During this dramatic lighting photography tutorial I’ll show how to take incredible photos by spotting the hallmarks in dynamic weather. You’ll also discover ways to create your own dramatic lighting at home too.
This will help you capture images that have more atmosphere, style and emotional impact to your audience.
When you are looking to capture dramatic images (of any subject matter) it’s important to remember two things in particular – the quality of the light and the direction. Both of these elements will dictate your camera position and settings.
Hard light is full of intensity and offers a strong contrast between light and dark. This fast transition from one to the other makes for a stark reaction in images. Whether you’re shooting colour or black and white it doesn’t really matter as well contrasted images, shot with hard light, will always look striking.
This is not to say that soft light can’t create dramatic photos but you’ll need to work more on the compositional aspect to enhance the atmosphere as soft lighting can look flat.
Where the light falls is important to consider too. Having your subject bathed full in hard light may not be the best option all the time. Sometimes disguising part of your subject in shadow creates more mood and atmosphere by posing questions of ‘why is it hidden?’.
If you’ve not studied contrast in photography before, don’t worry. When photographers say ‘contrast’ they are generally referring to the difference between the darkest and lightest areas of a photo.
Using one light source to illuminate your shot will give you the greatest amount of contrast as the subject will either be lit or not; there’s not much in between.
But you can go even further with the contrast by deepening the shadows. To do this you need to use a negative fill (sometimes photographers call these ‘flags’ or ‘kills’.) Place a black ‘reflector’ on the shadow side of a portrait will increase the shadows.
It doesn’t actually reflect any light but it just stops it from bouncing in other directions.
And if you feel that you need to increase contrast further then use the editing suite to do so. Don’t go too heavy on the contrast slider though as it can make colours look oversaturated and details become blocky and low quality.
If you prefer to use natural light for most of your photography you’ll be at the mercy of the weather to capture dramatic lighting.
Don’t let this put you off as there’s normally an opportunity most days to capture dramatic lighting photography. It may just mean you need to venture out at times (and in conditions) that may not seem ideal.
Early morning sunrises and evening sunsets, when the sun is low in the sky, casts long hard shadows providing there is no cloud cover. The strong colour temperature is something to exploit too in natural dramatic lighting. You’ll get oranges and purples as the sun rises and yellows and reds at sunset. Consider this colour cast as it’ll affect how your subject looks.
The magical time when the sun has just risen or is about to set is what photographers call the ‘Golden Hour’. This daily window offers dramatic lighting which is perfect for shooting beautiful portraits.
When the sun is low in the sky it bathes subjects in a warm glow, adding a gentle softness to a portrait or landscape photograph.
If you are shooting at golden hour, consider challenging yourself to backlighting your subject for that soft glowing halo effect as it emanates around your subject.
However, backlighting can be difficult to master because most digital cameras have a hard time working out how to expose the shot correctly. The best approach is expose for the sunlight. This may mean initially your subject looks underexposed, but you can fill in those shadows with a gold reflector or an off camera flash.
Shooting during storms is another way to capture dramatic lighting photography – but be careful. We’re not advising standing in the middle of an open field holding an umbrella and a camera for the sake of a cool shot!
But with that said stormy skies can be found regularly along the coastline with the actual storm miles away at sea. Incorporating foreground features such as beaches, headlines, lighthouses and docked boats can be a great way to add to the narrative of the shot.
Certain cloud arrangements look more dramatic than others. When the clouds are clumped closer and show a natural contrast in dark and light areas, get your camera out and start shooting.
If you’re more of an indoor photographer, studio shooter or won’t go out in bad weather then we can still help you capture dramatic lighting photography.
Dramatic lighting can be easily created using an off camera flash. It doesn’t have to be an expensive one either. A bare off camera flash creates hard light naturally, but you can take steps to modify it further to ensure it travels in the right direction intensifying the effect.
These adaptors are known as modifiers, and they help to create patterns in the shape and direction of a light. You can get continuous lights that work with modifiers – it’s not just a flash unit thing. Though for dramatic lighting photography a flash is best.
You can use 4 modifiers to create dramatic lighting in photography.
A snoot is a conical tube that filters light to create a tight spotlight effect. Think about the opening title sequence of a James Bond movie looking through the barrel of a gun – that’s similar to the snoot lighting effect.
Grids can be placed over a softbox to filter the light slightly (but with minimal effect from our experience. It’s designed to stop the light from spreading as wide after being diffused by the softbox. The smaller the pattern on the grid the stronger the effect will be.
