Dramatic Lighting Tutorial

For those of you who happened to stop by Seshu’s Blog last week, this post isn’t anything new. I changed up some of the sentences and grammar but nothing that will change your perception of how to shoot with these lighting setups. I promised I’d post my lighting tutorial on here when I got a chance and so here it is:

For many photographers, strobes and speedlights can be one of the most intimidating factors to incorporate into your photography. Okay, well maybe I’m making some grand assumption but at least that’s how it was for me.  I started out trying to do everything possible to avoid using strobes. I shot landscapes, cars, and whenever my friends wanted me to take photos of them, I just used HDR. Up until I actually sat myself down and tried to understand some of the techniques and ideas did I really understand how fun shooting with strobes could actually be!

Up to this point, I’ve learned one simple thing about photography. You’ll never create anything extraordinary if you don’t experiment and try new things. As a creative, you have to step outside of the box (a different box because since you’re a creative you’ve already stepped out of one before) and try to see what you can do. I am by no means trying to get you believe that I’m a master of lighting, I just know how I light my subjects the way that I do and that’s what I’m here to show you.

For the most part, I stick with two basic lighting approaches: a single strobe approach and a triple strobe approach. Each approach involves using my Nikon Speedlights (but any speedlights will work as well as studio strobes) and a few light modifiers. In fact, the more powerful the strobes you have, the more freedom you are going to have to work. Right now, I schedule all my shoots right around sunset. It allows me to not have to worry so much about the sun. Don’t worry, it’s nothing too  complex and I’ll walk you through the steps and give you an example of a photo I’ve shot using these two techniques.

Single Strobe (Beauty Dish)

This is one of the simplest lighting setups but creates beautifully dramatic images. As you can tell from the diagram above, you are using a beauty dish for your light modifier. This can be easily mimicked with an octobox or a softbox (as well as a ring flash but I have no experience with that) but the only difference with a softbox is you won’t get the circular catch lights in the subject’s eyes.

You want to place the beauty dish a little above the subject’s head pointing down and only about 2 or 3 feet away from your subject. Basically, put your light modifier as close to the subject as you can without it imposing on your image. You should try to center the dish/box so the center is pointing directly at your subject nose. This will give you that nice lighting that wraps around under the nose and trials off towards the bottom and top of the image. You want the center of the dish/softbox/octobox pointing directly to the center of your subjects face (their nose).

As far as power levels go, play around with it. I usually shoot at around f/8 and at a shutter speed of 125 to 250 (pushing the boundary of the max sync speed of most cameras and pocketwizards). I don’t worry about a light meter because I know how I want my image to look. This is something I picked up from Joel Grimes tutorials. He says, “There are a ton of uses for a sandbag and only one use for a light meter.” So, I’m guessing you all figured out which one Joel actually uses on his shoots. You want to be a creative and be able to determine what the right exposure is for what you are doing. All of my shots are probably way overexposed for the light meter but they convey exactly what I was trying to convey.

To keep the image dark and dramatic, don’t dial up your power too much. You want to keep it low and just enough to light up the face (but not to the extent you would for a beauty shot). Being a photographer is about being artistic and creative so have some fun with it. If I told you there were an exact shutter speed, aperture, ISO and flash power to get exactly this shot, there would be no creativity involved.

This is the most simple lighting I use and I use it instead of my three light if I need the subject to put their hands up, or have something covering the sides of their face (this will make more sense when you read the three light). You may choose to take this a different direction and make it less dramatic and more of a fashiony/beauty style image. PERFECT! If that’s what your vision wants then go for it. Don’t do something because it’s how my images turn out an you like them (certainly don’t do the same thing if you don’t like my images!). But, you can take advantage of these lighting setups and use them in your photography.

By using this setup,  you’ll get an image that looks something like this:

With some editing (using some of the tricks I taught you last tutorial) you can get something like this:

And with some composite work with an HDR background, you can get a finished product like this:

* This setup you can also shoot from underneath the beauty dish to get a head-on shot of your subject. *

Triple Strobe (Two Softboxes and a Beauty Dish)

This is the lighting style that Joel Grimes uses in a ton of his work and I actually got a chance to go to his workshop and learn a lot more about how it’s done. As the title implies, this setup involves using three lights. I use 4 SB-600’s and a SB-800 to do this. I pair up my SB-600’s to get a little more power and shoot through two Lastolite Ezyboxes. Then, I use a SB-800 and shot into my beauty dish (like I do for my one light setup).

You want to place the two softboxes equal distance apart from the subject but the distance is dependent upon what you want to happen. The further away form the subject they are, the harsher the light is going to be. There’s nothing wrong with harsh light (I love it in fact) but be aware that you need enough power to make this happen.  The closer the lights, the softer the light will be. Think about your subject and decide what type of lighting best works for them. I work with a lot of athletes and that requires a more harsh light but when working with a model, I want the light a lot softer. Position the beauty dish overhead like in the previous setup but pull it back so it’s about 6 to 10 feet away from the subject.

Now that we’ve got the placement down, now we have to worry about the power. Like I mentioned in the one-light, I like to shoot at f/8 or somewhere around there. KEEP THAT CONSTANT. Pick the aperture you want to shoot at and stick with it. From there, you can play around with the shutter speed (once again, I’m usually around 125 to 250) and then you can worry about your lights.

My two softboxes I always shoot at full power when using speedlights (1/2 power on each flash and since I pair them up that’s full power). If you are working with studio strobes, Joel recommends shooting it overexposed by a stop and then the beauty dish at a stop underexposed. Worry about your sidelights first and once you have those lighting the subject the way you want, you can work on your beauty dish. You want the beauty dish to light the subject up a bit but don’t overpower the sidelights. If you do, you’ll ruin the drama of the image.

Note: One HUGE thing to be aware of is the fact that any props, hoods, arms or hands to the side of the subjects face will cast shadows and ruin this look.  But, as I have done many times, you can shift the lights forward a little to avoid this mishap. Once again, it’s about playing around with the lights and having fun with the creative process.

The triple strobe lighting can give you an image like this:

This obviously isn’t not straight out of the camera but you can see where the light is coming from and where it is hitting the subject. The key to this is creating those harsh transitions from where he is lit to where he isn’t. You want to emphasize the shadows and create a very contrasty image.

In this image, look at the subjects face. You can see the harsh transition from the highlights on the side of his face to the dark shadows in the middle. That’s a result of pulling those sidelights further away and creating the harsh light. For a model, pull those lights in and you’ll see the transition become smoother.

Wrap Up (No Light Modifiers Needed)

My biggest advice for all of you is to take your camera, your flash equipment and a friend, and go try these setups out. Try the three-light with the sidelights far and close to the subject. See what the difference looks like and know what to look for when you are actually on a shoot. Play around with the one light and shoot from underneath the beauty dish, above and to the sides. Photography is all about the creative process and playing around.

I hope this has helped some of you gain a better understanding of the lighting setups I use to create the images that I do. Like I mentioned at the start, these images are all about the lighting. The post processing doesn’t work on images that don’t have the highlights and shadows. So although I haven’t given you everything you need to create images like these, you are well on your way.

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