How to use light, shadows and highlights for dramatic portrait lighting – Part 1

Jan 21, 2020

Barry Mountford

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

How to use light, shadows and highlights for dramatic portrait lighting – Part 1

Jan 21, 2020

Barry Mountford

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Hey, folks! Its a brand new year and one I am pumped for! 2020 is gonna be another great year! To kick this new decade off, I wanted to share with you some lighting setups and behind the scenes from a portrait session where we tried out a few different setups, if you prefer to watch the video you can check it out above.

I wanted to start with this image as its very achievable for most and its a great look! Light, Shadow, and highlight. Always a great combination for creating portraits from a lighting point of view, but this is the interesting part, changing the intensity of the highlight or the tone in the shadows whilst maintaining the exposure can produce a different feel to an image from being dramatic to soft and subtle and that is what is so intriguing about photography, we all have our own taste in lighting and this is what makes photography so exciting and the more we share information on how images are created the more it evolves, grows and intensify the urge to pick up a camera and explore it all over again!

Ok before we dive into this you can achieve this look with simple lights (speedlights, etc) I will list all the gear I have used at the bottom of this post so don’t get to hung up on gear, the position of the lighting is more important, especially as I am working in a very small studio space.

So let’s break down this image, My starting point is the background light, I position a standard reflector roughly about 2ft away from the background to create a ball of light behind the subject, I have a 60-degree grid fitted as I preferred the amount of spread it produces at this distance, you can fine-tune this to your desired look by simply moving the light closer to the background ( making the ball of light smaller) or further away (making the ball of light bigger).

Once I am happy with the position of the background light and its lighting up some of the lovely textures in my Artery hand-painted backdrop, the next step is to create that strip of light coming down Ashleigh’s face. Now, there are a couple of ways you can achieve this and the most inexpensive way is to make a slit in some black card or paper and fire a light through that creating a strip of light on your subject, the only problem with this is it’s cumbersome and you don’t have a whole load of control over the light. To make this setup more efficient and more effective I am using an optical snoot from Pixapro a great tool that allows you to add different shaped gobos easily and quickly allowing for a very effective way to create this look.

To make the most of this modifier, I recommend you use a strobe with a modeling light this way we can see where the shape of the light will fall on your subject, you can use it without but that will slow the process down.

Positioning of the slit of light comes down to taste, I wanted the light illuminating one eye and the side of her arm now the reason I use this optical snoot is it allows you full control over the shadows, you use the lens to focus the light which can produce either a very defined shadow line or a very diffused one again this comes down to taste.

The next step was to add a hair light this is placed directly behind and above our model and fitted with a standard reflector, the intensity of the light comes down to how harsh or soft you want it to look, I always feel the harsher the light the more dramatic it looks. Either way, it has a great impact on any image.

Using the hair light gives great separation from the background. With all three lights in position, I wanted to use the hair light and bounce some of that light back into our model to lift the shadows slightly and this was simply achieved using a 5 in 1 reflector to reflect some of that light back in.

Its a subtle effect but does enough to lift those shadows.

With everything in position we can now get our shot, I haven’t metered for the light as I shoot tethered to my laptop this way I just adjust the exposure accordingly as I see the images on screen, I also shoot raw so I develop the image in photoshop mainly saturation, contrast and sharpening are adjust as well as a tweak to the colour temperature.

So there you go folks, I hope you find this post useful. If you do, consider subscribing to the YouTube channel, as there will be more episodes following.

The gear I used:

About the Author

Barry Mountford is a portrait photographer based in Gateshead, England. For more of his work, check out his website, follow him on Twitter and Instagram and subscribe to his YouTube channel. To get in touch, you can look him up on Facebook. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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2 responses to “How to use light, shadows and highlights for dramatic portrait lighting – Part 1”

  1. Mark Nycz Avatar
    Mark Nycz

    It just looks like something was in the way of your flash ?

  2. Marciano Kluivert Avatar
    Marciano Kluivert

    Or flags!