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How to Achieve Simple, Dramatic Portrait Lighting


There are a million ways to light a portrait and the way you light it will convey something about your style and your subject. In this article, we'll focus on achieving dramatic lighting. This kind of lighting is very popular because it is attention-grabbing and has more "weight" to it than other forms such as open shade or very diffused types of lighting.

Dramatic lighting is usually quite contrasty with harder edges on the shadows as well as starkly sculpting the face or form of your subject. Depending upon the expression, it can give your images a serious or even sinister mood. Let's jump right into it!

The Gear

Dramatic lighting is a style and it doesn't matter what kind of lighting equipment you use to achieve the effect. You can use a window, a desk lamp, small flashes, or even studio flashes what you need to do is modify and position the light in such a way that it is dramatic.

Because dramatic lighting is usually contrasty and with harder edges, smaller or farther light sources may be the best way to go as opposed to a large umbrella in close. You also may want to find ways to control the spread of the beams through grids, flags, snoots, and feathering. With these techniques you can easily achieve drama with little-to-no extra equipment aside from your camera.

  • Canon EOS 1D Mark IV camera
  • 24-70mm f/2.8L lens
  • 2 — Paul C. Buff Einstein monobloc flashes
  • 2 — Paul C. Buff 10x30" strip boxes with grids
  • 2 — 8-ft light stands

The reason for using stripboxes is that they're narrow yet soft sources of light with a lot of control, unlike an umbrella. I can also control the axis of the beam by rotating the box to the desired angle. Slap a grid on it and now I have a very narrow beam that still has some softness to it.

Using these narrow sources with grids gives me very precise control over where the light falls. This is great for tight spaces, controlling lens flare, and moving in the lights very close. In this photograph, I needed all three of those benefits.

The Location

The posh, ultra exclusive location I used for this shot was a meeting room. White ceiling, white walls, and large glass windows behind my subject. I wanted the background to go black, but didn't have a black background with me and due to space constraints, the reflective window would be my background.

White walls aren't usually a problem because if I keep my subject far away enough from them and prevent light from hitting it, I get my black background. However, windows reflect light sources and I wanted to avoid unnecessary retouching.

Killing errant light rays is where the grids come in. I angled them so they were somewhat parallel to the glass and therefore never reach the window. Reflections are gone. Combined with my subject's distance from the background and my camera's settings, I get my black background.

Killing the Ambient Light

Step 1: Find Your Location's Ambient Exposure

This is pretty simple. Pop your camera into fully automatic or one of the semi-automatic modes (P, Av, or Tv) and make sure your Exposure Compensation (EV) is set to zero. Don't fire your flash. Snap off a frame. If that frame looks properly exposed, then that ISO, shutter speed, and aperture is your ambient light reading. Now you know where you stand and you can go up or down.

Step 2: Drop the Exposure by at Least 2.5 Stops

Once you've found your ambient reading, put your camera back into Manual mode. I usually start by keeping my shutter speed at or just below my camera's maximum flash sync speed. I then drop my ISO to 100 for more ambient light reduction.

Finally, I click over to f/8 on my aperture. In most indoor cases 1/160sec, f/8, ISO 100 gives me the ambient drop I need to make my frame go black. Check your histogram to confirm. The spike should be all the way to the left.

Avoid going over your camera's sync-speed so that you don't get a black band across your frame. With full-frame or newer cameras that have great dynamic range, you may need to go -2.7 stops to get "photographic black," an old term for a truly solid black.

Step 3: Increase Flash Power to Desired Level

Now that everything is black, you'll need to turn on your flashes and adjust them to the desired power. This will light the areas you want and bring them out of the darkness. For TTL flash, you'll need to adjust your flash's EV to over-expose the settings you have dialed-in for the camera. Remember, your flashes have to fight at least 2.5 stops of darkness as well as the modifier and if you're using speedlights, that's a lot of power.

