Portrait Photography Techniques Using Dramatic High Contrast Lighting

in Photography + Gear


As a wedding photographer, we generally shoot and compose portraits of the bride and groom together with the rest of the wedding party on-location most of the time. Just like a portrait photographer, we like to diffuse and soften the lighting just to cover up any skin imperfections in the portrait. To begin with, we assess the features of the face and determine which one to emphasize even more as well as which one to cut down. Longer noses look great coming from a low angle while double chins are better with high camera angle. Then finally, when we do photo retouching on the portrait, we try to soften the effect whenever we can for added glow to the image.

But let’s say we prefer something unique this time. We would like a bit more drama and impact, an edgy portrait that pops. Here is how to achieve that high-contrast portrait lighting.

1. Make use of specular light.

Specular light is made from a bright level source of light that leads to high contrast. Shadows and dark areas are extremely defined as well as the range of brightness between light and dark tones in the portrait. You can use lighting coming from a bare bulb, off-camera speedlight, strobes, or from the sun on a clear day. With these main illumination, it can generate a prominent, hard-edged shadow along with enhanced contrast between highlight and shadow.

2. Start to position the light above eye-level.

Position your light source to some degree off-center from the camera axis. Your model’s eye might end up in the shadow in case you place the light very high. But if you place the light very low or centered, the light will appear flat and won’t show any shadows.

3. Create variation of lighting position.

Here’s a video guide from BowensTV about face shaping to help you with various lighting style patterns and setup in portrait photography. There are broad lighting, short lighting and rembrandt lighting to name a few. But applying the butterfly lighting and loop lighting can give our portraits more contrast and punch.


Butterfly lighting is actually the shape and form of the shadow produced directly under the nose area. If the nose is pointing towards the light and the light is elevated just enough to cast a downward shadow, it will create a butterfly portrait lighting. To achieve this, center the light over the subject and modify it until the symmetrical shadow shows involving the nose and mouth, without ever disappearing completely or touching the upper lip. It focuses on cheekbones and fine skin. The most stunning light for women.


If you move that light off-center just a little more, you will get a loop lighting. Loop lighting is an advanced pattern among butterfly and Rembrandt lighting. The key light is high to one side of the subject’s face, however not as high as the butterfly pattern, nor as low as the Rembrandt pattern.

4. Add fill light to bring up detail in the shadows.

The position of the light is always the key when working with hard lights to make high-contrast portraits. If it’s very high, the shadows may hide the face, whereas a very low or perhaps full-frontal source may get rid of the shadows altogether.

5. Shoot in Raw.

Whenever using a high-contrast lighting pattern such as this, losing detail in the shadow areas as well as the hightlights might be a huge challenge. Extremes of exposure can look really bad. To avoid this, just shoot in RAW. With Raw processing, you will be able to retain the details in the shadows and highlights because you can slightly overexpose to prevent loss of details in the shadows. With a RAW exposure, you’re all set and will be able to use the fill light to maintain details.

25 Dramatic High-Contrast Lighting Portrait Inspiration

Portrait Photography Inspiration #01

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-01-12Photo via Mihály Zoltán

Portrait Photography Inspiration #02

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-02-27Photo via DEMESA

Portrait Photography Inspiration #03

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-03-08Photo via Rashardw

Portrait Photography Inspiration #04

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-04-23Photo via TheSweetSidePhotography

Portrait Photography Inspiration #05

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-05-22Photo via Dankos-unlmtd

Portrait Photography Inspiration #07

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-07-25Photo via Gregbrophy

Portrait Photography Inspiration #08

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-08-31Photo via Francesco Aresta

Portrait Photography Inspiration #09

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-09-17Photo via VMP photography

Portrait Photography Inspiration #10

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-10-10Photo via Mike Folden

Portrait Photography Inspiration #11

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-11-28Photo via Needoptic

Portrait Photography Inspiration #12

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-12-21Photo via Entressangle

Portrait Photography Inspiration #13

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-13-24Photo via Ilko Allexandroff

Portrait Photography Inspiration #14

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-14-15Photo via Luke Stroh

Portrait Photography Inspiration #15

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-15-18Photo via Mikael Chakir Photographe

Portrait Photography Inspiration #16

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-16-09Photo via Kristina Poznyak

Portrait Photography Inspiration #17

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-17-03Photo via Mmbbpp

Portrait Photography Inspiration #18

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-18-19Photo via Starometska

Portrait Photography Inspiration #19

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-19-06Photo via Dannykrug

Portrait Photography Inspiration #20

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-20-13Photo via BpowMT

Portrait Photography Inspiration #21

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-21-07Photo via AVA

Portrait Photography Inspiration #22

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-22-33Photo via Travis Lawton

Portrait Photography Inspiration #23

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-23-30Photo via Evrimcmn

Portrait Photography Inspiration #24

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-24-32Photo via Miggohoo

Portrait Photography Inspiration #25

portrait-photography-techniques-dramatic-high-contrast-lighting-25-26Photo via Joel Grimes Photography

High Contrast Portraits by Joel Grimes Photography

A Simple 3 Hard Light Setup: A Lighting Lesson

In this lesson we will look at lights that don’t have any soft boxes or light modifiers. I used heads with reflectors only. In the right setting and with the right subject this can look very good. We did cheat and use 3 pieces of foam core and one umbrella, but looking back now we could have not used the umbrella and been fine. We were shooting Katie Lohmann for a different shoot and she suggested the super Girl outfit. At first I was a little reluctant until I looked at some comic book art and started to see the shot. Things came together and the thought of shooting with hard light was very appealing to me. I was very happy with the outcome. The video was shot on the Canon 5D, 7D and using Red Rock micro rigs. – Jay P. Morgan Photography

Creating fabulous wedding portraits or family portraits either in the studio or on-location outdoor can simply add a smile to your client. It can be very useful and practical to a day to day portrait session, whenever you put together all the elements of photography. For photographers who just got into the hobby, try to familiarize yourself with various lighting equipment before going on a portrait photo shoot, specially if your camera and gears are new. Lighting along with its several modifications is an essential tool in assisting the portrait photographer expose people at their best.

Further Readings And Inspiration

1. Extraordinary Dark Shades of Portraits in Photography
2. Faces Of Power: 50 Portraits That Influence The World By Platon
3. Photography Techniques: 40 Baby Portrait Design Using Props
4. 5 Elements Of Black And White Print With Unique Portraits of Paris
5. Lead Image via Ervin