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How to Create Dramatic Lighting in Portrait Photography

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

Light creates a mood in an image. But with dramatic lighting, photography jumps off the page.
Between flat lighting and dramatic lighting, it’s the latter image that stands out. A dramatic light creates contrast, interest, and mood. It will help you create attention-grabbing images.
Here’s what you should know about dramatic lighting in photography.
Atmospheric portrait of a female model using dramatic lighting techniques

What Makes a Light Dramatic?

Dramatic light is typically:

  • Hard light. Hard light has little transition between the light and dark areas of the image. The highlight areas abruptly transition into the shadow areas, with little gradient between them.
  • Focused or patterned. An image where every pixel is lit typically isn’t very dramatic. An image with dramatic lighting typically has light focused on one area of the image, but not the others. Light can be focused on just one small area, or can create a pattern in the image.
  • Full of contrast. Dramatic images tend to have both light and dark areas within the same image. In a black and white shot, dramatic images usually have a true black and a true white. Even in color, the image contains both dark and light tones.

Some images feel dramatic even without these elements. An image with soft light that’s full of contrast and patterned light may still feel dramatic.
Low key photography, for example, has a lot of blacks with less contrast. But it also tends to be dramatic.
In general, the light that’s hard, full of contrast and focused is more dramatic than light that’s not.
With more than one quality to dramatic light, understanding each element is key. It can help you build in the perfect amount of drama into the shot. Whether it’s a dramatic portrait or a landscape image.
Atmospheric portrait of a male model using dramatic lighting techniques

Dramatic Lighting: Creating Hard Light

Hard light has little transition between the highlight and shadow areas. The abrupt transition tends to feel more dramatic than soft light. This has a gradual transition.
Hard light is created from either small light sources, distant light sources, or both. The sun is a distant light source. Finding hard light is as simple as going outside on a sunny day.
Note though that clouds soften the light. The light also gets softer closer to sunset and sunrise during golden hour.
A window with the sun directly outside will also create hard light. If the sun is on a different side of the building, window light is soft.
Creating hard light is also relatively simple. Most artificial light sources are small. Strobe lights, continuous lights and flash heads are typically very small and create hard light.
Without a modifier, the light from those sources will be hard. The light will also spill everywhere. This is why learning how to create focused or patterned light is also important.
Atmospheric portrait of a male model using dramatic lighting techniques

Dramatic Lighting: Focused and Patterned Light

An unmodified flash creates hard light. But the light from a flash will also spill out over the entire scene without adjustments.
Creating light that’s only on a small area of the image adds more drama to a photograph. Using light modifiers — and sometimes, the flash settings — can help create a focused or patterned light.
A grid, snoot or barn doors will focus the wide spread of the light from a strobe or flash. It will create a narrow beam of light that’s closer to a spotlight.
Each type can be used to prevent the light from hitting the background (creating more contrast) or to draw attention to a specific part of the image.
While each one can focus the light, each accessory is used a bit differently. If you want to create light with a limited  spread, but still prefer the look of soft light, consider trying a beauty dish modifier.
Atmospheric portrait of a female photographer using dramatic lighting techniques
A grid looks much like the name suggests. It’s a grid or honeycomb pattern that you place directly over the light. The pattern restricts the light, creating a narrower beam. Grids are measured in degrees. A 10 degree grid will create a much tighter spot of light while a 40 degree grid will have a wider spread.
Grids are simple to use. Just place and then position the light. Make sure to get the right position since that restricted beam leaves less room for error.
A snoot is a collapsible cylinder. It’s placed over the light to create an even smaller circle of light. Think of a snoot as more of a spotlight effect. Snoots are available in different sizes based on the size of the opening for the light.
Barn doors work to create a narrower beam of light too. But they are more customizable than grids and snoots. This light modifier places four “doors” on each side of the light. You can open or close them to adjust the shape and size of the light.
With all four doors closed, the light is narrow like a snoot. But you can also close just two doors for a narrow strip of light. Or you can adjust each door individually for more variety.
The zoom setting on your flash can also play a role in how the light spreads. A higher zoom — like 105mm — creates a narrower spread of light than a lower setting, like 24mm.
In portrait photography, creating patterned light is typically done by placing the key light or main light so that it creates a specific pattern on the face. Think split lighting or Rembrandt.
But, that’s not the only way to create patterned light.
A rugby player standing on a sportfield shot with dramatic lighting photography
Patterned light can also be used in natural light photography. Practice looking for the pattern created by the light and shadows in the scene around you. See the shadows created by the goalposts in the football image above.
Hard sunlight streaming through window blinds also creates an interesting pattern that can create dramatic images.
Photographers can also mimic the effect by creating a DIY cardboard cutout or adding gaffers tape over a softbox. There are unlimited possibilities for creating a custom shape with DIY photography.
Atmospheric portrait of a femal model using dramatic lighting techniques

Dramatic Lighting: Contrast

Contrast refers to the difference between the darkest and lightest areas of the image. Using hard light and a modifier to prevent the light from also hitting the background helps create contrast. But there are also additional ways to create contrast in an image.
First, skip the fill light. Filling in the shadows creates less contrast and less drama.
You can also deepen the shadows by using a negative fill. Placing a black reflector on the shadow side of a portrait, for example, will deepen the shadows. That’s what the black side in the 5-in-one reflectors are for.
This technique is just like using a reflector. Instead of adding fill light, you use the black side to make sure no additional light is spilling into those shadows.
Finally, you can increase contrast in post-processing. Brightening the highlights/whites and darkening the shadows/blacks will naturally create more contrast. It tends to work better than simply using the contrast slider.
Using the HSL panel to lighten specific colors can also create a bit more contrast. Dodging and burning is another technique you can try.
Atmospheric portrait of a male model using dramatic lighting techniques

Conclusion

Creating dramatic lighting typically involves mixing hard light, focused or patterned light, and contrast. Dramatic images should have at least one of those elements. But the drama tends to increase the more elements that are tied in.
Look for dramatic natural light or use light modifiers and studio or flash lighting gear. Your images and portraits will stand out more.

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