Tutorial: Dramatic Lighting

     Today we are going to be talking about bridging the gap between natural light and flash photography. During an engagment shoot yesterday I was asked if using lights during a shoot was normal. My answer was yes AND no. A lot of newer photographers learn the exposure triangle and book a few shoots. They get super comfortable using the ambient light in the scene and never leave from that style. This is fine, a ton of photographers make a decent living off of it...but why settle for normal, when you can be different?

     The shot we will be discussing today is of a couple standing next to their car. They really enjoy their cars and wanted them in the photos. They wanted a "stare-off" dramatic style, so that is what we did. Enjoy!

Nikon D610, Sigma 24-70 f.28 @ f3.5, 1/200, 29mm

Nikon D610, Sigma 24-70 f.28 @ f3.5, 1/200, 29mm

    We will go around the exposure triangle and show how each point is decided. Remember, you have to shoot in manual for this to work right, but can get this effect anytime of the day. When using a flash it is important to remember the light from it will not reach the sky, so no matter how powerful it is, the sky exposure will not change. So first, you must meter for your sky and get the shutter speed and aperture right for that.  This is how we will set the shutter speed and aperture of the lens to get this style going. 

Shutter Speed   

      Shutter is relevant to your light set up. Typically you would speed up and slow down your shutter for more light, that isn't the case so much since we are using flashes. I typically set my shutter to the max sync speed and then expose for the sky. That is 1/250. (I shot at 1/200 to darken the sky just a bit more and not deepen the depth of field. 1/250 is the fastest I can shoot without seeing the mirror in the shot...If you shoot faster than the max sync speed, you will get this....

shot at 1/320 the shutter/mirror is blocking the sensor in the bottom portion of the camera. 

shot at 1/320 the shutter/mirror is blocking the sensor in the bottom portion of the camera. 

Shoot just a tad slower at 1/200 and the same image....

now the image does not have the black shutter covering the bottom portion of the sensor/image.  

now the image does not have the black shutter covering the bottom portion of the sensor/image.  

     So what if you need more light? You will work with the power and placement of lights to get the correct exposure on the subjects and the right amount fall off. We will go over that in just a moment.


      There are two (or more) ways to set the aperture in a dramatic lighting photo. Since the "Sunny 16" rule doesn't apply at dusk, we must find out how the sky looks best. You could point your camera to the sky and turn your aperture up in full stop increments and use trial and error (Not suggested).

      Here is my method, put your camera in shutter priority mode at your max shutter speed, point your camera to sky without flashes turned on a take a picture. Look back on your LCD and see what it exposed it for. This photo it exposed it at f/3.5. Now put camera back in manual mode. The more ambient light, the more the aperture will stop down (f11, f16) are used regularly in the daylight. It will not always be perfect, but will give you a great starting point. I now have the sky exposed how I want it and the depth of field will be deep enough to capture sharp faces and slowly go into some nice bokeh in the background. 


      The goal is to shoot at an appropriate ISO to get a good exposure without grain, since I have powerful lights I turned my ISO to 100. If you don't have that powerful of lights and it is darker, like it was in this image, you may need to turn it up just a little. You will not know this until you start shooting with the lights. Start at 100 and work up if you can't get bright enough exposure on subjects with lights in full mode. *Note Raising ISO will raise entire image exposure, so you may have to go back and do Shutter and Aperture again to get proper exposure. 


     The placement of lights is just as important as their power. The goal is to evenly light the focus areas and only cast shadows where you want them. For this I shoot with a  two light set up. Light 1 is a Flashpoint 620M located 8 feet camera left about 5 feet in the air point directly at models with no modifier. Light 2 is a K&F Concept Speedlite located 10 feet camera right,  8 feet in the air, zoom of 18mm, at 25-30 degrees angle toward tops of models faces. Bounce card pulled, beauty grid pulled. 

     Tip I have learned with flashes, start lower power and work your way up, it takes less battery. I started at 1/16 power just shooting from the hip and it worked on both lights. Just move power up or down as needed to properly expose subjects. 

     I offset the height of the lights by three feet to make sure I didn't have any nasty equal cross shadows. This makes an x with your subjects shadows behind them and doesn't look good. I had to cross lights in the matter because I had the 90 degree front of the car that is impossible to light otherwise. Typically, 1 light of these light placements and one behind subjects for rim light is the route to go. 


     This is all there is to getting a cool dramatic effect on the sky. Set shutter to max sync speed, check your aperture in shutter priority mode, low ISO, and adjust lights to get exposure. It takes practice and patience as do most things photography, but once you get good at it, you can step away and offer something new. 

Some more photos using the same style. 

Thanks for reading!

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