Studio photography: Low-key lighting for a dramatic portrait
Randy has a look reminiscent of Ava Gardner, so I asked her to be a subject for my book, Lighting & Design. I wanted to create a portrait of Randy in the Hollywood Glamor style of lighting, similar to the vintage styled boudoir photo session (with Olena). And it looked great! But while I had someone so photogenic and with such dramatic styling, I wanted to take further photos of Randy, and she happily indulged me.
For one of the setups, I wanted to explore again using the Profoto beauty dish (affiliate) as a single light source. As mentioned in a previous article – thoughts on using a beauty dish – a beauty dish is best used with a grid to contain the light spill. This does mean a beauty dish has to be used in a specific way – close up to your subject, and with specific posing. Without additional light from other light sources to give fill-light, a beauty dish can be fairly challenging as a single light source.
I wanted a low-key look, so I used a dark grey backdrop, and worked well ahead of it so that the light from the main light (beauty dish) had very little effect. (The Inverse Square Law helps here with the non-linear light fall-off to the background.) But to not have Randy’s dark hair melt away into a black background, it needed a hair-light of some kind. I set up a gridded Profoto RFi 1’×3′ softbox (affiliate) behind her light from the back (and above).
This pull-back shot shows where the gridded beauty dish was placed, as well as the gridded 1×3 softbox behind Randy. Keep in mind that I pulled up the Shadow detail tremendously for this photo so that you could actually see the lighting gear here.
Because the light from a gridded light source is fairly narrow, it does mean you, as the photographer have to pose your subject very specifically. There’s none of the free movement you can get when using large light sources and multiple lights in the studio. With this type of light source – a gridded softbox or a gridded beauty dish – even the slightest movement of your subject face, makes a big difference. It means you have to closely look how the modeling light falls on your subject.
Post-processing was an adaption of my usual way of retouching for portraits. I do like the dramatic results achieved with this two-light setup – very well suited for Randy’s look.
Photo gear used (or equivalents)
- Nikon D4
- Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S VR II / Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II
- (2x) Profoto D1 Air 500 Ws studio light
- Profoto RFi 1’×3′ softbox; with a Profoto 50 degree 1×3 grid
- Profoto beauty dish with a honeycomb grid (25 degrees)
- Thoughts on using a beauty dish (light modifier)
- Low-key lighting variations (model: Ulorin Vex)
- Photoshop filters – Retouching for portraits
- Fitness photo session in the studio
- NJ photography studio space rental
Studio lighting workshops
If you are interested in learning more about studio lighting, including lighting for headshots, I offer workshops on studio lighting. The workshops will be held at my studio space in NJ, and it has a wide range of studio lighting gear to play with!
Lighting & Design for Portrait Photography
Lighting & Design is a follow-up of sorts to Direction & Quality of Light. It’s a slightly eclectic mix, discussing the thought-process with various scenarios shooting portraits. The examples use available light, bounce flash, off-camera flash as well as studio lighting.
The idea is that in every one of the 60 sections, there is something to be learnt and applied, regardless of your level as a photographer or where you shoot – all shaped to form a cohesive narrative arc throughout the book.
You can either purchase a copy via Amazon USA or Amazon UK. The book will also available on the Apple iBook Store, and Amazon Kindle.
9 Comments, Add Your Own
That is what i like to see, what i say is “a strong portrait” The light has power and shadows, sculpturing her face, adding “Hollywood Effect”. A wonderful, dramatic portrait. The only issue i have is: The portrait is not done by me :)
Neil, that is a great example of your skills, and hers as well !
Very attractive portrait Neil – I like the idea of the gridded softbox for additional accent light.
How about a suggestion for your next book : a set of “tips and tricks for retouching portraits”.
3Michael Warren Jr says
I love this photo. The composition and the angle at which you had your beauty dish really draws my eyes to her eyes.
You can almost see the whites of her eyes blend into shadow towards the top creating a strong contrast with the white of her eyes and the iris of her eyes (drawing my attention to there).
The hair light also adds just enough kick to her hair and even to the side of her face ever so slightly to add more dimension & detail to the photo.
Amazing photo as always.
Nice portrait but I am not a fan at all of direct lighting or direct flash, too harsh.
5Neil vN says
… there was no direct flash.
Well direct lighting then. The shadows on the sides of the face were just too pronounced IMHO but that is just me, everyone has different tastes.
7Matt Heath says
Very well lit and love the pose. It all works really well :) Something I will be having a go at in the near future!
8Bryce Arnold says
I absolutely love this post. But I have a question concerning the lighting setup. I sometimes favour flashes as opposed to using direct lighting because of heat and having to keep retouching the model’s face and have them dealing with moderate discomfort. This may seem like a silly question but do the light modifiers help with this problem or are we just doomed to make people suffer for good photographs? I tend to shy away from studio work because outdoor portraiture has a certain freedom to it. But all that aside. Heat. In this setup is it a problem?
9Neil vN says
With continuous lighting that is incandescent, i.e., has a filament, heat will always be a problem in the studio.
There are continuous lights, such as the Westcott Spiderlites, which use Daylight-balanced fluorescent tubes, which only become slightly warm.
With my Profoto B1 studio flashes, heat hasn’t ever been something I noted, or has been a problem.
I don’t think that light modifiers would help with heat – the heat would radiate anyway.