Dramatic Portrait Light

There’s an old adage about portraiture: If you want an interesting portrait, don’t light the entire subject. In other words, you can create interesting lighting by creating interesting shadows. And when it comes to shadows, keep this adage in mind: Shadows are the soul of the picture.

Here’s something else important to keep in mind when it comes to light and shadows. A photograph isn’t a picture of an object. It’s a picture of light on a subject. Creative lighting is often the quick fix for a boring portrait.


Here’s a shot that illustrates boring lighting, as well as a boring pose.

To create the much more dramatic image, I set up two Westcott Ice Lights, one in front of the model to light her face and one behind the model as a hair/separation light. I dialed down the natural light exposure so the added lights became the main lights and created shadows.

To add extra interest to the photograph, I used what’s called the disequilibrium effect, tilting the camera down to the side, which puts the equilibrium of the image off just a bit. I also got closer to the subject. When it comes to people photography, the closer you are to the subject, the more intimate the photograph becomes. I photographed the model with my Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Canon 24-105mm lens set at 24mm for a wide perspective. Of course, the other factor that improved the photo is the much cooler pose.

For both photographs, I had my ISO set at 4000. That relatively high ISO setting was required for a handheld shot due to the low light. My original file did have a bit of noise. I removed the noise with Topaz DeNoise, just one of several plug-ins that are available for noise reduction. Newer versions of Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw also do a good job of reducing noise.

As an aside, my dad had a wonderful expression about noise. If a picture is so boring that you notice the noise, it’s a boring picture.


Hey, one of the reasons why you’re reading Digital Photo magazine is because you like how digital effects can enhance a photograph. I’m with you. As much as I may like an image, any image, I usually experiment with plug-ins to see how they can make it even more creative. For this photo, I applied the Duplex filter in Nik Color Efex Pro and then added a digital frame using Image Borders. Explore plug-ins—they can help to awaken the artist within.

So, play with light for a quick fix for boring portraits, and remember, shadows are your friend!

Our friend Rick Sammon has been writing for this magazine for more than 10 years. Visit with Rick at ricksammon.com to learn more about digital imaging.

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