Photography Lighting

10 Ways to Create Dramatic Lighting in Portraits

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Written By Nate Torres

In this guide, I’ll be covering everything you need to know about dramatic lighting in photography.

After reading this guide, you’ll understand what dramatic lighting is, how to use it in portraits, why dramatic lighting is important, and lots more!

Let’s dive in!

What Is Dramatic Lighting?

Think of a scene with shadows and bright spots that seem to dance and create a riveting interplay of light and darkness – that’s what dramatic lighting photography encapsulates.

Along with adding considerable depth to the photograph, it helps conjure up an atmosphere of contrast, interest, and mood.

Let’s illustrate this with a simple analogy. Imagine you are at a stage show. The three main elements of dramatic lighting – hard light, soft light, and the golden hour – are like the main actors of the show.

Hard light, like a fiery protagonist, comes from small or distant sources, creating stark contrasts and deep shadows. It’s the kind of sunlight you get at noon: direct and intense.

Now, let’s consider soft light. It’s like a calmer, softer character in our play, produced by large light sources or reflected light.

It transitions more gently from light to shadow, lending a softer, more atmospheric quality to the light. The role of soft light is similar to the dimmed lights at a romantic dinner, filling the room with a gentle, diffused glow.

And the golden hour? Ah, it’s the special guest star, arriving and leaving just once each day.

This hour before sunset and after sunrise brings with it a light that’s perfect for creating magic – soft, warm, and brilliantly distinctive.

But, how do you control or shape these light conditions? That’s where light modifiers come in handy – these are your crew, working behind the scenes.

They include grids, snoots, and barn doors that affect the spread and direction of light, similar to how the stage crew use props and curtains to create atmosphere during our play.

You can also strategically place your key light, akin to directing a spotlight on an actor, to create patterned light or shadows on the subject’s face.

Or let’s consider techniques like split lighting and Rembrandt lighting – these are your directions and stage cues, helping you to create dramatic portraits that could be as breathtaking as an operatic climax.

Remember, the lights and shadows created by using these techniques act somewhat like a story, with contrasts and patterns forming the plot twists.

These can be amplified by postprocessing effects in software like Lightroom or Photoshop, tweaking the brightness, contrast, and even color toning. It’s like editing a film to make it just perfect.

So you see, dramatic lighting photography is all about managing and manipulating light.

Just as a playwright orchestrates different elements to support and enhance the story, a photographer uses light to create a compelling narrative in their images. Enjoy the play!

dramatic lighting
dramatic lighting

10 Ways to Create Dramatic Lighting in Portraits

How can one achieve dramatic lighting effects in photography, you ask? There are several intriguing ways to accomplish this, and let me tell you, it’s a gamechanger.

Creating drama with light is all about contrast, intrigue, and mood.

When done right, it can make your photos stand out and tell a story in a way words just can’t.

Here are the 10 ways I like to create dramatic lighting in portraits:

1. Rembrandt Triangle

The first way to create dramatic lighting is with the Rembrandt Triangle.

To enhance the drama in your portraits, aimt for the Rembrandt triangle which is a small triangle of light on the shadowed side of the face.

In order to get this type of lighting, you’ll need to position your key light at a 45-degree angle to your subject’s face (the angle in between a front light and side light).

If done correctly, your subject will have a triangle-shaped shadow on their cheek.

If you have it around 30-45 degrees then that will create more of a loop lighting effect.

rembrandt lighting
Rembrandt lighting

2. Split Lighting

The second way to create dramatic lighting is with split lighting.

In order to get split lighting, you’ll want to place your key light directly to the side of the subject for a side lighting effect.

By placing your key light directly to the side, this will illuminate one half of your subject’s face while leaving the other half in shadow (given you aren’t in a very bright environment).

The split of light and shadow will create a striking contrast between light and dark and add a sense of drama.

split lighting for drama
split lighting for drama

3. High Contrast Lighting

The third way to create dramatic lighting in portraits is with high contrast lighting.

You’ll want to use strong, directional lighting which will create pronounced shadows and highlights.

Most lighting in this list is directional lighting, but the keyword here is “strong.”

If it isn’t strong then there won’t be as much contrast to emphasize facial features and textures — which will add drama.

4. Backlighting

The fourth way to create dramatic lighting in portraits is with backlighting.

Backlighting is achieved when you position your light source behind your subject, facing towards the camera.

