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How to Create Portraits with Drama

window-portraits.jpgYou have promised yourself that your next portrait shoot would be “next level” for your abilities. You want a set of portraits that could be considered fine art, and perfect for gallery enlargements. You want to capture your subject well, but you also want to grow in your abilities as a creative photographer.

Fortunately, fate would grant you both opportunities.

You have a booking for portraits with an outgoing, dramatic, painter and beautician. It ends up being a rainy day, so the shoot will prove to test your creative expertise indoors without anything but your camera and an on camera flash. When you arrive at her studio apartment, you are relieved: there is light to go around. After a greeting and some small talk you quickly take stock of what you have:

Large bay windows that gently wraps the light around skin, and reflects in gorgeous catch-lights and a moveable chair. Perfect.

You know exactly what you are going to do.

You clear the space in front of the window and position the chair toward it. “Okay, let’s get some shots with you facing the window first.” Your subject sits straight up in the chair first and you take a few test shots. Your settings:

  • Manual Mode: Enabling you to get advanced exposure with highlights and shadows
  • Shallow depth of field [2.8]: Throwing the window frame out of focus and isolating the eyes and face
  • Moderate shutter speed [200/s]: To capture just enough of plenty light
  • Fill flash: To fill in on the face with shots away from the window

After a few moments of experimenting, and commenting on the beauty of your model, you are ready to start.

You have your model relax into the chair. She leans back easily. She is facing the window limiting the room you have before her. Once again, you remember how much you are aiming for creative shots. You analyze your angles in action, determined to try something new.

“I’m going to get right in front of you here,” you begin and move some hair from your model’s eyes. “Lets have you look up at me right here…” Once she looks up, the light reflects in her eyes with luminous catch-lights.

“Gorgeous!” You exclaim, unable to mask your excitement. You show your model the image. She breathes deep. “Oh, I love it!”

Shot one. Oh yeah.

After a few more shots, you change things up. “Let’s have the window behind you this time. And we’ll go for full body.” You use a smaller chair this time, but don’t want to do a “normal” sitting pose. “Are you game for a little different?” Your model grins and nods. “Let’s do it.” You have her sit with her legs over the arm’s edge, and for extra slimming, coach her to cross one leg over the other. You arrange her arms in triangles, creating an elegant casual feel.

For this shot, you need a bit of fill flash – but not too much. You want to create some drama with the highlights and shadows. You flash the light up to the ceiling to gently cascade on your model without filling too much. To emphasize the dramatic mood, you have your model look down to the ground.

“Okay, here we go!”

It takes a few more test shots than before, but once again, you come out with the image you dreamed about. The lighting is exquisite. The pose perfect. The mood dramatic. And the contrast to die for.

Best of all, your client is just as happy with the image as you are.

After the shoot, you get a check, and load your gear back in the car. The rain continues to fall gently outside and you smile.

Who knew that a rainy day would facilitate with the perfect image of window light drama?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography www.BrideInspired.com and leadership with www.RevMediaBlog.com.

  • http://www.ilanbresler.com Ilan

    Ok, but what about using the surrounding?
    What if the portrait is spontaneous? Not every portrait is in such “controlled” environment.
    Sometime adding “dramatic” light can be done when using the simplest thing – The window.
    And never neglect the surrounding.

    My example – http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/01/taking-break.html

  • Peter

    llan, i can see your point…and i like the portrait… is it possible for you to post it in monochrome as well? i’d like to see the gentelman’s reflection off the glass…just the effect of it…and perhaps a little tighter on the frame…

    like i said…i like your portrait…just humor my imagination if you would…

    i like christina’s portrait for several reasons…her angle, and relative distance to her subject(don’t know which lens she used) is very well proportioned…and her explanation of her ‘thinking’ out loud makes the posting very realistic…definitely learned some good pointers from this one…

  • Phils

    PLEASE enough of the second person narratives… I mean it was interesting the first time, but as a writing style it gets old pretty quickly.

    Great tips, and really interesting information, but I can hardly bare to read it.

  • April

    I really wish this blogger wouldn’t write in second person. First or third, please! So much easier to read that way.

