Dramatic Portrait Lighting For Photographers

Zach Ancell, photographerThis is a guest post by Zach Ancell. Please stop by his site to see more of his images, www.zachancell.com, and visit my blog, www.zachancellblog.com, if you want to pick up on some more of his tricks. They are both very new sites so he’s in the process of getting a bunch of content up (mainly more tutorials and info on his blog). If you keep checking back, you’ll see new tutorials and information that I think will help you all become better photographers. You can also email him at zach@zachancell.com if you have any further questions.

Photography is translated from the Greek roots phos (light) and graphis (paintbrush). I’m sure it comes as no surprise to any of you that the word photography means painting with light (I’m sure you’ve all heard this a million times). Well, this means not matter what type of photographer you are, when you pick up your camera, you’re using some sort of light.

Light can come from various sources such as the sun, strobes and speedlights. Ambient light is one of the more natural ways to light a subject but you can have so much more fun when playing around with “artificial” lighting. In my mind, light is light no matter what the source is so that’s the last time you’ll hear me refer to it as “artificial.”

For many photographers, strobes and speedlights can be one of the most intimidating factors to incorporate into your photography. Okay, well maybe I’m making some grand assumption but at least that’s how it was for me. I started out trying to do everything possible to avoid using strobes. Lighting a subject was something so foreign and different to me that I felt like it would be impossible to comprehend.

But, up to this point, I’ve learned one simple thing about photography. You’ll never create anything extraordinary if you don’t experiment and try new things. I am by no means trying to get you believe that I’m a master of lighting, I just know how I light my subjects the way that I do and that’s what I’m here to teach you.

For the most part, I stick with two basic lighting approaches: a single strobe approach and a triple strobe approach. Each approach involves using Nikon Speedlights (but any speedlights will work as well as studio strobes) and various light modifiers. Don’t worry, it’s nothing complex and I’ll walk you through the steps and give you an example of a photo I’ve shot using one of these two techniques.

Single Strobe (Beauty Dish)

One Light Setup

This is one of the simplest lighting setups but creates beautifully dramatic images. As you can tell from the diagram above, you are using a beauty dish for your light modifier. This can be easily mimicked with an octobox or a softbox but the only difference with a softbox is you won’t get the circular catch lights in the subject’s eyes.

You want to place the beauty dish a little above the subject’s head pointing down and only about 2 or 3 feet away. Basically, put your light modifier as close to the subject as you can without it imposing on your image.

This will give you that nice lighting that wraps around under the nose and trials off towards the bottom and top of the image. You want the center of the dish/softbox/octobox pointing directly to the center of your subjects face (their nose).

As far as power levels go, play around with it. I usually shoot at around f/8 and at a shutter speed of 125 to 250 (pushing the boundary of the max sync speed of most cameras and pocketwizards). I don’t worry about a light meter because I know how I want my image to look.

To keep the image dark and dramatic, don’t dial up your power too much. You want to keep it low and just enough to light up the face (but not to the extent you would for a beauty shot). Being a photographer is about being artistic and creative so have some fun with it. If I told you there were an exact shutter speed, aperture, ISO and flash power to get exactly this shot, there would be no creativity involved.

This is the most simple lighting I use and I use it instead of my three light if I need the subject to put their hands up, or have something covering the sides of their face (this will make more sense in a moment).

This one light setup will give you lighting like this:

One Light Portrait

This isn’t straight out of the camera but you can see where the light has fallen and how it tapers off away from the center (his nose).

From there, with a little composite work, you can achieve a look like this:

One Light Setup Composite

* This setup you can also shoot from underneath the beauty dish to get a head-on shot of your subject. *

Triple Strobe (Two Softboxes and a Beauty Dish)

Three Light Setup

This is the lighting style that Joel Grimes uses in a ton of his work and I actually got a chance to go to his workshop and learn a lot more about how it’s done.

As the title implies, this setup involves using three lights. I use 4 SB-600’s and a SB-800 to do this. I pair up my SB-600’s to get a little more power and shoot through two Lastolite Ezyboxes. Then, I use a SB-800 and shot into my beauty dish (like I do for my one light setup).

You want to place the two softboxes equal distance apart from the subject but the distance is dependent upon what you want to happen. The further away form the subject they are, the harsher the light is going to be. There’s nothing wrong with harsh light (I love it in fact) but be aware that you need enough power to make this happen. The closer the lights, the softer the light will be. Think about your subject and decide what type of lighting best works for them. I work with a lot of athletes and that requires a more harsh light but when working with a model, I want the light a lot softer. Position the beauty dish overhead like in the previous setup but pull it back so it’s about 6 to 10 feet away from the subject.