Backlighting creates a silhouette effect that highlights the edges of your subject which results in a dramatic and bold look.

backlighting for drama
backlighting for drama

5. Rim Lighting

The fifth way to create dramatic lighting in portraits is with rim lighting.

Similar to backlighting, rim lighting is when you place your light source behind your subject. The only difference with rim lighting is that you place it slightly to the side as well.

By placing your light behind and slightly to the side (out of frame), you will create a narrow band of light around your subject’s head and shoulders.

This effect will help separate them from the background and add depth which helps contribute to the dramatic look.

rim lighting for drama
rim lighting for drama

6. Broad Lighting

The sixth way to create dramatic lighting in portraits is with broad lighting.

Broad lighting is accomplished by illuminating the broader side of your subject’s face when they turn slightly away from the camera.

The goal of this technique is to make your subject’s face appear wide which adds to the dramatic effect.

7. Low-Key Lighting

The seventh way to create dramatic lighting in portraits is with low-key lighting.

Low-key lighting is characterized by its use of deep shadows and a limited range of tones, creating a dramatic and moody atmosphere. It is the opposite of high key lighting.

In order to accomplish low-key lighting, you’ll want to opt for a dark or dimly lit environment which will lend itself to a nice, low-key light setting.

If you’re in a bright room, then you can also control the ambient light by closing curtains or shooting in a room with minimal light.

From there, you’ll want to have a single light source at a steep angle to the subject and make sure to set it to a lower intensity to prevent overexposure of highlights.

Remember, low-key lighting is all about the “lower keys” of tonal range so more of the blacks, shadows, and mid-tones and less of the highlights and whites.

Overall, low-key lighting is great for conveying emotion and mystery.

low key lighting for drama
low key lighting for drama

8. Colored Gels

The eighth way to create dramatic lighting in portraits is to use colored gels.

In order to effectively use colored gels, you’ll want to attach the colored gels to your light source.

The colored gels will cast colored light onto your subject and different color cominations can evoke specific moods and intensify drama.

For example, using cooler colors such as greens, blues, and purples you can create a more calm, moody look.

If you use warmer colors such as red, oranges, and yellows, you can create a more exciting look.

In both cases, mixing these colors with a dramatic lighting setup can create add to the sense of drama.

colored gels for drama
colored gels for drama

9. Hard Light with Dramatic Shadows

The ninth way to create dramatic lighting in portraits is to use hard light with dramatic shadows.

Using a smaller light source like a bare bulb or a focused flash will create sharp, harsh light.

Harsh light does a great job of creating very defined shadows and highlights.

10. Natural Light Drama

The tenth way to create dramatic lighting in portraits is to use natural light.

By utilizing the interplay of natural light and shadows during golden hour (early morning or late afternoon), or harsh midday sunlight, you can achieve the same effects that you would get with artifical lighting.

The key is to know the different light sources listed in this guide and then experiment with them in both artifical and natural light situations!

Each technique can yield different results based on factors like the subject’s features, the setting, and your equipment.

Adapt and combine these techniques to suit your artistic vision and the unique characteristics of each portrait session.

natural light for drama
natural light for drama

Why Is Dramatic Lighting Important In Photography?

Why is dramatic lighting important in photography, you ask?

Imagine walking into a brightly lit room with uniform intensity of light everywhere. It could be a standard conference room or anywhere else for that matter.

Now, in your mind, strip off the uniformity in the lighting, and replace it with strategically manipulated light, creating deep shadows here and contrasts there.

Suddenly, the same room takes on a different persona under the dramatic lighting.

It starts to tell a story; it’s no longer generic or mundane. The same holds true for photography.

Photography, at its core, is about storytelling. And dramatic lighting equips you with this incredible power to create different atmospheres and moods in your images.

It’s like you, as the photographer, is a sculptor, and light is your chisel.

With the correct use of hard light, soft light, or the divine golden hour, your images can truly radiate a lively feel.

Take, for instance, a dramatic portrait you are about to capture. Using a hard light can add an extraordinary degree of dimension and depth to your subject’s face.

You can create a patterned light on their face, making the image standout.

Now, if this hard light was a high contrast natural light source like direct sunlight, the resulting image could be even more dramatic.

There’s always the possibility of amplifying the drama by using postprocessing techniques such as dodge and burn, or even by adding color toning or vignettes in software like Lightroom or Photoshop.

Remember, it’s all about creating that emotional connection between the viewer and your image. These techniques directly contribute to fostering this connection.

Who Can Benefit From Learning About Dramatic Lighting Photography?

