How to Capture Dramatic Hard Light Portraits with One Flash

For a lot of photographers, hard light isn’t the first choice when it comes to making portrait photos. There’s a lot of negativity around hard light, making photographers think long and hard before planning a shoot with this light.However, hard light isn’t always a bad thing. When you use it in a clever way, hard light can produce some really dramatic results. Pye Jirsa demonstrates:

“Hard light can be a little bit cumbersome to work with. You have very hard highlights, very deep shadows, not a lot of transition. So, you really have to work with the posing. But the cool thing about hard lighting is that it can really chisel out your subjects in scenes that are very complex.”

Can we use flashes?

Pye agrees that the same effects that he demonstrates with a single strobe can be achieved using flashes. He however warns that you need three to four flashes to get the same effect that you can get with one strobe.

“So at a certain point it gets a little bit cumbersome to always be setting up three to four flashes and dealing with their longer recycle times and so forth.”

Pye used the Profoto B2 for this shoot, which produces 250 Ws of power.

Sun Flare

For the first scene, initially an ambient reading was taken. It was 1/200 of a second, f/11, and ISO 100. Next, a B2 with a silver reflector was brought in. With the ambient exposure dialed in to retain highlights in the image as well as the dynamic range that the slanted rays of light coming in from camera right is creating, the B2 chisels the couple from the background.

hard light with one flash

Sun as Backlight

For the second scene the ambient exposure was set to 1/200, f/14 and ISO 200. The B2 was fired at full power this time (the assistant was further away). The sun works as the backlight in this scene with the B2 illuminating the couple from the side creating rich dynamic tones.

hard light couple portraits

Dramatic portrait with one flash and the sun as backlight

In both the scenes above, direct flash was never used. The flash was directed from an angle going into the scene. When you fire a flash directly at the scene, you risk washing out details, shadows, drowning a dramatic sky, and making it all too obvious that flash was used.

ill-effects of direct flash

Direct flash fired inadvertently at the scene

Flash as Backlight

In this third and final scene flash was used as a backlight. A Manfrotto Nano stand was used to set-up the flash and hide it behind the couple. The camera settings for this shot was 1/100 of a second, f/2, and ISO 200. White balance was set to 5800 ˚ K. This was the resulting image:

dramatic one light portrait

The third shot in the shoot

The fog and mist give a beautiful effect to this image. Our eyes are naturally drawn toward the highlights in the image, which happen to be the focus of attention.

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