  • anonym

    I agree with April…
    writing in second person is clumsy and annoying to read. please switch to first or third.

  • Josh

    I really enjoy Christina’s articles, and I like the 2nd person format.

    Great Job.

  • Lachlan

    I agree with a few of the people above, this style of writing really distracts from the great tips this writer offers.

  • reconjsh

    You enjoyed the information in the article, but found yourself with a strong, irrational desire to ‘flame it’. After some thought, you realize that 2nd person instructional articles sound somewhat pretentious and that just draws out the worst in you.

    You decide not to flame it however, because it is, in fact, a nice photo with an excellent description of the setup… and you’d just be a hater if you tried.

  • dm|ze

    Great article, I don’t mind the 2nd person format. It conveys the information either way. Keep it coming.

  • http://www.MoreSatisfyingPhotos.com Jeffrey Kontur

    Vive la difference!

  • http://stuvel.eu/ Sybren

    I love the 2nd person form! It’s different from many other tutorials out there, and IMO is a nice read. Please, don’t stop doing that.

  • Helga Lightspeed

    I happen to like the narrative- it was a short cute story about taking a simple portrait- not a 2 page story with detailed camera settings and setup procedures.

    AND-

    What the story is about, most of us already know how to do… she just puts it in her own perspective as a professional photographer (Which some of us aren’t).

    Complainers- you didn’t have to read this and if you hate is so much… please feel free to contribute to this site with your own how-to guides.

    To put it bluntly (only because i don’t know of another term), they call this “put up or shut up”.

    :)

    Thank you, Christina.

  • http://thomas.netager.com Thomas Flight

    Great tips! Portraits are something that I find consistently difficult. I just need to learn the process.

  • http://www.photofocus.com Scott Bourne

    Wow I guess I am getting really old. This might be the new hip thing but it doesn’t work for me at all. The subject’s face is the most important thing in a portrait for me personally. I don’t see the face well in this shot. There is a hot spot on the side of the face and the bright high-key background is distracting to me. The pose looks unnatural to me and the foot merging with the windowsill also distracts me. Then there’s the completely blocked up shadows. I guess I just don’t get it. Not trying to attack anyone. Just want to express the opinion of someone who’d prefer a slightly more traditional approach. Thanks for the effort it took to write the post.

  • Robert

    I vote no on the 2nd person. It’s annoying and distracting.

  • http://www.396.lt Linas

    Wow, Scott, great criticism. I myself find this photo a bit overexposed. More, I would like to add a little tip – don’t touch your model – it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, ask him to do this or that, it will feel better in long-time run. Some people are very sensitive with their personal space.

  • http://www.stewartimagery.com Stephanie Stewart

    I liked the ideas and the train of thought in this post. I think the 2nd person narrative is interesting, maybe not for every post, but at least it’s something different, and one can imagine themselves in this situation. Visualizations helps me prepare for my shoots, so I found this helpful. Thanks, Christina!

  • http://www.robinryan.ca Robin Ryan

    I kept waiting for this story to turn into some sort of Penthouse Letters excerpt… the writing style threw me off big-time.

    My only issue would be that telling people to use f/2.8 is problematic. It has its time and place, no doubt, but whether is creates the perfect bokeh or ruins your shot by blurring too much will depend hugely on the focal length. Not to mention that the best image quality is usually found in the f11-f16 range. But sure, if you want bokeh, that’s too high, but f/2.8 doesn’t leave much room for error, and nothing sucks like going to your proofs later to see that all the eyes are slightly out of focus.

    Take this shot, for example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/3524934203/
    The hands behind her chin and her necklace are out of focus, and that was with a 35mm lens. Since I was up close to her, this gave me about 1/2 foot of DOF. If I had been using f/2.8, I would have had 3 inches. 3 inches of depth of field. Not much room for error.

    3 more examples of attaining bokeh (and even blur) without dropping below f/4
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2722983957/in/set-72157601769220969/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2998025462/in/set-72157601769220969/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2692222401/in/set-72157601769220969/

    hope this is helpful

  • Nathan

    I appreciate Christina’s willingness to share her experiences. And I thought the example shot was really good. But I had to re-read the article a few times to get the setup. I guess I was expecting something a bit different, with the title being “How to…” The second person narratives feel much less instructional and “how-to,” and more… well, narrative. Just my two cents.