Virtually anyone with a passion for visual storytelling can gain from this knowledge, but particularly photographers ranging from beginners to professionals. Even hobbyists can enjoy delving into the complexities of dramatic lighting.

Think of it as learning to cook a five-star meal. At first, the number of ingredients (or in this case, lighting settings and options) might seem overwhelming.

But once you get the hang of it, the results are truly rewarding. The plate of food (or your photograph) transforms, offering an enticing visual feast full of contrasting flavors (or lighting effects).

Amateur Photographers

Suppose you’re an amateur photographer just entering the field. Learning about the intricacies of dramatic lighting—hard light, soft light, and the enchanting golden hour—can greatly improve the quality of your photos.

These elements of light can create an atmosphere of contrast, interest, and mood, much like a thrilling mystery novel inviting readers to turn the page.

Professional Photographers

Or perhaps you are a seasoned pro, consistently delivering top-tier work. Even so, experimenting with different light modifiers like grids, snoots, barn doors, umbrellas, and softboxes can open up a new world of creativity.

Tech Enthusiasts

And finally, let’s not forget you tech enthusiasts out there. You may already have a firm grasp on camera settings, but understanding how to properly adjust for hard or soft light can elevate your technical know-how.

In short, no matter where you are in your photography journey—from curious beginners to seasoned pros—mastering the art of dramatic lighting can help you create standout visuals that captivate viewers.

After all, photography is about painting with light, and understanding dramatic lighting can take your canvas to new, unexpected heights.

When Is The Best Time To Use Dramatic Lighting In Photography?

The use of dramatic lighting largely depends on the kind of emotion or atmosphere you wish to create in your photographs, rather than a specific time or situation.

Think of dramatic lighting as a spice in cooking. If you’re aiming for a bold and dramatic dish, you’d use robust spices, right?

The same concept applies to photography.

If you desire high contrast, intense shadows, and a mood-filled atmosphere in your images, then dramatic lighting is your go-to!

Take a golden hour, for example. The golden hour, one of the three main elements of dramatic lighting, occurs shortly after sunrise or just before sunset.

The soft and warm light during these times can paint your photographs with vibrant hues and elongated shadows, perfect for creating a dramatic atmosphere.

So, if you want to capture an enchanting portrait or a breathtaking landscape image, your best bet would be to shoot during the golden hour.

However, sometimes you might find yourself indoors without the gift of natural light. In these situations, you can create dramatic lighting with artificial sources and household objects.

Consider how a simple table lamp can transform into a light source producing high contrast and dramatic lighting, especially when using modifiers like grids, snoots, or barn doors.

Where Can One Find Inspiration For Dramatic Lighting Photography?

To truly master dramatic lighting, you need to think beyond the camera. Look around you. Pay attention to the natural play of light in your day-to-day life.

People often find inspiration in the most unexpected sources.

Observe Natural Light

For example, observe the sun at different times of the day – take note of the golden hour when the rich, warm, and dramatic light transforms everything it touches.

This isn’t called ‘photographers’ paradise’ for no reason!

It’s the time when hard light softens, creating a visual spectacle which can inspire anyone to capture its beauty.

Observe Artificial Light

Don’t forget to explore artificial sources too.

Now, imagine yourself in a room lit by a lamp in one corner. Do you see how the light creates a pool around itself while subtly illuminating the rest of the room?

That’s your crash course in understanding hard light and soft light. One gives you strong contrast with shadows and highlights, while the other creates a smooth and gradual transition.

It’s a simple yet powerful real-life illustration of how different types of light can create a variety of moods and atmospheres.

The light bulb in your living room, the fluorescent tube in your kitchen, or even the torch on your smartphone – they can all be your muse.

Experiment with different items around the house as modifiers – an umbrella, a piece of cardboard, or translucent curtains. Play around with their placement and distance from the light.

Study Photographers

Now that you’ve experienced the varying science of light, it’s time to study the art created by masters. Look at portraits with dramatic lighting created by professional photographers.

Pay attention to the techniques they have used to create interest, contrast, and mood, such as split lighting or Rembrandt lighting.

Learning from others’ work can be a great source of inspiration. Understand the reasoning behind their lighting choices – the way the rim lighting emphasizes the shape of the subject, or how side lighting brings out the texture and depth.

Learn how they use post-processing techniques like dodge and burn, color toning, or adding vignettes to elevate the drama in their portraits.

Remember, your journey in learning dramatic lighting is a blend of finding your own style and incorporating professional techniques.