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How to Use Dramatic Lighting Techniques for Portraits

Learn how to use dramatic lighting techniques from professional photographer Joe Sinnott in this Howcast portrait photography tutorial.


I'm Joe. I teach photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I'm going to talk about dramatic portrait lighting techniques.

The first one you'll look at right here is called loop lighting and it's known for the sort of loop shaped shadow that it creates underneath the nose. It's a relatively flattering kind of light for most people because it lights most of the face.

To set up for loop lighting, you take one strong direct light with no diffusion in front of it. Maybe scrim off the sides a little bit so it doesn't spill out to the rest of your space. You move it up and to the side that's a little bit away from the direction your subject is facing.

So Syd, turn your face a little bit to the right. So you see that the light is coming in from this side but Syd is actually facing this way.

You want it about anywhere between about 25 and 60 degrees above your subject, and then you're ready to shoot.

Just turn your body to your left and your face to your right and your chin down very slightly. Very nice. And move the hair back from your left eye a little bit.

It gives a little drama on the one side of the face while still giving, while still lighting most of the face.

Rembrandt lighting is very similar to loop lighting except the light, you move the light a little bit higher and a little bit more over to the side, away from the direction your subject is facing in. So usually you can tell you've got it right because you get this sort of triangle shaped shadow right underneath the eye here.

Eyes on me, Syd. Turn a tiny bit to the right so that you're, yeah yeah, yeah yeah, that's great. Lift your chin a very little bit.

Usually, if you're doing it right, you get just a little bit of a highlight in the eye that's away from your light source.

Lift your chin a little more. Little more. There, right there. That's terrific. Roll your left shoulder back a little bit. Very nice. And lean towards me just a tad. Very dramatic. Oh, the drama.

Butterfly lighting pretty evenly lights the entire face without creating a strong shadow on one side or the other. It gets its name from the fact that you get this butterfly shaped shadow right underneath the nose.

You make this happen by getting the light right behind you so that it's literally right over your head and shining straight into your subject's face but from high on an angle facing down.

Much like the other types of lighting, somewhere in that 30 to 60 degree arc range, depending on how far back you have to move it from the subject and how much ceiling light you have to work with.

Turn your head a tiny bit to your right. Very nice.

With side lighting, you set the light at a 90 degree angle to your subject so that it's illuminating one side of the face, and the other side of the face is completely in stark shadow.

Make sure to put something, I used cinefoil, which you can get at any decent photo store. But you could also just put a big black card or something over here to make sure the light doesn't spill right into your lens and cause flair. With the light forward like this, it's very easy to get the light right into your lens. And flair makes your pictures look kind of flat and fuzzy and out of focus.

With the light shining right on the side of my subject's face, you see how the shadow gets very, very deep on this side. Fortunately with side lighting, it's very, very easy to open up that shadow if you want. All you have to do is take a reflector or a piece of white cardboard or something like that on this side, and move it in if you want the shadow opened up more, or move it back if you want the shadow to be a little bit darker with more drama.

Very nice. Move the hair back for me on the right just a little bit. Very good. Lift your chin just a little. Turn your head slightly right. Very nice.

Now bring that reflector in just a bit to open up that shadow for me. A little more. Even more. Now pull it out again.

Lift your chin a bit, Syd. That's terrific.

And those are four different dramatic lighting techniques that you can use for shooting portraits.

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