How to Setup Dramatic Overhead Studio Lighting

Shooting dramatic portraits in a small studio without natural light requires a bit of careful planning and ingenuity. You also need a solid understanding of how to light the shot. The problem with a small studio is that you don’t have the room to maneuver your lights into the ideal positions. Gavin Hoey demonstrates his solution:

To start off, Hoey is shooting in his home studio with a very low ceiling. There are some limitations to that. He cannot place the background light nearly as high as he would have liked it. The shaft of light coming down would have harder edges if it could be placed higher.

Hoey’s solution in this case is to set up a number of black curtains in the room. They ensure that the background light is absorbed and isn’t spilled out too much.

He also uses grids with his two lights: a reflector mounted grid for the background light and a larger softbox grid for the fill light.

The reflector grid ensures that the shaft of light coming down from the light has a semblance of a hard edge to it. That is crucial for the contrasting effect he’s trying to achieve.

The grid on the softbox reduces the intensity of the fill light even further.

Let’s look at the results.

This was shot with the backlight only, without the grid on.

contrasting studio portraits

Backlight only, no grid

As you can see the shaft of light isn’t as narrow as Hoey hoped it would be.

portrait with snoot


Though the shaft of light is much tighter with a snoot, the result is a bit too over the top.

He now brings in the grid.

background lighting with a grid


As you can see, the shaft is a bit more pronounced with the grid. The model and chair have a bit more light falling on them. But, to be honest, you need a fill light to brighten up the model’s face and body.

To fill in the shadows, Hoey brings in a softbox. With the softbox he gets this exposure.

studio portrait tutorial

Softbox only

It’s too much light as is evident from the shot.

To compensate and bring down the fill light, Hoey mounts the grid to the front of the softbox.

softbox in portrait photography

A quick fill in for the shadows on the model’s face with a silver reflector, and voila!

studio portrait tutorial

Final Shot

The setup is perfect.

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