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Portrait Tips: Dramatic Light Made Simple

A simple and impactful way to make a portrait is to position your subject next to a window and in front of a dark background. With the proper exposure, your subject’s face will stand out starkly against the dark background with dramatic light coming in from the side. This is probably my favorite kind of portrait. But there’s one key that will either make the portrait striking or bland.

The Shady Nose

The thing that makes the picture look dramatic is the play of shadows and highlights across the face. See the highlight on the edge of the nose, next to the shadow on the nose, then the highlight on the cheek, then the shadow on the ear? Highlight, shadow, highlight, shadow. This is essential, so make sure the nose is in the shade.

Point the Nose, Place the Camera

To ensure you’ve got the shadows in the right place, just point your subject’s nose to the side of the light. If it’s pointing straight at the light, there won’t be a shadow. In this example, I asked Chelsea to look a little more to the right to get the shadow. If she looks farther to her left her whole face will be illuminated and lose the pattern of light.

Now, just move your camera to the right spot without moving her face. It’s a good idea to either get a complete profile or contain the nose within the outline of the far cheek.

Conclusion

This pattern of light-dark-light-dark is a classic way to light a portrait, and doing it on a dark background instills more drama. Using your camera’s black and white mode may make it easier to see the play of light. I’d love to see your results!

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.

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