How To Shoot Dramatic Portrait Photography
By: Pete Balciunas
Shooting dramatic portrait photography takes vision, planning, and execution considering your environment and available light.
Wingman Digital Marketing had the privilege of shooting dramatic promotional photos for a world class violinist, Mariana Aguilera. Our shoot began by vision casting and planning what our end result would be. Our goal was to call attention to Mariana's photogenic appearance with drama utilizing location, ambient light, and flash techniques. We are fortunate to be located close to the Atlantic Ocean in Melbourne Florida. We couldn't ask for a better backdrop.It was an early day of shooting. We needed to be on location set up by 6:30 AM before the sun. We chose to run with two, 600 W studio flashes on battery packs with wireless transmitters and receivers. This would give us more than enough horsepower to overpower the sun. Our key light would have a soft box modifier as our kicker flash would simply have a directional modifier to reduce spill. We use a Nikon D800 for portrait work because of its excellent resolution. We wanted to capture the grandeur of the location as well as our subject. We did not want our background drifting away into bokah. We wanted to see the ocean yet light the photograph to allow Mariana to pop. We chose a Zeiss 28 for the shot. This is a great lens with fantastic coating to minimize lens flare when using backlights or shooting into the sun. Zeiss lenses are known for their micro-contrast. Zeiss uses leaded glass to achieve this. The lenses are pricey yet worth every penny in our humble opinion.

In any photo shoot, when you're working outside, the variables of light change continuously.

Everything from the direction of the light, clouds, golden hour versus midday, all of these will call for some type of adjustment on your part. Flash can minimize the overall effects of the sun. With a large enough light sources, you can overpower the sun and achieve even lighting. There are times when you might want to mimic the sun at golden hour or midday.

This image the sun was rising quickly. There was some cloud cover that brought a dramatic element to the overall image. Still using a Zeiss 28mm we were able to capture the grandeur of the ocean. The flash positioned behind Mariana was set intentionally to be a kicker light that would look different than the sun. (Obviously because the sun was not yet.) We were going for a dramatic feel in light and color. We wanted that rear flash to be pure white against the beautiful orange penetrating sun. One 600 W flash was used for the kicker set to quarter power while the key light was also a 600 W with a soft box off to the right of the image.

The camera settings for the shot work ISO at 640, F8 1/100th of a second shutter speed. As you can observe with the shutter speed as low as it was, it was still pretty dark out. If I'm looking for a tack sharp image of my subject, I will choose F8 for my aperture with my Zeiss lenses. In my experience this is the sweet spot of sharpness. If I needed the background more focus I would move F11.

We did not do a whole lot postproduction when it came to color, contrast, white balance in such in L. We did move this image over to Photoshop to remove the tripod leg behind Mariana holding the kicker flash.

The Zeiss 50 mm is a pleasure to work with.

The sun was rising quickly as we continue to shoot early in the morning. We had taken many shots of the Zeiss 28 mm and wanted to change it up a bit. I changed to the Zeiss 50 mm, a lens with great character. The color rendition is classic with great skin tone, golden light and interesting blues. The lightroom profiles were the same as the previous images, Adobe color.

Since the focal length was longer we were able to move the key light flash in closer as we were beginning to be in competition with the sun. We decided to add half CTO to the kicker flash to match the sunrise. The kicker flash was set to one third power while the key flash was closer to one half. The focal length of the lens allowed for freedom in flash movement. The flash was stationed off to the left.

We changed the ISO of the camera to 1000, aperture was set to F8 and we held on to a 1/100th shutter speed. The shutter speed allowed for more ambient light without blowing out the sun. We had to send this image to Photoshop for flash tripod removal.

Zeiss knows what they're doing when they coat their lenses.

The sun made its grand appearance. Using the Zeiss 28 mm for the shot gave us awesome latitude shooting directly into the sun. The flare was minimal at best with the awesome lens coating Zeiss uses. This image would be unusable with other lenses shooting into the sun. We still use the kicker light with half CTO to enhance what the sun was already doing as a back light.