  • Lisa

    I also appreciate the article and the author’s willigness to share. I also agree that the “How to. . ” was a bit lacking. Early in the article she gives her settings, which is definitely appreciated. But towards the end of the article she writes:

    It takes a few more test shots than before, but once again, you come out with the image you dreamed about. The lighting is exquisite. The pose perfect. The mood dramatic. And the contrast to die for.

    Ok, what happened during the “few more test shots”? I would like to know what was tested/changed during these shots – camera settings, pose, position of the chair, etc?

  • chi

    sounds like a bunch of hs students in an english class =) ahhh. i remember those days.

    Some love it, some dont. It’s just personal preference. It doesnt bother me one way or another. I just extract the information and apply it. The narrative is the same stuff I might say in my head while I’m shooting…haha not all of it, but some of it. Or the same stuff you find in seminar dvd’s.. just not so dreamy. =)

  • Desiree

    Since when does the manner in which a writer chooses to express his/her ideas or experience become the main topic of critique? Whether a person writes in first, second or third person has nothing to do with their ability to shoot creative images. This is a Photography site, not a Journalism or English Lit class! Thanks to Christina’s creative contribution and her willingness to step up and share her own experience and ideas.

    I feel her photo illustruated a nice use of contrasts with natural lighting, however she did leave me with a few questions as to exactly how she created the dramatic effect, more specifically, did she make and post production adjustments in Photoshop, and if so, what were they? Personally, I felt that the subject was lost in the overall composure of the photo, as my eye is more drawn to the size of the window and not the subject’s face. Since this was supposed to be a portrait, I would have liked to seen more of the subject, perhaps crop in closer or landscape. That is just my personal preference and how I prefer to create my work.

    That is the beauty of formus like this — you can see different styles of photography and how each person creates and exhibits their own personal flair. You can appreciate it without having to agree with it or adopt it as your own style. =)

  • http://www.erniemangoba.multiply.com ernie

    hi ms. nicole, im also a wedding photographer here in the philippines and i inspiring your porfolio in your website. tnx for your sharing your skills of photography in this page…

    ernie mangoba
    erree’s photography

  • http://jeffrogerkhophotography.wordpress.com jeff

    i didn’t mind about the 2nd person point of view. for a web copy it’s engaging IMO. but i’m not so sure about the photo though. im not a professional as well but i just think that it’s a bit overexposed. but still a great tip :)

  • powerranger

    You enjoyed the information in the article, but found yourself with a strong, irrational desire to ‘flame it’. After some thought, you realize that 2nd person instructional articles sound somewhat pretentious and that just draws out the worst in you.
    You decide not to flame it however, because it is, in fact, a nice photo with an excellent description of the setup… and you’d just be a hater if you tried.

    Read more: http://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-create-portraits-with-drama#ixzz0GlMlJndY&B

    LOL!

    reconjsh that was awesome…totally agree

  • Debbie

    Christina you walked us through the settings with models back to window. How about settings for the dramatic catchlights you described with model facing window?

Some older comments

  • Debbie

    April 4, 2010 04:23 am

    Christina you walked us through the settings with models back to window. How about settings for the dramatic catchlights you described with model facing window?

  • powerranger

    May 28, 2009 12:08 pm

    You enjoyed the information in the article, but found yourself with a strong, irrational desire to ‘flame it’. After some thought, you realize that 2nd person instructional articles sound somewhat pretentious and that just draws out the worst in you.
    You decide not to flame it however, because it is, in fact, a nice photo with an excellent description of the setup… and you’d just be a hater if you tried.

