How to Use Hard Lighting to Create a Dramatic Portrait

How to Use Hard Lighting to Create a Dramatic Portrait


When was the last time you did not primarily light your scene using a large soft source, such as a soft box or umbrella? Large soft sources easily create a beautiful, wrap-around quality of light. Just pop one up and you have instant “good” light.


Final image: before and after in Lightroom

Though soft light is beautiful and has its place, it represents only one part of the artist’s palette. In this article we are going to dissect the lighting setup for a men’s fashion shoot, and look at how using hard light can add dramatic impact to your photographs.

I think two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler said it best when it came to using hard light:

“Everybody should still work in hard light as well. Not to do it and to say that it has to be all soft light is like throwing away part of the artist’s palette. I think the more variety you can have, the better it will look. To be able to light well in hard light makes the soft lighting a piece of cake, because soft light is very forgiving. Soft light, uncontrolled, is still acceptable photographically. It is really hard for soft light to look bad, but it is really not hard for hard light to look bad.”

The feel the magazine wanted was a dramatic, high-contrast look. One of the problems with soft light is that it can be hard to control and can easily kill the contrast of your scene – especially in small spaces. The location for our shoot just so happened to be one of those small spaces, so I decided that reflectors and honeycomb grids were the best tools for the job.

Location picture

The shoot was held at a local area builder’s office. The office provided the perfect backdrop for the shoot, but did not offer a lot of room for equipment.

In the pre-planning phase, I chose to use a simple three light setup which included a key light, a fill light and kicker. I had room on camera left to place the main key light, but did not have much room for a kicker opposite camera right; however, there was a window.

As luck had it, the office window overlooked a back patio that had electrical outlets, so I did not have to rely on a battery pack or generator. The only problem was that the patio was a lower in elevation than the office window, so I had to extend my 13′ light stand up to its near maximum height.

To secure the stand, I fastened several 10 pound ankle weights to the legs. Ankle weights are a great and inexpensive alternative to sandbags. The set I use cost about $20 at Walmart, and came with Velcro straps for easy attachment to light stands or boom arms.

Since the strobe was outside the window and placed a distance from the model, I attached a radio slave and set it to full power. (The strobe was rated at 600ws)

Back in the office, I took a meter reading using a light meter with the dome retracted and pointed towards the light. The meter gave me a reading of f/5.6 at ISO 100. I decided the reading would be a good base to build my lighting ratios, so I set my camera to f/5.6 at ISO 100. As far as the shutter speed, I set my camera to 1/160th of a second because I did not want to capture a lot of ambient light. When using strobes, the shutter speed only controls the brightness of the ambient light.

This first light would act as the kicker light, in the scene.

Kicker light placement

Position of the kicker light

Kicker test shot

Test shot of the model with just the kicker light

When lighting with hard lights, you will often find the need to bring up the shadows, since they can easily go black. A large soft light source, placed close to the camera, is great for filling in shadow areas, because it resembles directionless ambient light.

The fill light in our scene was fitted with a medium soft box and placed behind and slightly to the right of the camera.

Fill light placement

Position of the fill light

Since most of the elements in the scene were dark brown, including the suit the model was going to wear, I could not set my fill light much lower than my base exposure of f/5.6. If I had set it lower the elements in the shadow areas would quickly go black. I set the fill light to 1 1/3 stop lower than my base exposure, which read f/3.5 on my light meter.

Kicker and fill test shot

Test shot of the model with both the fill and kicker lights.

The last light I set up was the key (main) light. I placed this light in an open doorway, towards camera left and slightly above the model. I wanted to keep the light on the model and off the walls, so I fitted the light with a 20 degree grid to control the spill.

Key light placement

Position of the key light.

Since most of the scene was dark brown, I decided to have the key light one stop over my camera’s base exposure of f/5.6. I adjusted the light until it read f/8 on my light meter.

Kicker and key test shot

Test shot of model with the key light and kicker, no fill. Notice how the shadows go completely black without the fill light.

You may have noticed that the key light on the left side of the model’s face does not appear as bright as the window kicker light on the right side of his face, despite it being one stop brighter (left: f/8 vs right: f/5.6) This is because the kicker is placed more behind the subject, while the key light is placed more towards the side. You might have heard the photography term “the angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence”? This is basically that principle in action. Since the kicker light is slightly behind the model, the angle at which the light is being reflected off the skin is causing the highlight to appear brighter.

Key fill kicker diagram

Positions and settings for key, fill and kicker lights. Notice the camera positioning at the bottom left of the desk.

Before after lightroom adjustments 01

Shot with all three lights set and in place. Before and after adjustments in Lightroom.

Once the lighting was in place, the model was dressed and the shoot began.

A nice benefit of the positioning of the key and kicker lights was that they pulled double-duty, switching roles whenever the model turned his head. A nice short lighting pattern was created, whichever direction he faced. You can see this in the variations above and below.

Before after lightroom adjustments 02

Shot with all three lights set and in place. Before and after adjustments in Lightroom.

