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Shooting an Atmospheric Dark Alley Photograph


Experimentation is one of the most important skills when learning photography. Trying different lighting techniques and camera settings is one of the best ways to create compelling images. In addition, you do not need expensive equipment to produce interesting photographs. In this photograph, I took a photo of one my close friends in a dark alley near our place. He had an idea of looking like a gangster and I wanted to experiment with lighting and style. The tutorial explains the process and result of our photoshoot.

NB. The actor in this photograph is depicted smoking a cigarette. We want to point out that this isn't something we would endorse, or recommend you do to achieve the same effect! It's no problem to create the atmospheric alley shot without a cigarette, and you're always better off using a prop than the real thing.

In this tutorial, we will try to achieve this atmospheric imagery. I called it the "Dark Alley Photograph" simply because I took it at our dark back alley. My good German friend, Manu, became my model for this shoot. I experimented with lighting, black and white techniques and high ISO settings. For post processing, I used Adobe Lightroom. I love it because of the easy workflow and the fast rendering of images.


A great amount of the work in taking photographs centres around preparation. Often, photographers are looked upon as having a glamorous job where they travel the world, meet beautiful models, and occasionally click their camera. That is hardly the case! Sometimes it does have its perks, but it is definitely a lot of hard work. A great deal of planning comes into play when doing shoots. Visualising the final image, camera and lens choice, lighting, model choice and location are just a few of the things you as a photographer should consider before doing a shoot.

Step 1: Brainstorming

Before doing any photo shoot, you must have a clear idea what you want. My friend had an idea of looking like a gangster. And I wanted to experiment with lighting and style. For this photograph, I visualized the final image in my head. I wanted the photo to have a very distinct contrast between the shadows and the lights. I wanted to experiment at night time. I wanted the photo to have a feel of roughness. I imagined someone smoking a cigarette (we recommend a prop!), feeling like a gangster boss. I wanted to convey the image of being bad while looking good. Here is the result of my initial sketch. Please don't laugh - drawing is not one of my best qualities. I am sure you get the idea of visualizing your idea!

atmospheric photography

Step 2: Chosing the Location

After brainstorming for ideas, scout for the location of the shoot. This is a photo of the location we chose for the shoot. Its dark, dirty and wet. It really fit the idea we had for the image we wanted to get.

atmospheric photography

Step 3: Chosing the Equipment

Select a camera of your choice (even a simple point and shoot camera will do). But for this experiment, I just used my Nikon D60. If you are using a DLSR, just use an 18-55 mm lens.

atmospheric photography

Step 4: Lighting Prepartion

Since I decided to take this photo at a nearby public alleyway, it was very difficult to get a power source for the lighting equipment. I had to improvise on the lighting. I just used the headlight of my friends car to create a very strong shadow on my friend's face.

atmospheric photography

Step 5: Night Photography Tips

Although, this does not apply to this tutorial, it's generally the case that you'll need to deal with longer shutter speeds at night. For this reason, it's always worth having a tripod ready if need be. One of my favorite photographers who specializes in High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is Trey Ratcliff. If there is one piece of advice that I learned from him it's is "if you are going out to take beautiful pictures, you better get serious, bring a tripod". Here is a night time photo from his amazing portfolio:

atmospheric photography

Step 6: Setting up the Camera

For this creative shot, we won't be using any flash. Just crank up the ISO to 1600 to compensate for the low light conditions. Take note - increasing the ISO will make the photo very grainy or noisy. This is fine. This helps show the smoke better in our particular ase. Now, set your aperture setting to f 5.0 with a shutter speed of around 1/5 sec.

atmospheric photography

Step 7: A Visual Diagram

Here is a visual diagram on how I took this shot. Have your model position himself or herself in front of your light source. It will create a very sharp shadow on the side of your model. Have your model smoke the cigarette (or use some form of smoke prop) and blow out the smoke on the side to create the foggy or hazy effect. Now, take the shot.

atmospheric photography

Step 8: The Final Shot

Once you have taken the picture, this is the type of image we should have. However, conditions may vary as we cannot control the flow of the smoke. What is important is that we have a sharp contrast between the light and dark. Note: to incorporate the concept of the "bad gangster boss", I lowered myself to a 45 degree angle so that it emphasizes the idea of superiority.

atmospheric photography

Step 9: Start Post Processing

Once you're finished with the shoot, open Adobe Lightroom and import the photo that you just took. Dragging and dropping it to Adobe Lightroom also does the trick. Once it is imported, go to the Develop tab on top and we will begin post processing the photo.

Step 10: White Balance

Set your white balance at something similar to the following. Lower the temperature to -17 and lower your tint to -65. This will initially create a cooler image:

atmospheric photography

Step 11: Adjusting the Exposure

Next, you may need to adjust the exposure. This will affect the highlight in the image, particularly the face and the light on the wall. Set the exposure to +1.15. After adjusting the Exposure, next is to adjust the "black" slider. Set the slider to 28. This helps to create the overall contrast in the image.

atmospheric photography

Step 12: Brightness and Contrast

After we have adjusted the exposure, the next step is to experiment with the midtones. In Lightroom, we can do that by adjust thing brightness and contrast. Set your brightness to +59 and your contrast to +9. This will create a greater distinction between the light and the dark in the image.

atmospheric photography

Step 13: Desaturation

After adjusting the brightness and contrast, we will desaturate the whole image to make it look black and white. Go to the saturation slider and push it all the way down to -100. This will convert the entire image into black and white.

atmospheric photography

Step 14: Adding Drama

Now that we have achieved the black and white image, we will tweak it to add more overall drama. We will do this by adjusting the tone curves. Tone curves in Lightroom basically represent changes in the tonal scale of a photo. If the curve goes up, the lighter the tone; if it moves down, it becomes darker. Let us adjust the dark slider by pushing it down to -3 and add more shadows by adjusting the shadows to -14.

atmospheric photography

Step 15: Adjusting Subtle Details

The final step is to adjust slight details in the photography through sharpening and noise reduction. First, adjust the amount of sharpening to +25. Next, increase the detail to +50. This will help bring out the light and details from the smoke. Make sure that the luminance is at 0 to create that grainy imagery. This concludes the post processing work for the black and white. Alternatively, utilizing the same photograph, we can create a different effect by creating a vignette around our model's face. Just follow the next steps.

atmospheric photography

Step 16: Adding a Vignette

Go back to your develop settings and go the basic tab. Adjust the following settings: set the temperature to -17 and the tint to -65. This will cool the entire photo. Then adjust the exposure to +1.58 and move the black slider to 28. Next is adjust the brightness to +59 and the contrast to +9. Pump up the clarity to +100. This will bring out the grainy style of the image. Push down the saturation to -91.

atmospheric photography

The next step is to adjust the tone curve. Go to the dark slider and adjust it to -13 and the shadow slider to -14. This will create a strong contrast on the image.

We will create the greenish color by split toning the image. Move the slider for the hue to 57 and the saturation to 15 for the highlights option. Do the same for the shadows option -- hue 57 and saturation 15.

For the final step, we add the vignette to the image. It is a subtle effect that helps our eyes zoom into the center of the image. Adjust the amount and midpoint in the lens corrections to -85 and 34, respectively. In this way, we're helping to create a single point of interest.

The Final Image

Here's the final effect with the colouring and vignette added:

atmospheric photography

I hope you've enjoyed this simple tutorial, and remember that the values I've provided worked well for my image - you may find better results experimenting with your own alterations. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. I would be more than happy to answer them!

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