I'm using 640ws monoblocs in close, so I don't have to worry like I do with speedlights when I go above f/8. You can use this technique along with angling the light to avoid reflections to turn any surface black. We're using three principles to achieve this black background effect:

  • Inverse Square Law - luminosity drops by 75% every time the distance doubles. So, if the light-to-background distance is twice my light-to-subject distance, the background will be 75% darker than my subject.
  • Angle of Incidence Equals Angle of Reflection - Light bounces off at the same angle it enters. Useful for controlling flare, or reflections in shiny surfaces.
  • Exposure Triangle - ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture all affect exposure. You can modify your exposure by adjusting any one of these settings. In our case, you might call it an exposure square, because we've incorporated flash power.

Light Position

The main light is close and feathered to give a little wrap around The rim light is also feathered so only the edge of the narrow beam lights subject
The main light is close and feathered to give a little wrap around. The rim light is also feathered so only the edge of the narrow beam lights subject.

Perhaps more crucial than which lighting modifier I use is the positioning of my lights. It is the position of lighting that gives objects their shape and help sculpt the face. For this image, I knew I wanted a very defined sculpting of the face. So, I placed my main light — a gridded stripbox — to the right and 90° to the camera. I used the modeling light and tilted it until I got it in the ballpark. I shot a few frames to adjust my power settings and fine tune the stripbox.

Here is just the main light a single gridded stripbox Photo Daniel So
Here is just the main light, a single gridded stripbox. (Photo: Daniel Soñé)

This is a very nice image, but he disappears into the blackness. The photo is fine as-is, but I wanted to separate him from the background. So, I took a second gridded stripbox and positioned it to the left and behind the subject, giving him a nice edge and shape to his head. The power levels are about even, but I was able to reduce the intensity and harden the edge by moving the rim light further away and therefore exploiting the Inverse Square Law.

This is the rim light also a gridded stripbox Without the grid light would spill out to undesired areas Photo Daniel So
This is the rim light, also a gridded stripbox. Without the grid, light would spill out to undesired areas. (Photo: Daniel Soñé)
If your background isn't black enough, use Adobe CameraRAW or Lightroom's "Blacks" slider to only affect the darkest tones in your image. Your background should go totally black with just a little nudge.

The Final Image

I'm a huge fan of achieving as much as possible in-camera so that Photoshop only does stuff I could not do during the shot. I brought the image into Photoshop, dropped the saturation, increased the contrast, and did a high-pass filter to add more texture to the skin. Other than that, the image is straight out of the camera. Quick, simple, and dramatic.

This is the final image Both lights working together giving shape and dimension to the face Photo Daniel So
This is the final image. Both lights working together, giving shape and dimension to the face. (Photo: Daniel Soñé)

Another Example

Not everyone has stripboxes available to them, but similar lighting can be achieved with a cheaper and very versatile light modifier: a shoot-through umbrella. In the photograph below, I used two speedlights and two shoot-through umbrellas to either side of the model.

I killed the ambient with my camera settings so that the only illumination was coming from the flashes.

I tamed the diffusion of the flash's light by both zooming in the heads to 105mm and sliding them closer to the surface of the umbrella itself. This gave me more contrast and better control than the conventional use of an umbrella would.

Although the tools were different for this shot, the principles remained the same.

  • Canon EOS 7D camera
  • 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens
  • 2 - Canon Speedlite 580EX II
  • 2 - Savage 32" shoot-thru umbrellas
  • 2 - 6-ft light stands
Two shoot-thru umbrellas achieve a similar but softer look compared to stripboxes Also note the light spill onto the background Photo Daniel So
Two shoot-thru umbrellas achieve a similar, but softer look compared to stripboxes. Also note the light spill onto the background. (Photo: Daniel Soñé)

What You Can Take Away from This Shoot

Learning to light dramatically or looking for "dramatic" light from everyday sources like lamps and the sun is an essential skill for great portraiture.

You should also learn when to use. Some faces and concepts call for such lighting while others do not.

There are many ways to light and photograph the human face, experiment with dramatic lighting to see how it works for you. Keep an eye on the edges of your shadows and use light-positioning to control the look and mood of your image.

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