How to Create Dramatic Portraits in Your Garage

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The setup

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If I want to take dramatic portraits on a black backdrop (without even needing a single light), a garage is your new go to spot. This is the simplest (and most makeshift looking) setup that I use. As you can see in the image above, all I am using is a piece of black foam core, folded into a “v,” set inside a garage on a sunny day.

While you can accomplish this setup on overcast days, having a sunny day helps to increase the brightness of everything outside the garage, thus increasing the catch light in the model’s eyes. The sunny daylight scene outside the garage essentially acts as a giant reflector, which hold under the subject’s chin to soften shadows.

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The reason why a garage is great for this kind of setup is that it allows you to place your subject closer or further away from the bright, outdoor light, depending on how much light you want in your subject’s eyes or how even you want the light to appear. For example, if the subject is right at the edge of the garage, just out of the sun, the exposure will be very bright, requiring a very fast shutter speed and/or a small aperture, but they will have large catchlights in their eyes. Note that the smaller aperture will cause the image to be sharper from the front to the back. Also, the closer the subject is to the bright outside, the darker the background will be once you’ve adjusted your exposure for their skin tone.

Alternately, if the subject is placed deeper into the garage, it allows you to use a wider aperture or slower shutter speed, which can create a flattering, softer, depth of field, though the catch light and overall light quality will change.

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Shooting in a garage is the equivalent to a one-light studio portrait since the only light source is the open garage door. This increases the appearance of the image being a studio portrait, as it mimics a large softbox or octabank (though an open garage door is larger and less expensive). If you want to have more light, such as hair light and rim light to create separation between a subject and the background, there is another option available to you. Simply place your subject on the shaded side of the garage, allowing the sun to light just the edges of your subjects hair and shoulders, as seen below.

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The one downside to having a huge wall of soft light in front of your subject is that it can flatten out the subject, which can make the lighting appear flat or boring. One remedy for this is flagging off portions of the light, as seen in the image below. Note that any object you place in front of the model to flag the light will also change the shape of the catch lights in their eyes.

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For portraits like this, you will want to use a focal length of at least 50mm or longer. Anything wider angle will lead to distortion of the subject’s features. Since you are shooting outdoors, you have unlimited space to back away from the subject. So I like to use my 70-200mm lens for these type of head shots.

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The other perks that come with shooting outside or in a garage is that you have a free hair fan and plenty of ventilation, which comes in handy when you’re shooting smoke.

My buddy Colin is a drummer in the band House of Heroes. He approached me to shoot the cover of their latest EP, Smoke. He wanted a dramatic, close-up of a girl’s face with smoke all around. I knew that my garage would be the perfect spot to conduct the shoot (open air with bright light). I placed white boards on either side of Courtney, which helped to not only fill in any shadows under her jaw but also add catch lights to her eyes. In addition to the images of Courtney, I also shot several frames of smoke, being exhaled by Colin (try doing that inside a studio), isolated on the black backdrop, which was later overlaid on the final image of the model in post-production.

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Have you tried doing portraits in your garage or other makeshift location? Have any additional tips? Please share in the comments.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Nick Fancher is a portrait and commercial photographer based out of Columbus, Ohio. His clients include The New York Times, ESPN Magazine and Forbes Japan. He specializes in a no-frills, run and gun approach to lighting. His two ebooks are available here. You can connect with him on Instagram.

  • Tino

    Nick, awesome post. I always enjoy reading posts like these where the photographer does not rely on his wallet to be practical.

    You remind me a lot of Michael Zelbel, a professional photographer in Germany who I have been following for over 2 years now. The two of you are cut from the same cloth when it comes to being original and practical.

    10/10 for being practical.
    20/10 for being original.

  • Michael_in_TO

    OMG UN-believable. WTF dude. Dramatic? Innovative? Clickbaiting. Please—go get behind a camera. Move away from the computer. Be happy in your life. I’m gonna go shoot some snow now (It’s winter in Canada). Fah-la-la-la-la….