In closing, I would encourage you to think of creative ways to use and experiment with hard lighting in your photographs. Hard lighting is not just limited to men. The photo below was lit in the same fashion as the photo of the male model. A word of caution, though. Hard light is unforgiving when it comes to wrinkles and blemishes, so you will have to be very careful with your light positioning when your are lighting women.

Hollywood glam 7056 Edit

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Joel Dryer is a professional commercial photographer and cinematographer, living in Texas.

  • Michael Owens

    Thanks Joel. Great article, loved the office you shot in on this one, sounds like a mini nightmare, lack of space, dark brown tint… resulting images looking great! 🙂

  • Hey Michael! Glad you liked the article. We did some location scouting before the shoot, so we had a game plan before we went in – which helped a lot. Overall, it went pretty smooth. I just wish my office looked like that! 🙂 Take care!

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    great article

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  • Michael Owens

    I’d actually love to see an article about prepping for a job like this too!

    Hint hint hehe 🙂

  • Pancho

    Very good article, a quality shot without a doubt, thanks for sharing with us !
    I have a question : does anybody have an idea about which software to use for such impacting diagrams ? I need to illustrate some of my works.
    Kind regards 🙂

  • Hey Pancho! Glad you liked the article! The diagrams were created with a commercial 3D program called Lightwave 3D. However, lately, I have been experimenting with a free 3D application called Blender. You can check it out at There is a learning curve, but what you can create is pretty amazing. Hope that helps. Take care!

  • Interesting idea, Michael. I might consider doing that for the future. Thanks for the interest and input! Take care!

  • Michael Owens

    It would be a good insight seeing a project from planning, to execution, to final imagery. Something I’ve yet to see here on DPS! 🙂

    Thanks for listening!

  • Majkl

    Lights OK, but that improvement in Lightroom looks worse than original…

  • Michael_in_TO

    Thank Joel. I always like to see other ideas beyond what I seem to set up over and over (strobes and umbrellas). Thanks for taking time to create the post. I also like the more contrasty version before the lightroom adjustment. It keeps the more dramatic, richer finish…but I totally get it might be more than your (paying) subject is comfortable with. Always walking the line!

  • Thanks Michael. Glad you liked the article. In response to you and Majkl, the edited version was definitely pushed more towards the warmer, more monochromatic side of things. Glad you both liked the in-camera one that much better. Take care!

  • SP from NZ

    Hi Joel thanks for the article. Sorry but the after photos look awful. If you start playing with lightroom make sure that you check your colours too. Your WCB is totally off (just look at your subjects shirt). It also leaves you with at the least weird skin tones. So overall not an improvement but a ruined photo.

  • Hi Majkl – how so?

  • Hi SP – not sure I see what you’re seeing. Color is off? I see that the highlights have been darkened and the shadows have been lightened – lessening the overall contrast. I don’t see much of a color shift.

  • Hello Darlene! You are correct. The contrast has been lessened somewhat from the straight-out-of-camera raw file. Dot gain from the ink would make the contrast more like the original – once printed. (At least in the shadows) SP- The biggest thing that was done to the color was a warming of the shadow portions of the image using a split tone dialed in to only effect the darkest parts of the image. The white balance was not changed, so the skin should be about the same. The warming of the shadows makes it appear more monochromatic and gives a vintage feel that some might not like. The edited look was mainly inspired by the amazing Norman Jean Roy, who adds a some coolness to his shadows – in some of his images. (See attached image.) When editing the image, I tried both cool and warm shadow variations, but felt the warmer shadows were truer to the tones of the original. Anyway, there’s a little more insight into the “hows” and “whys” behind the look of the image. Take care everyone!

  • damead

    This is trivial, but unless I’m mistaken this statement is in error: “You may have noticed that the key light on the left side of the model’s face does not appear as bright as the window kicker light on the right side of his face….” From the diagram below it appears the window kicker light is lighting the left side of the model’s face, the key light the right. Or am I missing something? (I’m left-handed ; ^ ) However, the left side of his face is dimmer.

  • Hey Damead!

    All the left/right references were from the camera’s POV, or camera-left and camera-right. Hope that clears up any confusion? Thanks for your question, and I hope you have an awesome day!

  • damead

    Oh. That explains it!

  • anne

    Hi Darlene and Joel,
    From an inexperienced viewer’s eyes, color seems off to me too.
    The whites (model’s inner suit, newspaper, view from the glass window) have turned brown in the Lightroom-processed pics.

  • Hey Anne! Thanks for your comment. The color in the edit is off, but on purpose. Be sure to re-read my Lightroom breakdown, because I added something to it that I missed when I was listing all of my settings – the first go-round. The small dip in the center of the blue curve warms the picture slightly, including the whites. The final “look” of the photo was not meant to be spot on accurate, color-wise. Think of the movies and how they color grade them to create a certain mood and feeling. Same thing here. The “look” was pushed more towards the warm and monochromatic side of things to create a more aged, vintage feel to the photo. Of course, the final look is subjective to taste, but I hope the lighting breakdown was helpful and inspiring. Take care!

  • Marinus H.B. Vesseur

    You’re right. The After picture looks flat in contrast and colour. Now everything is leather-chair-brown and the model’s skin tone has the life sucked out of it.

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    Post LR gives the mood. Great job Joel!

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