Despite what many people prefer, portraits don’t have to be taken in bright light. Renowned portrait photographer, and a personal favourite of mine, Paolo Roversi, is well known for his portraits taken in subdued light. Obvious shadows and dark backgrounds add dramatic atmosphere to his imagery.
Dramatic light can enhance a portrait by creating mood, and is often found in black and white photographs where the two tones work together to force the viewer to visually concentrate on definition and form. However, using dramatic light for portraits involves breaking the rules of even exposure, by deliberately trying to create an interplay of light and darkness on your subject.
To do this you need strong directional hard light, rather than diffused light. This is created by pointing a light source (such as a strobe studio light) straight at your subject, or by positioning your subject right next to an open window, so that certain areas of the face are lit and others fall into shadow.
Shadows can be deep shadows that completely cover the subject’s facial features in black, but this will darken the hollows of eyes and make skin tones look cold. More subtle shadows can be created by softening the shadows without removing them completely, which allows certain facial features that fall into the highlights to be accentuated over others that fall into the darker areas. You should always try and inject some light into your subject’s eyes as catchlights though, as low light portraits appear very lifeless without them.
There are a few different types of dramatic light:
1) Split Lighting
Split lighting divides your subject’s face into halves, with one side fully lit, and the other side in shadow, like in the image below. This occurs when the light source falls on the subject directly from one side only. Window light is ideal for this, when you angle your subject so that the side of their face closest to the window is illuminated over the other side.
The more contrast there is between the brightness of the light source and the darkness in the space you’re shooting in, the stronger the split will be. This type of light can be very severe and interesting features such as a bend in someone’s nose, the outline of whiskers or the lines and texture of wrinkled skin, become the main focus.
2) Overhead Lighting
Overhead lighting means pointing your light source straight down onto your subject so that shadows naturally form in the sockets of the face underneath the eyes, nose and chin, like in the photo below. These shadows can help to shape and emphasise eyes, lips and cheekbones in beauty or editorial style photos, but they can be unflattering when they are so hard that they distract from the facial features you’re trying to draw attention to.
To lessen the intensity of the shadows in these sockets, using an external flash can help, but you don’t want to completely fill in the light. Make sure that the exposure is adequate, then drop your Speedlite’s power down a few stops if using manual mode, so that it’s not too bright, and fire. Often I find that just 1/8th or 1/16th power is enough to lessen the shadows of a subject that is standing at close range.
3) Backlight and partial silhouette
By placing your light source directly behind your subject in a dark room, you will create a silhouette, where the entire face is in shadow, not just certain parts of it. Of course having someone appear totally in shadow goes against the purpose of a portrait, so you need to try to ensure some of your subject’s face is lit, even if it is only a small area, like in the photo below.
You can do this by using a reflector and testing different distances at which it throws some light back onto your subject’s face without fully illuminating it. Having your subject look to the left or the right instead of directly at you will help the backlight to naturally shape their face and make some facial details visible.