    Read more: http://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-create-portraits-with-drama#ixzz0GlMlJndY&B

    LOL!

    reconjsh that was awesome...totally agree

  • jeff

    May 17, 2009 05:47 pm

    i didn't mind about the 2nd person point of view. for a web copy it's engaging IMO. but i'm not so sure about the photo though. im not a professional as well but i just think that it's a bit overexposed. but still a great tip :)

  • ernie

    May 16, 2009 01:49 am

    hi ms. nicole, im also a wedding photographer here in the philippines and i inspiring your porfolio in your website. tnx for your sharing your skills of photography in this page...

    ernie mangoba
    erree's photography

  • Desiree

    May 15, 2009 11:28 pm

    Since when does the manner in which a writer chooses to express his/her ideas or experience become the main topic of critique? Whether a person writes in first, second or third person has nothing to do with their ability to shoot creative images. This is a Photography site, not a Journalism or English Lit class! Thanks to Christina's creative contribution and her willingness to step up and share her own experience and ideas.

    I feel her photo illustruated a nice use of contrasts with natural lighting, however she did leave me with a few questions as to exactly how she created the dramatic effect, more specifically, did she make and post production adjustments in Photoshop, and if so, what were they? Personally, I felt that the subject was lost in the overall composure of the photo, as my eye is more drawn to the size of the window and not the subject's face. Since this was supposed to be a portrait, I would have liked to seen more of the subject, perhaps crop in closer or landscape. That is just my personal preference and how I prefer to create my work.

    That is the beauty of formus like this -- you can see different styles of photography and how each person creates and exhibits their own personal flair. You can appreciate it without having to agree with it or adopt it as your own style. =)

  • chi

    May 15, 2009 02:41 am

    sounds like a bunch of hs students in an english class =) ahhh. i remember those days.

    Some love it, some dont. It's just personal preference. It doesnt bother me one way or another. I just extract the information and apply it. The narrative is the same stuff I might say in my head while I'm shooting...haha not all of it, but some of it. Or the same stuff you find in seminar dvd's.. just not so dreamy. =)

  • Lisa

    May 15, 2009 01:54 am

    I also appreciate the article and the author's willigness to share. I also agree that the "How to. . " was a bit lacking. Early in the article she gives her settings, which is definitely appreciated. But towards the end of the article she writes:

    It takes a few more test shots than before, but once again, you come out with the image you dreamed about. The lighting is exquisite. The pose perfect. The mood dramatic. And the contrast to die for.

    Ok, what happened during the "few more test shots"? I would like to know what was tested/changed during these shots - camera settings, pose, position of the chair, etc?

  • Nathan

    May 14, 2009 04:08 am

    I appreciate Christina's willingness to share her experiences. And I thought the example shot was really good. But I had to re-read the article a few times to get the setup. I guess I was expecting something a bit different, with the title being "How to..." The second person narratives feel much less instructional and "how-to," and more... well, narrative. Just my two cents.

  • Robin Ryan

    May 13, 2009 06:15 am

    I kept waiting for this story to turn into some sort of Penthouse Letters excerpt... the writing style threw me off big-time.

    My only issue would be that telling people to use f/2.8 is problematic. It has its time and place, no doubt, but whether is creates the perfect bokeh or ruins your shot by blurring too much will depend hugely on the focal length. Not to mention that the best image quality is usually found in the f11-f16 range. But sure, if you want bokeh, that's too high, but f/2.8 doesn't leave much room for error, and nothing sucks like going to your proofs later to see that all the eyes are slightly out of focus.

    Take this shot, for example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/3524934203/
    The hands behind her chin and her necklace are out of focus, and that was with a 35mm lens. Since I was up close to her, this gave me about 1/2 foot of DOF. If I had been using f/2.8, I would have had 3 inches. 3 inches of depth of field. Not much room for error.

    3 more examples of attaining bokeh (and even blur) without dropping below f/4
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2722983957/in/set-72157601769220969/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2998025462/in/set-72157601769220969/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2692222401/in/set-72157601769220969/

    hope this is helpful

  • Stephanie Stewart

    May 13, 2009 04:45 am

    I liked the ideas and the train of thought in this post. I think the 2nd person narrative is interesting, maybe not for every post, but at least it's something different, and one can imagine themselves in this situation. Visualizations helps me prepare for my shoots, so I found this helpful. Thanks, Christina!