Now that we’ve got the placement down, now we have to worry about the power. Like I mentioned in the one-light, I like to shoot at f/8 or somewhere around there. KEEP THAT CONSTANT. Pick the aperture you want to shoot at and stick with it. From there, you can play around with the shutter speed (once again, I’m usually around 125 to 250) and then you can worry about your lights.

My two softboxes I always shoot at full power when using speedlights (1/2 power on each flash and since I pair them up that’s full power). If you are working with studio strobes, Joel recommends shooting it overexposed by a stop and then the beauty dish at a stop underexposed. Worry about your sidelights first and once you have those lighting the subject the way you want, you can work on your beauty dish. You want the beauty dish to light the subject up a bit but don’t overpower the sidelights. If you do, you’ll ruin the drama of the image.

One HUGE thing to be aware of is the fact that any props, hoods, arms or hands to the side of the subjects face will cast shadows and ruin this look. But, as I have done many times, you can shift the lights forward a little to avoid this mishap. Once again, it’s about playing around with the lights and having fun with the creative process.

This lighting setup can give you an image like this:

Three Light Setup Example

This is another one that’s not straight out of the camera but you can see where the light is coming from and where it is hitting the subject. The key to this is creating those harsh transitions from where he is lit to where he isn’t. You want to emphasize the shadows and create a very contrasty image.

In this image, look at the subjects face. You can see the harsh transition from the highlights on the side of his face to the dark shadows in the middle. That’s a result of pulling those sidelights further away and creating the harsh light. For a model, pull those lights in and you’ll see the transition become smoother.

Wrap Up

My biggest advice for all of you is to take your camera, your flash equipment and a friend, and go try these setups out. Try the three-light with the sidelights far and close to the subject. See what the difference looks like and know what to look for when you are actually on a shoot. Play around with the one light and shoot from underneath the beauty dish, above and to the sides. Photography is all about the creative process and playing around.

I hope this has helped some of you gain a better understanding of the lighting setups I use to create the images that I do. Like I mentioned at the start, these images are all about the lighting. The post processing doesn’t work on images that don’t have the highlights and shadows. So although I haven’t given you everything you need to create images like these, you are well on your way.

It’s an honor and a great opportunity to share what I know to other photographers. I learned photography by reading online about how other photographers do what they do and now I hope I can help out others.

Please do share your comments below!

Seshu | Editor, Curator & Publisher
Seshu is an Avon, Connecticut based family photographer who creates intimate, sentimental and natural portraits for families who want to celebrate the love they have for each other. He also edits and publishes Tiffinbox, yep, this very blog you are reading now!
Seshu | Editor, Curator & Publisher


As a photographer, I'm intrigued by how families and children express themselves. I also publish http://t.co/9AnpqWjYfm, a blog for inspired photographers.
Read this now >>>>> @Ed Kashi on the future of photojournalism http://t.co/rXX9KwdxbN - 1 hour ago
Seshu | Editor, Curator & Publisher
Seshu | Editor, Curator & Publisher

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  • http://www.mikepanic.com Mike Panic

    I might try the first setup with a ring flash instead of a beauty dish – thanks for the idea!

  • dawn

    hi, i am very new at studio lighting. I recently inherited a small home studio set up and camera .I am physically disabled, and was given this because someone thought i had the talent. And knew i needed a chance at something to help myself.
    I know i can take good photos if i could only learn the studio process. I am crumbling under the pressure of trying to learn this process to subsidize my income. I am searching the web day and night trying to take in all i can learn,
    Your drawings of where the lights go for such a dramatic look is exactly what i was looking for. I prefer very dramatic lighting. compared to the stark look.

    Thank you for your suggestions. I have this bookmarked. I need all the help i can get. I have yet to get one portrait in the studio yet. I am very intimidated by it all. Again, thank you for sharing your knowledge and your beautiful photographs. They are so inspiring.
    Warmest Regards,

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  • PaulT

    In your first set up, I”m not sure why you have the camera at such an awkward angle in relationship to the background?
    The camera should be aimed at the background at or near a 90 degree angle, unless there is some thing, or effect in the background you are trying to show/create.
    The subject should pose in relationship to the camera and the key light should move in relationship to the subject.
    Otherwise, if the photographer is lacking control over the subject, she/he ends up moving all around the subject/set and loses control of the subject, the lighting, and the background.

    In the second set up, it is possible to do that and avoid getting the annoying highlights on either side of the nose. Set up the accent lights behind the subject facing each other. Scrim them off from the background to maintain control over background lighting, and then move the subject forwards and backwards in relationship to the lights to gain the desired effect. Then add your main light and meter/set power accordingly. Start with each individual sidelight/accent light at 1/2 stop below the main light and allow yourself the ability to raise or lower the power to avoid blowing out the sidelight/accent exposure.