Dramatic Portraits Using Side Lighting

I love dramatic portraits. You can add drama to a portrait in a variety of ways, but the starting point is your lighting. Creative use of light and shadows can make almost anyone look cool. Almost.

An easy and effective approach is called “side lighting”, also known as “split lighting”. Take a look at the image below and notice the obvious… that the light is coming in at a 90 degree angle to the subject and putting half of her face in light and half in shadow. This is a pretty extreme example of side lighting.


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Stylish woman decked out in a red hat and sunglasses against a dark background

In this case, I took the picture in a fairly dark room with a black background. I used a studio light (strobe) and a light modifier called a “beauty dish” placed very close to the left of the subject’s face. I also had her move her right arm forward to light her arm and balance out the picture.

It was important to make sure that the light did not hit the background and did not go directly into the lens and create flare. You can prevent light from hitting either by placing a couple pieces of black cardboard near the front of the flash (parallel to the light and on each side of the flash) to block the light that would otherwise hit the background and lens.

For the above image, I wanted very directional light. For the image below, I allowed a bit more light through on the front of the model.


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Distressed looking woman wearing a red hat in a dark room

To get a less dramatic effect, you can bounce light back onto the unlit side of the subject’s face using a reflector. Also, window lighting can be used to side light, although the light coming in from the window will also create ambient light in the room, meaning you will have less contrast between light and shadows.

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