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Dramatic Lighting

5 Tips for Using Dramatic Lighting in Photography

October 31, 2019

Every photographer needs to be familiar with an array of techniques. With dramatic lighting, photographers can create stunning photos that exude artistry and emotion. Often used in portrait photography, dramatic lighting can be achieved with everyday lights or specialized gear. Here are a few essential dramatic lighting tips to know.

5 Tips for Using Dramatic Lighting in Photography

  1. Consider Popular Dramatic Lighting Approaches
  2. Understand How to Create Hard Light
  3. Learn How to Create Patterned Light
  4. Emphasize Contrast in Your Photos
  5. Use Gels to Add Color and Drama

A photo that’s taken with dramatic lighting often conveys a serious or somber mood. Frequently, photographers set subjects against a dark background and may discourage smiling. Although that approach is widely popular, you can also see dramatic portraits set against a light background and conveying a joyful mood.

While photographs of people are common, you can apply dramatic lighting to any subject—even inanimate objects or pet photography. The contrast between light and dark can portray a dramatic feel in any photography portrait. Keep in mind that you don’t need to stick with black-and-white or a subdued palette when working with dramatic lighting. You can also use gels to change the colors of your lighting and bring vivid effects to every photo.

1. Consider Popular Dramatic Lighting Approaches

Before you start to experiment with dramatic lighting, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with some popular approaches.

  • Split Lighting: With this technique, your subject’s face will be divided into almost equal halves. Half of his or her face will be in the shadow, with the other half in the light. Black and white is an excellent choice for any photo taken with a split lighting technique.
  • Loop Lighting: This approach creates a loop-shaped shadow under your subject’s nose. To create this effect, you need to ensure that the shadow of the nose doesn’t touch the shadow on your subject’s cheek.
  • Rembrandt Lighting: Named after the famed painter, Rembrandt lighting creates a triangle of light on your subject’s cheek. This approach can add definition and a slimming effect on your subject’s face.
  • Short Lighting: With this technique, your subject angles his or her face towards the camera. Place the side of the face directed towards the camera in shadows to create a sculpted, 3D effect.
  • Low Key Lighting: Although low key lighting is a simple technique, it offers infinite possibilities to photographers of every skill level. You can recognize a low-key image by its dark colors and tones. The reduced lighting of a low-key image creates sharp contrast and an unmistakable mood.

In these techniques and others, the interplay of light and dark create a dramatic vibe. By learning about hard light, focused and patterned light, and contrast, you can practice replicating these popular dramatic lighting approaches.

Dramatic Lighting

2. Understand How to Create Hard Light

Understanding how to create hard light is fundamental if you want to explore dramatic portrait lighting. Simply put, hard lighting has minimal transition between areas of light and shade. You can create hard light by using distant light sources, small light sources, or both.

Keep in mind you don’t need artificial light sources for hard light. Since the sun is a distant light source, it can create hard light. However, you would need to go outside on a bright, sunny day with few clouds, since clouds diffuse sunlight and make soft light. Also, placing your subject in front of a sunny window is another way to create hard light.

You can use many small artificial light sources as well. Flash heads, continuous light, and strobe lights all work well for creating hard light. But you need to take care when using a modifier, as it can soften the light. However, you’ll typically find that the light from a flash or other source can spill everywhere and won’t create the lighting effects that you desire.

3. Learn How to Create Focused or Patterned Light

Specific dramatic lighting techniques involve focused or patterned light. Sometimes, you may want to focus light on a specific area of your image for dramatic effect. You may be able to adjust flash settings or use certain modifiers to create the lighting effects that you want.

For example, you can use a light modifier called a snoot to focus light in a specific area. A snoot is a tube or similar apparatus that fits over a flash or a studio light to control the direction of the light rays. Snoots come in several shapes, including rectangular or circular.

For another approach to hard light, try barn doors. This style of lighting modifier is very popular in film and video production. It allows more light to spill out and gives you more flexibility than a snoot. You can find barn doors in two-door or four-door configurations. When shooting, photographers may use barn doors over a single light source or over multiple lights. You can close all the doors to focus a very narrow beam of light or create thin strips of light over your subject.