Barn doors are flaps that cover the light. They’re used a lot in theatre lighting for the same effect – to direct the light. You can push two doors together to create a narrow slit of light that looks like light creeping through the crack of a door. It’s possible just to fold one door over to only let half the light shine with a solid line of shadow.
Deep dishes have a reflective inside to bounce the light around and direct it on to a subject. The deeper the dish the more funnelled the light will be. Shallower dishes will spread the light wider, losing intensity.
If you want to keep it simple and just use natural light indoors then all you’ll need is a bare bulb or a pair of curtains.
With curtains, wait for the sun to be shining hard through the window and pull them closed but leave a tiny gap in between them to create a slither of light. This effect looks great on a portrait as it can highlight one eye making the subject look mysterious.
Alternatively using a light bulb remove the shade and move it around your subject to create strong shadows in different places. Whichever approach to dramatic lighting photography at home you take what you’re looking for specifically is:
● Even lighting falling where you want it
● A quick transition from light to shadow
● That the exposure is even and highlights aren’t too bright.
● No hot spots (hot spots are obvious intense areas of bright light which are more obvious with smaller light sources such as bulbs and torches. The middle of these lights are brighter than the edges.)
The best ways to avoid hot spots when using small light sources are as follows;
● Move your subject away from the light source;
● Turn down the power of the light (if possible)
● Bounce the light off a reflector first
There are other ways to create dramatic lighting photography by adding coloured gels. Colour provokes an emotional response when used correctly.
When we talk about dramatic portrait photography or landscapes it doesn’t always mean stormy skies in black and white so let’s talk about colour for a bit.
Lighting gels are thin coloured sheets that you can place in front of light sources to change the colour of the light. You can get lighting gels for strobe heads, off camera flashes and even larger rolls which you could cut out and place over a windowpane if you are using natural light.
Though the gel sheets are thin you can stack multiple sheets to intensify the colour – this is a good idea if the light is soft as it can dissipate the colour otherwise.
Think about colour psychology and what colours evoke what type of emotions. For something dramatic and atmospheric it doesn’t always mean you need to use the darkest colour.
Drama can make us feel positive or negative. Here’s a list of colours and the type of emotional response we tend to feel when we see them;
● RED – Lust, Danger, Warning, Alarm
● BLUE – Loyal, Formal, Business, Royal
● GREEN – Environmental, Refreshing, Healthy
● YELLOW – Crazy, Exciting, Bold, Energetic
● WHITE – Purity, Innocent, Neutral, Positive, Clean, Safe
● PURPLE – Harmony, Peaceful, Relaxing, Soft
Use 2 gels at the same time but remember how complementary colours work when choosing 2 lighting gels that work together.
To create a dramatic portrait lighting remember that some colours falling on the skin will be more flattering than others. Greens and purples look odd, whereas reds, yellows and oranges can create a bold summery feel.
There’s not too much to consider when choosing your camera settings for dramatic lighting to be honest. There’s no special equipment you’ll need or any particular lighting reference tool – you just need to pay attention to the contrast.
To help with that a small aperture (around F/8 and smaller) will bring more details into focus and make the visual contrast appear stronger. While a shallow depth of field is great for isolating subjects (and this is common in portrait photography) it will soften the appearance of light outside of the focal plane.
Therefore, it’s better to use a wide depth of field to make the light, colour or skies appear crisper and more striking.
Remember to consider your shutter speed too. A slow shutter speed can make stormy clouds appear wispy and gentle so keep your shutter speed when shooting dramatic skies faster than 1/100th if shooting handheld.
Bolster the drama of the lighting with a good strong compositional take on your scene. Certain angles can over emphasise the feeling you may be looking to tell.
● Low angles can make stormy skies look bigger and more ominous.
● Dutch tilts can make action appear more dynamic and faster.
● Eye-Level points of view make portraits look more engaging with direct eye contact.
Read more about finding the best angle for your photo and what all the common types of photography angles are here.
After looking at all the tips and information in this dramatic lighting photography tutorial it’s time to boil down the learning. Here are 5 top tips for dramatic lighting to remember;
1. Choose the time of day right when shooting outdoors. Early mornings and sunsets are wonderful for golden hour portraits.
2. Get out to the coast during bad weather and shoot with seascapes with atmospheric skies.
3. Look at the contrast in the lighting. When it goes from dark to light quickly it could be a good spot for a dramatic photo.
4. Enhance your dramatic lighting with a suitable angle. Think about how the composition of your shot furthers the mood.
5. Try out our One Light Photography Tutorial to understand where to place your light source for dramatic lighting in portrait photography.
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