The Drama of Light

The Drama of Light


Dramatic light

 Andrew S. Gibson is the author of Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras.

There are two sides to learning photography, the technical and the creative. Technique is important, as you need to understand what aperture, shutter speed and ISO do to the look of the photo. You also need to get the exposure and focus right.

The creative side comes from understanding light and learning how to compose a strong image. This takes time, is subjective and takes longer to learn.

Dramatic light

The magic happens when the two come together, something I stress in Mastering Photography. I refer to this as the ‘Creative triangle’. The concept to grasp is that while you can learn how to use every single function on your digital camera, it doesn’t help you much if you have no understanding of light or the fundamentals of composition. The three go together.

Dramatic light

One way to create a strong, eye-catching image is to use dramatic light. This is how my dictionary defines the adjective ‘dramatic’:

1. Of or relating to drama or the performance or study of drama.

This makes me think of a spotlight lighting an actor on a stage.

2. Sudden and striking, exciting or impressive, theatrical.

So it seems that a type of light that appears suddenly (such as through a break in a storm), or that is exciting, impressive or theatrical (the drama reference again) in some way, is dramatic.

My thesaurus throws up some interesting synonyms for the word dramatic, such as exciting, stirring, sensational, spectacular, startling, unexpected, remarkable, extraordinary, exceptional and phenomenal.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that one of the reasons dramatic light has such an impact is because, by its nature, it occurs rarely.

That’s good news for hard-working photographers, as you can increase the odds of experiencing dramatic light by putting yourself in situations where it is likely to occur. Here are some ideas:

Dramatic light

Take advantage of stormy or otherwise dramatic weather. I created this image from a lookout just before a huge rainstorm hit. Be careful in storms – don’t put yourself somewhere where you might get struck by lightning, and make sure you have some sort of waterproof camera bag or wrapping for your camera.

Dramatic light

Get out at the end of the day. The quality of the light is often both beautiful and dramatic at the end of the day. You never know what might happen as the sun sets. It might cast rays of light through a break in the clouds, or give you amazing colours – but you’ll never know if you’re not there.

Searching for dramatic light in nature is a little hit and miss – sometimes you will get yourself in position when conditions look promising and nothing exciting happens. You may even live somewhere with a climate that rarely gives the weather conditions required for dramatic light.

Dramatic light

Take control by putting dramatic light into the scene yourself. The above photo is a good example. My model span a fire hoop (a hoop with kevlar wicks that you can dip into fuel and set alight) during an exposure of eight seconds. The light from the flames was very dramatic and gave a red colour cast to the background.

Dramatic light

Add drama with portable flash. In this example I set an exposure that darkened the sky and rendered the tree and ruined building as dramatic silhouettes. I then used portable flash to light my model. It takes a while to learn how to use portable flash well, but the advantage is that you can use it just about any situation to add dramatic light.

Mastering Photography

Dramatic light

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you get the most out of your camera. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

Some Older Comments

  • Andrew September 20, 2013 08:48 am

    Cheryl, I'm not sure that it is possible to use flash painlessly, there is a definite learning curve. A good way to get started is to keep it as simple as possible – use one flash unit with one modifier (such as an umbrella or softbox) and then learn how to use that. Once you have got to grips with a simple set-up, you can try other modifiers or using more flash units (if you have them).

  • Cheryl Garrity September 20, 2013 01:28 am


    Your article is a nice reminder. I agree that dramatic light adds impact to an image. My best photographs have low dramatic light. I go out to photograph at dusk and dawn most often, but night photography also intrigues me. I continue to work on the technical side. Nighttime is the only time I shoot in manual

    I seldom use flash because it intimidates me. Any suggestions of how to incorporate flash painlessly?


  • Mic2263 September 20, 2013 01:01 am

    I love your articles and would really like to get my hands on your
    Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras
    Too bad for me I can in no way access an ebook :(
    Can you recommend a hard copy book that would be comprable? I love light, I love sports, I love little kids....

  • Steve September 13, 2013 05:53 pm

    Dramatic scene at sunset

  • Zain Abdullah September 13, 2013 01:44 pm

    Thanks so much for such an informative article. I totally agree with you that light plays the greatest part in producing a good picture for photographers who depend entirely on natural light. And referring to Dramatic Light as you mentioned that the sudden light appearing through a break of storm, I have experienced this a couple of times. And I admit it was very exciting when earlier on I was frustrated when the sky was gloomy and overcast....

    The example of images with sudden light that leaked through the opening of some clouds is as