Dramatic Light Leaves Your Portraits Expressive and More Exciting


When people ask what makes a portrait stand out, there are quite a few answers. Concept is key, and so is location and background. Props can help a portrait pop. But the one answer that comes to my mind as the most important ingredient for a dramatic portrait is light.

Light can change a portrait from a photo of a beautiful person, to a beautiful photo of a person. Here are different natural lighting conditions that can create drama in your portraits.

1. Dramatic Backlight

There are few photos as dramatic as a backlit silhouette. With strong colors in the background and the right pose, a silhouette gives attractive strong contrast in values. Lines as the viewer perceives them are accentuated, making the portrait a drama to which the eye is drawn.

sunflower silhouette copyright Aloha Lavina

2. Strong light from above

Another strong contrast light is light that comes from a high sun, like at midday. Although some might say that midday is a bad time to shoot portraits, sometimes you will find that the strong contrasty light gives you more drama than soft early morning light. This strong contrast helps you create drama by making the highlights sharper. Positioning your subject where the light hits them in pleasing ways can turn a potentially harshly lit portrait into a gritty but gorgeous image.

portrait with environment copyright Aloha Lavina.

3. Strong Light from Above to Create Texture

A simple way to use contrasty light to your advantage is to use something to create patterns in the light. In this portrait, I positioned the model directly underneath overhead sunlight and gave her a weave hat. The holes in the weave of the hat created a pattern of light and shadow on her that gives the portrait an interesting texture.

patterns with light copyright Aloha Lavina.

4. Dappled Light

Dappled light is formed when there are leaves overhead, for instance. This portrait was made underneath some leaves, diffusing the light just a little, but creating harsh shadows. This sort of portrait is a bit difficult to expose, but with exposure compensation and metering on the middle values and some practice, you can pull it off.

dappled light on a portrait copyright Aloha Lavina.

5. Too Much Light

Overexposure results in a ‘high key’ photo. You can make a dramatic portrait using the exposure compensation function of your camera. Overexposing the background of a photo results in an unusual, subjective exposure that speaks drama. When making a high key portrait, be careful when you overexpose. You have to ensure that the details of the subject’s face are sharp, especially the eyes.

high key portrait copyright Aloha Lavina.

6.  Soft Light from Above

Even if the light is strong outdoors, you can create soft light from above if you position your model underneath a sort of shelter. The portrait below was taken around one in the afternoon, but there was a translucent window in the abandoned building, letting the strong light in but diffusing it considerably so the spotlight on the model became soft.

soft light from above portrait copyright Aloha Lavina.

If you don’t have a broken building with a translucent window, you can create this diffused spotlight. Place a white sheet or diffuser above the model, between him or her and the light source, and you’ve got a low cost solution to create soft light.

7. Directional Light

Mornings are great for soft, directional light. Lighting your subject with the morning light can create a dramatic portrait. In this photo, the model faced the rising sun.

directional light on portrait copyright Aloha Lavina.

Light can change the way a resulting portrait looks, changing its impact on the viewer. If you want to create drama in your portraits there are few other elements that can make such a big difference as how you use light.

About Author

Aloha Lavina is an Asia based photographer and writer whose photographs and writing have appeared in CNNTravel, Canon PhotoYou Magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Korea Times, and several books. You can see her work at her website and follow her on her blog.

These portrait photographs are absolutely breathtaking. I think these images are stunning because of the thought you put into the lighting. Thanks for another great article.

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