  • Marlin Herrick

    Good tips Nick, thanks. If you need someone to assist here in Columbus, I’m your guy. I’m pretty novice, but a quick study and would be happy to hold / set up gear just to watch and learn. Take care.

  • Courtney

    Great article! As a beginning photographer, I’m always looking for the “perfect” situation, often forgetting, it’s more about CREATING the “perfect” situation.

  • That’s awesome. I’ll check out his work. Thanks for reading.

  • Thanks for reading!

  • Thanks!

  • Orrin

    Way to Go Nick, Thank you for keeping it up. despite all the negativity.
    You deserve the credit and kudos for doing a fabulous job of helping us amateurs get good results without really really really expensive equipment.

    Your article is great, and will make a world of difference to my portraits.

    Thank you again Nick.

  • Happy to help!

  • Geoff

    I’m pretty impressed with the end result compared to the image shot in your garage, Nick. Nice post production.
    As for the subject of the article, there are other places in the home where you can get an interesting result. If you’ve got a cellar (or a loft, or shed) and a torch you’re half way there. Ive seen some great, spooky/dreamy images shot just with just torchlight…
    Often the problem in a domestic situation is space; being able to get sufficient distance between photographer and subject.

  • Skegeeaces

    I want to be like you when I become a grown-up photographer. 😉 Great tips!

  • lewecker

    Here’s a recent montage of garage studio pics.

  • lewecker

    Color montage using same technique.

  • Andrew

    I have read the comments made to you, I gotta congratulate you and say, very nice black and white first portrait its very very good, as a studio photographer that uses top strobes and modifiers “Profoto and Mola” I can say that this is a very well done portrait very ingenious . Perhaps some people in here don’t get it that the whole point of huge studio light sources is to mimic what you just did, its not shooting with direct sun, nor its using a silver/gold artificial reflector to bounce off the light, its using the ceiling and the garage as a super huge light source with the equivalent of negative fill and the street as a massive catch light, that’s why many great photographers for example Peter Coulson, or Paolo Roversi keep using daylight and in some occasions Roversi mixes with HMI lights, on the other side strobes, lets take a Mola Mantti $800+ $$strobe or a big Octabank, profoto Giant reflector$$$, etc… they might try to accomplish the same feat but in the end they will fail, not because they are not equally soft or because you do not get a nice fall off with this big modifiers but because the catch lights will be made artificially “octagonal, circular or circular rings cant match a real catch light”, the catch lights on this portraits are spectacular. The only disadvantage as you already know its the shutter speed with a low iso vs strobes and the ability to take your portraits to any location vs having to take portraits in a specific place and possibly at a specific time. I gotta say I will try to take some time off the expensive studio gear go basic and give this a try. We usually get caught in technical and technology gimmicks that end up neglecting the true potential of basic lighting, which is in fact free wireless and the battery last you 8 hours a day for millions of years, needless to say its the best light source you can get.

  • Thanks for the kind words and thanks for reading!

  • Marinus H.B. Vesseur

    The best reply to a negative comment I’ve read in a long time. Hope I can remember it for when I need it next. Thanks!

  • Angela DiNatale

    This was done in my garage.

  • shannon henderson

    I really like them. They show how easy it is to get very nice photos. You just need a little creativity. Nice job. Ignore Dave.

  • shannon henderson

    I don’t think the title was “The Greatest Portraits Ever Taken in the History of the World!!”. It was how to capture dramatic portraits in a garage. They are very nice and YES they are dramatic.

  • Rhonda Miller

    Great explanations that make it possible/affordable for anyone who has a garage (or a neighbor who will loan you his…Ha) and a camera to get some pretty amazing photos. I once built my own soft-box for a photo assignment with the photography institute and got a perfect grade on that assignment. That was for a small object. I love these ideas for portraiture. Love those catch lights.

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    For a real challenge, try doing portraits in the bathroom of a commercial airliner.

  • Deedoo

    Hi Nick ! Thanks you so much for this tip ! Here is my first try with my husband ! I need to work on it more !

  • Ray Garrett
  • Michael James Nelson

    House of Heroes is one of my all time favorite bands. I was stoked to see that picture at the end 🙂

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