Portrait Tips: Deep Drama With One Light

This is a guest post from Levi Sim.


Every time you make portraits you should make one shot that pushes your limits or gives you a little thrill. The client may not like it, but it will help fill your soul. I usually use one light from the front to make portraits, but it’s amazing how much impact moving the light can have, and that’s the case with the following picture. It’s made with just one light, and it’s the kind of portrait I love to make even though I know my client probably won’t love it.

Big Light

To make this kind of lighting, you just need to get your subject very close to the light and any light will do. I used a huge white umbrella with a cover that makes it like a softbox. It’s relatively cheap for the size of light it is and being a big light makes it very soft and even.

Close-Up

Now put your light fully to the side of the camera shooting 90 degrees across where the camera is pointed. You might even turn the light toward the camera a little (if you get flare, use your hand to block the light coming into the lens directly). The closer your subject is, the more intense and concentrated the light will be on his face which means a much brighter exposure. You’ll compensate by stopping down the aperture until the brightest part of his face is properly exposed. Because he’s so close to the light, the difference between the light on his face and the light on the background will be extreme and the background will turn black. If it’s not going totally dark, move the light farther from the background and turn it more away from the background so it’s not shining on it at all. The background here is just a medium gray piece of paper and the sun is shining in the windows to camera right.

Black & White and Work It

You can shoot this kind of picture in color, but it gets a lot more power and impact when you shoot in black and white. Set your camera to use the Orange color filter in your black and white for best results, and shoot RAW+JPG so you get both a great black and white from the camera as a jpeg and the RAW image in color. Once you’ve got your exposure set so that the brightest highlights are not blown out, move your subject forward toward the camera and farther away from the camera and see the different effects you’ll get with more light on the face vs only illuminating the edge. It’s a fun way to make an impactful picture. Your client may not love it as a flattering photo for the wall, but it’ll make you feel like a classic artist and it’ll add another tool to your lighting belt (plus, your Instagram followers will love it!)

My new class for LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com has just been published and it’s all about making ten different kinds of portraits with just one light. I think you guys will like it.


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