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How to create dramatic pictures - 5 easy lighting setups

This week we are talking dramatic lighting! An approach I love and use a lot in my work. And since I am in a good mood, I will also share 5 easy lighting setups that I rely on every time I have to work fast for a client.

First things first, a few words on how to actually achieve the dark contrasted look that now has become a part of my style, a technique I used very early in my career with Speedlites:

Marlo Fisken was captured in 2013 with a 5D Mark III and a single Canon 600ex-rt + deep silver umbrella.

All the following pictures were shot with a 5D Mark III and the Broncolor 1200l move and Para 88:

I really hope I will meet Vanesa Garcia again somewhere somehow! This was captured in Montreal back in 2015 and you can still see the complete gallery and story here: My first shoot in Montreal.

My wife and I met fantastic artists in Montreal... Eva Kolarova is one of them! Check out the full gallery and complete story here: A ballerina on top of Montréal.

You can achieve the look with a wide variety of lights. I made a few of these dramatic shots when I had my hands on the ELB400 by Elinchrom. The picture below was created with Fanny George in Strasbourg back in 2015. The ELB400 was used with The Rotalux deep 70. Full gallery and story here: Testing the Skyport HS and the ELB400.

And if you follow me on Social media you probably know that I've been working with 2 800ws Broncolor Siros L since early 2016.

There is nothing revolutionary here, a lot of photographers have made this a key element of their style and it's not really hard to achieve. The idea basically is to increase the difference of exposure between your background and your main subject. I personally discovered I liked this look by accident when I first used off-camera flash. The sun was setting, it was getting dark I fired a shot with my speed light on and I was struck by the way it turned out.

With a single Speedlite, the look is achievable under certain conditions. If your scene is already dark (not completely) your flash just needs to fire enough light to expose your subject. If you are making a portrait, get close enough to your model and a single Speedlite will work.

With a single Speedlite you can make amazing things indoors:

Another Picture of Fanny George, shot with my 5D Mark III but this time with Canon's 600ex-Rt inside the Beautybox 65. Check out the complete gallery: Goodbye Strasbourg!

A single Speedlite won't let you achieve the same look on a bright sunny day! To Kill the ambient light during the day, you will have to use a high F Stop which limits your possibilities or sync your flash beyond the 1/250th limit in HSS, HS, or Hyper Sync.

I am going to ask for help for the following because some fellow photographers explain what Hypersync is and the difference between HS, HSS, and Hypersync better than me!

Understanding Flash Sync Speeds with Karl Taylor:

HyperSync explained in detail: PART I / PART II

A few words on the subject from the Guys at ELINCHROM: HS / HyperSync and Hi Sync Differences:

If you had to remember one simple thing it's the following: ISO controls the exposure of your subject and shutter speeds of the ambient light. So raise that shutter speed to darken your background and expose your main subject correctly. I can formulate this differently, Underexpose your background by at least a full stop first, then bring your flash and expose your subject as desired. In a lot of the next examples, a single Speedlite would not be enough. Lyria Van Moera Captured in Cannes, Behind the scenes and Gallery here: 24h in Cannes.

So to have much more creative freedom you have 2 options:

1/ spend a few bucks on a couple of Speedlites and you lose the advantage of having a small flash easy to set up and carry.

2/ Invest in a more powerful mobile strobe.

I chose the 2nd option and worked with a variety of Strobes during the past 3 years. You will recognize the ELB400 here in this Kickboxing Muay Thai Photoshoot.

If you dig inside my archive, or simply look for my early videos on my youtube channel, you will often see the bulky but powerful Broncolor 1200L move. The advantage of having such powerful lights on location is that you have full control of your scene and you can work at any time of the day.

With my Siros L, I can balance my exposure at will, play with my aperture in speed mode (syncing at max 1/200sec) enabling the flash to freeze the action. In this mode, you can only darken your scene by choosing a high F stop. When Broncolor introduced the HS mode, they unlocked the 1/200sec limit allowing the SirosL to sync with higher shutter speeds revealing its full potential.

At this moment, I knew I had the perfect tool for my work!

So once you have your settings dialed in what can we do? Here are 5 quick setups you can use on your work!

1/ Crosslighting / Splitlight bring those shadows for more drama!

Placing your light slightly above your subject at a 45 degrees angle and even to a complete split is really effective.

Kayoko Everhart in Madrid (2016)

5D Mark III / Broncolor Siros L with Beautybox 65 in Speed mode 70mm 1/200sec at F3.2 ISO 200

2/ /Backlight your subject

Maeva Cotton in Antibes (2017)

5D Mark III / Broncolor Siros L with Beautybox 65 in HS 55mm 1/160sec at F5 ISO 250

3/ Shoot at sunrise or sunset!

Why? Because the drama is already there...

Anjara Ballesteros (2017)

5Dmark III / Broncolor Siros L with Beautybox 65 in HS 24mm 1/1000sec at F4 ISO 100

Alizée Agier in Antibes (2017)

5Dmark III / Broncolor Siros L with Beautybox 65 in HS 42mm 1/2500sec at F10 ISO 500

4/ Shoot against the sun

Gillian Leopold in Antibes (2017)

5D Mark III / Broncolor Siros L with Beautybox 65 in HS 24mm 1/1000sec at F8 ISO 160

5/ Day tonight with 2 lights!

Mixing previous setups, one light in the back and another one camera right.

Gillian Leopold at the Villa EIlenRoc in Cap d'Antibes (2017)

5D Mark III / Broncolor Siros L with Beautybox 65 in Speed mode 11mm 1/1250sec at F4.5 ISO 160

These 5 setups are easy to master, even the one with 2 lights. Of course, you will not face the exact same lighting situations especially outdoors so you will have to test and try things on your own and use these tips as a starting point.

Hope this article got you inspired, let me know if you try it in your own work!


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