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.

  • Michael Owens

    Nice article. Would love to see camera settings, and the final examples of all images here.

    It’s reminds me a lot of creating the black background look in sunshine using aperture and a flashgun!

    Like this one I did. (1/200 at f8, ISO100)

  • Here is the final shot of the image shot in the shade. For more examples of garage shoots or equally unlikely shoot scenarios, see my Studio Anywhere gallery here- https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.743751279022913.1073741905.113407782057269&type=3

  • Looks great!

  • Another option when it comes to getting more dynamic light is placing your subject at an angle to the open door, as I did in this photo.

  • Here is the final shot of the image shot in the shade. For more examples of garage shoots or equally unlikely shoot scenarios, see my Studio Anywhere gallery here- https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.743751279022913.1073741905.113407782057269&type=3

  • Michael Owens

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Michael Owens

    Likewise. Thank you.

  • Louis Schutz

    This is one of the creepiest articles. Ummm. Nope.

  • tonyc0101

    “creepy” how?

  • me

    The article gives some good suggestions, but the title is inaccurate…’dramatic’ is not applicable and is merely clickbaiting.

  • Gus

    If the title of the article is “How to Create Dramatic Portraits in Your Garage”, then you should publish your raw files. Otherwise the title should change to “How to Create Dramatic Portraits in Your Garage and Postproduction Software”.

  • OrganicJerk

    That first bearded male image is really cool… would love to see it pre-edits, and know settings…Awesome

  • Dave Coburn

    Hate to say it, but completely unimpressed with any of these shots.

  • Is that you, mom?

  • Inaccurate because they’re not dramatic?

  • Michael Owens

    How is the article click baiting? It explains how to get good results, like a studio, using nothing but what’s available in your garage!

    Be thankful these fellow photographers share anything!

  • Ask and ye shall receive.

  • posted above

  • Red

    Nice article. It is another reminder to ‘think outside the box’ when it comes to photography.

  • misssbev

    omg, that made me laugh, thanks for the post Nick…

  • Scott

    Nick, thank you. I think you’re a clever guy and you clearly understand light. I’m interested in your book. I have run across articles where it seemed written to create page views and you’re reading and reading and there’s never any red meat. All fluff. Even here on this site, which I love and am so grateful for. Some people can say it’s just their opinion or they’re entitled to their point of view-and they’re right. But I’m entitled to mine as well and I find your perspective refreshing, your writing clear and readable and your content helpful and stimulating at worst. It’s very tiring to read “post processing” as criticism and then people choosing words to pick out just to say not everything was defined by that *yawn*… Oh and way! Really? Because its a generalized thing that dark backgrounds for portraits whether it’s oil painting or photography lend a dramatic, moody feel in most cases. And also, come out and say someone is full of crap, man-post processing, wah, wah, wah… Sheesh! Guess he showed you. I’m sure you have a draft copy of your apology written and are just putting on the finishing touches. Yeah…
    Sorry, I’m tired of people that share their knowledge and are helpful, kind and unique being criticized so much. Nick, thanks again, really good stuff. You’ve given me a spark for some DIY studio work.

  • Scott

    What is creepy, Louis? I don’t see it. Is it the lighting?

  • Thanks man. I appreciate that.

  • Scott

    Why, specifically? Otherwise some people might mistake you for one of those turds that’s always looking to tear folks down and not really adding anything of substance to the conversation.

  • Scott

    hey, Nick… I feel better now… So I wanted to know about shooting the female model through the hole in the white board on top of the cooler. I may have missed something. What effect does this achieve, how so? I saw later you had two white boards with holes but the holes weren’t being utilized in that shot. So now I’m doubly curious

  • Cool article. I am not a portrait person myself, but maybe one day will take a few. I like the simple quick b&w created here and also some great lighting suggestions too. I also find using the corn hole board genius, thanks for sharing.

  • Thanks man

  • thanks for reading!

  • The main thing it was doing was blocking out a bit of the bright sun reflecting off of the driveway. The other thing it did was change the catch light in her eyes, as seen below.

  • Amresh Kumar

    that is a great Idea.. pictures are impresive

  • Beth

    Really enjoyed reading this and I can’t wait to try it out! 🙂

  • Thank you

  • Roxanne McHatten

    Thanks so much for sharing! I am looking forward to trying this next Spring.

  • Don

    Nice. Thanks for this. Nice article btw. Keep up with good work.

  • christiecolliermann

    You so remind me of one of those dear souls with a brand new 5dMkII who shoots in automatic. It’s not what you have that matters, it’s what you do with it.

    Thanks for sharing Nick, appreciate it a lot!

  • Joseph

    Hey, that’s brutal comment! LOL ! But true ,

  • Joseph

    Too much Clarity. And that warm filter kills detail in face. Just saying….

  • me

    yes, they are better described as innovative

  • I agree about the added warmth. That was an older edit. The latest edit is at the top of the page.

  • Michael Owens

    Nah. One mans innovative is another mans dynamic. Why are you berating Nick based on YOUR interpretation of this article? I don’t understand our negative logic.

  • Scott, please keep it clean this is a family show here.

  • Geno

    I honestly found this article to be very helpful and interesting. I was quite amazed with the results given the set up used. They were simple and did not require complicated and expensive equipment. As an enthusiast/beginner, I hope to see more of this.

  • Michael Owens

    Come on. It’s Christmas almost. Be nice to one another.

    Or. Become a writer here and provide us with ‘expert’ tuition. :/

  • Michael Owens

    Thanks Nick. Need to work on posing though, need those eyes in shot more, need to hit a catchlight in those peepers.

  • JesseCoutts

    Thank you so much for this article, I am certainly going to try your suggestions out.

  • jumara

    this is an idea and although it may not work for everyone it certasinly has promise and an inexpensive way to experiment.all the rude comments aren’t called for.

  • Jeff

    Wow, some pretty high expectations out there, and many who feel no qualms about sharing theirs! I appreciate this article because it gives me new ideas. Even if I never try the examples here, I’ve been challenged to think outside the box once again, and isn’t that what learning is all about?

  • Michael_in_TO

    I disagree with Dave Coburn. First off Nick, great post (thanks for taking time to put it together with all the BTS shots).

    Not sure what Dave is expecting (particularly in this audience of mostly non-pros.) This article is about shooting when you might think you have nowhere to shoot and getting great, studio-like results, with ‘er ‘um, no studio. (If one more person says to me, “wow, that camera of yours sure takes great pictures.”)…it is important for folks to either appreciate what others can do as talent and effort, not just “good equipment”…there is a group who create entire campaigns JUST with an iPhone to combat this exact syndrome.

    I am hoping, before we all dismiss Dave Coburn, that he will redeem himself by providing a link to his group of portraits shot in similar, non-studio environs. I’m sure he’s not just one of those internet trolls and has lots to contribute. Over to you DC!

  • Michael_In_TO

    Oh, I’m sorry, I have come to the defence of Dave Coburn too soon Nick. I clicked on his name and up came a slew of comments each more negative than the last. Someone seems to have taken the jelly from his donut. Hope things go better for you Dave. Thanks again Nick. Great post.

  • mike walling

    still posting incognito?

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