  • Linas

    May 13, 2009 03:37 am

    Wow, Scott, great criticism. I myself find this photo a bit overexposed. More, I would like to add a little tip - don't touch your model - it doesn't matter if you're male or female, ask him to do this or that, it will feel better in long-time run. Some people are very sensitive with their personal space.

  • Robert

    May 13, 2009 02:06 am

    I vote no on the 2nd person. It's annoying and distracting.

  • Scott Bourne

    May 12, 2009 11:58 pm

    Wow I guess I am getting really old. This might be the new hip thing but it doesn't work for me at all. The subject's face is the most important thing in a portrait for me personally. I don't see the face well in this shot. There is a hot spot on the side of the face and the bright high-key background is distracting to me. The pose looks unnatural to me and the foot merging with the windowsill also distracts me. Then there's the completely blocked up shadows. I guess I just don't get it. Not trying to attack anyone. Just want to express the opinion of someone who'd prefer a slightly more traditional approach. Thanks for the effort it took to write the post.

  • Thomas Flight

    May 12, 2009 11:29 pm

    Great tips! Portraits are something that I find consistently difficult. I just need to learn the process.

  • Helga Lightspeed

    May 12, 2009 11:19 pm

    I happen to like the narrative- it was a short cute story about taking a simple portrait- not a 2 page story with detailed camera settings and setup procedures.

    AND-

    What the story is about, most of us already know how to do... she just puts it in her own perspective as a professional photographer (Which some of us aren't).

    Complainers- you didn't have to read this and if you hate is so much... please feel free to contribute to this site with your own how-to guides.

    To put it bluntly (only because i don't know of another term), they call this "put up or shut up".

    :)

    Thank you, Christina.

  • Sybren

    May 12, 2009 11:13 pm

    I love the 2nd person form! It's different from many other tutorials out there, and IMO is a nice read. Please, don't stop doing that.

  • Jeffrey Kontur

    May 12, 2009 11:10 pm

    Vive la difference!

  • dm|ze

    May 12, 2009 10:38 pm

    Great article, I don't mind the 2nd person format. It conveys the information either way. Keep it coming.

  • reconjsh

    May 12, 2009 10:03 pm

    You enjoyed the information in the article, but found yourself with a strong, irrational desire to 'flame it'. After some thought, you realize that 2nd person instructional articles sound somewhat pretentious and that just draws out the worst in you.

    You decide not to flame it however, because it is, in fact, a nice photo with an excellent description of the setup... and you'd just be a hater if you tried.

  • Lachlan

    May 12, 2009 02:16 pm

    I agree with a few of the people above, this style of writing really distracts from the great tips this writer offers.

  • Josh

    May 12, 2009 11:17 am

    I really enjoy Christina's articles, and I like the 2nd person format.

    Great Job.

  • anonym

    May 12, 2009 11:03 am

    I agree with April...
    writing in second person is clumsy and annoying to read. please switch to first or third.

  • April

    May 12, 2009 10:45 am

    I really wish this blogger wouldn't write in second person. First or third, please! So much easier to read that way.

  • Phils

    May 12, 2009 09:37 am

    PLEASE enough of the second person narratives... I mean it was interesting the first time, but as a writing style it gets old pretty quickly.

    Great tips, and really interesting information, but I can hardly bare to read it.

  • Peter

    May 12, 2009 08:51 am

    llan, i can see your point...and i like the portrait... is it possible for you to post it in monochrome as well? i'd like to see the gentelman's reflection off the glass...just the effect of it...and perhaps a little tighter on the frame...

    like i said...i like your portrait...just humor my imagination if you would...

    i like christina's portrait for several reasons...her angle, and relative distance to her subject(don't know which lens she used) is very well proportioned...and her explanation of her 'thinking' out loud makes the posting very realistic...definitely learned some good pointers from this one...

  • Ilan

    May 12, 2009 07:58 am

    Ok, but what about using the surrounding?
    What if the portrait is spontaneous? Not every portrait is in such "controlled" environment.
    Sometime adding "dramatic" light can be done when using the simplest thing - The window.
    And never neglect the surrounding.

    My example - http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/01/taking-break.html

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