4 Picture Perfect Lighting Setups for Dramatic Portraits

Dramatic portraits come in all sorts of varieties and lighting combinations. Innovative photographers are always coming up with new ways of creating dramatic imagery by pushing their gear to the limits and trying new ways of doing things. There is no right way or wrong way to make a dramatic portrait, as long as you find a way to bring a feeling to the viewer.

Here are some ideas for taking a dramatic portrait using your lighting gear.

3 light setup. Two in the back (in view) and one in front

Three-light setup: Two in the back (in view) and one in front


One of the easiest and simplest ways to create drama in a photo is to add a backlight. If you already have a decent, but flat, ambient light you can add some punch by placing the light behind the subject. If placed high, it can act as a hair light to give some glow or shine to the hair. If placed low or high it can add separation of the subject from the background. If you don’t have much ambient light to work with, the backlight placed right behind the subject can give you a silhouette or long foreground shadow, both of which can add to the drama of a photo.

One light, from the side for a dramatic dark knight photo

Portrait taken with one light, from the side

One light

Only have one light? Never fear. You have many options besides backlighting. Try putting your light at a 90-degree angle to the side of your subject. This can be a very dramatic effect where half of your subject is lit and the other half is not. It leaves some room for the viewers imagination to picture what might be going on in the rest of the photo. Depending on how you place the light, this can look sexy, eerie, mysterious, or contemplative.

The point of this type of setup is that not everything is lit, so you can focus on just the details that you want to show. Try using your one light by itself pointed right at the subject, bounced off of a wall or ceiling, through an umbrella or softbox, or with a gel attached. See how the look changes and the kind of mood you get with each light modifier.

Dramatic Michael Jackson-esque  portrait on Craftsy!

Two lights: One from the back, one from the front.

Two lights

By adding in one more light, your options more than double. You can do a traditional main light / fill light combination or double your light output to make a super strong backlight. For maximum drama, I would try a combo of the first two options above: Backlight from one side and sidelight from the same side.

This gives you the best of both worlds because you keep some of your shadow areas and can pose your subject to show only the details that you want the viewer to see. At the same time, you get separation from the background, a strong subject outline, and possibly some glowing hair from the backlight.

Three lights

With three lights, you can really sculpt the way the light hits your subject and reveal more detail. Try doing a rock-star shot with three lights. Take two lights and put them behind your subject, one coming from the right and one from the left. This amplifies the background separation, creates a halo of glowing hair, and if hard enough, casts two shadows in the foreground.

Or, take your third light and put it right above the camera, on-axis. Aim the light right at your subject. This will illuminate them to be brighter than the background (which increases their visibility in the composition) and makes for a nice catchlight in their eyes, also drawing the viewer toward the subject’s eyes.

Do you have a go-to setup for dramatic portraits? How many lights and which modifiers?

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