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Monday, October 31, 2016

What is Dramatic Light and how to Introduce It in Your Photography

I will be away for a couple of weeks. AmateurNikon will be back with new articles around November 14th. Meanwhile, feel free to take a look at the countless other articles - you're sure to find something that interests you! Thanks :)



A reader recently asked me about dramatic light and how to achieve it. I found it to be an interesting question, and quite important too (much more important than "how many megapixels do I need" anyway), so I decided to write an article about it. By the way, if you have a question or idea for an article you'd like me to cover, feel free to drop a message at AmateurNikon's Facebook or Twitter account.


First of all, we must clarify what it is that we're talking about. What is Dramatic Light, and why should we care about it?

Although dramatic light might mean different things to different people, for the purposed of today's articles, dramatic light contains the following characteristics:
  1. It involves deep contrast, with clear difference between shadows and highlights
  2. It displays unusual light sources or unexpected light features
  3. It can involve peculiar color tints

As you can see from the list above, dramatic light is all about deviating from the natural way of seeing things. Our world is beautiful, but seeing it a certain way can be limiting when we're talking about art.

Perhaps it's easier to see with an example. Seeing the photos below, can you tell which one involves dramatic light - and why?

Well, that was easy, wasn't? The photo on the left is something close to what our eyes would see in a cloudy day. Conversely, the one on the right is definitely something entirely different.

The Big Question is: how is dramatic light important for your photography?


The reason dramatic light is important for your photography should be fairly obvious looking at the two example photos above. Dramatic light allows you to express emotions or states of mind (may I shamelessly remind you to read my eBook for much more information?) and therefore fulfill the central role of photography-as-art. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and the two examples above should really be self-explanatory. There is significantly more expressive power in the photo featuring dramatic light. The question you might be then asking is, "how can I get dramatic light in my photography"? Let's find out


It all begins with light and particularly, as I mentioned a while ago, with unexpected light. In an overcast day, such as in the examples above, you expect everything to be subdued, the contrast to be even, the light diffused. To bring a bit of... chaos into this order, I used one of the simplest yet most powerful accessories a photographer should possess: an external flash.

I placed the external flash on the bottom of the tree, looking straight up. I set it to maximum power, then adjusted my camera at its x-sync speed (1/200 in this example) and at the lowest aperture so that, in that specific composition, I could get a very faint light on the background clouds. That's about it. No need to fumble with flash radio controllers or anything of the sort - heck, I didn't even use TTL because the on-board flash of the Nikon D3200 I happened to have with me doesn't function as a commander (I simply fired it in manual, having set the external SB-800 as a simple slave; it can't get any simpler than that). In post-production, I adjusted the white balance to get a very deep, ominous red on the clouds.

Of course, this is only an example. Sometimes you can get dramatic light provided by Nature herself. Take a look at the picture posted on the top (I can repost it here for your convenience):

What makes this light dramatic is a combination of factors (fog, low winter sun, dark tree outlines devoid of any front light) that create the factors mentioned earlier: unexpected lighting, deep contrast, intense colors (though without unusual tints in this case).


I've often talked about exposure, and how it's the only technical thing you need to master. Think of dramatic light as an advanced continuation of that article. To create dramatic light (and hence increase the expressive power of your photography) it's not enough to understand and set exposure; you need to create it as well. Or, to put it this way, you either wait for Mother Nature to do the work for you (you might have to wait for the serendipitous discovery of "the moment", such as in the wintry image above) or, create it yourself. It take practice and effort, but the results are definitely worth it.

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