How to Create This Dramatic Hard Light Portrait

While many photographers shy away from hard light, thinking it is unflattering, portraits can benefit from judicious application of hard shadows and contrast. This excellent video tutorial will show you how to use hard light to create a dramatic and dynamic portrait. 

Coming to you from John Gress, this awesome video tutorial will show you how to use hard lighting for a dramatic portrait. As Gress sets up his lighting—a gridded reflector—he intentionally angles it to cast a dark, distinct shadow across the top of the seamless backdrop. Rather than diffuse the shadow or brighten it with indirect fill lighting, he fine-tunes the shadow’s edge by moving a foam board flag closer to the model. The closer the flag, the sharper and more defined the shadow rendered on the backdrop.

This is the key to understanding when harsh lighting works. As Gress refines his setup, the priority is keeping the integrity of that shadow, not softening it. He switches to a crimson-colored backdrop to avoid bounce light from a white ground surface filling it in. With the hard overhead slash of darkness now clearly separating her face from the background, the portrait takes on the dramatic, dimensional quality first envisioned.

While we often think of portraits needing soft, even lighting, don’t rule out strategic hardness. When used in service of the overall mood, rather than simply being unflattering, strong shadows can add dynamism and contour facial features in striking fashion. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Gress.

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Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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