you don't have the same harshness a midday sun would, but you can still get a dramatic shift in tone. Putting her in direct sunlight increases the contrast in the shadows on her face (as can be seen comparing the shadow on the dark side of her nose and cheek). I had Sarah take a few steps out from the tunnel, and I framed it up so behind her was the black patch of shade the sun couldn't reach. This created a dark, moody feel, exactly the opposite of the first tip, simply by using the opposite side of the tunnel.

3. Framed Subject, Compressed Background

Framed subject compressed background
150mm, f/2.8, iso 50, 1/200sec, straight out of camera, natural light

I positioned Sarah directly in the sunlight, and used a telephoto lens to compress the background. She was standing in the same place as the high-contrast portrait, but I got farther away so I could shoot through the tunnel instead of into the side wall. This creates a frame around your subject. This look is popularly used shooting athletes walking through a stadium tunnel.

4. The Silhouette

150mm, f/7.1, iso 400, 1/800 sec, straight out of camera, natural light

What list would be complete without the silhouette? From where she was standing in the "framed" photo, I had her step to the side and lean on the wall. Going to the back side of the tunnel and metering for the background instead of her skin gave me a much faster shutter speed and created a low key photo.

Bonus Tip: Were the sun at high noon instead of sunset, I would have had an almost pure black and white profile in camera. You can easily achieve that look by overexposing your photo in camera until the backgound has little to no detail. If the face is too bright and it isn't quite a silhouette, you can increase the contrast in photoshop (not exposure) until you have bright whites and deep blacks.

5. Sunlight and Shadows

Sunlight and shadows
40mm, f/5, iso 50, 1/200 sec, straight out of camera, flash bounced off ceiling

As the sun went down it created a hard side light, which is similar to the effect of a rim light in studio. Positioning your model away from the sun allows that natural rim light on the side of their face, then you can light them up with a flash.

How did I keep that shadow on the wall if I'm using a flash there too? The flash certainly brightened the wall a little, but you keep that great shadow shape by using a low power and a soft light.

Don't have a softbox or umbrella? No need! If the tunnel is low enough, you can get soft light by bouncing it off the ceiling. For this photo, the flash was behind me about 4 feet. This created the softbox-like effect. If the flash had been closer, then it would have created a harsh down light, giving her shadows under her eyes (racoon-eyes) and probably create a hot-spot on the wall. Moving it farther gives the light we need without leaving visible traces of artificial light in the photo.

Without flash
40mm, f/5, iso 50, 1/200 sec, straight out of camera, no flash

This is the same scenario without the flash. In studio, you can adjust the power of your rim light, but here, you want to meter so the rim light of the sun is perfect, then set up your key light afterward.

6. Wide-Angle Perspective

Wide angle perspective
20mm, f/4, iso 400, 1/200 sec, straight out of camera, flash straight at subject

Up until now, none of the shots featured the tunnel, but simply used it for what it can do for you, lighting wise. Now's the time to show it off! By using a wide angle lens and getting close to your subject, you can make even a small tunnel seem infinite. If I were to back up one more step, you would see the edge of the tunnel closet to me. By cropping that out of frame, you get the feeling of a much larger tunnel. Since I'm outside, there is no ceiling to bounce the flash off of, so I put it high on a stand, asking Sarah to tell me when she could no longer see the flash, then lowered it an inch. This gave direct light on her face.  All of the leading lines aim to your subject, and by putting the light side behind them, they even get a heavenly glow (seen here mostly in her hair).

Now at a Tunnel Near You

Tunnels are a great place to play with light. What else have you done while shooting tunnels? Let me know in the comments.

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