I believe we use the variable neutral density filter as the flash sink on the Nikon D 800 only goes to 1/250th. The camera settings were, ISO 1000, F8 aperture, 1/250th shutter speed. I was handling the neutral density filter by feel until I got the exposure exactly where I felt the need to be. The flashes were running at half power for the kicker 1/2 to 3/4 power for the key light. The key light was off to the left.

Long exposure is a dance with your ND Filter.

This image is a composite of long exposure using a neutral density filter for the ocean and then another shot of the same image shot with Mariana in the composition all on a tripod. Long exposure with a neutral density filter is a dance to get the blurring just right. You'll take multiple shots and hope for the best because the ocean is doing what it wants to do. I would shoot paying attention to active wave patterns hoping to get one that looks cool. I shot this with the Zeiss 50 mm.

You can spend a lot of money on neutral density filters. I figured if I was placing glass in front of a Zeiss lens, the neutral density filter glass should be good. I chose Heliopan of Munich Germany. This filter is built like the Zeiss lenses, very strong. This extra glass does change the character of the lens a bit. It adds a bit of green it holds on to the micro contrast that Zeiss is known for.

We did use a flash key light off to the left but we did not use a kicker light. The light Mariana's hair is actually the sun. The combination of the soft waves and super sharp subject makes for a very nice photo

It was time to change locations. Here we are located in a nature trail with a lot of tree covering. We are essentially shooting in shade. I already had a Photoshop lighting idea that I wanted to use in my head as I planned the shot. I wanted Mariana surroundings to be darker, use a kicker light set at 1 quarter power for drama, and properly illuminate her with the key light set to half power. In Photoshop we added the light beam lighting effect that took the dramatic element over the top.

We shot this with the Zeiss 50 mm, ISO 320, F8 aperture,1/200th shutter speed. We use a little gausen blur effect to soften the background just a little.

After a busy morning out door shooting we find ourselves back at the studio.

The setup for the most part is straightforward. We are using a simple black background, 5 speed lights that are all radio control, colorful lighting gels, a Nikon 28-70mm zoom and the coveted fog machine.

The Nikon 28-70 mm is a fantastic lens. This lens allows you to shoot handheld, and move around your subject while still keeping everything in focus. This Nikon lens rivals the contemporary normal focal length zoom lenses. I have used it in the studio, outside, flash and natural, all the images the great.

The backlight opposite the key has some CTO gel warming it up. In this image, the red flash is facing the black background. The opposite backlight has blue gel. The key light and fill have small soft box modifiers with no color correction.

The key to using a fog machine is to keep the fog behind the subject. We had to shoot over and over and over again fanning out the fog so that we could reshoot. Fog is a variable you dance with. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes it just doesn't work. When it does work, it looks great. Give yourself plenty of margin in your time to take a lot of shots using a fog machine. In many cases it will take an assistant to make this work. To get this affect, the fog machine cannot be stationary. It was held and moved up and down to create this effect by my assistant.

Camera setting: ISO 100, 42mm Focal length, F56 aperture, 1/160th shutter speed

The key photography is practice, study and trial and error. The more your hands run the gear the faster you can work. When your subject is a person, you are always dealing with time and there ultimate comfort level. The earlier shots of this shoot were comfortable temperature wise yet very humid. This wreaks havoc on makeup and hair. As time went on, the sun began to rise and so did the heat. It is very important to know what you're doing ahead of time. Plan out the shots the best you can and move quickly and safely to minimize the time dealing with gear that could add to the discomfort of your client and or subject.

Even when we shot in the nature trail in the shade, it was hot and humid. The studio gave us air-conditioning relief yet Mariana began to feel tired. Rightfully so, we had worked all morning in multiple environments. Do your best to work through the variables. Do not get discouraged. Failure is the fuel for learning and getting better. Get out there and shoot.