Another tool to try is a grid. With a grid, you can restrict the light to a specific area. Many photographers find grids to be a versatile and affordable tool that can add value to any portrait photo shoot. You can use them to focus beams of light on your background, bring out details in your subject, or create a gradient of light. Having a grid in your photography toolkit can help you explore many new dramatic lighting ideas.

To create patterned light, you can position key lighting or a main light to cause specific shadow patterns to fall on your subject’s face. However, you don’t need to have special lighting fixtures to create patterned lighting effects.

For example, consider the dramatic effects that hard sunlight creates when in streams in through window blinds. Or head outside and look for patterns of light and shadow caused by natural light. With some observation and practice, you can explore dramatic lighting opportunities without any equipment other than your camera.

Dramatic Lighting

4. Emphasize Contrast in Your Photos

Dramatic lighting is all about the contrast between light and dark. While using hard light and accessories such as smoots, barn doors, or grids is one approach, there are other methods to create contrast in your images.

First, you do not need a fill light to fill in all the shadowy areas of a portrait. Instead, you want shadows to create more drama. You can, however, use negative fill to enhance contrast. What is negative fill? In a studio, a black reflector, such as a card or flag, placed on one side of your subject is an example of a negative fill that can help deepen shadows. When positioned correctly, a negative fill can add drama to low key photography or emphasize a subject’s shape.

You don’t need to be in a photography studio to use negative fill, however. If you are outside, position your subject near a tree or a dark structure. This approach will add negative fill and contrast and drama to your image.

Remember that you can also add contrast during post-production. While you can use the contrast slider, you may have better results if you manually adjust highlights and shadows. You can brighten whites and darken blacks to achieve the contrast that works best for your every photo.

5. Use Gels to Add Color and Drama

Moody black and white are an ever-popular photography style that you can emulate with dramatic lighting. But don’t limit yourself to monochrome photos. With gels, you can add vibrant color, yet achieve the same types of contrast and drama.

What are gels? They are thin colored sheets that you can place in front of light sources to change the color of the light. You can use a single gel or stack gels of the same color to deepen the hue. Or you can use two different colored gels to create a new shade. While gels are resistant to heat, they can burn with exposure to very high temperatures. Be sure to keep your gels away from hot bulbs and flashes.

Some photographers achieve artistic effects by placing one light source on a subject’s left and another on his or her right. You can use different colored gels on each light. Experiment with the positioning of your subject and the lights. Does having the lights behind your subject produce a more dramatic effect? Or do you prefer the look of having your subject in front of the lights?

With gels, you’ll likely find that your subject’s skin picks up the color of the gels instead of portraying a natural hue. Also, you can turn off one of the lights and observe the results. You can also experiment with pointing the lights towards the background vs. having them spill over your subject. When working with gels for the first time, you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of time to explore a range of possibilities. The more you learn, the more know-how you can bring to your next dramatic lighting photography session.

Dramatic Lighting

Dramatic Lighting Opens Up a World of New Photography Opportunities

At its essence, photography is the study of light. When people are first exploring the field, they often work with soft flat light and avoid dramatic lighting. However, as their photography practice matures, people often want to explore the intense mood and contrast that dramatic lighting can offer.

The good news is that you don’t need to wait to start learning about dramatic light. A keen eye can help you discover lighting situations that are perfect for dramatic photos. By using sunlight or window light, you can practice using bright light to illuminate your subjects. You can also use everyday lights and position them to illuminate part of a subject’s face while leaving the rest in the shadows. These simple techniques can help you understand how to use light to create contrast and take photos full of depth and drama.

As your skill in dramatic lighting grows, you may want to invest in lighting fixtures or accessories. A professional-grade lighting set up with a main light and key lighting can bring a big boost to your capabilities. However, you don’t need a fill light to light up shadowy areas since shadows give dramatic portraits their moody appeal. Other accessories to consider include modifiers such as snoots, barn doors, and grids. As with any new technique, you can learn a great deal through experimentation in dramatic lighting. You can also look for specialized photography contests to help you gain experience and feedback on your dramatic portrait photography.

Dramatic lighting has a rich history in photography and film. Often, people think of serious subjects and emotions when they imagine dramatic lighting. With dramatic lighting, you can do more than take a portrait—you can convey a mood or tell a story. In time, as you master dramatic lighting, you’ll recognize the power and potential of this essential photography technique.


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